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The long way home

Author Jacqueline Woodson once isolated the very act of “speaking in tangents” as a shared East Coast experience. It could be related to the festering rawness that pours out of a city that, indeed, never sleeps. Or it could be just my need to monopolize thoughts and then, conversations.

I’ve been speaking in tangents for my entire life, half-heartedly hoping it was because my mind accelerated quicker than everyone else’s and I only had so many revolutions available. It’s more likely that I had too much to share and thought I was doing the world a favor by arranging for a public demonstration.

Because isn’t spilling your brain’s contents all at once on the dinner table like a child with their first set of crayons foundational for conversation?

I am not an engineer, and I no longer identify as much of an artist. I’m almost a data scientist, on my best day. But I have a unique set of skills that ebb and flow from time to time, and so, I feel pretty much qualified for everything, and so, I do mostly everything. This is the fullest way I could ever demonstrate that your unique gifts will help you win if you embrace them and do the work.

Two months ago, with feet rooted firmly in every space and no space, I experienced Facebook’s Menlo Park campus and the world of technology in the most vulnerable way one can… With zero expectations.

Visiting Facebook was a unique moment because I was able to exist without performing; I was present without having to validate. It appealed to my artistic self because there were bodies in the room that knew me from my previously creative endeavors. It spoke to my techie side because I stood toe-to-toe with geniuses and engineers who worked on products that made people’s lives better, which stimulated their pleasure centers and in turn, delivered them thumbs up-shaped bundles of joy. Listening to those individuals speak about their work made me feel as though those kinds of wins were achievable for me too.

The entire day filled me with childlike wonder, after all, I was able to board a steel can with wings and cut through clouds like an orange rind in a pool of bourbon. Want to understand the crucial intersection of technology and design and why they’re both important? You do not have to travel to Facebook to do this, but: the technology allows you to answer emails at 36,000 feet, the design is when the seatbelt sign shuts off at your destination and it turns into Jurassic Park.

Facebook is a unicorn: a mythical billion-dollar creature of epic size and scale that we can never hope to contain. In fact, let’s just say it already—Facebook is not ours. Of course, they keep our photos, of course, they keep our stuff. We’ll be in the dirt and those key milestones and datasets will be encrusted in a vintage-looking locket dangling from the necks of Zuck’s future children.

But seriously, this company is archiving US and using US to curate it. It’s a brilliant model. How do you capture experience? Where should that live? A 0:59-second video doesn’t do it, so what comes after? When we start to really isolate the value of moments, is it the context that holds the value or the memory itself? Who prices that? How do you distribute it? All of which to say, Facebook is selling us back our own lives.

The trick is, it’s only worth the transaction if you live.

On a rainy day in Long Island many years ago, I sat in a luxurious Facebook-blue hued captain’s chair, wearing a military green Polo sweater, busted up Levi’s and camouflaged Vans slip-ons. The table was our shop’s “Last Supper” table, and it was equal parts majestic and imposing. My small Shiba Inu Brady was curled up against my back, filling the space between. It was interview day, and in my lifetime, I’ve probably interviewed over 1,000 people, so this process was not particularly daunting.

I am not an emotional hiring manager. I don’t care for bad breaks. “Do you work hard? Will you show up on time? What kind of computer do you use? What’s the last thing you made?” It all rattles out with the speed of a fully automatic M-16 with an extended clip.

It’s effective, but I am always secretly searching for a surprise.

Through our doors, a small, square-shaped figure with slumped shoulders and old jeans appeared. He was a self-taught developer who barely graduated high school and could not reach an audible volume above Milton, from Office Space. In hindsight, it was all as ridiculous a scene as one could imagine. Here I am, a rambunctious, semi-talented writer who had a penchant for getting into trouble with magazines, publicists and corporations, who drank too much and had a chip on her shoulder, but somehow still convinced a millionaire to rent me office space and other hundred-thousandaires to invest in me and my first venture.

Looking back, it all makes sense: I was an early social media adopter and newly minted entrepreneur who had legitimately no idea how to turn a profit. All I knew was I couldn’t scale doing it alone.

And he walked in.

Distressed ball cap pulled down low, smelling like a mix of Camels and motor oil, wearing either 1. the only collared shirt he owned or 2. the cleanest collared shirt he could find in time, he slunk into our newly leased fancy chairs and talked about how he built lots of stuff, how he was a failed entrepreneur who dabbled in coding and found a community online. He lamented that he hadn’t discovered computers and graphic arts sooner. He talked about how his Type 1 Diabetes had kept him frail, in and out of the hospital, and how he was so overworked at his last job that it nearly killed him. At 22. And for all that work, he wasn’t even getting health insurance.

People have a way of revealing a lot when they feel like you’re listening. And I was, intently, peering behind his uncertainty, sure I would be able to find the commonalities between us. We made things, for better or worse, and did not wait for permission. We showed up where we weren’t invited, joined communities we probably had no business in and fought for seats at tables where we should have been wait staff.

He eventually got a job as a gear head at his buddy’s garage. He stressed that while he was self-taught, he worked hard and he just wanted a chance to put his name on something… To be a part of something.

He raced cars, smoked like a chimney, and was painfully awkward.
He could not sit with clients without getting flustered.
He had no college or accelerated degrees.
He truly and madly embodied all of the “IT guy troupes.”
And I couldn’t wait to hire him.

So I did. He was the first person to teach me to use “Inspect Element” as a foundation for finding a source code. He taught me how to sit for hours looking for broken tags. He taught me how to resize an image without losing quality. He taught me about project management tools. He taught me that anything and everything can be possible on the web.

To be a voice at the table, not on the menu, at Facebook is a powerful thing that I do not know I’ll ever be able to fully actualize. Especially when pressed against the sharp contrast of how little I knew, and how truly little I deserved to know, given my shit attitude and penchant for only talking about myself, many years ago.

So as I ponder life and the tremendous fortune I have now, I cannot help but remember when a not yet fully formed man found his way to my office. And how that chance encounter set me on a path that would forever change me.

It’s can be a long way home.