Bigger Than Profit

Debi in helmetNote: This post is part of a series of blog posts related to Jebraweb's "This I Believe" statements. You can read about them in our first post, "Welcome to Jebraweb."

Fair warning: if my father -- who worked harder and for more hours and more tirelessly than anyone I know, squeezing profit from every possible piece of his expertise that he could -- saw this post, he would fly here from his retirement community and do everything he could to shake some sense into me as I admit this unforgiveable truth: I don't really need to make a fortune.

A little back story, here: I have both a BA and an MA in English and entered the world of web site development in 1996, just as the graphical web was really taking off. Everyone used dial-up modems, disabling their call-waiting before calling into their internet service providers to wait forever and ever while the home page for AOL loaded. My first job -- according to the job posting and what I learned in my interview -- was supposed to be writing reviews of web sites for a new search engine where every site indexed would have a description and review. You read that correctly: I would be reviewing every site in a search engine index. It was ambitious but, in 1996, it was by no means impossible. However, this was the dot com boom, and between getting the "you're hired!" phone call and walking in on my first day, the company's business plan had changed entirely. Now, it would be an internet advertising network, buying and selling banner ad space via live, streamed internet auction.

"Here," my new boss told me, handing me a shiny new book called HTML for the World Wide Web, "Can you figure this out and build us a web site?"


allaire cold fusion home pageI'd worked on writing content for CDRom training materials in college, using development software for interactive multimedia, so I wasn't afraid of computers. I was, however, afraid of not having rent money. I got to work learning HTML. Over the next few years, as that dot-com failed and I bounced from one internet consulting firm to the next, I also learned Adobe Cold Fusion (which, as companies and software changed hands over and over, had begun as Allaire Cold Fusion and then was Macromedia Cold Fusion, before Adobe swallowed it whole), went to classes to learn Adobe PhotoShop, and became one of the last generation of web developers to learn it all on my own -- few computer science programs in the country were doing anything with the world wide web when we were in college.

Like many techies of the late nineties, before the bubble burst, it was easy for me to move from job to job and make more and more money each time. My skills were sought after, but more than that, my personality set me apart from the others. I was one of the few at the time who both enjoyed technology and code AND could be sent in to meet directly with a client. I was personable where many of my colleagues preferred to be left alone in their cubicles to code. My bosses took me on sales calls, gave me project management duties, and put me in charge of writing documentation and proposals. The salaries were far more than I could have ever expected with my English degrees, but I never took the time to appreciate it until I finally walked into a place where my ethics got in the way of my newfound love of fancy coffee drinks.

In 1999, I left my consulting job to take a position as the head of technology for a fabulously ritzy-looking advertising agency on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The pay was fantastic, the view gorgeous, and the job, by the time I arrived, still undefined. My boss had been fired three days before I started. As I waited for staff to be hired above and beneath me, I was privately told that there really just wasn't much work for me. The firm would keep me around so that there was indeed a Director of Technology, but mostly, I'd just attend meetings. The firm's clients were enormous -- a producer of a national brand of hardware and tools; a fast food company; a multinational manufacturer so large that I couldn't even figure out what they did. I sat in my office for three weeks, day after day, waiting for something interesting to do. Under my window, a saxophone player squeaked out the first few bars of the Sanford & Son theme song all day long.

fred sanford

The money, it turned out, just was not enough.

After a few weeks of this, I got a call from a friend who had left my last consulting job right before I had. She had gone to the American Library Association, and when she was in her boss' office, she saw a job posting on the desk for a cold fusion programmer. "Are you interested, Debi?" she asked over the phone.

I sure was. I applied for, was offered, and accepted the job at $7,000 per year less than my boring job at the ad agency. No one batted an eye when I left. Working at a large non-profit organization, especially one that glorified literacy, knowledge, information sharing, and thoughtful use of technology, was utterly fantastic. I didn't resent the drop in income for a moment when I realized what compensation I was getting instead: self-respect.

All these years later (after leaving ALA only because my youngest daughter, born five years into my job there, was ill and needed to be cared for at home), that is a lesson deeply burned into my soul. The money is not the most important thing.  I know that in the same way that I know all my values -- be nice to people, share delicious food, be patient with children and the elderly, admit what I don't know -- and it has informed my decisions about how to run my own business as much as any other value. Here's how:

  • I'd rather work for less for a non-profit than make more working with a soulless corporation.
  • The relationships I build with my clients are more important than how much I bill them.
  • My hourly rate doesn't have to be as much as other people who do what I do; it just has to be enough to make me feel valued.

In the end, I know I could make more money doing this for someone other than the clients I have chosen to serve. My path, however, has brought me to a place where I've melded my expertise, my values, and my personality into something I care about. It's making me a living, not a fortune, but most importantly: it's making me happy.

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