This was originally published on The Pastry Box Project on April 6, 2014.
The time-honored tale of the web developer has the young, white male making web sites as a kid, taking computer science courses in college (maybe releasing a couple mobile apps in school), and moving to the Bay Area as soon as he graduates. He gets a job at a medium sized startup or, if he’s lucky, a Big Name like Google or Twitter or Facebook as a junior dev. He might get to work on something people have heard of. And it’s all very exciting with the nerf guns and the Friday evening keg parties and the Hacker News comments and pounding out code well past 5pm. He is, by traditional definitions, a success. This is what he should be.
I’m white and male. I’m not young anymore, for sure. And I’m really glad my story isn’t at all like the above.
For a number of reasons — mostly anxiety — moving away after college to work at a big Silicon Valley company had no appeal to me. I liked living where I did in the midwest. It wasn’t perfect, but I liked my community. I was good at what I did, and I liked being able to help people with the knowledge I had.
When I did move, I moved all of two hours away. Same very red state, another college town. It’s not perfect, but I liked it. I worked at the university for 9 years, and liked what I did, because I was good at it and I could help people with the knowledge I had.
After 9 years I started to itch a bit for something new, and I got an offer to leave that I couldn’t turn down. I cried when I left because I wasn’t going to see my friends every day anymore. It was hard. This was my place. It treated me well. But, I was going to work remotely, so my new startup wouldn’t take me to a new town. I was happy about that.
While I was working at the University I started attending a couple tech conferences a year. Eventually I was lucky enugh to speak at some. I loved doing this, because I got to meet a lot of people who loved doing the same things I did. But then I’d go home, and I was bummed because it seemed like there weren’t many people near me who were into those things.
That startup didn’t last long, but I still stayed in town and got another remote gig. I worked at a local coffee shop every day, coding most of the time, and sometimes helping the owner with his email or fixing the settings in the WiFi router. I met a lot of people, some of whom studied or worked at the university, and a lot who didn’t. I learned a lot about this community I had been in for a decade, but didn’t really know a lot about, because I spent all my time in the university.
Universities are weird in that there are lots of very smart, interesting people who often don’t know what’s going on in the building next to them. There are lots of kids learning interesting stuff who get offers to work at Microsoft or Google even before they graduate. People live here, but they never really learn what’s going on around them.
Turns out, there were a lot of smart, cool people who are doing cool stuff right around me. Some of them were into the same things I was. Some of them were not. But I knew I could learn things from them, and they could learn things from me. And the things we both didn’t like about our community, we could work together and change.
So I started going to a local tech meetup. I gave a couple talks there. I started my own open source group because there wasn’t already one in town. I got to know people who were doing work like me, and shared ideas. Gradually I started to make my own community a little more like the tech conferences I liked attending so much. I knew what I dug, and I met a few other people who dug it too, so we made it happen in our own community.
Right now I’m in a brand new coworking space that’s opened up in our downtown. I wasn’t deeply involved in it, but I talked to the organizers a little while they were planning, and I signed up to be a member as soon as I could. Already we’ve had meetings in the first couple weeks about how we can help K-12 schools in the area with the knowledge we have. I was able to help out the team building new web sites for the local catholic schools org get the hosting support they needed. In two weeks the open source group I started is hosting a talk by GitHub engineers to introduce people to using git. Here. In this small college town.
I also joined the school board for my son’s non-profit public charter school. It’s hard work and it takes a lot of my time, but I know that I’m doing something that has enormous impact on the lives of the kids who go there and their families. I have skills and knowledge that can make a difference here. So I do what I can.
Sometimes you need to leave. You need to learn about yourself. You need to change your environment to know what you can do. That’s totally fine and okay. You need to figure out what you want to do and where you want to be.
But there’s a decent chance that Silicon Valley and Brooklyn don’t need another you. There are plenty of people willing to go there to be part of whatever they’re selling. But your home town isn’t so lucky. They need you. What you have really can make a difference. You can do something for them that no one else can. You can change their lives. You can make your community a better place. You can make it the place you want it to be.
Success is not what other people tell you it is. It’s what you decide it to be.