Soul Searching

January, 2014

I began my programming career in late December 2013. It started something out of necessity. Sometime around October I suffered from a nervous collapse that made it impossible for me to focus on my school work. I had dropped out. I was lying to my husband about dropping out of school because I was gambling on my ability to find a job around the time I was supposed to graduate. I was very lucky and something came through.

My only hope for my first job was that I would find something in iOS. In the Madison area, that was a pretty stiff order. Madison is a lot of enterprise Java, government, and health care.

I managed to find a job at a start-up where I was the oldest person by a decade. I was partially hired because my bosses were not old enough to drink and didn’t know any better about hiring people who have actual experience.

By January, I knew this wasn’t working. I didn’t get along with my programming partner and I knew I was going to be let go. I was okay with that. I knew it was a bad fit.

I did some soul searching at that point. I knew it was bad to lose your first job after two months and I did have some concerns with my long-term ability to be hired. I had a few choices. I could kind of fake it and find another, similar job where I would be equally uncomfortable, but possibly be able to fake it better. Or, I could acknowledge that I was in the weeds and I didn’t know what I was doing.

The people around me didn’t know what they were doing either, but I had enough training and visceral awareness to know that my programming sucked. I knew it could be better and I knew it would never be better if I continued to pretend like I knew what I was doing.

I sat down and started thinking about what I wanted from my career. There was only one thing I absolutely knew I wanted. I wanted to be Brad Larson.

Brad, for those who have not heard my enthusiastic ramblings about him, is the creator of GPUImage. Brad taught the Advanced iOS class at MATC the first year it was offered. The classes were, and are still, available to watch on iTunesU. While I was a student I heard a lot of stories about him. I heard about how Apple engineers told him that something he wanted to do with his Molecules app was physically impossible to do on the current hardware. He figured out a way around the limitation and he made it happen. He was the guy who did impossible things.

I didn’t know if it was possible or how long it would take, but I wanted that. I wanted to understand the language well enough that I could figure out a way around the limitations. I wanted to be a great programmer.

I reached out to Brad and told him that I wanted to do what he does and asked him for advice about how to get started. He was very kind and wrote a nice email back. A few weeks later, a contract opportunity became available to work with him on an extension of his Molecules app. I knew I was on my way out at my current job, so I reached out to him. I told him that I didn’t know anything but that I wanted to. I really wanted to make sure I didn’t misrepresent myself because I wanted to learn and I couldn’t do that if I pretended to know things I didn’t.

After this contract job, I spent time working on a book with Chris Adamson and doing a lot of conference talks. I was trying to get my name out there so that I could find a job. I talked about GPU programming and Metal because they were new things. I didn’t really explain them as well as they should be explained because I didn’t have enough experience with them to fully understand them. I gambled on talking about difficult and obscure technology to try and differentiate myself from all the other new programmers out there.

To my shock and surprise, Brad reached out to me about working for him as my speaking obligations were winding down. I did it. I accomplished the short term goal I made at the beginning of the year to find a programming job with a great programmer so that I could get better and be a great programmer too.

January 2015

Let’s jump ahead a year.

At the beginning of this year I initiated a divorce with my husband. Things had been difficult for a long time. My goal for a few years had been to find stable employment that would allow me to end the marriage.

I do not want to badmouth my ex-husband. Our divorce was amicable. He was a friend before we were married and he continues to be a friend. We had a lot of trouble and I honestly wish him no ill will.

I am bringing this up simply to establish that the last six months have been very difficult.

I have never taken care of myself.

I lived with my parents until I was 27 years old. I was essentially a perpetual student because I didn’t really understand how to find a job or support myself. I moved from my parent’s house to my husband’s house. The first few years I was working I had my husband manage our money because I was earning minimum wage and I did not want to know what my weekly paycheck was because I was afraid if I knew how little it was, it would be easier for me to mentally justify calling in sick when I didn’t feel like going. I was unemployed from 2012 for most of the rest of our marriage. I have never budgeted my money. I have never paid my own bills. I never lived on my own. I don’t think I filed a tax return until I got married because I earned no income.

The last six months have been difficult. It’s been hard trying to learn things that most people knew when they were 16. It’s been hard being away from my pugs so much every day. My house is still a mess because I am simply too tired and demoralized to clean it. I don’t think I’ve put my laundry away since February. My ex-husband was actually so appalled by my inability to care for myself that he cleaned my kitchen one day when he was here picking up some of this things.

The last six months have been physically and emotionally exhausting. I have had bouts of depression that I have spoken about on this blog before. It’s been rough.

Because things have been rough, I have been letting a lot of things go. One of those things has been my focus on my long-term goal of being a great programmer.

I have barely been getting by.

I have had weeks where I have barely gotten anything done. I have felt a great deal of self-hatred and fear about losing my job and independence.

At a certain point it became easy to rest on my credentials. I wrote a book. I was invited by Saul Mora to interview people for NSBrief. I had lots of people who knew who I was. I was given some cache for being a great developer because I had credentials. I didn’t want to think about how little I actually knew because it was too fucking demoralizing to deal with. So I pretended. I even convinced myself that I was as good as I needed to be. I got careless. I stopped trying because it was just too hard to deal with.


I am not doing this any more.

I am tired of what I have been doing for the last year.

The reason I told my long, rambling story at the beginning of this post is because I feel like I am back there now. I feel like I have two choices about how I can proceed from here.

I can either decide that I learned enough and keep hiding behind my credentials. I can learn fast enough to keep up with things, but I won’t ever become the developer I wanted to be. I will have to keep pretending like I know more than I do.

I don’t want to do this anymore.

I want to be very clear about a few things.

Chris wrote most of the book. My name is on the book and I wrote three chapters from the book. I wrote the Debugging, Testing, and Photos chapters. Two of those chapters didn’t really require me to add much to the code base. When I had to tackle the Photos chapter I had to fly out to CocoaConf Boston to work directly with Chris on that chapter because I was not familiar enough with the code base to write the chapter by myself. I needed help with the Core Image code.

Chris worked on the book for two years before I was brought on. I think my presence played an important role in getting the book done. I contributed to the book. But, I feel that I have received more credit for the book than I am due. I haven’t read the book all the way through. I am not comfortable with most of the concepts in that book.

I am tired of waiting around for someone to figure out that cut to the front of the line. I am going to be proactive and admit that I don’t really know that much. I have never written an app of my own. I have focused on some very obscure and esoteric low level programming. For a developer who has only been working for a year and a half, I am fairly advanced. However, I have a long way to go.

I have realized that I have been squandering my opportunity of working with Brad by being too proud and afraid to ask him for help. I have been ignoring things that I don’t understand. Yesterday I asked Brad about what provisioning was. He could have explained it in a sentence. Instead, he took an hour to show me Instruments and how it could be used to analyze one of his projects. I felt like my world went from 2D to 3D. I realized that there was a whole dimension of being a programmer that I used to be aware of and wanted to explore that I had abandoned because I was tired and demoralized and didn’t want acknowledge how little I know. I felt exhilarated and deeply, deeply ashamed.

I do not want to be afraid anymore.

I am working on my own personal application. I am going to do my best to write about that process on this blog. I will be talking about concepts that are probably covered in the book that has my name on it. I will talk about things that most people who have been programming for five years already understand.

I want to go back to the spirit this blog was created in. I created it to document my progress as a student to a professional. True to my roots, I am a perpetual student.

I am going to ask more questions. I am going to delve deeper and try to understand better. I made time for what was important for the first half of this year. Now I need to get back on the track I decided a year and a half ago. I need to stop worrying so much about my exposure or my reputation and worry more about my skills. If my reputation suffers because I want to shore up my weak points, then I probably deserve it. It’s painful to admit that you don’t measure up, but if you won’t accept reality then you can’t change it.

I hope that Brad will continue to be patient with my questions and continue to go the extra mile to expose me to things I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. His commitment to excellence pushes me to be better and even though it is painful sometimes, it is something I asked for that is rare in this day and age.