The Autoethnography: Ten Examples

Unicorny, the Only Way a Coder Will Define Rails

Hannah Lajba

Every day we use apps, check our social networks, and peruse various other websites in our idle time. It is said that the fast-growing technical world is consuming our lives and that our youth is so obsessed with technology they’ve even forgotten what it means to speak face-to-face. Everyone always wishes for the underdog to fight their way to the top, and what used to be those so-called “nerds” at the bottom of the high school food chain have now risen up as the single power that defines and creates the world. Through their own language they program their own ideas and thoughts into every piece of code they touch; they can turn our minds to conform with theirs through the simple selection of a specific background color like Tumblr blue. Don’t you wonder why you can’t get off once you’ve gotten on? Coders are always the future and yet the majority of the world still thinks they are losers who live with their parents and can’t get a girlfriend or boyfriend to save their lives. Now this might be true in some cases…OK the majority of cases, but there are indeed a lot of coders who experience the opposite. These programmers make up over half of the workers at Ketchum, a software development firm in the heart of Times Square and the location of the meet up group known as the VTS Hackers. Think support group, but with less talking, laptops, and a very excited camp counselor.

The Ketchum office is a space built to ensure a technical, creative environment. My eyes take time to adjust from the dim lit, eleven-floor ride in a wooden elevator to the all white, glass, and steel work environment. This is a far cry from a parent’s basement or a college dorm room equipped with more than one monitor. (As what some would say “nerdy” as that sounds, Brian, a college coder you’ll met later, has in fact just equipped his tiny dorm room desk with two monitors plus his laptop, but isn’t that how all computer geniuses start out?) This is the optimal coding space where employees spend their days rewriting, improving, and innovating code for their current assignment. Like that of a typical ‘modern’ architecture, the inner workings and the air ducts are exposed and the floor is left in concrete, creating a blank canvas void of distraction that allows for the coder mind to be completely consumed in a twenty-four inch wide computer screen with an LCD display while sitting in one of those high quality rolling chairs. (You know, the ones with the almost mesh-like back that gently conform to fit the user’s back. This space clearly indicates that commercial coding will pay the big bucks)

“Go to your logs…. ok ctrl-C, ctrl-C!!” I am taken out of my laptop by the excited exclamations of Karl. His frantic face hovering over Brian’s shoulder as his left hand tightly grips the mug containing his Vitamix smoothie that he recently pulled out of his L.L. Bean camo lunchbox and has been sipping on through a straw ever since. (This man lives for multitasking, taking in all his meals through a straw while he helps people code, though I’m not sure how much help telling everyone to download Rails is) I keep a steady gaze from the corner of my eye and here the bad news, “I’m going to have to reprogram all of that, aren’t I?” The defeat in Brian’s voice crushes me. I see him work endlessly in the basement of our dorm and just as we walked to the venue today he said to me he only had a few touch-ups to make before it was finished. “Yeah, it looks like it, but…ohhh you don’t have a Mac…I don’t know how this is going to work on your laptop, but try downloading Postgres, that’ll make this a whole lot easier next time,” Karl replies with a smile and a pat on the back. That positive energy—it just exudes from him. To put the image of his personality and physicality in your mind, think of Chris Treager from Parks and Recreation (aka Rob Lowe). He’s that overly excited, overly enthusiastic man trying to come off as a no other than a cool dad. (His success in achieving “cool dad” status has yet to be confirmed). His baggy, worn out jeans (clearly due to weight loss, an explanation for all the smoothies and his side comment to another employee, “Yeah, I’m going to go for a run when I get back home”) combined with a polo and quarter zip, pullover sweater show he has not bought any new clothes since the early 2000s. His hair is gelled and spiked with blonde frosted tips, it’s as if he’s been so involved in the advances in coding that he’s forgotten about the advances in everything style related. (Or he just likes the way those clothes and hair look. I’m not one to make judgments; I’m just making assessments based on evaluations.) He is a software developer and the creator of the VTS Hackers (Hackers being the newest and hippest term for programmers as confirmed by Brian). They are a mixed group of thirty- to fifty-year-olds with Brian at eighteen being the youngest and, in my opinion, taking on the biggest programming feat in the group; he is, after all, creating his own social network. Like a support group they all sit in a circle of sorts defined by Mac, Mac, PC, Mac, Visio, Mac, IBM. (Props to the IBM user for using the dinosaur of laptops. I used those laptops to code when I was in junior high and this man is still using one today to code. Maybe he just really likes that red dot in the middle of the keyboard.) There isn’t much talking, though the customary “Hi, I’m Hannah,” to which all respond “Hi Hannah,” did occur and then it was back to the sound of hands flying over the keyboard typing over and over in a somewhat therapeutic way the lines of code that all start the same.

The Fashionista. I say this not only because she is working on a fashion website, making adjustments to the format and color, but she is also well dressed. She wears a business chic ensemble with a black pencil skirt and even kitten heals that can be slightly seen under the jean-and-sweatpant-clad legs of all the other members. She is, however, not the only fashionably dressed person. While there was downtime during which Karl wasn’t telling another story that I just had to overhear, I would focus on those workers at Ketchum, who were still working even though office hours were over. About half of the persons I saw had on button-ups and slacks and that signature long winter coat that through outside observation I have found is a sign of wealth in New York City. So this leads me to think, (Of course as a fashion design student I would think about clothing) well-established coders in their thirties have a sizable income and are pretty well off, but what happens to those younger than thirty and those older than forty-five, why have they given up on style? Why would they conform to the stereotype? I discovered it isn’t about conforming; it’s about work ethic. “It’s hard to be productive if I have to think about what I’m going to wear and then get to work when I can just throw something on and get right to work.” Brian is exactly right in saying this; the more casually someone is dressed, the harder they are working, in the coding environment at least. Coders aren’t trying to fit into a stereotype because the stereotype isn’t in fact a stereotype; it’s a reality. It takes a certain type of person to code, or at least a certain type of person to be good and successful at coding, and they just happen to dress very casually in a t-shirt and jeans. (Having a boyfriend or girlfriend is completely based on work. Many coders do have a partner, but others like Brian are so caught up in their work that he can’t even tell when a girl is trying to flirt with him; he just thinks everyone is being really nice to him.)

Next, we have the eldest member of the group who that very day was learning JavaScript, the language of the Internet. I bet you can guess what he’s wearing, none other than worn out Levi’s and a sweater. I am just about to pass him off as someone trying to “get back in the game” when Karl comes over to him and the older man strikes up a conversation as he pulls out his iPhone and puts his reading glasses back on his nose from their perch on the top of his head. “Look at this new app I just got. It’s just a trial version so you can’t buy it yet, but isn’t this cool?” I instantly saw a light sparkle in his eyes. Maybe it was the reflection of whatever was happening on his iPhone into his glass lens, but I think it was a hidden excitement that all coders share. “Coding is all about changing the world and creating ways to make lives easier and tasks more efficient.” When a coder finds something they’re passionate about, they strive to make what they love better for themselves and for the people, and there is no better example of this than Mark Zuckerberg…I mean Brian Gainer. I’m sorry; sometimes it’s easy to get them confused.

Brian strives for change. He not only codes, but also is highly involved in student government. His passion is to make the places wherever he sets foot in better for those who walk there every day. Brian is not afraid to voice his opinion; his own personality is what sparked the creation of his coding project; his code is literally a piece of him as any code of any coder is. It is a description of personality in the language of JavaScript, and Brian’s personality is all about informing and pushing for change. It’s called The Painted Web (you know what else started with “the”? The Facebook) and it is a means of informative information. “I love Twitter; I think it’s genius. I want people to be able to share ideas like that but in a longer format, and anyone can see anything. Maybe even scientists and theorists will want to post essays on here. Maybe it will be a platform for events. It can really be anything once it goes live, and that’s what I’m excited to see.” Brian is the ultimate definition of a coder; he fits his own defined stereotypes perfectly: “no girls, virgin, antisocial, (well I used to be, but now that I’m networking my social network I’ve had to break that barrier) terrible clothing (basic clothes, comfortable), unreasonably logical, bad social skills.” On our walk back from Ketchum he gave me some insight into his past, that would define him as a secret genius. He was not your typical high school student. Instead of doing his assignments or going to class he would sneak off to the library to study what he wanted to study. It is that way that he taught himself how to code and how he became interested in politics and social change. He barely graduated high school and he’s still not sure how he managed to get into college, but then again he did get in as a fashion design major. (I know what you’re thinking, a fashion design major?? It’s true, and the secret of success; you can’t be a singularly talented designer and expect to make it and Brian is a prime example of that).

The best way to define Brian, and all coders is by calling them risk takers. They spend hours on websites and lines of code that in the long run, after everything is finished, may have a glitch or might not catch on with the popular culture and be left in the dust. But coders are willing to take that risk because they always have hope that something positive will come from their hard work. I commend these coders, and think so much more of each piece of technology I touch because I’m not just playing a game; I’m making someone’s vision come true.

Discussion Questions

  • Why would somebody want to read this piece (the “Who cares?” factor)?
  • Can you clearly identify the author’s intention for the piece?
  • How well does the author support the intention of the piece? Cite specific details that support or take away from the author’s intention.
  • Is there information missing from this piece that would make its intention clearer? What else would you like to know?
  • Does the author portray herself as a round character? How does she do this?
  • Do you trust the author of this piece? Why or why not?
  • How clearly does the author establish a sense of setting/space in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • How clearly does the author establish characters other than the self in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • Did you learn anything new from reading this piece? If so, what?
  • Are there particular passages with engaging language/description that stood out to you? Describe the appeal of these passages.
  • Would you read more writing from this author? Why or why not?


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