“What is your passion?” he asked me. “What is your passion, man?” He couldn’t emphasize enough how important it was to find one’s passion and how deeply he had conversed on such topics in conversations between himself, Steve Jobs, Sonny Bono, and some unspoken amount of drugs.

I keep thinking about this event last week. I had had a few beers at my friendly neighborhood beer store and watched the guy go from mumbling to himself to accosting me about passion. Beer store bartenders and friends have been referring to the guy by the name “Jimmy Page” and the impression I got from talking with him was of those dream scenes in Wayne’s World 2 with “Jim Morrison”. All of us are stumped as to whether or not he’s full of shit. He’s certainly seen more than his fair share of interesting drugs over his years. For instance, the word psilocybin rolled off his tongue like the name of an old lover.

Jimmy’s back story, whether real or imagined, is that he has been a sound engineer and sometimes DJ for the stars over the years. I was told he had impressed some of the more musically nerdy amongst the beer store family with working knowledge of rare albums and wild stories of recording them. With a couple of us more technically inclined he mentioned ties to old, odd threads of Louisville’s ancient technical history and new strange ties to exotic technology manufacturers today, particularly the odd ties to Apple Computers.

The conversation that he interrupted was one largely about my current job search and where I am looking and where I am trying to go. A part of that conversation was my odd personal impressions of Silicon Valley based on a couple of good interviews out there and one particularly bad interview that still haunts me in a peculiar way. I had just about finished with my tale of that bad interview to a beer store friend, and fellow software engineer when Jimmy interrupted. It seemed important to let him do so; it seemed to fit the rhythm of that conversation.

On the show Silicon Valley, which I loved as much as I had moments where I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry at how real it was, Erlich Bachman claims that you cannot understand Silicon Valley without making at least one trip to Burning Man (and presumably doing some amount of drugs there). It’s a sentiment I’ve heard from people in real life too. For what it is worth, Jimmy claimed to have survived some 15 years of Burning Man and it was both one of the most probable things he said and also one of the statements that most had me wondering that maybe some pearl of wisdom might be surprisingly buried in the guy.

What is your passion, man?

I’ve heard questions about my passions a bunch in the last few weeks. It’s an ingrained part of a lot of interviews. I continue to joke that the role model of most technical interviews is Tim the Enchanter 1 and of course the first question must always be some version of “What is your quest?”

What is my quest? What is my passion? Maybe it’s because I’ve been answering versions of this question for weeks at this point or maybe it’s something to do with the hazy memories of the Bay Area and the pointed question from an otherwise hazy person spouting ghost stories of a Silicon Valley that maybe never was, or most likely it was the two beers and a few samples I had drank that night, but for this Jimmy Page I produced the most succinct version I had yet answered to this question:

“I just want to make people happy.”

It looks trite on paper, and it sounded trite nearly as soon as I had said it, but it also felt surprisingly right, in that moment, as my simplest answer to that question. It does ring as a decent summary for a half-dozen stories and a lot of the conversations I’ve been having. It’s also not far from connective tissue amongst my attempts at writing and game development as well as my day job goals in software engineering.

It’s such a simple and trite thing to say, but already in my experience it has been surprisingly hard to accomplish. I have too many companies on my resume that seemed to focus amazing amounts of energy into increasing net misery amongst their own employees. I’ve worked on too many internal applications and had a conversation in the form of:

“Who are the users of this application?”

“That team over there…”

“Should we ask them what they want out of the application?”

“Who cares?”

I care. It shouldn’t be a rebellious act to prioritize the feature and bug requests of an application’s actual users. Corporate America is miserable enough that I certainly hope that I never understand the mentalities that lead to this. I hope that I can avoid ever again having a boss telling me to do less work for the customer of an application I am working on.

I’m not sure if there’s an exchange rate where having one drunk conversation with a man that seems to have been through fifteen years of Burning Man equates to half a Burning Man experience, but I do feel I owe some more respect to Silicon Valley than I’ve given it the past few years. I’ve felt that Silicon Valley is too easily hypnotized by its own technology and sometimes loses touch with reality, but I absolutely have to admit that even my worst experiences with Silicon Valley the companies all seemed to come from the right place and have good intentions. They certainly know where their passion comes from. (Even if maybe some of it is drugs. But who am I to judge?)

I still think there is probably some other deep lesson I missed in such an odd conversation, but pondering if I’ve done enough towards my passion and where that might take me next in my career is certainly a start.

“Like you, Louisville is my hub,” Jimmy answered to the question of what he is doing in Louisville when he could still be in Cupertino, or Holland where he is supposedly moving with his new fiancée. I certainly get that concept. A portion of my stress in this job search is the clear realization that to follow my passion it really is time to relocate somewhere else for a while. It’s always hard to move and it’s looking particularly hard staring at my finances and the emotional weight of leaving my current home.

I don’t know where I’m going to end up and it is stressful. But there’s hope embedded in that stress. Hope that maybe I will get a chance to follow my passion to do something exciting.

  1. I’ve also got long rants about how much this irks me and how many problems I’ve got with the way technical interviews are and how deeply “important” they are to most software hiring cycles.