Deep Work

A few days of being sick with COVID-19 at the end of April 2022 allowed me to finish reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. It is one of the most important books I have read in the last few years. Beyond just learning something new, it provided the justification and the motivation that I needed to start taking concrete steps toward having more depth in my work. This blog is one such step.

Throughout high school and college, I created—and quickly abandoned—blogs, websites, and phpBB forums. I participated in various mailing lists and generally found fulfillment in the free exchange of knowledge. Over the last 15 years or so, I began treating the internet more and more as a read-only resource. After all, what can I say that is genuinely useful or interesting, won’t get lost in all the noise, and hasn’t been said hundreds of times already on Hacker News, Slashdot, Reddit, and other sites? I’m trying not to care about that anymore. This blog is for me—to help me focus on work that is meaningful.

After graduating from UMD in 2008 with a degree in computer science, I joined a bioinformatics research institute where I stayed for almost 10 years. The work was interesting, I enjoyed the collaborations we had, I was learning a lot, I got to publish papers, and I made contributions that lead to patents and awards. I loved that environment and I’m grateful to the people who enabled it. But I started getting too comfortable and felt like I was stagnating as a software engineer. I interviewed with Google in 2014, but had reservations about both the company and moving to California. Finally, in 2017, I left for my first tech startup. As of two weeks ago, I am now on my fourth.

In thinking about the differences between my research and startup work, depth seems to be the main distinguishing factor. Although I have learned more in my five-year startup journey in terms of technologies, languages, and best practices, I have significantly fewer external accomplishments to show for it. That’s disappointing, especially considering that the pace of the work was so much faster. Of course, not all startups are the same, but for me, the culture of “fake it till you make it,” open office environments, endless meetings, Jira, and a focus on quickly building MVPs and demos at the expense of well-thought-out long-term solutions, all consumed years with little value in the end. I’m still glad to have had this experience.

Depth yielded joy in my early programming adventures, going all the way back to my teenage years. Reading Deep Work reminded me how I used to be able to read Intel’s Software Developer Manuals and write my own x86 boot loaders just for fun without my mind demanding regular fixes of shallow distraction. The experience is best described in the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which I read at the start of the pandemic, but understanding the components of flow was insufficient to reliably reproduce the state. As I start my new job, I hope to establish some new habits in an effort to re-discover what I once loved about creating new things.