The Importance of Novelty and its Absence in Tech Today
A personal account of trying to recover from burnout and disappointment brought on by a very uninspired tech industry.
A few people have talked to me about the tech industry and have been asking me why I’m not clamoring to find myself another full-time engineering job. Well, pull up a chair and let me tell you a little story about myself.
I. Love. Novelty.
Novelty is exhilarating. Novelty is needed. People can survive doing the same routine every day, but they need Novelty to thrive. This has always been my philosophy, and yet, I find myself stuck in a rut today.
My parents are both immigrants to the United States; my mother is from Berlin and my father is from Shanghai. My childhood home was a mishmash of cultures, with walls adorned with Chinese scrolls depicting red-crowned cranes and fireplace mantels populated with little Räuchermänner smoking incense. To me, my physical environment was just as impactful and important to me as my relationships, parenting styles, and other intangible concepts. Furthermore, my multicultural upbringing caused me to see the world as one state with one people. The advent of the internet only reinforced that mindset.
When I was a kid, my dad worked on some of the first explorations of online social experiences at a few small startups. I got my first computer when I was six years old and on it, I got to beta-test many of these experiences. While he was excited at the prospect of expanding potential user bases and profits across the global market, I was excited at the prospect of users being able to customize and share their experiences with people from all over the world.
The Nintendo Wii’s release in 2006 signified a revolution to me; it demonstrated that technological experiences could be integrated into our physical surroundings instead of confined to a flat screen. I started dreaming of a future in which tapping an option on your vanity mirror could change your actual outfit’s colors and patterns, just like a character selection screen in a game; or a future in which just looking at an artifact in a museum would somehow immerse you in the world from which it came, with more context and sentimentality than any written plaque could provide.
With these ideas in mind, I discovered many people doing related research. For example, I discovered Johnny Chung Lee, who reverse engineered the Nintendo Wiimote to make head-tracking software, and Chris Harrison, whose invention, Skinput, uses a person’s skin as an input device using bone density sensors. Coincidentally, nearly all the people I found were PhD students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. That’s when I knew I had to go there.
Four years later, I graduated CMU with a degree in Computer Science and an additional major in Human-Computer Interaction. However, it wasn’t all that I hoped. The curriculum was devoid of the fun experimentation I was looking for, and instead focused on design principles and interviewing techniques to be used in a career in user experience research. While applying to PhD programs, I had an important conversation with myself and discovered that I’m more hard-wired to be a painter than I am a paint maker. I applied to jobs that I thought would give me the opportunity to be the artist, but the ecosystem didn’t seem to be there to support it. Google Glass fell short, AR experiences were largely confined to pocket phone experiences, and VR was prohibitively expensive.
Instead, I utilized my computer science education to become a software (mostly frontend) engineer in San Francisco for the last 9 years. I shifted my focus and aimed to work for companies whose missions greatly aligned with my own values:
- Adobe, to give creators the tools to do their best work
- Yammer, to improve communication across all functions of a company
- Honor, to serve our frequently preyed upon elderly population
- Patreon, to enable passionate creators to make a sustainable income
At each and every job, I found ways to inject my own flavor of creativity, whether it was in the form of colorful presentation decks, fun hackday videos, thoughtfully crafted design systems, or cute mascots for 404 pages. At each and every job, I met amazing colleagues and new friends. With each new job came more seniority and responsibility, which eventually equated to more stress and less time to explore creatively. By my 8th year in tech, I had burnt myself to the ground and felt as though I had lost my creative spark. In May 2020, I left my job, and for the first time in my career, didn’t have another lined up.
During my few months of (f)unemployment, I reflected over the past decade and realized the things that excited me most were centered around Novelty.
Let me explain.
In 2018, I and some friends of mine attended Burning Man for the first time. We created our own nuclear winter wonderland camp over the course of the summer, and constructed it in a matter of just a few days during a dust storm. Exploring the worlds that we and others had created that week was utterly awe-inspiring. Unlike the virtual worlds we create in games and online communities, here were actual, tangible places I could go to with my friends and use all our five senses to experience. The makeshift city was a reminder that a world exists outside of tech, and we have the power to change our communities and society. When living in the Bay Area tech scene (and in my case, when born into it), it’s so easy to get tunnel-visioned to the point at which you only live and breathe tech. Throughout my career, I was always involved in communities outside of tech, but my techie brain oftentimes seemed incompatible with, and even hated by, those other communities I was a part of.
When I travel, I naturally center trips around an immersive experience. While in Italy, I dropped by Luzern, Switzerland just to visit the Swiss Chocolate Adventure, an educational darkroom ride that travels through rooms of antique chocolate-making equipment and light projections. In NYC, I visited Spyscape, a museum with interactive exhibits that emulate real spy tasks to educate visitors on their strengths as a potential MI-6/CIA agent. When passing through Antwerp, Belgium, I stopped by Chocolate Nation, an audio-guided experience with exhibits that react to your movements in the museum. The list goes on. In every experience, I leave feeling like a child visiting Disneyland: inspired to explore and learn more. Chronic stress causes people to lose the motivation and energy to explore and learn. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by people struggling through their 9–5, only looking forward to their future Netflix and chill sessions after work. In my last couple of years, I felt myself being pulled into that reality and vehemently ran away from it before I fell in too deep.
This past summer, I took a 12-week intensive Studio Art in Computer Science course at Gray Area in San Francisco. I worked to loosen up my own engineering standards for immaculate code and give myself permission to program more creatively. I got a license for MadMapper and played with projection mapping around my home and use the my frontend skills to create animations and illustrations. These exercises reminded me of the importance of unhinged creativity and the freedom to create impractical things with the sole purpose of bringing joy. In a tech career, it can be easy to fall into a role or a state in which everything must be purposeful and exact. A lot of us got into engineering because we loved to tinker as kids, but oftentimes we forget how to enjoy the act of tinkering because we’re overly focused on the bottom line.
My peers ask me: “Why not work in VR? Or AR?” The answer to that is simple: I don’t want to contribute to the ongoing divorce of society from the real, tangible world. The technological future, to me, has always been in finding how we can better meld technology into our lives to truly inspire and even emphasize all that makes us human. I want us as a society to live in the moment rather than be glued to a fabricated online reality.
I’m continuing to keep my engineering skills sharp as a freelance developer and I’m offering UX services as a consultant. I’ll continue to write articles about what I’ve learned while in industry. Who knows, maybe I’ll be right back in the startup musical chairs game in just a year’s time. For now though, after working in industry for nearly a decade, I’m itching to work on experiences that aren’t confined to a magical black rectangle.
Screw the rules, I have green hair. Self-employed technologist with a decade long career in frontend engineering, graphic and brand design, and user experience research. Enjoys the intersection between the arts, psychology, and technology.