The year is 2009, and I am stuck. We don’t make enough to live in this house. The house is underwater, so we can’t sell. I'm actually relieved when I figure this out. I’ve been thinking that I'm “bad with money” in the sense of being an irresponsible spendthrift. Now I see we're not really. Well, aside from stupidly buying Too Much House. Other than that one bad move, we’re generally careful and sensible. We shop for food at Aldi. We buy second-hand clothes. We drive an old car. We don't eat out. We don't shower our kids in hundreds of dollars in gifts at Christmas.
But things are bad. We’re basically watching a systemic failure in progress. We could start stacking debt on credit cards to delay the inevitable, but that’s like driving your car off a cliff to keep it from getting repossessed.
|My workspace in 2010. It’s basically the same now except the consoles are gone. The PS3 returned to its owner, the Xbox 360 died, the Wii died, and the PS2 became our DVD player in the living room.|
On the upside, I’m getting better at money. It used to be that when we wound up a couple hundred short, we’d pay all the big bills and let the others slide. (Because the big ones are the most important, right?) This would stack up lots of little late fees and such. It took me a few months, but I finally realized that this is the stupid way around. If I have to miss one bill, it should be the mortgage. One late fee is better than a half dozen, especially when the late fee just ends up stacked onto the balance of a loan that’s already too big for us. Keeps all our failures in one place.
The other trick – and again, this is really obvious to most people but somehow eluded me for years – is to keep a base cushion of money in the bank. Pretend that “$300” is “zero” and never go below that number, even if it means leaving bills unpaid. The $300 is insurance against the financially devastating cascading failures caused by overdrafts, and is more important than any single late fee. This way, making a simple spending error won’t lead to ruination. I should have done this years ago.
Again: If this was a strategy game I would have figured out these two simple tricks in a couple of minutes, but because the action was spread out over many months or years I failed to see patterns and make corrections.
Still, we can’t solve this problem with frugality, because the money just isn’t there. Prices are up and my pay isn’t. I really need to figure out a sustainable solution.
On a brighter note, this writing business is opening new doors for me. I'm getting paid to write things, and that's stopping us from leaking money. I’ve been a bit bolder about ad placement on the blog and now they're actually making a difference.
The problem is that I'm working full time at the day job and then putting in a bunch more hours on the blog and then I’m somehow sinking even more hours into writing a massive Let’s Play for Lord of the Rings Online. This workload is pretty heavy and I know I can't keep it up forever. Since this is is all creativity-driven, getting burned out would be a disaster. But until that point I can boost our income enough to keep up with the bills. I suppose it helps that this writing stuff is a lot of fun.
This plan works until it doesn’t. My boss calls me and says they're laying me off. I’ve known this was coming for a long time, and I think they probably waited a lot longer than they needed to. It's been weeks since there was anything more than cursory maintenance and writing help files for me to do, which are my fallback jobs when things get slow. They’ve been good to me, and I certainly don't blame them for cutting my job. There really isn’t enough work to keep me busy.
Will Code For Food
|Here, have a happy picture of the kids at the park to help lighten the mood.|
I suppose I could consider getting another job. I could give up the blog, the writing, the comics, and the videogame stuff and take some standard job in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, this place isn’t exactly the tech center of the country. They need programmers, sure, but they need stuff like database and report coders. It’s early 2010, and the dot-com bubble is long burst. Half the tech workers in Silicon Valley have joined a vast herd of migrating hobos. We’re in the middle of a recession, a depression, or whatever the people writing headlines think sounds most dire and click-worthy.
If you just need someone to write you a bit of C code, you don't need to hire me. Just ask the guy cleaning your windshield. He's probably younger, better educated, and has his certifications in order. Most jobs naturally expect you to relocate, which we can't do. Still, I noodle around with the job listings a bit to see if anything jumps out at me.
Let’s talk about looking for technology jobs for a minute. You can tell a lot about a company by their job listings.
Here is one:
- Proficient in C/C++, VC++, C#, VB, COM, ActiveX, .NET, Python, and Java.
- Good communication skills.
- 10 years+ experience developing software and applications for Internal and external clients.
- Bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering or Software Engineering or Related.
My comments to each requirement above:
- Hang on… you need both flavors of C, C-sharp, Visual Basic, Python AND Java? What kind of loony Rube Goldberg contraption is your development pipeline? Either this place is an anarchic madhouse where everyone randomly picks languages to use and they’re looking for someone to clean up the resulting mess, or (more likely) this is just a random kitchen-sink listing created by an HR ninny who has no idea what they’re talking about or asking for.
I’m not saying that coders with the full list of languages don’t exist, but they’re going to be a bit rare. Aren’t any of these languages more important that others? Is it really required that someone know all of these to do their job?
- How often do you see jobs where they DON’T want “good communication skills”? This one is so common it’s meaningless. It’s like saying you want people with good hygiene. More importantly, everyone thinks they have good communication skills. People who are obtuse, vague, overly verbose, cryptic, and disorganized in their communication still think they’re good at it because they send out lots of memos where everything is spelled right. And when people don’t understand the memos? Pffft. All of them must have bad communication skills, not me.
Note also the additional irony: Given how muddled this listing is, the person posting it is probably not wielding top-notch communication skills themselves. Good communication begins with knowing or anticipating what information the other person will need.
- 10+ years experience “developing software”. Sigh. HR departments still don’t “get” software development. Imagine if a company posted a listing for a “driving job” with 10+ years of experience “driving”. You figure with your years of driving taxi this job is right up your alley, but then when you get to the interview you find out they’re looking for someone to drive 18-wheelers, or forklifts.
“Developing Software”? What kind of software is involved? Is it physics-based? Financial? Simulation? Mechanical? Graphical? Audio? Networking? Security? Anyone with 10+ years of experience has probably begun to specialize a bit. That area of specialization is WAY more important than the fact that the software is going to be used internally or externally.
If you’re hiring someone to maintain your inventory system, then – all other things being equal – someone with only 4 years experience in inventory management is probably going to be more valuable than the person with 10+ years of experience writing data recovery tools. The most important aspect of this position is not given in the listing.
- Oh right. A degree. Because obviously the person with 10+ years of experience is USELESS if they didn’t study FORTRAN in college back in the mid 90’s. Maybe I’m biased because I don’t have a degree, but once we’re talking about 10 years of experience the degree is of very small importance. I mean, they held down a job for 10 years.
And I’ve never bought the excuse that a degree proves that you will “stick with things” or whatever. There are people without degrees who can and do accomplish amazing things, and people with degrees who are ignorant, lazy, and unimaginative. There are people with college degrees who absolutely cannot write software. It happens. Rejecting job applicants sight unseen based on degree is like rejecting football players based on height without bothering to see them play. A degree is nice, but it should never, ever be such a binary indicator.
This “must have a degree” excuse is basically HR saying they don’t know how to tell good applicants from bad ones, which is the entire point of their job. Asking for a degree makes sense for entry-level positions, but insisting on a degree for a “10+ years of experience” position is just single-minded and lazy.
When I see a listing like this one I get a picture of a company that has gotten big enough that the left hand can’t tell what the right hand is doing. HR departments seem to devise these listings as if ASKING for more skills will attract more skilled applicants. Instead, this probably leads to the very thing they want to avoid most: Resume spam and lying. Applicants see this unlikely list of qualifications and think, “They can’t really need ALL of that. I meet about half the requirements, so I’ll just send in my not-qualified resume and see what happens.” If they get to the interview they think, “The only people that meet all those requirements are liars. I’d better exaggerate my abilities if I want a shot at the job.”
For contrast, here is a good listing:
- Strong Java skills, including Swing and JSP.
- Good SQL skills.
- Experience with Linux and Windows operating systems and command line tools (bash/bat).
- Mobile programming experience (IPhone, IPad, Android) not required, but a plus.
- Data conversion experience not required, but a plus.
Boom! Now that’s a job listing. I’m totally unqualified for it, but I have a very clear picture of what this company is after and what they would expect from me. Their list of required languages makes sense and isn’t just and alphabet soup listing of languages from the last 20 years. Note how they didn’t waste a bullet point on communication skills.
People make a big deal about how important it is to make a good impression in your cover letter / resume / interview. I would point out that this works both ways. Your job listing says a lot about how your company operates. Is your outfit organized? Does it value attention to detail? Is it run well? If your job listing shows a scatterbrained development pipeline, arbitrary job requirements, a boilerplate approach to listings, and casual attitude towards making unreasonable demands, then I’m going to notice this. I’m also going to assume that things are probably a lot worse under the surface.
ANYWAY. Back to our story.
The job search ends about soon as it begins. There just aren’t any jobs around here in my area of expertise, or even much to do with my ancillary skills. Sure, I could take a job that didn’t have any particular expertise requirement, but then we’re talking a fresh-out-of-college type job. There’s no way that would make financial sense. We’d have to maintain a second car and pay the gas for an hour commute. That would devour a fortune, would require me to give up the writing jobs and maybe even kill off the blog, all so I could make less money than the job I just lost, which already didn’t pay enough. That makes no sense.
I can't find a job locally, and finding another work-from-home deal with a salary high enough to support us properly is… unlikely.
This is kind of a relief. I don’t want to work in a big firm or an office.
I suppose now is the time to be bold and experiment. Let's see if I can finish this book I’ve been noodling with and see how my career as a writer works out. It’s a stupid, ridiculous longshot. Ask any author, and they’ll tell you that you should not go into writing books for the money. However, we’re trapped here. Since we’re sort of stuck no matter what we do, there doesn’t seem to be any harm in trying.
Lost Laughs in Leisure Suit Larry
Why was this classic adventure game so funny in the 80's, and why did it stop being funny?
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.
Fixing Match 3
For one of the most popular casual games in existence, Match 3 is actually really broken. Until one developer fixed it.
Internet News is All Wrong
Why is internet news so bad, why do people prefer celebrity fluff, and how could it be made better?
PC Gaming Golden Age
It's not a legend. It was real. There was a time before DLC. Before DRM. Before crappy ports. It was glorious.