Matt Gemmell

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An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

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Not a geek

personal 6 min read

I saw a remark recently on Neven Mrgan’s blog that resonated with me.

I've come to the realization that I may not be a geek at all.

I had a similar realisation a few years ago. I can now state with confidence that I’m not a geek, but I’m still having trouble defining what I am.

I periodically get snide remarks about my pretentious-sounding biography on Twitter: “Thinker, writer, speaker, developer”. It does sound very self-possessed, especially in conjunction with my contemplative profile photo. The truth is that it actually reflects my continuing struggle to identify who I am and what I care most about.

I’ve come to a point in my life where I hesitate before telling people I’m a software developer. Am I, really? The answer is more complicated than I expected.

I do write software. I spend some time in Xcode on most days of the week. It does interest me whilst I’m doing it, though in recent years I’ve been more focused on the end result than the process, no matter how intellectually satisfying it may be. I’m pretty good at it, by most accounts - and I should be because I’ve been writing code for about twenty years now, and maybe half of that time professionally. My degree is in Computing Science, so I even have a background in the subject, which is constantly helpful.

That’s all well and good, and makes for a potentially easy answer to the question of what I do. Yet I hesitate when asked. I’ve tried out various titles. App Maker (a bit trendy and empty; sounds like someone who doesn’t have technical skills and feels insecure about it). User Experience Designer (true enough, but waffly, vague, and even more people lay claim to it than ‘Software Engineer’). Programmer (self-deprecating, to my ear; too mechanical). I’m not happy with any of those.

I don’t feel like a software developer. I have most of the skills, the background, and an interest in the subject, but it just doesn’t define me in the way that it seems to with my colleagues and friends in the same line of work.

I don’t identify with geekdom. I’m not sure I ever really did, at the level of personality anyway, though I definitely used to feel more passionate about technical matters than I do now.

If you were to ask me if I’m excited about creating software, the answer would be easy: no, I’m not. If the question was instead about solving people’s problems (the social goal rather than the process which is a means to that end), I’d probably say “a little”1. But I’d still be erring on the side of caution regarding my career.

I think that my goal is something more along the lines of reaching people. Saying something that resonates. You can certainly do that with software, but the approach is no longer personal enough for me. That’s an important realisation. I’ve become a very different type of person than I was in my teens and early twenties, and my aspirations have changed significantly.

Science and facts and mechanics and precision are no longer my bedrock; now, I care a lot more about people and our interactions with each other. The nuances of a word, the meaning of a glance, and the emotional connection that communication can bring. Those are all things that my younger self would have seen as ephemeral and trivial; only of interest to small minds. Yet now they seem vital to me, and it’s technology and science that seem like the pleasantly distracting but ultimately less important background noise. Believe me, I’m every bit as shocked at that change as you might be.

I’ve always hesitated to call myself a writer, even though I’d like to. I undoubtedly am one, but it’s another thing entirely to characterise yourself that way. I don’t have any published novels, for example, though I’d like to change that. I’ve written dozens of pieces for various publications, but we have the word “journalist” for that situation. Similarly, we have “blogger”, which is usually the least respected of the three titles (entirely undeservedly).

The thing is, I’ve actually written more than half a million words here. That’s about five novels. My readership (including you, dear reader) is at least an order of magnitude larger than my customers, users of my code, and attendees of my presentations combined.

So I suppose I’ve answered my own question. There are things that I can do where I still feel I need to try, and software development is one of them. There are things where I need to actively push myself to maintain interest, and software development falls into that category too.

Then there’s the thing that’s a quiet compulsion - as the intricacies of algorithms and mathematics and programming used to be, and perhaps still are on a good day. The thing that I don’t have to struggle with, and that I feel equipped for. A far cry from my ‘job’, but then that just indicates that my job perhaps isn’t what I thought it was.

This thing I’m doing right now, word by word. It insinuated itself into my life by stealth, as an ancillary activity - or a hobby - that let me connect with others who shared my interests. By the time I realised that the hobby was what I cared most about, and was perhaps what I’m better at, well… I was already more than a decade into my career.

There’s no great crisis here, though. Whilst I don’t see myself as a software developer in my most secret heart, I do make software. I’m more interested in writing and debugging2 English than Objective-C, but I haven’t lost interest in the latter.

Whilst a developer will probably call themselves a developer as soon as they finish their first program, I can’t quite bring myself to update my business cards. Yet I’ve been doing this for nearly eleven years, about a million people now read this blog each year, and I generally don’t do much tech/industry news coverage - this is all my own stuff, rather than pointers to other people’s output. The writing is on the wall.

A weary voice in my mind is telling me to stop being so bloody insecure, and just accept the change. I wonder when I’ll feel justified in calling myself a writer who makes software as a hobby, rather than the other way around. Time will tell.

Perhaps my flabby twitter bio isn’t just equivocation after all.

In a rare addendum, I’d like to offer a few even rarer words of gratitude. First of all, to a rather large number of very important people: you lot. The fact that you read what I’ve written here isn’t just affirmative and encouraging; it’s pretty much the realisation of a lifelong ambition. Thank you.

Second, to the bloggers who do this full-time, and demonstrate that quality writing has a professional home on the internet. I’m fortunate to know many of you personally. Despite my shift in how I view my career, it’s a source of great pride to me that the developer and technology industry also has some of the very best online writers.

Third, Chris Phin, editor of MacFormat magazine. Chris used to be the editor of Tap! magazine, which I’ve contributed a column to every month since its inception two years and eight months ago (a round number, according to the developer within me). He provided me with an opportunity to see my writing as something more than an indulgence, and has been unfailingly encouraging. His main contribution hasn’t been the traditional red-pen that you’d perhaps expect from an editor, but something much more important: an infectious confidence that my words were good enough for paper as well as pixels (and a framework that forced me to tighten up my tone and find a voice). Chris, I owe you a great deal.

Finally, my dad. His enduring interest in literature (with both an upper and lowercase ‘L’) helped me understand that language can be a paintbrush rather than just a club. I remember a Christmas as a boy where I was given both a bicycle and a copy of The Hobbit, and strict instructions to make immediate progress with both. We continue to find it very easy to choose birthday gifts for each other.

  1. An exception would be my advocacy of accessibility technologies for visually impaired people. I care very deeply about that. 

  2. A robust challenge. Every reader is a unique and idiosyncratic compiler and runtime, executing on inscrutable, Byzantine hardware.