It was the spring of 2009, and I’d just moved to London. Which made it the autumn of 2009. I had got a promotion at work. No longer an engineer on Launchpad, I was now its Product Strategist, and thus was moving to the UK.
Moving to London was a big change. If you are like me, then any big move triggers questions about what other things you could change, apart from your location. Perhaps I’ll join a gym when I get there, or maybe try to cook more – things like that.
One change that I thought about a lot was dressing better. Or at least, looking back it seems that way. What actually happened was I grew my hair long and gained five or ten kilos. In my memory, though, I distinctly recall thinking about smartening up my look. What can you do?
In particular, I wanted to start wearing suits – good suits. I’m sure I’d look great in a good suit. It’s very hard for most men not to look unusually smart in a suit, this is the great secret of men’s fashion. Since London is the home of Savile Row and since I had a bit more money than I was used to, I thought maybe I could get a suit made.
Thing is, Savile Row suits are expensive. And a computer programmer who works from home has very little call to ever actually wear one. And the whole reason I want to train as a valet is because I find ironing, folding, hanging and tending clothes both tedious and difficult. Even had I saved to get a tailored suit, it would probably have hung alone in my wardrobe while I sat slumped on the couch in my hoodie and jeans, eating yet another sticky toffee pudding. “And what if I ever lost weight?”, I’d think as I helped myself to another pint.
Bespoke suits are not for me. Perhaps not bespoke anything. After all, to have something tailor-made will always be expensive, and thus reserved for the very wealthy or perhaps for those who need highly customized clothing or equipment in order to truly excel. Maybe Djokovic has a custom tennis racket or something. I really wouldn’t know.
And yet, last night I was talking to a bunch of fellow geeks – professional programmers and sysadmins – about the way our computers are set up. We each use this weird editor or that obscure window manager, customized with an arsenal of scripts that we’ve honed over the previous years to the point where no one else would be able to actually use our computers. I don’t even use a QWERTY keyboard.
Our virtual environments have each been tailor-made by us, for us. They are like bespoke suits in that they are customized for a particular, unusually demanding, person. Just like someone else who tried to wear your tailored suit, anyone else who used our computers would feel distinctly uncomfortable. Indeed, many would find the computers entirely unusable.
And yet the shoe doesn’t quite fit. I can wear my (sadly, still hypothetical) tailored suit, but I can wear something off the Marks & Spencers rack just as easily. Likewise, just as most people would have difficulty using my customized setup, I struggle to use an off-the-shelf system. Not so much because my standards are high, but because my habits are _weird_.
Most geeks I know are not fully comfortable in their desktop environments. There is always something that bugs them, something that could be done better, some process that’s more tedious than it needs to be. You don’t get that in a suit from the Row. The wearer is the tailor. The programmer makes programs with programs the programmer makes.
Further, while the suit is made to fit the man, the adaptation in a computer environment goes both ways. As the programmer makes improvements to the environment, they learn how to navigate that environment better. Even the improvements made are reactionary and incremental, making it much more like a mutual growth than a made-to-measure suit.
I guess the clue is in the name: my relationship to my unique environment is symbiotic. Which makes my brain fizz with questions: is advantage gained by being able to adapt your virtual environment to yourself as big as the advantage humanity has with adapting its physical environment? what about the isolation that comes from customization? as more people (I hope) know how to program, does that mean that more and more software will be programmable?
And would you spring a couple of thousand quid to help me get a proper suit?
Next week’s word: crisis.