Getting over the IT addiction

In high school, I worked at Bruegger's Bagels (after a natural food co-op and an Italian restaurant). I was very good at constructing bagel sandwiches, and I enjoyed the work immensely. Making great food for people to their satisfaction right in front of them is surprisingly fulfilling. At the end of each shift, I knew that I was responsible for making about 100 tired, hungry people happier by filling them with great food and fresh coffee. I was pretty good at it, too - probably in the top 10%. (I was a terrible busboy for the Italian place.) But as much as I enjoyed the job, it didn't pay very much.

Fortunately, bagel-sandwich construction is not my only skill. Like many other geeks, I'm also incredibly good at designing, building, troubleshooting, and fixing computers - what I'll collectively refer to as IT. That job pays far more than Bruegger's ever would, and my skills and knowledge are probably in the top 1% of all people who do it for a living.

Except I don't.

I have before. During breaks and vacations in college, I would get extra money by taking as many IT jobs as I could. But since graduation, I've only accepted programming jobs.

At my current job, I write the back-end code for dynamic websites using a language easy enough for millions of people to easily learn it. I'm probably only in the top 10% of all web developers, and the pay is similar to advanced IT work.

I've completely walked away from a field in which I'm incredibly skilled. I'm much better in IT than I am as a programmer. But I don't accept independent IT work anymore, and I minimize my IT duties as a web developer. My resume contains minimal references to these skills, and I would reject any job offer for this field.

The addiction

I'm not sure if it's because I'm a man, or because I'm a geek, but I have an innate need to fix things. It's painful to see someone struggling with a stupid computer problem, or doing something incredibly inefficiently when I know there's a better way, or believing some terrible myth that I know is wrong.

In the past, I've grabbed any opportunity to fix everything, get the right products, and set things up properly.

It usually hasn't gone well, taking up too much of my time and causing too much aggravation. But the next time an opportunity would come, I'd still jump at it.

Not anymore. It's very difficult to walk away from an IT situation in which I know I could help, but I'm done with that world. Now, I just sit back and listen to people spout off wrong information, unnecessarily waste truckloads of money, and live with inferior setups. I pretend that I have neither opinion nor expertise, hiding my frustration, because I know it's better for me.


Good question.

In 2004, I switched to using a Mac full-time. I underwent a corresponding transition away from activities that I felt were wasteful of my time. This could have been caused by the Mac awakening, or it could just be a part of growing up and living after college.

Building computers was fun. But there's not much work in building computers - nobody wants a computer without someone to support it (and I sure don't want that job). I still love to build computers for myself, but I only need so many computers. I also can't build Macs. (Although I would love to.)

Fixing computers, however, was not fun. Here's how it usually went:

  1. Decode the symptoms from the user's terrible use of computer terms. (I pity anyone who performs this step over the phone.)
  2. Fight with hordes of spyware apps, viruses, and shortcomings in Windows to restore the computer to a clean, usable state.
  3. Talk to the angry user 3 months later when the system is back to an unusable state, and convince them that this is not my fault and I am not obligated to come fix it for free. Or, if I'm lucky, the customer will be nice and I'll just have to feel guilty accepting their money again to fix the same problem.
  4. Go to step 1.
Occasionally, I'd get a different problem. (Very occasionally. 99% of computer repairs are the same problem. The different problems are usually on servers.)
  1. Figure out why the server's RAID array occasionally goes offline.
  2. Comb through pages of awful Google search results to find awful mailing-list posts describing minor incompatibilities under specific circumstances using a slightly different kernel version than mine.
  3. Call awful vendor support departments and convince them that my RAID card deserves a replacement and I shouldn't have to pay for its shipping, and trust me, I already went through all of these stupid troubleshooting steps that you're making me repeat.
  4. Eventually discover that this particular RAID card is slightly incompatible with this particular version of this particular distribution of this particular operating system under my specific circumstances, even though the vendor claimed it was compatible. Buy a new card with overnight shipping, because it's more important to get this server online tomorrow than to waste more hours troubleshooting this stupid problem that may never be fixed.
  5. Go to step 1.
After a day of IT frustration, I'd occasionally go home without fixing the problem. It's a terrible feeling to leave an unsolved problem at work, but eventually I'd get hungry and tired and realize I couldn't fix it that day. I'd get home late, look back at my day, and think, "What have I accomplished today?"

That's what killed it for me.

IT work is miserably unfulfilling. It's a constant stream of problems, bugs, shoddy hardware, half-assed software, idiotic users, and infuriating management. The best you can hope for is a return to the original, clean, working state. It's nearly impossible to improve or build anything, and there's no creativity - you just clean up other people's messes, whether they're the users in your company or the programmers at Microsoft. IT people are glorified janitors.

But janitors are usually nicer people to work with. At least janitors tend to be decent at their jobs. IT is filled with people who think they know how to do their jobs, but trust me, they don't. I've heard far more misinformation come out of people's mouths in this field than from all of the new-age crackpots who came into the natural food co-op in high school. It's hard to work in a field where all of your coworkers are idiots.

The aftermath

I still have a PC at home, but it sits idle most of the time. Its Windows installation is a mess, but I don't care enough to format and reinstall. (I used to do that every 6 months for fun.)

When people ask me if I can fix their computers, I lie and say I don't know anything about Windows PCs. (Nobody ever asks me to fix their Mac. Take from that what you will.)

I'm far more satisfied doing a fulfilling job decently instead of doing a soul-sucking job nearly perfectly.

To all IT people who aren't idiots (don't worry, you'll never know for sure either way), I commend you for your patience and persistence. But that's not for me. Not at all. And I'm relieved to be out of it.