In the Back of the House

I got my first job at fifteen, going on sixteen. I worked for my hometown newspaper as an inserter, and as time passed, I began filling in occasionally as a “pressman.” Inserters were a collective bunch of old ladies (and me) who made spare money assembling the newspaper sections and stuffing in the ad inserts. When I got to help with the actual printing, it took the form of developing, treating, and bending the lithographic plates in preparation for printing. More often, I caught the papers as they rolled off the press to bundle them up for distribution. I also cleaned up, sweeping and trash takeout and the like, but I wasn’t good at it. I liked to take breaks to play my guitar at the back of the shop, so I think the editor-in-chief who ran things probably was annoyed as piss at me half the time.

There was no question I worked in the bowels of the operation. The real fun (and to the extent a small, rural paper could afford it, the real money) happened at the front of the building where the editor-in-chief and reporters worked. I passed through to gather up trash a few times a week. As I went, I admired the editor-in-chief’s ancient typewriter collection in his office. I enjoyed talking to the lead reporter, who loved Star Trek. The layout team’s work fascinated me, especially as they transitioned to digital layout from cutting and splicing pieces of paper together.

After my tour, I returned to the back, and I only heard from the front when it was time to go to press or when we had to stop the presses. We weren’t a separate world by any means, but we had a job to do, and that job was entirely a pragmatic one, keeping the machinery running and enabling the actual enterprise which paid us. Inasmuch as I felt like an important part of the whole, it was in a sense of responsibility toward the final product.

About a decade later, I stumbled across my current programming thing. Now I find myself at the back of the house again. The work echoes my first job sometimes—working on the machinery, keeping things running, along with other programmers and operations folks. This time the job comes with a dose of values dissonance for me. It feels like a wildly inverted amount of prestige goes to us, to the people running the machines, instead of the others who are closer to the actual creation (and the customers using it).

I’m not sure our perceived value is unwarranted—programming is hard. I’m more concerned about the relationship between the front and back of the house. It could be that we, as programmers and tech people, undervalue the people making the content and interacting with the customers. I see the skewed relationship when I look at inflated tech salaries. It makes itself evident in startups made up of all or mostly engineers. I felt it most acutely when I considered becoming a tech writer, only to be reminded it could derail my career and cost me monetarily.

I don’t think my observation comes with a cogent point. Maybe only that tech can’t be just about the engineering, no more than a newspaper can be only a printing press.