Being the Definitive Collection of Works by Allison Holt


(Much like the author)

Identity Programming

Posted in on August 19, 2005

I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks back that I tend to self-identify far, far too much based on what it is I do for a living. And I’m starting to realize that that self-identification is neither accurate nor particularly good for me.

I’m a programmer, I tell myself. And while technically that’s true–it’s what I put in that little box at the bottom of my 1040 form every year–it’s not really how I see myself. I’ve said it for years without thinking about what I was saying. But the more I do think about it, the less comfortable that particular set of clothes gets. It’s not that I don’t enjoy what I do, because I like it well enough, but it’s just not as much a deeply-ingrained part of my persona as I’d always assumed.

What it comes down to with the programming thing is: I’m a whore. I’m doing it for the money. I’m doing it so Terry can stay home while the kids are little and because it’s a job I don’t mind. I’m doing it because I can, and because I can stay in my own little zeroes-and-ones world and not have to interact too much with (shudder) people. But being a programmer isn’t my dream.

Does it have to be? Of course not. Isn’t it good enough that I get paid pretty well and don’t mind doing my job? Yeah, it is.

But it’s the identification part I’ve recently come to have trouble with.

I work with a lot of really bright people, people smarter than I am. And those of you who know me know that for me to say that really means something. These guys (not being sexist; the people I’m talking about all happen to be male) seem to have programming in their blood. They generally seem to have much more experience than I do, true, but to me it seems like it’s more than that: it’s a deep internalization of what they do, a love for the minutae and for the big picture, a passion that comes out when they’re discussing or debating various programming-related points.

And that’s what I ain’t got. Because, as noted, I’m just a whore.

As I hang out with some of these people, both at work and in a newer community of people I’ve recently met, my lack of experience in and passion for hardcore programming concepts has provoked in me a feeling that it took me awhile to recognize, because I hadn’t felt it in so long: I felt stupid.

Now, I can talk to people who have huge chunks of knowledge of subjects I know nothing about, who have mastered arcane disciplines that will serve mainly to allow them to get jobs teaching those same arcane displines to others, and those people don’t make me feel stupid in the least. I respect the work and dedication those people have put into learning what they have, and while I might be a little envious sometimes (I have occasional regrets that I didn’t do more with my education), it has no impact on my self-identity or self-worth.

But when faced with those people in my own field who have that knowledge and passion–yup, makes me feel like I’m holding up a sign with an arrow pointing at my face, a sign that says “You’re all with stupid.” And I suspect that feeling’s compounded by the fact that I don’t really want to learn as much about my field. I want to learn some more, of course, but I just don’t have the passion necessary to do so, so I’m dooming myself always to be among the ign’ant.

Locking too much of my identity in “programmer” and then being faced with people whom the word truly fits has been less than pleasant, I must say, and more than a little rattling to the pillars propping up my self-image. So as far as that goes, I’m adopting and paraphrasing something someone else said recently in a far different context: “Programming is what I do, not who I am.”

If I do want to use a vocation as the basis for my identity, I need to focus more on calling myself a writer. Part of me chafes a bit at that because I’m afraid it sounds pretentious, but it’s a much more valid label. Not only does using that word point me much more solidly in the direction I’d like my future to be going, but it fits me much better–like going from wearing a t-shirt three sizes too small to a finely-tailored Italian suit.

And I think taking the burden of the word “programmer” off of my shoulders will allow me to feel more at ease around these real programmers.

Allison Holt spends her days wrestling with code and her nights wrestling with her amazing wife, three fantastic children and her big goofy rescue dog. You can find her at any of the social media links below, or you can email her at

All wrestling referred to in the previous paragraph is metaphorical.