One of my favorite TV shows was Discovery's Dirty Jobs. I enjoyed seeing the variety of jobs out there that required hands-on labor and, often, constant exposure to the kinds of mess most of us would pay to avoid.
It was a good reminder that, however bad I thought a job might be, there was always a job out there that, to my mind at least, was worse.
But it was also inspirational.
When I was getting ready to graduate from college (the first time), I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I'd just invested three years in earning a degree studying math and physics, but didn't know what I could use that degree for.
A handful of bad grades kept me out of grad school for physics. Teaching high school would require more education and at least a masters' certificate or emergency teaching endorsement. My summer job was still at a Scout camp. I had no real prospects for after graduation.[ref]The one job I'd managed to secure dried up before I finished school. An environmental research lab was opening in Vegas and offered me a position doing research on greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, the contractor building the facility ran off with their grant money, and they ended up abandoning the new project. I was left with nothing, and scrambling to find employment.[/ref]
At the last minute, a stroke of good luck brought me an offer of work through the Housing department. The only hitch, I had to remain a full-time student to qualify. I applied for a post-baccalaureate program and geared up to earn a second degree. But I still had no idea what I wanted to do for permanent employment post-college.
I spent much of the year studying hard and working to train my staff at the same time. On weekends, I started visiting construction sites. I liked the idea of building things with my hands, and wanted to see what I could learn through observation. I learned there was a lot of hard work involved and, without the experience necessary to be a general contractor or manager, not a whole lot of money.
Instead, I opted to remain a student and went straight to graduate school - less than 24-hours after my second bachelors' graduation.
As you've read before, I fell backwards into a software position. I get to build new things daily and help people realize their dreams in reality.
Unfortunately, it's not tangible. Aside from licensing agreements, contracts, and honesty, there's not much preventing any Tom, Dick, or Harry from taking a product I've built and reproducing it a million times. Unlike artisan products (or buildings, or food, or printed works, or ...) the incremental cost of producing another piece of digital work is essentially nil.
So while I love what I do - making things and telling stories - there's not a lot I can do to enforce a premium on my work. It's not a dirty job that keeps others away because they want to keep their hand's clean. When push comes to shove, it's not a necessity people will pay for over other necessary expenses, either.
As Dirty Jobs came to a close, the show's host (Mike Rowe, if you're living under a rock) started transitioning to other events. He started a site geared towards skilled laborers and craftsmen. He began speaking at Maker Faire about the importance of "makers" to our society.
None of this was any less inspiring than his show about the unsung heros driving our infrastructure. But it still made me feel a bit left out.
What I do is hard. It's taken me years to get to where I'm at. The work I do is often frustrating, and almost always in the background - websites work best when the engineering is unseen. But I don't work in the mud. I don't wield a blowtorch. I don't need hazard pay or special insurance when I'm working on a project.
I sit behind a desk. I work from home in an air-conditioned office. In comparison with other difficult jobs, there's nothing dirty in what I do.
Does that mean my work matters less? Does that mean I could do more to make my products and services valuable? Is there a way to better distinguish web development from "oh, my 11 year-old nephew does that too?"
The only constant from my childhood is that, when I grow up, I wanted to be a maker. Today, that's assumed to be a dirty or labor-intensive or highly-specialized job. Is that what I'm really doing?