On being a workaholic

I was always intrigued by the people referred to as workaholics ever since I first understood what the word meant. It felt really amazing knowing that there are people who want to work

so much that they lose track of their social lives and distance themselves from everyone who is not professionally relevant to them. The word is almost always used in a negative connotation. Looking back after being in the industry for about 5 years now, I think my excitement was caused due to lack of information. I never knew or understood the ‘why’. I only read and heard about the final outcome and the visible aspects of the workaholic syndrome and since I have a lot more knowledge now, I can shed some light on the ‘why’. I can do that because, without exception, everyone who is close to me has accused me of being a workaholic and after contemplating on it, I agree that I am guilty of being one, with my own reasons and in my own way. What I mean by saying ‘in my own way’ is that I believe that ‘workaholic’ is a very generic word and encompasses a lot of sub types that can be as unique as each individual. Since I’m talking without any statistical data, I’ll just assume that every single person has their own reason(s) to land at this same spot. I’ll narrate mine here.

It was in the final year at my college that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and that was to code. For a computer science major, you might feel that the realization took some time but I never was interested in pursuing this as a long term career option. I wanted to work for a few years, get an MBA and then work for for whatever company and job that offered me the juiciest package. Like most soon-to-be graduates, I wanted just one thing – more money and I didn’t think that ‘working on what you love’ was ever a realistic option. Fate, it seems, had other plans and I ended up working as an intern for 3 months for a tech startup which hired me full time after that duration. My experience there for a duration of little over an year was the first eye opener for me. It taught me two things. A CS degree did not necessarily make me fit a core CS job in the industry and if I had to survive and do well here, I cannot stop learning. The Co-founder and CTO of that startup was a Chemical engineering graduate from the same college as mine. So I started learning anything and everything new that I could lay my hands on. I made small prototypes ranging from web to mobile to cli tools and for the first time, it felt good to build something. Even if it was a crappy piece of code which solved one problem with a ‘happy case’ input. This became the first reason for my current state – It felt awesome to solve a problem.

I joined a slightly bigger startup after this and was introduced to nodejs at the time it was the ‘coolest’ thing around. We were the first company in India to use nodejs at production scale that solved our scaling and user experience problems. This was the first time I was introduced to the open source community where people came together to innovate and help each other out. I started interacting by posting questions on mailing list and opening github issues. This was a dramatic shift from my earlier closed-source experience which reinforced the faith in the power of collaboration. I never thought that random strangers would want to help me out before this. This was the first time where I was able to combine a lot of core CS fundamentals in solving real world problems. Since most of our entire stack was based on unproven technologies, we kept running into new and unique issues. For most of them, Stackoverflow had the answers but for some, we had to edit the source of some dependency libraries or tweak the OS system settings for the fix. The latter category of problems meant we had to go into research mode which meant lot of reading up and trial and errors. It would have been impossible to solve many critical problems if the senior team members did not know how every component worked individually as wells as in conjunction with other components. This brings me to the next reason – The learning cannot stop.

The next phase was the startup where I was the first employee and had to build the tech-stack from ground up. The previous learnings helped here but it was frustrating because now I had to work on things I did not ‘like’ to work on. Obviously I was solving the cool problems but I also had to take care of boring stuff. Fixing HTML, writing CSS classes, deployment scripts, provisioning instances, cdn setups, finding best libraries to do something and many many more things I wasn’t too enthusiastic of taking care of. But it all had to be done and I was responsible for it. It led to a lot of frustration and I was running out of reasons to convince myself that I really wanted to do this. I wasn’t having the fun I thought I would and for a small ‘awesome’ thing I would build, I had to handle 10 times as many uncool chores. I then talked to some CTO’s and tech co-founders to understand whether this was normal and wether I would be better off working for a bigger firm with gradual career progression. This helped me sort things out and reassured me that its ok to feel this way. I needed to learn to keep things objective and figure them out one step at a time. This was further reinforced by the motto of the current startup I’m working with – Whoever evolves the fastest, wins. For me it meant – I have to be comfortable leaving my comfort zone.

So now I work on technology for a living, I work on technology when I feel like doing something fun, I explore a new technology/library/framework/language when I feel like reading and when I need to get away from any stressful aspect of the ‘rest of my life’, I build something to make myself feel better. And what happens when I do this? I am branded as a workaholic. So I’m not sure how bad it is be one right now and whether it would be right on my part to accept the negative connotation that comes with the title.

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