An Announcement

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I might never do a post like this again. This is an experiment.

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago, as illustrated by Michael Birawer. Prints available for purchase:

Until recently, I had exclusively worked full-time jobs as a technologist. A month ago, I switched to part-time freelance work, at least for a bit.

I did this for two reasons.

First, I burnt out.

I love what I do, but I had experienced a lot of organizational friction over the past five years in my full-time jobs. On top of that, I also committed to teaching a graduate course this winter and spring. It was my first experience teaching in a master’s program. I learned a ton. I would probably do it again, at some point. But the more-than-full-time commitment, combined with the stressors of the already-full-time commitment, left me in a tailspin.

My personal relationships suffered because I was working all the time. I took video calls on vacation. I fretted about work assignments over dinner. But my personal relationships also suffered because the exhaustion had sucked my personality away. I didn’t think anything was funny anymore. I felt angry a lot of the time.

I also felt insecure about whether I was doing any good in the world, and I overcompensated for this with a self-righteous attitude such that, for many, talking to me felt like walking through a mine field. They felt “not politically correct enough” for me. And while I love to educate folks where I can about social justice issues, I achieve the opposite of that by shutting down the conversation.

I don’t want to do any of this again, either to myself or to the people I care about.

Second, I wanted to work on a project on which I felt personally invested.

I needed so badly to feel like I was somehow making the world a better place. My employer, while not evil, didn’t measure up on that metric, either with the product they built or with any investment in tech (or any other) community service.

About three and a half years ago I learned about The Zooniverse, a citizen science organization that helps researchers connect with volunteers to annotate large datasets. The partnerships formed through The Zooniverse have resulted in the discovery of unusual space objects (like Hanny’s Voorwerp), new kinds of galaxies, and even the first known photo of a rare animal.

Hanny's Voorwerp
The Voorwerp is the green part. Dutch schoolteacher Hanny van Arkel found it in this picture while participating in a citizen science project in 2007. We now believe this thing to be a quasar ionization echo.

I had done some hacking work for The Zooniverse years ago and had volunteered for the projects on several occasions. So when I knew I wanted to leave my incumbent position, I called my contact there and asked if they could use me. We set up a three-day-per-week arrangement, with a commitment through the summer until the end of August.

I’ll help the organization explore some options for natural language processing in some of their text-based projects. My main focus, though, is on maintaining and enhancing their mobile application, which is open-source and written in react-native (a cross-platform framework serving both Android and iOS). My plan, perhaps ambitiously, is to start live-streaming some of my development work in hopes that some of you lovely people, and maybe others too, will join in on the fun. If you’re into that kind of thing, please stay tuned for stream information.

What’s it like?

I have started to feel myself coming back to life. I suspect the process will take a while, though. As I’ve said before on this blog, adulthood sucks.

I work Monday through Wednesday with The Zooniverse at the Adler Planetarium. On Thursdays and Fridays I’ve been picking up some work from a couple of other clients. This has presented a refreshing opportunity to meet new people and to switch to a new challenge every few days. Now that the class I’m teaching has ended, my hope is to spend some of that extra time catching up on the pile of reading that has grown taller and taller in my corner since I started my career. (Also, stay tuned for posts about teaching).
I am hoping to come away from this experience with a better sense of self, a little more grounding in my life and what I want, and a clearer idea of what the next step in my career should be.

If you have ever done any of the things I have described above, I would love to hear from you with your thoughts on it, what you learned, whether you’re glad you did it.

If you like these experimental posts, you might also enjoy:

The AMA (that stands for “ask me anything”)

The Podcast Interview (at least, the first podcast interview)

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