My Brain is Rotting

I’m a web developer. I know that because it is my job title.

I don’t really develop anything anymore though.

Back when I got into this business I did all kinds of things. I had the keys to our Solaris servers. My palm print was registered at the data center so I could access the cage, which I did frequently. Sometimes I’d have to drive over there at 2 AM to address an issue, and it was just me. I knew what to do.

At the time we were running Vignette Storyserver which used Tcl as a scripting language. Tcl! I dunno that I could still write a script in Tcl. Or Perl for that matter, which is a lot less weird than Tcl.

I wasn’t part of the IT department but I worked very closely with them. I was kind of honorary IT.

I was removed from that gig when they hired a new exec who wanted a clean slate. I mean that wasn’t the reason they gave but it was what happened. The exec hired people they had worked with at their last company. The powers that be decided to move to a Java Server Pages platform. While everyone was being trained in that, I was assigned to maintain the old site and its Tcl scripts. Then once the switch over was made I was laid off because I didn’t know the JSP platform (the name of it escapes me… Documentum maybe?) that they’d prevented me from being trained on. Yeah, that’s fair.

My next gig, we were using Expression Engine, which is written in PHP with a proprietary templating language that was very PHP-esque. We didn’t have a data center, we had an ISP who did most of the maintenance on the servers. I still took care of a VPS server we had for odds and ends, and I did some stuff on Amazon EC2 instances. I spent a lot of time writing scripts to talk to API endpoints and stuff. It was a step down from the first gig in terms of tech but it still was a job I was constantly learning stuff at.

Enter a new exec who determined that we should ditch Expression Engine and put all the sites on WordPress because, y’know, he had a nephew that used wordpress or something. (Everyone knows WordPress so I won’t explain it.) Through my whole career I’ve been at the mercy of executives who come in, make decisions based on bad or no data, then usually leave when they fail at their job. But their decisions stick around.

Anyway so I started making custom WordPress themes. Every brand got exactly what they wanted because we weren’t using an off-the-shelf theme. We were secure because we weren’t using dozens of plugins that are constantly being probed for defects. (Security through obscurity!) It was definitely a less rewarding job but I guess learning WordPress had some value.

Then that company got purchased by a much larger company. The new company ran everything on WordPress, which was good as far as it being an easy transition. But this company has an IT Department that is completely divorced from the web team. They’ve erected a major wall between anything that can be called a server and the rest of the company, and that includes me. Now I do none of the server work I used to do. I no longer have access to manage DNS, which I used to do. They seem to have a fear of APIs, so that work is gone.

As for WordPress, they are replacing our custom themes with a standard theme across all their sites. A consultant is building it. I won’t go too far down this rabbit hole, but the point being now I’m not even going to be building WordPress themes. Lately most of my days are spent doing help desk level tasks like resetting passwords, unblocking access, setting up redirects. Stuff, honestly, an intern could do.

It’s clear I need to find a new job, but I also feel like I’ve waited too long. I think about updating my resume and what I do now does not justify my salary, frankly. And I haven’t USED my high-value skills for so long that they’ve atrophied while at the same time going out of date. So I don’t REMEMBER how to do all the things I used to do, but if I could remember then those skills would be kind of dated, anyway.

I feel stuck. I feel like my brain is rotting away. When I get laid off (and it is pretty clear the current company is making a concerted effort to no longer need developers on its payroll…they already have a 3rd party on contract with ‘resources’ in India and the Philippines who I’m sure are MUCH cheaper than me) I don’t think I’ll be very marketable, between my age and my atrophied skill set.

The only hope I can think of is to find A Project. Something I’m excited to build and that I could build in a technology I don’t know. Something like the project Scopique is working on to learn React, or like Tipa’s Python project to import an old blog into Github.

I just can’t think of anything. And really I don’t WANT to do anything, but I feel like I HAVE to do something. I really wish I wanted to. I remember being super excited about web development and learning new things. I put in so much overtime on that old Tcl site not because it was asked of me but because I was pumped about it.

But now I kind of just want to sit around and play video games once the work day is done. And I’m not really sure how to fix that. Like how do you make yourself get excited for something?

Maybe I can be a greeter at Walmart for my next job.

The one thing that has occurred to me is to find some non-profit that is a) working for a cause I believe in and b) looking for volunteers to help them with some technology project. But I’m not really sure how to do that.

9 thoughts on “My Brain is Rotting

  1. Let me tell you a story.

    I used to work at a bunch of Silicon Valley companies — Symantec, Sony, even Apple as a contractor. But my life took a bad turn and I was alone and jobless with two kids to raise. I was out of work for two years before I finally found someone who would take me in. I wasn’t even a programmer anymore. I was an IT assistant, helping people scrub viruses from their computers, installing software, running ethernet cables. I was making barely enough to live on, and I lived in a one bedroom apartment with my son, who slept on a futon in the living room. (My daughter had gotten married in the meantime).

    I felt broke and worthless. I could barely struggle to leave the apartment in the morning. And I lived in one of the nicest places on Earth, at the time — in the northern suburbs of San Diego. When I finally lost my house back in Monterey, I needed to go somewhere, so I chose San Diego, and I’d hoped I could get a job at Sigil or SOE. I never did. (They never once answered any of my applications — never a word from them).

    While working as IT admin, I started building a computer from spare parts there, and put Linux on it. I think it was Gentoo Linux. Then my boss said he was wondering if we could get a mail server running. So I did that. Then the warehouse manager wanted to put some charting together based on daily inventory, and I said I could maybe do that. I was just teaching myself Python at the time. Then I had a new skill to shop around, and I started getting some consulting jobs. They wanted me to learn Ruby on Rails, so I started learning that. A friend who read my blog and knew what I was doing, asked if I wanted to apply for a job they had open, back in Connecticut.

    They needed someone who knew Java 5. I’d used Java back in the day, and I studied up on Java 5. They sent me a programming test to work on, and I sent it back and they hired me — as a Web Application Developer. This is the lowest level of developer — one who is not expected to know programming. I used to work for the top companies in Silicon Valley, and now I was at square zero.

    I have been working at that company for fourteen and a half years. And I have struggled to learn the new tech, every step of the way. You and I are the same age, I think. I might be a little older, or you might be. My life hit rock bottom once, and I had to find my own way back. The amount of stuff I have to learn EVERY DAY is so immense. I had to learn Angular and AWS and Liquibase and PostgreSQL all in the last year. I’m now a tech lead, so I have to get ahead and stay ahead of everyone on my team — and they are all younger and smarter than I am. IT is moving too damn fast for anyone to keep up, these days. Back when I was in college, you just needed to know how to code. But now, coding is a very small part of the job, and it’s everything else that is more important.

    Doing the home projects, for me, is just a way of keeping sane. It’s something I know and can control.

    Back in the day, when I was out of work, I did some web work for my church’s parish. It could have become something more, if I’d wanted it to. I’d already been writing and printing the programs for the service. Looking for a non-profit that needs a hand sounds like an amazing thing to me.

    1. Thank you so much. It means a lot that you would share your story and it does give me hope. I just need to start being proactive rather than hoping things might get better if I just stay the course.

  2. This kind of feeling is EAXCTLY why I started learning new stuff “in my free time”. That’s in quotes because, like you, I had to deal with everyone else’s bullshirt during the day, and that tainted the idea of continuing to Do Tech Work after hours.

    At my job, I ended up with VERY little to do; everyone around me had a lot of work going on, but as the lone developer with no projects on the horizon, I was just in maintenance mode. When I heard that React was a “hot technology” I figured that if the other shoe was going to drop and put me on the hunt for a new job, then I SHOULD bite the bullet and learn new stuff even though I didn’t want to spend MORE hours of my day coding.

    My personal projects have kind of fallen off the radar (surprise!) but I’ve been able to transition my new skills to my job and pushed for changes to be made to how we operate our sites. We’re a small branch of a larger company, so my situation is atypical, I understand. But regardless, I feel that spending my own time to make the push to learn something new not only benefitted my actual job, but it’s brought back some of the mental agility that I had also been losing on account of either doing the same things day in, day out, or not having had the opportunity to do anything OTHER than edit existing code.

    There’s a lot of interesting opportunities out there for actual “brain training”. There’s the “game coding as a service” outfits like Crayta and Core which allow you to either use building blocks or write actual code if you know or would like to know Lua. The GameMaker platform also uses it’s own code, but also has a building block system to at least let you logic out game mechanics. I know you’ve been reading my React posts (thanks!), and as a fellow web developer with Javascript experience, React should be familiar enough that you’ve probably already got more experience with it than you know!

    1. Yeah I need to just kind of do the work to let me do the work. Like I need to sit down and formulate some kind of plan, figure out what I’ve forgotten (I mean, I know it’s in my brain somewhere) and wake that up, then learn something new.

      I had one of those moments that other day that we’ve talked about in the past. I looked at some old code that I absolutely KNOW I wrote, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why it was working!

      You’ve got me half-thinking about digging out an old laptop and installing Linux on it, too. Doing that always gets my brain woke up. Of course once I get it all up and running right, then I lose interest! LOL

  3. IT is an incredibly punishing specialism to work in, there aren’t many that require such levels of continuous learning, and even fewer where in most companies the expectation is that IT workers will spend their own time learning or practicing the skills required by their jobs. I see it all the time in Sys Admin reddit, just the background assumption that tech workers have to keep up with all the changes, and that you aren’t doing it right if you aren’t home-labbing stuff.

    I’ve been stuck in the small-medium business (SME in the UK) and non-profit space all my career (22 years and counting). There are some advantages: not least the breadth of tech one has to deal with, and the proximity to decision-makers. But, there are some major disadvatages. The pressure to know all the things and solve all the problems is much greater than in an enterprise – you are often one of few if not the only IT knowledge worker in the company. There is also next to zero career progression or paid for training, partly why I talk above about the home-lab stuff. In a small company I have always been too busy dealing with day-to-day to have the luxury of time for paid training. Where there has been a budget for staff training it would be annihilated by even a fraction of a certification course – the cost of useful IT certs are so expensive from the perspective of a SME’s finances.

    I have enjoyed working at many of the companies I have worked at, really interesting topics or clientbases, and some very worthy causes. But, from a career perspective a series of dead-ends and a resumé that doesn’t look that impressive. Now, as my husband and I try desperately to move to Canada, my lack of enterprise experience is, I fear, a real limiter of my options. Small companies are the least likely to take a risk on taking on an international hire, whereas corporations don’t see the certs or large-scale skills they want on my CV.

    As I said, IT is a very punishing sector, and I feel there is a real lack of solid career guidance for starters in the field, but equally for those in the midst of their careers who are disatisfied with how they are progressing.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience!

      That middle job I mentioned was a fairly small company and yeah, the whole “no career progression, no training, but please magically know how to do everything possibly required by the company, thanks” really resonates. I thought when we were purchased by a much larger firm things would get better but now I’m in a silo where I have a small area I focus on. It is definitely EASIER for sure, and if I thought I could ride out the rest of my career here I might just go with the flow. But the company is also big on contractors/out-sourcing so I feel confident that sooner or later, I’ll get laid off. That is what I’m worried most about…getting that next job.

  4. While I’m in my mid-40s, I’m relatively new to the realm of web development having only earned an Associates in Programming and starting to work in the field ~8 years ago.

    However, even though it’s hard to relate in terms of work experience, I often feel the way you describe in general life. My brain just isn’t as sharp, and I can’t focus as well as I used to be able to. I used to enjoy reading classic literature and dense fiction, bit now I’m lucky is a pulp-fantasy book can keep my attention. I used to dig into dense RPGs but now I only play games that are designed to be touched in small chunks like MMOs or online shooters.

    I’m worried my time spent staring at my phone or rain YouTube videos has damaged my brain. I’m not sure how to get it back to a functioning organ again…

    1. Jeff — I think a lot about what social media, YouTube and even video games has done to my brain, but I’m a little wary about talking about it because so many people love all these things. I used to play SPI/Avalon Hill (cardboard counters and paper maps) wargames that came with a manual the size of a thin magazine…and then I’d start adding house rules to them and stuff. Now I’m like “OK if I don’t have a computer taking care of the rules for me, I’m out.” I just don’t have the attention span I used to. And even within the realm of games, I used to play computer strategy and wargames. I loved stuff like Xcom and other turn-based tactics games. Now I get bored with them.

      Wish I had some advice but sadly, I don’t. If I ever figure something out I’ll be sure to share!

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