Make your time count

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Ever since I was very young, I knew that I wanted to “do something with computers”. The thought of telling machines what to do, and then being able to watch them do it, was always very intriguing to me. I spent a lot of my spare time picking up programming languages and playing around with software. That hobby later turned into a profession.

Over the years, I realized that a lot of software was all kinds of bad. It often felt like the tools were trying to make me work for them, instead of them making my life easier. Once I found out about “user experience”, that made sense again: solving problems is not something just anyone can do, at least not well. Like anything else, this is another skill that can be learned.

That is what I focus on today: I solve problems, and I solve them well. I don’t pretend to know everything about everything, but I am good at what I do. I take pride in my work.

Because the skills we have are in high demand and still somewhat hard to find, what we do is considered valuable: we can take someone’s vision and make it a reality. We are the essential link between “the business” and “the product”, making ideas happen.

That works in our favor, until we find ourselves in situations in which we are little more than tools to the visionaries. Without us, their ideas would never see the light of day. And while we work with them, we work on their ideas.

A lot of what I do is classified as “frontend development”, although that term only scratches the surface of what I understand my job to be. For those of you lucky enough to not be aware of it, the field of frontend development is constantly and ruthlessly changing: what is absolutely fine today will be considered obsolete in about twelve months. Your website uses Angular 1.x? That’s cute, but we have moved on and everything needs to use React now, which is way better. We have solved all problems of web development for at least another twelve months, when we’ll find something else that everybody needs to jump to immediately. Better keep up, or else you’ll be left behind.

As lovers of our craft, we don’t mind. We enjoy learning new technologies, challenging ourselves, and “evolving” as developers. But I don’t think we can ever really be okay with the hamster wheel that is our daily work.

I envy you if following trends fulfils you professionally. If being at the forefront of technology at all times makes you happy, be that person with all your heart. I personally cannot be content with constantly keeping myself busy with shiny new toys.

Being excited about new technologies is the knowledge worker’s equivalent of a carpenter being excited about a new hammer. I don’t dispute that new tools can make our work easier, better, and more efficient. But at the end of the day, we still use them to build the same old products.

Businesses exist to make money, which they achieve by offering something to people that those are willing to pay for. As developers, we help businesses create the services or products they can offer to their customers. Without us, those things would not exist. They could not exist.

But all ideas are not created equal. There are those that solve actual problems that humans have, and there is a wide array of complete hokum that nobody needs, like a cup that reminds you to drink more water (update September 2021: this project has since been abandoned), a device that tells you to floss your teeth, a subwoofer you wear on your wrist, and a wirelessly chargeable card that tells you where you put your wallet.

These are obviously extraordinarily unnecessary. Calling them “luxury items” would be too kind, because they are really some of the worst garbage that exists on this planet. I can save you a lot of money right now: drink more water, floss your teeth twice a day, and realize the remaining two pieces of superfluous technology are also not going to fill the hole in your heart.

The worst part about these products is that people like you and me are working hard to make them happen. Highly intelligent people spend time, effort, and money on something that makes me ashamed to work in this industry.

Projects like these help bring me back to reality. They get me to look up from my keyboard and reconsider my own situation. Am I working on something that is meaningful, or am I merely working on something someone is willing to pay me for?

Most of us will never be involved in something as ludicrous as these examples. Still, we find ourselves in countless situations where what we do is unnecessary. Is it really worth your time to create yet another way for customers to provide their date of birth? Will adding this column to the database make the world a better place? Or do these things only help others make more money with something you don’t believe in in the first place?

If all I cared about was getting paid, I wouldn’t give this a second thought. I would put in my 40 hours every week, do as I am told, shut up, and be happy.

But I care about so much more. Of course getting paid is essential, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Money is not what I got into this profession for. I realized that what I can do can help people live better lives.

We can aim to do our best work in the context of the position we currently hold, which is fine up to a point. Once the excitement of technology for the sake of technology dies down, we are left with the realization that what we do is not what we are meant to do. Our skills are valuable, and our time is limited. Let’s make sure we don’t waste them on meaningless crap.

We can make the prettiest buttons that will make our customers want to click them. We can shave another few milliseconds off the load times of our website. We can optimize our funnel so people don’t abandon our checkout process as often. We can move to the latest JavaScript-framework that will make development easier.

All of these are short-sighted, because they don’t consider the question of why we are building what we are building in the first place. Does this product need to exist in the world? How about this company, is that pursuing a cause we can stand behind? Just because something gets people to pay for it does not mean it is good; it could still be a cup that commands you to drink from it.

Slow down and look at what you are working on right now. Is this a problem that needs solving? Do you, from the bottom of your heart, believe that what you are working on is the absolute best thing you could spend your time on?

If there is something more meaningful that you could be working on, find that thing and go all in. Your time is limited, so make the most of it. Make it count.

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