It’s august, 2015. It’s the 29th. Tomorrow, I get to have my namesake day - Saint Alexander. I’m in a room filled with strangers, I’m carrying my laptop in a backpack and I’m trying to find a cure to one of life’s most debilitating afflictions: the “what do I do now?” post-college flu.
I’m at the tail end of four years of college education. I’ll graduate as an Engineer. In spite of knowing how to solve triple integrals and build a mp3 player from scratch, I’m clueless as to what I’ll do next. I expected to run towards my goals like a sprinter picturing the gold medal - instead, I’m shuffling in place. I’m trying to convert my passions into a career path. Instead, I’m second-guessing myself on things I thought had clear answers. What do I enjoy doing so much that I’d do it for eight hours, every day, for the rest of my life?
I’m attending a hackathon called “Poiana Baronilor Locali” (The Local Barons’ Gathering). I don’t know anyone, so I’m shaking a lot of hands. We’re pitching ideas for applications that benefit society, and I join a group which wants to scan press releases and warn when public officials are lying. The words “natural language processing” and “emotions analysis” make me feel like I will solve complex equations and write distributed systems before noon. Instead, I spend the entire day trying to install Python libraries. I’m hooked.
One year later, I am sitting around a table with strangers. Our beers warm up in the summer afternoon slower than we’re warming up to each other. We all want “to be the change you want to see in the world”. We’re programmers and communications people, designers and data scientists. Right off the bat it seems like there isn’t a thing in the world we couldn’t do, if we put our minds to it. I leave early. The people around the table, who greet the summer night with their third beer, are the ones who will start Code for Romania.
Life is strange. I only graduated college two years later, in 2017. I worked for years at a job that I got in college, slowly progressing and changing projects, untill, finally, I left. I didn’t join Code for Romania when it officially took off, and only saw them again one year later. I’m still walking, not sprinting, down my career path. I’ve started to get comfortable with putting one foot in front of the other without knowing for certain where I’m heading. Sometimes, it seems like I’m floundering in the dark.
I’ve figured out what I want to do for the rest of my life.
There’s a certain cycle that makes me happy. I learn something, and then I teach it to others. Back in college, I loved doing study sessions with my colleagues. Giving others the insights I gained made the mental map in my head even more clear. I’d make cheat sheets or write some clever code to work a problem out. Keeping them for myself was pointless - before the ink dried on my study notes, there were several xerox copies of the pages. Finding a solution makes me happy, sure, but sharing it intensifies that happiness.
I worked, and will continue to work, as a developer because finding solutions is highly addictive. The code I write isn’t the point. The point is having a solution where, before, only frustration existed. You take a problem, you simplify it to the point where your constraints are tall, solid walls, and then build your solution in the space thus created. Elegant code stretches to fill this space. Good solutions do everything you built them to do, and not a thing more.
When I was in college, the problems were already simplified, the constraints were set out for us and, usually, there was only one correct, and clever solution. These luxuries were replaced in my job, as a professional developer, with teams totalling tens of people, each of which focused on one task: gathering requirements, testing the boundaries of our constraints, ensuring the solution only provided what was asked of it, without a side bonus of fries.
My work was fulfilling only to the extent that I accepted the narrowness of my scope. When I raised my gaze and tried to take in the entire mechanism, I was often left wanting more. College had ended years ago, and the charm of being told what to do was wearing off.
I kept in touch with the Code for Romania volunteers. I saw completed projects roll out from as little as one volunteer and I watched in awe as the impact of a simple solution reverberated into our community. This was it. This was the piece I was missing, and yearning for.
My contribution to Code for Romania built up slowly. It was tentative at first - something fun to do over a weekend, during a hackday. I joined a project and discovered there were no luxuries to be had. We were zooming in on problems and defining the solutions ourselves. We were feeling the walls of our constraints little by little, sometimes running head-first into them. We chose our tools in such a way as to maximize participation. Writing code was just one task, on a list that unfolded across the room like an Egyptian pergament.
I am hooked.
Building solutions and sharing knowledge are two sides of the proverbial coin of “what makes me happy”.
I don’t think in terms of languages and frameworks anymore. I work with the tools at hand. Sure, I’m most at home writing Python, in automation projects. But I don’t shy away from the web, from the mobile ecosystem, and from keeping GitHub repositories in logical order. I write content as happily as I write code. I’m closer to being the change that I want to see than I have ever been before.
I learn from the Code for Romania volunteers in real-time, as we pour over how to best address the latest constraint or the most pressing problem. In turn, I work hard to structure and deliver as much of my knowledge to the people who can benefit from it. Security, online and offline, is something I try to raise awareness about. It takes me back to my college days - here’s a cheat sheet of what software to use and how to browse the Internet, safely. If you’re wondering: yes, I wrote this cheat sheet. I might have a copy left when we meet over beer.
I hope you get hooked, too.
Not sure yet? Join us on the last Saturday of every month at our HackDays. Register here.