Samantha Quiñones bio photo

Polyglot hacker, writer, and speaker. Principal engineer @AOL.

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It’s 5:40 AM and my second alarm goes off. I drag myself out of bed. The room is cold and dark, lit only by a sodium lamp across the street. I have enough time for a quick shower and to finish packing the last handful of essentials before I climb in to a cab and head to the airport.

In the shower, I let the water soak my hair while I try to find my senses. My body and mind are desperate for sleep. I only got to bed at 2:30 AM and cutting back from my usual 6 hours is enough to leave me feeling miserable. When you live on the edge of sleep deprivation, it doesn’t take a lot to tip you over. I should have got to bed earlier, but I really wanted to rework this presentation. It was one of the first I ever gave at a conference and the lack of polish always upsets me. I’ve wanted to work on it every night for the past two weeks but work and other commitments always get in the way. Last night was just the first uninterrupted spell of hours I’ve had to focus on it.

I’ll keep tweaking and mentally rehearsing the presentation until it’s time to actually give it. I’ve given this talk a dozen or more times – honestly, I’ve lost count – but every time I tweak and adjust and rehearse up until the last minute. It’s the same with every talk I give. I’m never happy with them. I obsess over feedback in ways I know aren’t healthy. I say that I try to give talks that I would like to hear, but I’m not even sure I know what that means. Do I know what I like? For as much time as I spend at conferences, I just don’t attend that many talks anymore.

My cab arrives. I’m flying to Minneapolis, by way of Chicago. I’ve never been to Minneapolis before, but honestly, I won’t really have been there even after this trip. I’ll land at the airport, I’ll go to a hotel near the conference venue and that’s all I’ll see of the city before I depart in two days. Maybe I’ll go to a bar.

I’m excited to be on my way, even though I’m exhausted. I know this lack of a weekend break will haunt me for the coming week, maybe longer. I love spending time with the many friends I’ve made in the community. The conference covers my airfare and hotel, but I consider the chance to spend a few days in the company of my second family my real compensation.

I think that just like everyone else, I have this need for belonging. This community that I’m part of thrives on the contributions of its people, and I am strongly driven to contribute. The nature of my job makes it hard for me to work on open-source software, though. I’ve been blessed in my career with the chance to work on very interesting problems that have let me wander off the beaten path more than most engineers have a chance to. No matter how rewarding and stimulating it is, it takes a psychic and physical toll. I just don’t have it in me to do much open-source development. I have no spare cycles for it. I’m not much of a technical writer, either. I’m way too verbose, and I nitpick my work until I’ve beaten anything interesting right out of it.

I can tell stories, though.

It wasn’t always like this. The first time I ever spoke in public, when I was maybe 7 or 8, I was so overcome with nerves that my choked-down little voice became inaudible. I rushed through a 10-minute prepared speech in 4. It wasn’t until I was well in to my late twenties that I found the confidence to speak in public. I realized that people are eager to relate to other humans and the desire burns so strong in us that it pushes almost anything else aside. Get in front of a group of people and just talk to them – about them and what they care about and what they battle with and what can make their lives better – and there will be nothing in the world they want more than to listen to you.

I’ll admit it, I like being listened to. The attention feels good.

But stories! Boy, do I have stories! I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging, but like I said, I’ve had a charmed career so far. I’ve gotten to work with unique technologies, insane requirements, often at scales that many of my colleagues never encounter.

So that’s what I do, now. I fly around to conferences and I tell stories about my work.

It’s how I try to give back. When I submit papers to conferences, I’m really submitting a list of things I’ve been working on and thinking about and struggling with. A list of things that I think might be interesting diversions for my fellow engineers. Things that might make them think, or inspire them to take new paths in their own work. To consider going down roads that they might not have considered before.

My flight’s actually leaving a few minutes early and the middle seat in my row is empty. It’s rare good fortune to be able to work comfortably on an airplane. Is it wrong to be excited for an opportunity to do more work? I consider buying Wi-fi access and connecting to my work VPN so I can make a little headway on one of my projects, but you know, sometimes you just have to take some time for yourself.

Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself. I mean, I couldn’t if I didn’t love it, but it’s so draining sometimes. I know that as soon as I am back home, after work on Monday, it will be time to work on two new talks I’m giving in April. I put dozens of hours in to a new talk, and spend dozens more in my Sisyphean struggle to smooth it out. I honestly don’t know where I’m going to find the time, though I know I will. Sometimes I envy developer evangelists who get to focus more on community engagement and education and inspiration as part of their jobs than I do. It seems like the perfect job, but then, everything looks great from the outside, when the troubles are someone else’s.

Even so, I wonder, what would my well of stories contain if I stopped doing the kind of work I do? Am I still the same person if I don’t tell the kinds of stories I tell? Have I really let this hobby – let’s call it what it is – define me?

Ah, well, it’s just an idle thought. Good for passing time on a flight to Minneapolis, by way of Chicago.