January 28, 2013

Pixels don’t care

I’m short.

When I was 20, I decided to try and make some extra money building websites for people to pay for my tuition. My work was good. It wasn’t phenomenal, but it was good. It was impossible for me to get work. Everything would be great until I met with a potential client. At which point they told me they’d rather hire a professional.

What they meant is that I looked too young. I didn’t really realize this was the problem until people started screwing me out of money. “You’re just a kid and you’ll get over it” I believe was the phrase my last client used to fuck me over.

Humans are really good at prejudice and intolerance.

The internet was a much different place eight years ago. Facebook wasn’t open to the public. Twitter didn’t exist. Google did not require legal names. I was just kneath who had a blog at warpspire.com. I didn’t have a picture and no one knew my age.

And the internet loved my work. I still remember the first day my blog was featured on CSSVault — it was one of the most exciting things to ever happen to me. How awesome was it that my work was highlighted as one of the best in the world? (CSSVault was quite a different beast 8 years ago too).

A few days later I received an email from the Art Director of a local agency asking to come in and meet their team. And so it was that I was interviewing for a job to work on sites for the likes of Apple, Disney, HP, and RIM. Pretty fucking crazy. It felt good — it felt like validation that my work was worth paying for.

I remember the last question asked of me at the interview, because it was possibly the most terrifying professional moment of my life. To paraphrase:

You have no formal eduction, no experience with any big clients, what makes you think you could possibly be good enough to work here?

Through a stroke of luck, a moment of wit came upon me and I replied with the only thing my brain could grasp on:

I have no idea. I didn’t even know I was interviewing, Kris sent me an email asking me to come in today because he thought my work was good. Is it?

I never really got an answer. But I did get the job. Because my work was good. But I was given a much lower salary than my co-workers. For every hour I worked, the agency billed my time out at a 2,083% markup. To the client (who couldn’t see my height), my time was worth over 20x the amount I was worth to the agency.

Looking back, I can’t help but think this was discrimination. For age, for height, for whatever you will. I had no lower education than my peers, equal or better skills, and did work of the highest quality.

The physical world is harsh. I’m by all means a member of the privileged class in America by race, gender, and sexual orientation — yet a few inches of vertical height is all it took to diminish the value of my work.

At least they paid me.

About the same time, I started to get into Ruby on Rails. I wasn’t really the most brilliant programmer or designer, but I could get stuff done. I was invited to hang out in the #caboose IRC channel. There aren’t any avatars in IRC. No faces. No names. Just usernames and words.

I ended up making a lot of friends through caboose. Friends I still have today. Friends I’ve worked with, friends I haven’t worked with. Friends who never saw my face or knew my age for almost half a decade. It just wasn’t important.

We were working on code, on Photoshop documents — pixels. The pixels didn’t care what we looked like. Over time we grew to respect each other. Not because of how handsome we were, but because of the things we built.

In a strange sense, it was a bit of a utopian work environment. How could the internet know you were gay? 80 years old? Hispanic? Transgender? Karl Rove? It just didn’t matter. Respect was earned through actions and the words you actually said (hard to squeeze rumor out of publicly logged chat).

It took me until early 2009 for me to realize the real value of this network. I was miserable at my job and I sent a long-winded email to court3nay inquiring about working with ENTP. ENTP was a half-product, half-consulting agency at this point comprised almost solely of caboosers. All of whom had never met me or ever heard my voice. About 30 seconds later I got a response:

Hey Kyle,

That’s pretty fuckin awesome, if you’ll pardon my french.

We’re just heading out to breakfast, I mean, an important company meeting, but I’ll get back to you today.

Courtenay & Rick

And then a follow up:

OK, I’ve talked it over with everyone (unanimous– “kyle? awesome!”)
I think you’ll fit into our team perfectly.

No in person interview. No phone calls. No technical test. They were confident enough in my pixels to give me what equated to my dream job at that point in my life.

Really fucking crazy.

This industry we work in is magical. For the first time in human history, it’s possible to be represented (almost) solely through the merits of your work. Build something magical, push it up to GitHub under a pseudonym, and you could become one of the most sought after programmers in the world.

That’s really fucking awesome.

There’s plenty of prejudice and intolerance in our world — and in our industry. But never forget that pixels don’t care.

If you'd like to keep in touch, I tweet @kneath on Twitter. You're also welcome to send a polite email to kyle@warpspire.com. I don't always get the chance to respond, but email is always the best way to get in touch.