What I Want: To Help People

A few years ago, I read in Zen and the Art of Making a Living something that I had missed, and which moved me greatly.  It was something that I knew on some level, but had never thought about, and which no one had ever told me. I’d been told about doing work you were good at, work that paid well, work that you liked.  People had talked about that job that actually makes you happy — usually in wistful, mystical tones.

But Zen and the Art of Making a Living mentioned something that was completely different. The suggestion there was not for a job that sounds fun (with the thought that it would make you happy) but rather for meaningful work.  Because it would make you content, and fulfilled, and through that to happiness.

For me, that’s always been about making a difference in people’s lives.  In some jobs that was harder to connect with in others.  In my current position, I consider part of my job to put the public’s money to the best use, using technology.  That matters to me, and fits within what I can affect.   That’s nice to think about, but what has really come to affect me is the ways in which technology can affect the quality of someone’s workday.

Good technology makes people’s lives easier.  There’s been research recently that all the little annoyances that we deal with every day actually affect us more profoundly than some large problems.  The main reason for this is that we dismiss them, or prioritize them lowly, but they still aggravate us.  We don’t steel ourselves against them like we would a larger, so they get in and they bother us.

The systems I maintain here are old, and often designed poorly.  They are often frustrating to deal with and in many ways incomprehensible.  Not just to some of our users who have little to no technical education, but to someone like me who has a good grasp on how technology interacts.  I can help people in two ways : training and aiding them — and validating them as people who have to deal with difficult software, not people who are “stupid” or “just don’t get tech.” In today’s ubiquitous computing, tech  needs to adapt to the needs of people, not the other way around.

And that’s the second way I can help.  I’ve worked hard to educate myself on better techniques and methods to make it easier and clearer to people how to use technology.  I cut out data entry as much as possible using good defaults.  I find ways to make the software understand what someone means, as opposed to punishing them for “doing it wrong.”  I’m still working on this — and it will probably never be truly done.  What good software is changes year to year, and it’s something to constantly learn and understand.

But when I can make someone’s job easier — which is good for them, it makes me feel good.  It has the added benefit of allowing the place I work to be more productive as that person can work on other tasks that are more central to their job function.  But what’s most important to me are those days when I’ve given someone tools to let them control their job more easily, to do their work less painfully and to feel good about themselves when I do it.

And that’s pretty awesome.