On the simple basis of experience, one ought not to hire a graduate student in a humanities/social science/philosophy/etc cultural studies program for technical AND operations work in an internet architecture (or any professional services) firm. But temporary work is the order of the day for academia, and so too for the summers when its laborers are fully, not just effectively, unpaid. So it was at the tail end of a long, frankly brutal summer of odd jobs and the freelance whateverer hustle that a Craigslist ad for office work found an applicant in a tired, frustrated, untrained pseudo-intellectual. The firm hired the applicant to file paperwork and clean up the (four-person) office and get coffee – nothing an intern couldn’t have done, but the summer crop of interns was heading out and the fall crop hadn’t yet arrived, and so hail to the precariat. During the interview, the CEO and co-founder asked about passion, about worldview, about habit, and about (of course) technology. He also asked – and this applicant took it for a trick question – after an entrepreneurial spirit. The answers were forthright but somewhat made up on the spot. But it fit.
The first three to four months, entrenched in course work alongside the daily operations of this business, were filled with minutae. Filing and organizing information was the higher-order logic of the task list. The new hire spent lots of his time watching the architects, researching peripheral issues and market conditions, reading code, reading manuals, tinkering with development machines, writing technical documentation. There were isolated, delicate attempts at programming/coding/network administration/systems administration/architecting. Most failed. One or two small opportunities arose to answer architectural questions. The first glimmerings of client services appeared. A renegotiation of wages took place a the end of this period, when the company had grown quickly and the burden of more responsibility began to fall on the untrained shoulders of the analyst.
In the next three months, the to-do list sought out to prove the analyst’s monetary value. Operations involved more planning, some intern training, much more reading of code and manuals, more breaking of development machines, more writing of technical documentation, and less delicate attempts at development. More opportunities to answer (and ask) architectural questions sprang up – the production of knowledge alongside delivery of services. Delving into the policies and protocols that undergird the internet at school, the analyst also translated that research into projects undertaken for clients and for the company. Allowing these interests – technology, infra/structure, layering, and service – to guide a bit of the research being done in the school context, the two began to mesh, and to conflict. By the end, the analyst was planning out a larger project, more ambitious, with more traction. Scheduling and discipline began to override motivation and eagerness.
Over the next months, the associate (now promoted) finally began sweating the small stuff. Operations involved more training, more intern management, far more reading of code, more reading code, more reading code. (Comparatively little) writing code, too. Time spent reading manuals, writing manuals, creating development machines, migrating systems, flying blindly into the face of technical voids but hoping for the safety net of the geniuses who surround him bolstered the associate. Executing the gradual development of a large project took much of the billable time of day. Combining work and school interests towards a piecemeal vision of some vague contribution to Knowledge in the world caused stress, and forced further discipline and standardization. A renegotiation of wages for the sake of consistency with others’ pay scales leads to a pay cut but strengthens ties and resolve to learn more. Busting one’s ass in, having one’s ass kicked by, a real computer science course, the first since high school’s C++ ten years before, more intensely focused on cutting edge research and technologies than expected — and more socially, culturally, scientifically focused than could have been expected — brought a dawning realization to the worker: architecture does not live solely in the windowless, screen-filled rooms, or at the conference table or whiteboard. It drives the organizational and ideological changes to groups as small as project teams and those as large as nations. It lives in the full, the real, world.
By the past three months, this worker has found an interest area and a passion within architecture, especially in data, linguistic, and social analyses. This has fostered the articulation of a premise for a larger research project, on internet architecture in West Africa. It has focused the gathering of research sources. The uneven trail of responsibility for others’ livelihoods begins to settle into reality in tasks from management to IT services. Becoming boring becomes acceptable – passion can be divorced from emotion and wedded to rationality, to ambition, to discipline. This architect has read more code in the last three months than in his entire twenty-five-plus years of life until that point. The rewards are still abstract. The pay is still nominal. The problems are becoming more complex, more challenging, broader in scope but through more details, not less. Questions of priority, of focus, of purpose — these drive the school work towards clarity and significance. Questions of logic, of epistemology, of worldview – these drive the life around work to calmer, more patient patterns.
One year in internet architecture: unanticipated changes to my thought and my behavior. One year in internet architecture: no portfolio to speak of, but a resolution to accrue and generate more knowledge in this field. One year in internet architecture: barely a start.