On being a software engineer / farmer

I recently started at a new job.  The existential crisis I experienced upon accepting this new position, although brief, was a bit enlightening for me regarding how I see myself and how societal stereotypes about career and class influence us all.

Going back in time a bit, I had a quite reasonable phase of career-change related insecurity at the start of my first apprenticeship on Bainbridge.  I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted into that farming community, coming to it as I did as a complete outsider from the completely different world of software development.  I worried that my car was too nice, I didn’t know the farming terminology, I wouldn’t know how to relate to the types of people I might meet.

It turned out that yes, my car was too nice.  🙂  But the other worries were groundless — the types of people I met at the farms on Bainbridge were without exception wonderful, caring, and completely accepting of who I was at that moment.  Who I was was a young person in transition into finding myself.  I wasn’t a farmer and I didn’t have to pretend to be one.  I was interested in learning about farming and that was perfectly fine.  This contrasted with how I had often felt about myself while working software – that I wasn’t truly an engineer at heart and I was kind of pretending to be one.

The next thing that happened was I got more comfortable being a farm worker, but I didn’t know if this was a real transition or just a temporary thing.  I remember going to the dentist sometime in the middle of the Bainbridge experience and having to fill out that sheet that asks you your occupation.  I didn’t know what to put.  And then I started thinking about how they might judge me depending on what I wrote.  If I put “computer programmer” versus “farm apprentice,” would they treat me a certain way?

All of a sudden I was noticing a class divide that I had never really given much thought to before.  A person’s occupation, and the various things that come along with that, are a huge influence in the person’s own life but also in how that person is viewed by strangers.  Insurance or lack thereof, personal appearance, and regularity/dependability of cashflow are some of the pieces that can become apparent to outsiders and can lead them to judge your intellegence, ability, importance, etc. without really knowing anything about you.

Take personal appearance.   I grew up in a quite middle of the road, middle-class family in the midwest, and I have never been a super sleek, manicured and groomed, professional type.  But I got pretty used to being able to blend right in at a nice restaurant, for instance.  As a farmer, (or carpenter, or auto mechanic), your work clothes can tell an outsider exactly what kind of labor you do for a living.  In one example, I go pick up my prescription at Costco in my grubby farm clothes after work.  I don’t have insurance to pay for the medicine, and as I get my cash out I imagine I feel the cashier perceiving me as poor – which I am, I guess.  I want to tell her, “you can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m actually capable of being way above you, you’re cashiering at Costco for crying out loud.”  But there I go, doing exactly what I don’t want her to do.  In my prior life, when software developer Becky went to pick up her prescription for a $10 copay with her insurance card, she didn’t think about these things because there was an intrinsic assumption that I was well off and the lady behind the pharmacy counter was some nameless person with no college education who ate McDonalds for every meal.  Obviously I didn’t think or care about the unconscious classism I was guilty of, until I felt myself on the other side of the equation.

A couple weeks ago my housemates and I had a breakfast table discussion about these exact issues.  Why is it that a certain type of knowledege is being valued so highly above so many other types in our world?   Roomie Lauren’s dad has a PhD in some kind of sciencey thing but has worked his whole life as a contractor builder and a fishing boat captain.  People who meet him based on his line of work are surprised at his level of intelligence and scholarship.   We all do it — make assumptions about peoples’ IQ or level of education based on their job.  An electrician, builder, or plumber is assumed to be less smart than an engineering type.   But would those of us who make these judgements know how to construct, wire, or plumb a house or public building?  These “skilled trades,” like farming, are critical elements of our world, but they are no longer being valued or emphasized in schools or by society.  We view a college degree as being hugely important, and of course I am glad I have one, but maybe you don’t need one if one of these trades is your passion.  These jobs take physical ability and real-world understanding rather than (or in addition to) book-learning.  They are the kinds of things you have to learn at least partially by apprenticeship, watching a mentor, and by doing.

I now feel certain that what I want is to make my living by growing vegetables.  But since I’m not there yet, I have to do other work in the meantime.  I tried to fit software back in as a part-time money-earner, but it’s not feeling right.  I have to give too much of myself to that type of work, and at this point I’m far too rusty at it to be asking a company to give me a special custom-made part-time position.  So instead I started looking to find jobs within the food system, the area that I’m now much more comfortable working in.  I got an interview and immediately got hired at Trader Joe’s.  I should have been thrilled, and I kind of was, but I was also kind of appalled at the hourly rate that was offered – about 1/3 or 1/4 of what I could make at a software contract.  I realized I have this sense of entitlement regarding what I “deserve” to be making.  Another thing I felt was worry about telling my engineer type friends about the new work and having them look down on me.   What kind of stigma would come along with working retail?  This is the kind of job I used to get when I was home from college over summer break.  I have a college degree now; I could be doing way better for myself.  I’m over these feelings now, but they were real and intense when I got the phone call with the job offer.

When I started farming I was afraid that I would seem too white-collar.  Now I have the opposite concern.   As I meet all the new colleagues at Trader Joe’s and they ask me what I did before, I hear myself making sure to mention the software work in addition to the farming.  My ego clings to wanting to project that I am smart enough to do something else but that I am blue-collar “by choice” right now.  It’s silly.  And as it turns out, many of these folks at TJ’s are in the same boat.  Todd is a former psychiatrist.  Robert has a degree in biochemistry.  Many of them have been at Trader Joe’s for 3 or 5 or 7 years because it’s flexible, fun, has great healthcare benefits, and doesn’t consume your life outside of work.

Then there is the related issue of actually living and managing my money in all of these various job personas.  I think my years in the ultra high paying software industry had warped my view of how much money one needs to earn to make one’s way in the world.  I couldn’t have imagined living on a low hourly wage based on my living expenses back then.  I couldn’t have imagined giving up some of the nice things and expensive hobbies that were then easy to pay for.  Then my two years of farm apprenticeship swung me in the opposite direction: my lower-than-minimum wage stipend made every $5 purchase worthy of deep consideration and honed my bargain-hunting and freebie-nabbing skills.  It was really good for me to learn how to live frugally.  Now it’s time to find the balance between those two extremes.  I don’t want to have to postpone going to the dentist until I have more money because it costs $150. But I also don’t want to be unaware of how  much going to the dentist costs because I’ve never had to actually pay for it before.

It is a really good thing for me if I don’t/can’t solve every problem by just throwing money at it.   It makes me engage with life more and live more deliberately.  (Biggest example here is riding my bike to get places in the city instead of driving everywhere.  I LOVE it.  But the price of gas is a big factor in reminding me to ride even when the weather’s not perfect or there is a hill involved.)  Having less money may be the only way to force myself to live more frugally and thoughtfully and creatively.  But on the other side of the coin, it’s nice having some cushion — you’ve gotta have enough money to solve major problems when needed.  I was definitely walking the fine line here when my car got broken into this fall; I was feeling pretty tight at the end of my intern season and to have to unexpectedly replace several even moderately costly items hit hard just then.  It made me realize that so many people in the world live right on this brink all the time.  All those folks working minimum wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, maybe with credit card debt, maybe with kids to take care of — one or two little things go wrong and their whole life can fall apart very quickly.  Meanwhile there are software engineers and investment bankers, some fresh out of college, making six figures and spending it on giant big screen TV’s.  And I mean, they earn their money.  They can spend it how they want.  I’m not sure what my point is here.  It’s just things I’ve been noticing as I straddle these different career/job worlds.