What I Do For A Living

by Gerald Oskoboiny

See also: my home page, resume, or who cares?

My day job

I have been working for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) since September 1997. I started at their MIT/LCS office in Cambridge, MA, USA, doing a lot of Unix system administration (Solaris, Linux) with a tiny bit of Web tools hacking on the side (primarily on the HTML validation service.)

In July 2000, I moved to Ottawa, Canada and began working for W3C from home, doing more Web tools hacking and less Unix sysadmin stuff. (in 2006, moved to Whistler.)

W3C is a really, really cool place to work — brilliant, fantastic people from all over the world, interesting and challenging work in an excellent work atmosphere; meanwhile we're all working together on improving the world by building a better Web.

This is a unique moment in human history. The Internet changes not only every major industry, but the way people communicate with and understand one another. It's a chance to wipe the slate clean of so many mistakes and start over. Sea changes of this magnitude have never occured before in such a short period of time. Gutenberg's metallic movable press, the Industrial Revolution, Noyce's integrated circuit, Venter's human genome project, and Berners-Lee's WWW. To be able to play a role that can make a difference is a privilege not to be wasted by anyone. Every day is an incredible adventure in creating a part of the future.

David Wetherell, 17 Jan 2000 (edited)

W3C is a fun place to be a geek, because our operating environment feels like it's a few years ahead of the rest of the industry: we were using things like wireless networking and instant messaging several years before they became mainstream (Apr 1998 and Feb 1997 respectively), and we're constantly using and testing new web technology as it develops.

But I think the thing I value most about working at W3C is its general atmosphere of honesty, openness, and collaboration (among the staff, anyway — working groups may not be so lucky.) It's refreshingly free of some of the nonsense that goes on in many people's workplaces — power struggles, deception, bureaucracy and mismanagement.

Our whole environment is based on documenting and reporting results in kind of a scientific way: citing sources, preserving records of discussions and decisions made, being free to admit fault, ...

In terms of software we support and Web technology, if something's broken we generally resist resorting to some cheap workaround; instead someone hunts around until they find the true cause of the issue, and fixes it there. (even if "there" means someone else's product, or a new piece of Web technology needs to be invented.) Contrast this with the way most people use computer technology: even when there's an obvious bug, they shrug and say "that's just the way it works, nothing we can do about it." (this is one of the things I like most about using open source software — that never happens)

Feynman's Cargo Cult Science kind of describes what I mean, especially the closing paragraph:

So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

(I think W3C has become this way largely thanks to Tim and DanC's influences)

Side projects

I also like to hack around on various stuff that interests me. Once in a while I get tempted to turn one of these hobbies into some kind of business, but I like my day job too much!

In 2002 I realized that I didn't have enough pointless paperwork in my life, so I incorporated as impressive.net, Inc.

Work/Life Balance

Working for W3C and generally geeking around tends to eat up as much time as I allow, so I've been trying to make sure I reserve enough time to have an active social life, to play outside, and see the world while maintaining close ties with family and friends. I'm glad to say that I think I have been succeeding at this. Most people work way too much, then complain about it. You don't have to work that much. You don't need all those toys.

(note: I realize that much of the world lives in poverty and may not be as fortunate as I have been — raised in a stable home in a politically stable country, with access to inexpensive education and health care. The above refers to people who choose to work too much even though they have a choice, i.e. most Americans and Canadians.)

Sometimes I feel guilty that I don't work more given how many of my colleagues pour their hearts and souls into our work. But I think a hundred happy, healthy employees working half-time would be more productive than 50 people who feel overworked, as long as they use their time wisely (and don't lose too much of it to unproductive overhead, e.g. mandatory meetings and administrivia.) And I am firmly committed to W3C's mission; if I were financially independent I think I would continue to work there as a volunteer.

misc related stuff:

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Gerald Oskoboiny, <gerald@impressive.net>