Like a lot of people, I left academia not because I suddenly fell out of love with my research, but because the academic lifestyle (and the dearth of career opportunities) became unpalatable. The biggest reason for this was a change of priorities that came with having kids. In the first place, I found I wanted to spend more time with my family and to do so without feeling guilty about neglecting my research or teaching. And second, I also found a sudden and strong desire to settle down in a place of our choosing, ideally, near to family. Both of these shifts caused friction with my career choice. And at the same time, while I still enjoyed my research a great deal, I felt more and more uncomfortable pursuing it in the current social and political climate (a story for another day!).
Also like a lot of other people, I was not prepared with a ready-made plan "B": for the entirety of my time as an academic, I thought of myself as a scholar. So when I began casting about for a plan "B" upon deciding to hang up my academic spurs, I thought first in terms of my then-current self-concept. Some career paths promised a more obvious connection: I could, perhaps, leave academia without leaving my research behind at all. I could simply become a 'rogue academic.' Making this work would always be hard, but I could certainly try. Equally, I could have gone into writing (or communications more broadly), editing, or teaching. And I did think seriously about many of these things.
What was fun about it? Suffice it to say, for a start, that web development offers something that is in perilously short supply for any academic philosopher: a reliable reward cycle. I don't meant to suggest that academia or philosophy are unrewarding--that would be untrue-- but the nature of the rewards, their availability, and the ease of accessing them all differ starkly from the pure and simple dopamine hit that comes when you write a chunk of complex code that just works. Learning to code helped me to appreciate a gratification that was missing from my life as an academic writer, in which I always felt that my work was unfinished and inadequate. The life of philosophical study offers pleasures of its own, of course, and I do miss some of those, but I have little desire to yoke my pursuit of them to my job. I'm happy enough being a scholar in my spare time.
What is interesting about this course is how little I expected to take it. But perhaps I should have known better: I have gone through several iterations of learning to code in my lifetime. The first was in my teenage years, in middle school, when I began creating (very) simple Windows games in Visual Basic, and later moved on to learn (very) basic web development. I did not really move beyond kid stuff at that point: I think I can remember finding even simple arrays rather difficult to reason about. And those were the days of the early internet: there wasn't the proliferation of user-friendly tutorials for building up knowledge of technologies that there are today. So I was limited to the books I could get a hold of, and what I learned from them I mostly learned from copying the code, line-by-line, from the books themselves. But although my skills were pretty limited, I still learned a lot from this foray into software development about how to reason through the logic of a software program.
Something changed, though: as I progressed through high school I steadily began to think of myself less and less as a technologist and more and more as a writer. So I left coding behind for poetry and literary studies and, later, for philosophy. I went to college, and then graduate school, without thinking too much about engaging with computer science (apart from a long-term fascination with the philosophy of AI). But then I hit the lull between finishing my coursework and beginning to write my dissertation, where I was unsure of what path to take or how to proceed. Having not yet settled on an advisor, I was on my own. Left to my own devices, I found myself, again, learning to code.
This time around, my language of choice was C#, and I was again making simple desktop games for my own amusement. Again, I didn't get that far in the course of learning: arrays and array manipulation were easy this time, but I hit a "pain point" when it came to actually implementing object-oriented design. Soon, my dissertation topic came into focus and my responsibilities called me away. I let coding go. Although, even then, I still insisted on writing my dissertation in LaTeX (even though it did not involve any heavy formalizations of the sort for which LaTeX is especially useful). I found it easiest to write philosophy when my philosophy looked like code.
And so perhaps it should not surprise me that again, when uncertain of my direction, I found myself pulled back into coding. And this time, without anything else calling me away, I have stuck with it, and gone much deeper than I have in the past. Perhaps because of my background, I have encountered very few "pain points" along the way this time. And I am now, moreso than I have been in a long time, excited for what the future holds.
I'll have another piece up shortly about how I think my intervening years of philosophical study have helped me to become the developer that I am today. Look for that to be up soon.