I Like the Word Ignominious

I have gotten to work on many amazing things in my career: DNA scanners, children’s toys, and a gunshot location system are only a few of the highlights. I love talking about technology and its applications: I will happily burble about the awesome big pictures and the interesting, gritty details for many hours. But that’s not what I want to write about today because there is more to work than the joys of success and knowledge.

I don’t want to talk about failure either. Oh, I’ve had some of those too and they still hurt to think about. I’m happy to say that my professional failures were products of ignorance, optimism, and trust but never negligence. I work every day to alleviate my ignorance. Experience has somewhat tempered my optimism. And I will not apologize for trusting my teams: they get to fail and learn too.

Instead, I want to feature the parts of my career that are less glorious and more… ridiculous. These are the things I think of when someone calls my credentials impressive. These are the things that keep me humble when I wonder why people do things that makes no sense at all. These are the things that make me certain that there will always be more to learn. These are the things that make me feel like a pretend engineer.

Schooling for me was about writing software and learning interesting math. Getting my first job with hardware was bound to expose gaps in my knowledge. On my first day as a firmware engineer, I was asked to test a board to see how the board fared in warm temperatures. I wanted my new team to appreciate their new hire so I buckled down to get it all done on that day. I read the test oven manual, made sure I understood how to take data from the board, and placed the board in the oven. However, I missed the critical fact that the floor of the oven was metal. The bare board had metal contacts. Metal touched metal, electrons danced, and a small fire ensued. It was in an oven, so no harm done (except to the cooked board).

With that impetus, I started to learn a lot more about electronics, including the smell of burning electronics. Under the supervision of my favorite and exceeding patient electrical engineer (EE), I progressed to the point of designing my own board. Before sending it out for fabrication, I had to build one by hand to make sure it would work. I sat at my EE mentor’s bench, pestering him with questions about soldering and components. I knew I was reaching the end of his patience, so I tried to limit my questions. The last one was the most important; I knew that capacitors could only go on the board one way so when I made sure to verify I did the first one correctly. Then I painstakingly made sure to put each one on after exactly the same. The next day, the EE and I powered up the board for the first time. Either that first one wasn’t correct, or my painstaking effort let me down. Each capacitor blew up, one after another, flying up in an arc over the cubicle wall, like tiny fireworks. He looked on, nonplussed, and I giggled maniacally.

There are other things that also led to giggling. There was a lot of potty humor. For example, developing a potty-training toy, I discovered that different cultures have different names for bodily functions. Imagine the alarmingly frank meeting where we made lists of common human activities (pee, whizz, peepee, number one, wee, tinkle, weewee, and so on). There was a sensation of sublime surreality as I wrote complex state machines around the variables called peeName and pooName.

Later, I worked on a gunshot location system. There were times I felt like I could stop a dinner party with the description: you place sensors around a city and automatically notify the police when a gunshot occurs. It is a blend of magical high tech and lurid crime. Working there was a pressure cooker environment that led to some of the most incongruous episodes.

A producer pitched the idea of a show about startup technology and police chases, the intersection of high tech and low crime. The police and our CEO were both on board to become stars. A production crew shot a pilot at our startup and with a special police response team based in a helicopter. I never saw the final version, but I bet the producer was hoping for more than staring at computer screens discussing the pros and cons of different database architectures while waiting for gunshots that never happened.

I’ve always thought my life was a more of a situation comedy than a crime drama. If I could have written an episode, it would have been about the time when the CEO found out about watchdogs, right before a major deadline. Now, in the software I work on, watchdogs are timers that will reboot a device if the software doesn’t interact with them. The standard terminology for this interaction (from long before I entered the industry) is called “kicking the watchdog.” This indicates the software is working nominally and makes the timer restart. One morning I got an irate email from the CEO who had been reading the code. The CEO was a dog lover and apparently read code for his insomnia.  He insisted that at his company no one would ever kick dogs. Suddenly our code was petting watchdogs and I was wondering where my weekend went.

There was the time on our podcast where we argued about how to spell shitty. Of course, since we bleep expletives in the show, this must have been entertaining for listeners. Our guest was the self-crowned Queen of Shitty Robots, Simone Giertz. While she spoke unaccented English, she was frank that her English wasn’t as good as it sounded. I still maintain shitty doesn’t end in an i.

My list of things which I’m not quite proud of goes on and on. I got to thinking about this topic because as I recently applied for a somewhat academic job, I updated my publication profile. One of the metrics of academic achievement are the citations so I’m generally pleased to see new ones. However, the new citation was for a an open source device for operant licking in rats. I guess I’m pleased. But licking? Really? I’m sure that is scientifically useful… somehow.

When I talk about fighting impostor syndrome, I usually counsel focusing on the things you’ve done and keeping a tally of accomplishments to help us remember that there is more to life than the daily grind and tiny failures of programming. But then when I look at this small subset of silly things that have occurred in my career, I wonder if my impostor syndrome is there for a very good reason.