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It feels good to return to the topic that started this blog in the first place: my career path. I want to more thoroughly discuss my thoughts on my career and where I'm headed. But before I talk about where I'm headed, I first have to reflect on where I began.
From the beginning of my education to the point that I dropped out, I never had trouble making the grade. I did well in primary school, middle school, high school, community college and university.
Unlike other students who were crippled with indecisiveness about what to study, I was fortunate enough to know exactly what I wanted to major in: computer science. It wasn't a hard decision. I was interested in computers. I knew I'd be able to graduate if I put in the work. And I knew there were many career options and jobs available in the field. I had other interests such as philosophy, mathematics and physics but computer science seemed to offer the most job options, so I chose it instead.
After I started attending SIUe, I found a job working for the IT department there. It wasn't really a "career" job. It just gave me an income while studying. It was convenient because it was on campus and I was able to get work done during downtime. I wouldn't have been able to work off campus and study at the same time. It would have been too much. So it really was a perfect job for my circumstances.
Career-wise, my life was going pretty smoothly. The moment that changed was when my coworker accidentally red-pilled me by mentioning a name: Richard Stallman. From there, I did some research, learned about free software, became privy to the ethics of computing, and the rest is history. You can read about the rest in the very first posts of my blog:
Inception - Rejecting Discord, Draw.io and Visual Studio
Rejecting Discord and Google Colab
Rejecting Visual Studio
The Tipping Point - Rejecting Windows, Zoom, Lockdown Browser and The Lockdown Monitor
In short, it was causing me a lot of stress trying to avoid proprietary software while getting my degree. When Covid hit, it was a major catalyst for proprietary software. Using proprietary software became mandatory for remote test-taking. It dawned on me that there would be no way for me to complete my computer science degree, or any degree for that matter, in freedom even after talking with professors and the department chair about the issue.
Even without Covid, which at the time had no end in sight, there would be no guarantee that I could complete mandatory classes in freedom, something I grew increasingly opposed to making compromises on. I was totally demoralized having put so much effort into my classes just to realize I wouldn't be able to pass them without installing multiple forms of malware on my computer to take tests. I wasn't going to retake classes every time a freedom issue got in the way. The situation became too much. It was unsustainable, so I dropped out and also had to quit my job for similar reasons:
Why I Left ITS
So that's the overview. It has been over a year and some months since all that took place and since I decided to blog about it. If you're a long-time reader, you've already read about it and you're probably wondering what I've been doing since then. So the next section will be new information.
Since I dropped out, I've obviously been writing this blog for one thing. Putting things in writing helps me tremendously in organizing my thoughts. Also the occasional feedback I get from others helps. I'm very happy I started this blog and I have no plans to ever stop writing on it. So long as I have thoughts to think I'll have posts to publish.
In terms of career advancement, this blog is a step forward. I can put it on my resumé. It demonstrates my critical thinking and my writing abilities, both desirable qualities for employers. It highlights my focus on computer privacy, security and ethics. And finally, it represents my technical skills through the code I've written and published on git.nicksphere.ch. More than anything else, I'd say it shows my writing ability though.
To pay my bills, I've been working low wage entry-level positions that don't serve to advance my career in any way. It's all I've been able to get so far. I'm not going to sugar coat it. It sucks, but I've gained immense respect for the people who work those jobs. Someone has to do them and there's no silver lining to it. They work their asses off to earn starvation wages and barely stay afloat financially speaking. They ought to be paid more.
Nevertheless I feel very out of place working low wage entry-level positions, but not out of a sense of superiority to people who do those jobs or entitlement that I "deserve" a better job. As I said I have immense respect for low-income earners. I just mean most low-income earners aren't there because they dropped out of college because of ethics and refuse to work at evilcorp. It's a strange position to be in and there's just not much help out there for people with my problem.
I've tried applying for free software internships, but no luck so far. The only place I'm certain I wouldn't have any freedom issues is the granddaddy organization of the free software movement, the FSF. I haven't had any luck there yet either. According to the statistics I've read, less than 5% of applicants get approved for many of the free software internships. There's just not as much money and positions available in free software as there is in proprietary software. A lot of internships are targeted towards minorities and being a straight, white male doesn't help. A lot of them are exclusive to students, which I am no longer.
Since dropping out, I've communicated in various free software communities.
Around this time last year, I wrote about my story in the Libreplanet mailing list:
I got a lot of good feedback, advice and constructive criticism there.
I got the Colemak keyboard layout supported in osboot.
OSboot is one of my favorite free software projects. You can see a list of all the mirrors here:
Ever since supporting the Gemini protocol on my blog, I've interacted with fellow geminauts on the geminispace. I've shared my blog around and read some of what others put on there. It has grown a lot since its inception. I'll probably do another post about Gemini since I really prefer it over the web.
I've also had casual correspondence with various other free software projects and people, but those are the main ones. None of this necessarily helps my career very much. It would definitely be more helpful for me to actively contribute to free software projects out there, but finding the motivation has been extremely challenging which leads me into why that is.
This post wouldn't be complete without a section dedicated to motivation. It's an important thing to consider for my career. I've been able to identify a few factors that motivate me.
When I ask myself what motivated me to do well in school, this is what comes to mind:
When I ask myself what motivates me to work, here's what I think of:
When I ask myself what motivates me to write, this is what occurs to me:
From a motivational standpoint, it makes sense that I dropped out. Even had I chosen to suspend my principles for another year to graduate, I would've likely had to suspend them for years more working a proprietary software job before maybe getting the chance to atone for my sins by working with free software. But then again there would be no guarantee it would play out like that. I may just never get a free software job. Plus that's a very slippery slope. How much is too much giving in to proprietary software? Working with it for 1 year? 2 years? 5 years? Where does one draw the line?
Why go in debt and work hard to get a degree that may not even help me get a career I actually want? And also enter the slippery slope of giving up my principles to do it? A big part of what motivated me was advancing my career. That's the main reason most people go to college. Understandably I was demotivated when I realized it wouldn't necessarily help with getting a career I want anyway.
Reflecting on contributing to free software projects, there are a few reasons I suspect I haven't been able to find motivation for that thus far. There's no question contributing to ethical free software does good for the world. There's lots of free software out there that needs maintained and supported. But it doesn't necessarily get me a career where I can support myself financially and that's really important for me right now.
I don't have my motivation fully figured out yet. What I do know is there's either some key motivators missing for me when it comes to contributing to free software or there's some other reason preventing me from doing it. Something I don't fully grasp blocks me from putting in the effort to advancing my career through contributing to free software projects. I just can't bring myself to make the effort. Maybe that will change in the future. I don't know.
I've spent over a year trying and failing to find a way to make money with free software. Working entry level, low-wage, non-career jobs to sustain myself meanwhile sucks. I'm motivated by the desire to not have to do that.
Writing this blog isn't definitively moving me more toward a career either, but it's motivating in ways that contributing to free software isn't. For instance I have a very strong motivation to share my opinions with the world, it's a good outlet for self-expression and and it helps me clarify my thoughts.
So the conclusion I've come to out of thinking about what motivates me is this: Whatever career path I pursue from here, it needs to be backed by several strong motivating factors. I strongly prefer it to enable me to do good in the world. At a minimum, it needs to be ethically neutral. No promoting or tacitly condoning proprietary softare. I'd rather be janitor than have any high-paying career at evilcorp. It must help me gain more knowledge and skills, preferably marketable skills. Ideally I can put it on my resumé to further improve career prospects.
I realize that the avoiding proprietary software requirement and doing good in the world preference are going to be the most limiting factors in my career search. Most jobs have at least some aspects that are ethically questionable. I'll have to carefully consider those and research before pursuing the career path so I don't waste my time/money and get discouraged again.
The last thing I want is to put as much effort as I did into computer science into something else and then suddenly learn about some ethical lines I'm unwilling to cross that totally extinguish my efforts. For this reason I think it's best that I search for career options that allow a high degree of personal freedom in the work. The more aspects of the work I have control over, the more I can make sure I'm not crossing any ethical boundaries.
In summary, I've reviewed the path I've taken so far in my career. I've talked about what I need to do in the future to make sure I don't end up in the same situation I am now not being able to earn money with my knowledge and skills. I've outlined my major motivators and what I need out of a career. I've done a lot of important self-reflection which brings me to the next section of this post: what I'm going to do from here on out career-wise.
Based on the self-reflection I've done while writing this post and the conclusions arrived at, I'm going to outline a plan for advancing my career going forward. It's clear to me after over a year of not making significant progress in my career that I definitely need a plan and casual inconsistent efforts won't cut it.
The first part of my plan is applying for more internships. So far I've just been looking for computing-related internships. Given that I refuse to use non-free software, my choices are extremely limited.
I need to broaden the scope of my search and consider other career options that fall within my interests. I have an Associate of Science degree and a minor in Mathematics. I also have this blog and some code samples on git.nicksphere.ch to show to potential employers. So it's not as if I'm locked into applying for computer-related internships. The worst thing that can happen is I get rejected and apply somewhere else. The best that can happen is I get hired and advance my career.
To get a better idea of potential career paths, I should network with people who already work in careers I'm interested in. It would help me get an idea whether that's something I really want to do, what ethical concerns there might be and it could help me get my foot in the door.
If I need to learn something for a career, I'm confident in my ability to teach myself. I know how to read textbooks. I don't need to pay for an expensive human text-to-speech engine. I'd like to avoid the expenses.
Also, I don't want to worry about whether I'll be able to finish without using non-free software since education has been so infected by it. So has practically every job, but adding on formal education is just going to make avoiding it more difficult and runs the risk of demoralizing me again.
If I could somehow negotiate the software I'd use before earning a degree so that I wouldn't have to use any non-free software, then formal education would become more viable even if it wouldn't lead directly to a career. Having a degree still means something, undeniably. I just don't see this scenario as being very likely to succeed. It just depends on how flexible the education is and how much they'd be willing to work with me on it.
A good alternative to going back to college would be acquiring certifications. Again, I don't want the extra expenses of paying for certifications. But if I got a paid internship or even just had the money, I would definitely look into them since they would be a way of proving skills without expensive formal education.
Another option is getting my employer to sponsor the certification. This could be viable especially if the certification is relevant to that career field. Worst case scenario, they refuse to sponsor it. Best case, I get a free certification.
Since I refuse to use non-free software, it would be better for me to get a local job instead of a remote job. Non-free software is much more likely to be an issue at a remote job, especially for things like communication.
It will be much easier to avoid proprietary software and other ethical problems working for small businesses where I might can retain some degree of control over some aspects of the work versus at a large corporation where there's already well-established ways of doing things that aren't going to change. Also unless I'm mistaken non-profits tend to be more ethical to work for than for-profit organizations.
While blogging hasn't helped me get an internship yet, it does help me organize my thoughts. It has helped me put more thought into my career plan than I otherwise would have. So I'm going to keep doing it.
Being self-employed would give me more freedom in my work. It would allow me to use the free software tools I want to use rather than being commanded to use proprietary garbage by an employer. It would also allow me to do some actual good. Perhaps I could find a niche that there is demand for but hasn't been occupied yet.
It wouldn't be easy, but it might be a better path to advancing my career than anything else. I could try different things and if I fail I've only wasted my time. I'm not a very business-oriented person, but I could learn business skills which may help me succeed on my own.
While volunteering isn't going to get me a career job instantly, it could help me get my foot in the door. I can put it on my resumé. It would help with networking and meeting likeminded people. I would get work experience. And I would be doing good for the world meanwhile. So it's another solid choice for advancing my career.
With that, I have some solid ideas to try. The plan is to try many things simultaneously to maximize my chance of success. I need to apply for internships while networking while looking for local job opportunities while volunteering and looking into self-employment. It's a lot of work but it beats the hell out of making casual, inconsistent efforts and hoping something floats my way without a plan.
I know just because I have all these ideas doesn't mean I'll succeed. There are infinite ways I could fail, so my expectations aren't high. But I'm motivated by the fact that my plan is what I've got to work with. I mean there's no other career paths that I consider worth pursuing.
I know this isn't the path most people choose and in fact many people consider what I'm doing to be foolish, but if I'm going to be doing something I hate for a job, I'd rather earn low wages mopping floors and cleaning toilets and stand by my principles rather than compromise them being a bootlicking corporate robot.
Speaking of foolish decisions, I'd like to address some of the criticism I've received over my decision to drop out, quit my job and pursue a career in this way. I've gotten plenty of criticism from students, peers, professors and family, some constructive, some unconstructive.
I understand that writing about my life online opens me open to criticism. I have to expect that. But not all criticism is equal. I generally ignore unconstructive criticism. There's a difference between wanting to give constructive advice to help and just wanting to hurt someone. I ignore the latter. Luckily almost all the feedback I've gotten has been constructive.
The line of criticism I've received that I consider respectable and worth responding to goes like this:
"While you've avoided being a victim of proprietary software in the context of your university/job, you're making yourself a victim of larger society in other ways."
This is a true statement. Because of my refusal to give up my software freedom, I've had to work crummy jobs over the past year. I'd have more overall personal freedom if I gave up my software freedom, no doubt. I'd have more money. A whole world of career options would open up. I could always get separate devices for work and school to limit the negative effects of proprietary software in my life. I could probably eliminate the negatives of using proprietary software in my own life to the point of being benign. So why don't I?
Perhaps it's my fault that I repeatedly framed my dropping out as an issue of "preserving my freedom". It makes sense that I got such a criticism because, as I said, I'd have more personal freedom overall by giving up my software freedom in the contexts of work and school. But in truth, my freedom is the minor point.
The larger point for me is not being an enabler of injustice, to the degree that I can avoid it. By giving in to the proprietary software in school and work, I make it harder for others to say no too. I become part of the problem. I make the world a worse place. And I don't want to do that.
Now there's a really good follow up criticism to this response that I don't think I've heard yet, but it feels natural to make:
"You've avoided being an enabler of proprietary software in the context of your university/job, but almost all jobs have unethical components. Fast food workers serve unhealthy food. Clothing stores use sweatshops. You're just avoiding one unethical task in favor of doing another."
I also have respect for this criticism. I do need money and I do need a job. I have to work somewhere and almost every workplace has some at least ethically questionable practices. But not all workplaces are equal.
Some workplaces are so morally hazardous that it would be more moral not to work, given the choice between working there and not working at all. This assumes that not working is actually an option. In countries with a poor to nonexistent social safety net, refusing to work might mean extreme poverty or death in which case refusing to work isn't really an option if you want to live.
On the other extreme are workplaces that are perfect examples of the right way to do business. They contribute positively to society causing minimal harm.
To pretend that these two categories are morally equivalent just because a morally perfect workplace doesn't exist is absurd. That's like not seeing the moral difference between a first-time drug offender and a serial killer because "they're both criminals". It's extreme black and white thinking and the world just isn't that black and white.
Now for me personally, I'm certain the low wage jobs I've been working over the past year are morally superior to whatever evilcorp I'd be working at if I gave up my software freedom for an easy career path. For that reason I'm going to continue working low wage jobs until I find something that both pays better and does good for the world.
Another criticism I've received that's worth consideration is:
"Wouldn't you be able to do more good in the world by giving in to proprietary software temporarily just to get your degree and some experience, thereby earning more professional respect, connections and experience? Wouldn't the good from that cancel out the temporary evil?"
For one, it's a slippery slope. How much are you willing to give in before you finally put your foot down? If you don't draw the line somewhere, then you don't care too much about your principles. If you're not willing to make sacrifices for them, then you're as good practically speaking as someone who has no ethical principles at all. The only difference is you'll try to do good as long as it doesn't cause you any major inconveniences. But in the real world, doing the right thing is often personally inconvenient. History has countless proofs of that.
For two, even if you don't fall prey to the slippery slope, there's still the problem of how certain you are that this temporary evil will lead to more good later on. In my case, finishing my education and getting a degree doesn't guarantee a free software job. Even if I gained experience working with proprietary software for a few years, it wouldn't guarantee a free software job. And even if it did, the work I did with proprietary software may prove far more impactful in a negative sense than the work I do with free software. There are just too many unknowns to justify the temporary evil.
The final critique which I have less respect for than the other 3, but that I still feel deserves addressing because of how often I hear it goes like this:
"You're only 1 person. Even if you succeed in your 'moral crusade' and you end up with a good career out of it, it won't make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Proprietary software will still dominate. So you might as well just give up your principles and enjoy the time you have."
I have the least respect for this argument because it's so easily refuted. It's partly just a question of values. I want to make the world a better place. People who say this kind of thing generally don't care about that as much which is fine. If they really don't care then they don't. But since I do, it makes no sense to just give up for at least 2 reasons.
The first reason is that it's impossible to know for sure that individual actions won't make a big difference. Most of the time individual actions don't cause any major changes. But occasionally they do. Just look at Greta Thunberg.
Her claim to fame was skipping school sitting alone outside the Swedish parliament. She has inspired millions and is now a household name. But it didn't have be that way. One can easily imagine it going the other way. Maybe in an alternate universe no one took notice, she never became famous and the strikes inspired by her never happened.
The only way to guarantee failure, in most important contexts, is by not trying at all. Therefore as long as there's any chance at all, one must try.
The second reason it's a bad argument is because even if we assume failure is inevitable, that doesn't mean it can't be postponed. Keeping with the theme of the climate, even if we're past the point of no return and humanity is doomed to extinction, it's still possible to delay the worst effects of climate change, perhaps even for decades. That's absolutely worth doing. It's no different with any other social issue including my pet cause, free software.
Those were the main criticisms I wanted to address. But now that I've outlined a career plan and justified it to myself, all that's left is the execution.
To be realistic, I don't estimate very high chances of success. I've never had to be very self-motivated and a plan is only as good as the follow through. So I'm glad I made a plan and I have honest intentions to do it, but it's not going to be easy and there's a good chance of failure. I'll just have to give it a few months of effort and reassess my situation.
Anyway, this post has been a lot about me and I usually don't talk about myself this much on my blog. So if you made it this far, thank you for reading and I hope you found something valuable out of it.
Unless otherwise noted, the writing in this journal is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Copyright 2019-2021 Nicholas Johnson