“Them smokestacks reaching like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay”

Let’s set the tone for today’s email with a song, shall we?

Sing along with me (or listen along if your office mates don’t like your singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GaFUOQWi9A)

— ?—
[Verse 1]
Here in northeast Ohio
Back in eighteen-o-three
James and Dan Heaton found the ore that was lining Yellow Creek
They built a blast furnace
Here along the shore
And they made the cannonballs that helped the Union win the war

[Chorus]
Here in Youngstown
Here in Youngstown
My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down
Here darling in Youngstown

[Verse 2]
Well, my daddy worked the furnaces
Kept ’em hotter than hell
I come home from ‘Nam, worked my way to scarfer
A job that’d suit the devil as well
Taconite coke and limestone fed my children and made my pay
Them smokestacks reaching like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay

[Chorus]
Here in Youngstown
Here in Youngstown
My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down
Here darling in Youngstown

[Verse 3]
Well, my daddy come on the Ohio works when he come home from World War Two
Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble; he said “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do”
Yeah these mills they built the tanks and bombs that won this country’s wars
We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we’re wondering what they were dying for

[Chorus]
Here in Youngstown
Here in Youngstown
My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down
Here darling in Youngstown

[Verse 4]
From the Monongahela Valley
To the Mesabi Iron Range
To the coal mines of Appalachia
The story’s always the same
Seven hundred tons of metal a day now sir, you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough; rich enough to forget my name

[Chorus]
In Youngstown
In Youngstown
My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down
Here darling in Youngstown

[Outro]
When I die I don’t want no part of heaven
I would not do heaven’s work well
I pray the devil comes and takes me to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell

 — “Youngstown”, by Bruce Springsteen

— ?—

Feels good to sing along with such a moving, masterfully-crafted song, doesn’t it?

One of the really nice things about getting paid to build software is that you can weight your personal preferences pretty heavily in your decision making around specialization.

You don’t have complete latitude in how you specialize because you need to intersect with market demand and a few other business model basics, but when you step back and look at the big picture, you realize you have significant ability to incorporate your own preferences into your specialization decision.

Not every profession is like this, and it’s a distinct privilege to work in one that has this kind of freedom.

Imagine being a skilled laborer in the steel industry in Pittsburg or Bethlehem or Lorain or dozens of other unlucky places in 1982. Let’s talk about Bethlehem. I lived there with my parents for a few months after I graduated from college in ’96 and worked the second shittiest job I’ve ever had to save up money to move to Nashville.

Again, imagine that it’s 1982 and you, along with half of your work buddies from Bethlehem Steel–hell, probably half the people you know–have been laid off. And then you pass by this building and it just galls you:

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It galls you because Bethlehem Steel built it in a plus-sign shape specifically so it would have more window and corner offices to house the company’s bloated middle management layer. The managers who fought your union at every step. The managers who laughed off the threat of overseas micro-mill competition that ultimately ate your employer’s lunch in the late 70’s and competed you out of a job. The managers who failed to properly manage the business that employed you.

But you’ve got options, right? You can follow your dreams to a new job, right? You can just work a remote contract to ride this out, right? Get paid for relocation? Access a wealth of free online resources to build up new skills?

It feels cruel to point out the fact that it’s one big NOPE to all of those things. Things that are privileges many of us now take for granted in our information age careers. We know this. It’s obvious, but maybe we don’t notice it anymore.

I lived in a 8×8′ plywood shack for a 6-week stretch once because I had no other place to live. The YMCA membership was so I could take showers. These experiences give you perspective, that’s for sure.

In software things change a lot, but overall there’s plenty of opportunity, and enough surplus demand for most tech skillsets that you can afford to consider your own preferences as you choose. There are plenty of problems in tech. Ageism and sexism might be affecting you, and they are real, serious problems. Silicon Valley looks a lot like the US steel industry in the 70’s: bloated, happy, shortsighted, and overflowing with the callow cruelty that too-easily gotten wealth seem to cultivate.

But there’s also opportunity. Lots of it. Software really is eating the world, and you have the opportunity to be a positive part of that.

As you decide how to specialize, you can’t follow your every preference or whim, otherwise the outcomes of your decision will be more ruled by luck than smart decision-making.

But it bears repeating: you enjoy the privilege of options, and it’s good to reflect now and again on that.

-P