After ~15 years of programming as a hobby and career, I’m finally starting to diverge from my life as a software engineer. This Fall I’ll be starting on a new path as a graduate student in Urban Planning at NYU. I want to take a moment to write a bit about my motivation of making such a decision, as leaving a cozy career in tech in favor of a yet-to-be-thought-through path down the hole of urban planning is, to many, a strange one.
A brief backstory: in middle school I was always obsessed with New York City. Each time I’d come down from my tiny hometown in central New York to visit, I would get this feeling of awe as I approached the city. I will always remember the excitement building as the lights of Manhattan would start lighting up the clouds in the sky until, finally, the skyline would emerge in the distance.
After crossing the Holland tunnel everything would always feel different- as if I’d crossed a portal into a world very foreign than what I was accustomed to. I didn’t know it at the time, but the crossing of that tunnel felt like a transformation because I was going from the dull and dead environment of rural and suburban America into a city that had actual life on its streets. It was a complete departure from the urban landscapes I was accustomed to in upstate New York: the six lane wide streets and parking lots and endless lines of loud cars. New York presented itself as a beautiful, alien world. Narrow streets with wide sidewalks, bustling shops, bars, and restaurants lining their edges. People walking on the streets. A subway system that could transport me quickly from one neighborhood to another, each with a completely different feeling and culture than the last. Public parks and plazas that you could loiter in as long as you’d like without feeling like you needed to buy something. Cyclists that were on the street not just for recreation, but because that was their primary means of getting around.
As I grew older and explored more of the world, I began to open my eyes as to what was the secret ingredient that made New York such a special place to me: it was the only big city I could find in the United States where I felt a first-class citizen without a car. Over time this realization engulfed my perception of the rest of America. I noticed similar feelings crop up while spending time in European cities like Madrid, Brussels, or Amsterdam. I even began doubting New York as a haven of automotive suppression. Things like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway’s enormously disruptive bisection of Brooklyn became a more glaringly obvious concession to wealthy car-owners than normal features of urban infrastructure. Or the realization that there was no technical reason that trash must stew on the sidewalks of the city- it’s simply because car-owning residents refuse to give up free parking.
All of this is say, I’ve found myself immensely frustrated with the current state of urban planning in the United States and especially New York. All the while I had a realization that I truly love studying and talking about all aspects of cities. Transportation networks, housing markets, local economies, politics, parks, plazas- you name it, I want to learn about it.
As these realizations occurred I simultaneously noticed a growing feeling of estrangement with my career as a software engineer. The problems I face as a programmer don’t give me the same mental stimulus they once did. I still do enjoy programming, but I feel that the growth in my abilities have plateaued as of late due to my interests being elsewhere. I’ve instead found joy and growth in devouring information about cities and working as an activist for safer streets in my neighborhood. Sure, I could likely find a career as a software engineer for an urban-oriented tech company, but I think I need a break from a purely engineering job, at least for a while to try something new.
After all of these thoughts, I ended up realizing that now is as good a time as any to jump down a rabbit hole of learning and surrounding myself with smart people interested in the same thing that I am. I’m fortunate enough to be able to describe my pandemic experience as a dull year of staying indoors, which has allowed and/or inspired me to try to take some risks; to throw myself off of some arbitrary cliff and see what happens.
Honestly, I have no idea what kind of career or life path will emerge out of this decision. I have no expectations of some kind of high-impact career; the lies of Silicon Valley telling me to “make my dent in the universe” have long since faded from my psyche. I simply want an interesting academic experience- to come out on the other side a slightly different person than when I came in. If that leads to some kind of career as an urban planner, that’s awesome. If not, I can say I spent a couple of years nerding out on a topic I was interested in and be content with the experience.