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The Day Job

Note: This essay is now included in a book titled The Surprising Benefits of Being Unemployed.
For details, click here.

A.k.a., that thing that writers are well advised not to give up.

So how have I been paying the bills during all these decades, while I waited for fate and circumstances and the gods I don't believe in to dribble some magic juice on my head and allow me to do nothing but write fiction?

I was always a techie kinda kid. Played dangerous games with chemicals and electricity, read voraciously to try to understand how the universe works and how to change how it works or, failing that, how to blow it up. Of course, I also read all the science fiction I could get my hands on. Not only because it was fun, but also because (I was convinced) it contained important information of the How It All Works and How To Blow It Up variety.

Naturally enough, I took lots of math and physics and chemistry courses, meanwhile starting stories and novels I never finished and also meanwhile planning to go to work in the space program, where I would show those guys how to really explore the universe. (This was during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the newly minted NASA was just getting on its feet, just pulling visibly ahead of those evil commie Russkies.)

Eventually, I ended up with a degree in math and physics from Indiana University and a job offer from NASA in Houston. The offer came in the form of a looong telegram that began, "Congratulations! You have been selected to participate in Man's greatest adventure, the conquest of space!" (Amusing, but much better than the telegrams some of my peers, who hadn't majored in techie stuff, were receiving at about the same time. Viet Nam was heating up.)

I started at NASA in September, 1967. (Less than a year later, I married my college sweetheart, Leonore. See the main page for links to her pages.) The agency was still suffering a hangover from the Apollo 1 fire, but other than that, matters looked hopeful. For me, though, there were two awful shocks: First, I learned what real heat and humidity (and cockroaches) were. Second, I learned what real boredom was. How could the conquest of space—Man's greatest adventure!—be so boring? And yet it was. In retrospect, I can see that much of NASA's early triumph stemmed from its clever dividing up of one huge, overwhelming task into five hundred million small, handleable, mind-destroying tasks. It got us to the Moon.

It got me the determination to get the Hell out of there.

A couple of times, NASA sent me on business to Martin Marietta in Denver. Aerospace budgets were shrinking at that time, and NASA/Houston was fighting for a bigger slice of what was left. One of its targets was the then-growing funding for the unmanned Viking Mars probe, being overseen by the monstrous egos at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Most of the actual work on Viking was being done at the Martin Marietta plant outside Denver. I fell in love with the city and the climate and the terrain, which reminded me strongly of the area of South Africa I'd lived in before moving to the U.S. I described it all cleverly enough to Leonore to make her want to move to Denver.

Fortunately, in a couple of Viking technical meetings at Martin and at JPL, I'd verbally bested Gentry Lee, then a technical manager at Martin (now more famous as Arthur Clarke's collaborator on some of the Rama novels), who apparently thought this qualified me to work on his team. So Leonore and I and our very young son Daniel ended up in Denver, where I did my part in getting Viking down to the surface of Mars, and I was rewarded, in what I was to learn was typical Martin Marietta fashion, by being laid off. That job had lasted from 1971-1974, which was actually pretty long for Martin.

We didn't starve to death. It was a close thing, but I was able to find a job as a computer programmer with the U. S. Government, in the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration.

My writing career was taking off, I thought, so I quit my government job at the beginning of 1979, thinking I'd never have to work for anyone else again. My writing career wasn't taking off after all, it turned out. By the end of 1979, I was looking for a job again. I got one as a computer programmer at Climax Molybdenum, a mining company. Once again, we hadn't starved, but it had been a close call.

Note that the NASA budget, healthy when I started working there, began to shrink rapidly once I was on the job. Martin Marietta was doing well when I started there, too, but had fallen upon perilous times by the time I was shown the front door. Molybdenum prices were high when I went to work for Climax but began falling once my influence was felt.

I saw the handwriting on the wall and got out of Climax. I did some contract work while trying to get into the booming oil and gas industry. In 1985, when oil prices were high, I went to work as a programmer for Energy Enterprises, a nifty little company. Oil prices began to drop. On a sad day in 1987, eleven of the thirteen programmers at EE were laid off; I was one of the eleven. One of the two who stayed was laid off a year or two later. The thirteenth guy committed suicide.

But thanks to my generous severance package, I was able to jump from that sinking ship to another ship, one that was steaming ahead vigorously. Telecommunications! U S West, the local phone company! Times were good! Layoffs began within two years of my coming onboard. Along with a couple of thousand of my fellow telco serfs, I was laid off in 1992.

I switched to technical writing. (I dunno. It seemed like a good idea at the time.) I went to a smallish, well-funded, energetic startup in Boulder. Can you guess what comes next? The company never did produce a product. Eventually, the investors, tired of seeing their money sucked away, stepped in and kicked out the president and some of the other officers. And all but two of the tech writers were laid off; I wasn't one of those two.

That may have ended the Curse of Hiring David. I drifted around the Denver area as a tech writer, from job to job, but all good jobs with good pay. The problem was that I was a round peg in a square hole (or is it the other way around?), trying to force myself to fit in and stop complaining. Eventually, I gave up and started looking for a programming job again. Or developers, as they were now called. Fortunately, the current high-tech boom, particularly flourishing in the Denver-Boulder area, meant this was a good time for such a job change. Since June, 1999, I've been working as a Web developer at InfoNow Corporation, a wonderful company.

What's the moral of this story? Don't give up the day job. And find yourself a day job you can enjoy, because odds are you'll be doing it for a long time.

Uh oh . . .


Perhaps that curse is still operational. Or perhaps it has grown so powerful that it is no longer satisfied with destroying individual companies or even entire industries. Perhaps now it will only be satisfied with enacting a judicial coup d'etat and destroying the entire country! Or perhaps I give my curse too much credit.

The magnificent economy of the Golden Clinton Years (remember that phrase, because you'll be hearing it with increasing frequency) gave way to the blasted heath of the Bush Depression. Tech companies shriveled and died. Those that survived did so by, as they say, cutting expenses. On July 23, 2003, InfoNow cut expenses rather heavily. I and a bunch of my fellow employees were, as they also say, let go. (An odd phrase, since I don't believe any of us were trying to get away.) I had been there for four years and one month and two days. Four really, really good years at a really, really great place to work. I'm writing this a day later, on the 24th, and I already feel enormously sad at the thought that I won't be going back there again. If by chance you have the opportunity to work there some day, jump at it.

Oh uh!

Yet another update, a jollier one this time. (I didn't plan on this essay turning into a blog, but to a degree it seems to have done just that.) I'm now employed again as a developer and occasional tech writer at Breakthrough Management Group, a young and vigorous company that is nifty in the way InfoNow was during my early days there. Future bright! Cloudless skies! Clear sailing!

During my months of unemployment, I accomplished surprisingly little. One thing I did do was write a satirical essay about the surprising benefits of being unemployed. A link to the essay was posted on Slashdot, and as a result tens of thousands of people from all over the world hit my site and hundreds of them wrote e-mail to me. Some were hostile ("How dare you blame your plight on Glorious George Bush, our Dear Leader? You're a loser! It's all your fault!") but most were extremely supportive and friendly. A sadly large percentage of the e-mails came from people who were also out of work, and many of them were in a far worse position than I was—lower on funds, out of work for a longer period, less hopeful of finding another job.

I tried to answer all the friendly e-mails. I certainly hope I didn't miss anyone. As for the hostile ones, I ignored most of them. I did reply sarcastically to a few jerks but soon decided it wasn't worth bothering. Far better to spend my time sending out more resumes and answering the friendly folks.

Uh oh, Part II

The Bush Disaster keeps rolling on, and my job at BMG evaporated in December 2004.

But Wait!

The Odyssey continued! I became employed again! At the end of February 2005, I started working as a technical writer at BEA Systems. With any luck, I said to myself, I'll never have to update my resume again.

Uh oh, Part III

No, wait, I spoke too soon! BEA decided to eliminate a buncha tech-writing positions. U.S. positions, that is. Sent them to India. My position was one of them. Odysseus must set sail again.

Back Home in Ithaca

Once again, lots of résumés out in the mail, a fair number of interviews, and then finally a new job. On April 3, 2006, I began working as a tech writer at Quark, makers of QuarkXPress, in downtown Denver.

It's been an Odyssey in a physical sense, as well. I worked in downtown Denver for years, for different employers (Energy Enterprises, USWest, InfoNow) at different times, and it's always been my second-favorite place to work, #1 being my own study. When I lost my job at InfoNow, there weren't many jobs available in the Denver area, and most of them were not downtown. BMG is in Longmont, which meant a 76-mile roundtrip drive every day. BEA is in Boulder—a slight improvement, at 75 miles per day. Now, finally, after three years of crossing the wine-dark seas, I feel like Odysseus coming back home again, but fortunately without all that messy stuff involving the suitors.

Oh, Noooooooo!

As we used to say in the glorious 1960s (motto: Best Decade Yet), "There is no gravity. The Earth sucks." Not only does the Earth suck, but thanks to global warming, the seas are rising and parts of Ithaca are getting covered in ocean. Less metaphorically, on May 19, 2009 I was laid off from Quark.

Imagine a Clever Header

The reality was this: I was 65 years old and working in an industry well known for age bias. Tech writing jobs are rare in the Denver area at the best of times. Software developer jobs are far more numerous than tech writing jobs, but it had been more than four years since my job title was "developer"—an eternity in the software biz. The Bush Depression was in full swing, so this was far from the best of times. In short, the likeliehood of my getting full-time work again in my field was exceedingly low.

Nonetheless, for quite a while, I looked for such work—intensely, almost desperately. It was not a happy time. I did pick up some short contracts, some of them Web development work, but mostly tech writing. Eventually, my wonderful wife, Leonore, persuaded me to think of myself as a retired guy who spent his time writing and occasionally did small contracts on the side. That's pretty much where I am now, and very happy I am, too.


HomeBusiness Secrets from the StarsEssaysNovels, Etc.Another Chance at Life (by Leonore Dvorkin)Tell a friend about this pageE-mail me