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Escape From The Suburbs - I’m Finally a New Yorker!

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 01/07/2013

I’m a New Yorker. It took me eight years and three jobs and a wife and kid to really, truly start feeling that way. It wasn’t the Broadway shows. It wasn’t the bright lights or the insiders’ city. Nor was it really even the tech-meetups and access to J&R and B&H (which turned out to be three big points). Rather, it was giving up a car and finding the new family, neighborhood, job and mission in life that suited me. I found it all. I made it here. And this article is about that transformation to urban life and greater happiness, which is still playing out.

For many of my first years in New York City, I felt I was “wasting a slot”. But now, I wouldn’t return to the ‘burbs and the New Deal American Dream (car in every garage) “bill-of-goods” for anything. While other peoples’ experiences are surely different, when I hear “a suburban life”, I finally get what they’re saying. This article is about the painful process of transition, and my plans now that I have this new perspective.

I plan on raising my daughter Adi with all the city-smarts I can, surrounded by two-or-three world-class everything’s (museums, schools, art, etc.)—fortified with all the suburban smarts that’s necessary—and that means driving… yep, only driving and just about nothing else. James Bond-like freedom-of-mobility is the ‘burb’s major cultural contribution, and I plan for Adi to have the driving advantage. I have long ago learned to trade a small, easily-kept apartment full of only the things I need and really enjoy, instead of constructing some sort of material-stuff show-off poser shrine room like my parents did with the “living room”… living room… ha!

But the process of getting to urban bliss was painful. It was against my nature. I was giving up a life dropped into my lap father essentially died and left it to me. It would have been all too easy to step-into the life of a check-casher, peeling off twenties from a fat wad of cash to get through a life using the ever-present flow of cash, from which you extracted a tiny bit every time the weekly tidal flow of cash went out and in. And I actually did this for a time because I believed I had to for the estate. And I shot a guy. But that’s a story for another time.

My dad died when I was graduating college as a commuter student. I stepped into his shoes walked into his life on the same day he died—running his check-cashing business which just had to be kept running, because to not do so would be to lose the good-will of the clientele—all a company like that is really worth.

A ready-made life was a powerful trap—but not nearly so much as the high-tech bizarro world that existed in the Philly ‘burbs. Motorola was there. Unisys was there. Honeywell was there. Philly ‘burbs were (and still are) indeed high-tech. But nothing even compared to the granddaddy mothership of high-tech, which inexplicably was a 40-minute drive AWAY from the city from where I lived… Commodore.

In the ‘burbs, I was a dreamer and miraculously hooked up with Commodore, that other incongruously located dreamer in the Philly ‘burbs. They were a remarkable company that was gradually going dumb by being relocated into the ‘burbs—but I didn’t know that at the time. I just saw it as more evidence to support my King of Prussia area is the center of the world theory, halfway between New York and DC. And I worked for Commodore as a student intern from Drexel. And I was able to hop into the network of companies that spun-off, but still stayed quite suburban. And that was a trap from which I might have never escaped, were it not for my catalyst-in-residence, Adam Edwards, but that’s a story for another time.

Long story short, I followed Adam and moved to New York to become a Vice President of a company at a suburbanly unimaginable salary. I did it fast, dumping much aspects of my prior life that had gone horribly askew—fighting the suburban mediocrity that deeply infected the Commodore ex-patriots who ran my current place of employ.

It turned out that fighting “the man” in the ‘burbs was like physical training on top of a mountain where the air was thin, then suddenly coming down to sea-level where the oxygen is thick and you suddenly can run twice as far. Everyone talks about New Yorkers as such intense accomplishers. I found them to be pussy cats. It turned out that what I had been doing fighting the entrenchment-afflicted Commodorians was the equivalent of natural blood doping—but with skills and ability.

In my new role as VP, I was able to rewrite the internal time management systems, overhaul the website, create a Web 2.0 site—that’s still alive to this day (HitTail). all the while, I was still client-facing, managing employees, and occasionally even worked as an embedded employee at client locations as a high-tech hired gun. However, being a high-tech super-athelete in NYC had its price.

I was in that “Atlas” role in the company that I so frequently found myself in in my life. To be saddled with Atlas-syndrome is to be good at all things then go to where the general competency level is low—especially in the upper-ranks. Then what you do is tip your hand about your vast scope and breadth of ability, wonderful work ethic, and ability to be happy with little more compensation. Then, one of the truisms kicks in. Just because you can necessarily means you should. Then watch all the work flow to you, like you’re at the center of a work-attracting gravity-well—you being crushed at the center of it all. You can’t climb out of your own gravity-well.

Being Atlas—carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders—sucks! You think it’s great experience and resume building, which it is, but it’s also a soul-sucking life energy-sink. This is energy that you can—and perhaps should—be putting into your own company, if only your education prepared you for formulaic entrepreneurialism, such as the Stanford machine prepares you for. Set expectations high. Go into a mountain of debt for school, then you HAVE TO make a big success of yourself, or be drowned in debt your whole life. There’s better ways.

Atlas was how I worked in the suburbs, because it was a natural default state. You looked around you, and no one was working at a highly motivated world-class level. There was no hunger. And so being hungry yourself, you (me) seek out those smallest changes that make the biggest impact, then you line them up and do one after another after another. You become a high impact player. You make a difference. Then you burn out, because without the kind of promotion that it should lead to, there is no end game.

Now at the Commodore spin-off, I actually made a percentage of company gross revenue (not net—but gross!). This created the illusion of there being an end-game and stuck me in that particular quagmire for longer than I probably should have. I got better and better at what I did, and then for growth, I had to control the hardware too—and that’s when I ran afoul of the resident hardware-Nazi. Now, I’m not saying he was a true Nazi, but he did propose a few “final solutions” to the Middle East dilemma that wouldn’t bode too well for my people. Suffice to say, I kicked his ass politically, free’d up my servers, and drove the company to unprecedented profits. I got skilled, but I got bitter and it was unhealthy. I had aligned myself with the wrong tribe. The grand original tribe that was Commodore unwittingly wasn’t the tribe to which I should have belonged. It was the Atari folks who actually made everything I loved about Commodore, and Commodore proceeded to promptly ruin it. They will say that they saved Commodore from bankruptcy by shoehorning the Amiga 1000 into the Commodore 128 rocklobster one-piece design, which sold 4 million units and “saved Commodore”. That’s bullshit. It was just the Commodore engineers peeing on Atari work, that could have been cost-reduced and fundamentally improved much more intelligently in the hands of better stewards.

There was something mind-bogglingly cool about Amiga hardware. I immediately was drawn to it and identified with it. The details are for another time. Suffice to say, everything it represented disappeared from the industry, and even the Commodore spin-off for which I worked only provided a weak methadone high for the heroin withdrawal from the Amiga Computer. I shit you not. Google this stuff. Amiga fanboys are in a class by themselves. Not becoming a fan-boy trapped in the past is another pitfall I just barely avoided, and some would argue that I didn’t.

Okay, so all my tribe affiliation-ship was ripped away from me. My home in the ‘burbs as the true center of the world—Commodore as the torch-carrier of creative computing—Scala as a place where I could ascend in ranks—even my immediate family dying off and going crazy (stories for another time)… all of it gone. And so with nothing else to lose, I hopped over to New York when the opportunity presented itself to see if I could make it there.

As a confirmed suburbanite, with actually even a little bit of feeling of superiority in my suburban-ness, I had a difficult time transitioning. I took an apartment 5 blocks from work and managed to avoid the subway as a main means of transportation for a year or two. I realized I was damaging myself by doing this, so I tagged along with Adam (remember, my catalyst), who went apartment shopping, and I took a tiny studio in the Upper West Side near Columbia University that he passed over. I met my wife on my way home from work on that train (another story to tell), and truly started my transition to New Yorker

Anne Rice speaks of the transformation of a living human into a vampire in her books. It’s a sweaty, long ordeal with old hungers going away and new hungers setting in. Old world-views and perspectives suddenly become obsolete, and the new ones are… well… they’re hard to swallow. But eventually they do, and they become comfortable and even prefer their new vampire state with heightened senses and broader insight into life. Yeah… that’s kinda the first thing I think of when trying to describe going from smug suburbanite to urban.

And so what now? My friggn’ field in the big city is SEO (search engine optimization) for the uninitiated. The field was “the shit” when Google reigned supreme, and the pages resulting from searches on “profitable keywords” were not dominated by ads of all sorts (AdWords, Google Shopping, etc.). It’s a transition undergoing seismic change—as I like to say. And it’s true. It’s a less interesting career for a litany-list of reasons. If I were still in the suburbs having to help second-tier companies win second-tier sales, it would still be a perfectly viable career. But to stay in SEO while living in NYC would amount to nothing less than the return of suburbanism to me. Helping companies conquer obscure low-volume keywords in a bid to win long sales-cycle product sales. Great for Scala. Pretty crummy for the type of consumer-oriented Fortune 500’s I now service.

There are plenty of counter-arguments, and I know them all. I even believe them to some degree. The problem is longevity and forward-thinking. I’m planning for the day when Nexus 7 and iPad Mini type devices are delivered into your mailbox for free by Amazon to predispose your spending habits. Among the richest people and companies in the world continue to be the hard goods peddlers like Ikea and Wal-Mart. For these folks, dropping a $50 device to every customer in exchange for the privilege of predisposing your shopping habits is not only likely, but indeed obvious. It’s as obvious as the rise of mobile displacing so much desktop activity, because mobile is intensely more personal and always on you.

And so it is with SEO. All search tools with the EXCEPTION of Google will have a tiered logic-driven system to search primary data sources that match your search type BEFORE it searches the messy web-crawl data that is Google’s family jewels. Why would you search Google for restaurants over Yelp? Google knows this, so they bought Zagat in an attempt to be primary-source data. Why search the messy web for general knowledge when you could search Wikipedia directly? When searching on the iPhone’s “Search iPhone” box, it first searches the phone, then offers to search the Web (using whoever you have set) and to search Wikipedia directly! If using Siri, it will hit Wolfram Alpha and other primary-ish data sources first before hitting Google.

Yep, so Google will remain a player. Just not the world-dominant player that they were for the past 15 years. Other companies have gotten their act together. Other companies can just go and take the $200 tablet spec that NVidia has published for anyone to use and slap out a 7-inch tablet on par with the Nexus 7. Acer had already announced they’re going to do that, and get it down to a $150 (previously $100). And they’re all going to try to avoid Android. Samsung already announced their intention to use Tizen, a non-Android mobile Linux, on some of their future phones to try to break Google’s hold. Ubuntu just announced a brilliant unified interface across mobile, TVs, tablets and computers that could break the iOS/Android duopoly. Things can change fast in tech.

That’s the sort of world I’m preparing for. In fact, I started this process years ago in a way that very much paralleled my move to New York—my move off of Windows and onto Linux—both as server tech in my work, and as my desktop environment in my day-to-day. Servers were easier. Ditching IIS/SQL Server for Debian / no database was a pleasure. Switching from Windows XP to (first Mac OX and then to) Ubuntu as my daily work environment was a bit harder—both philosophically and in practice. But I did it—only keeping a Windows 7 laptop around for Office, because my company is handcuffed by Exchange.

And so transition, rewiring my brain, and fixing tribe affiliation is the rule in my life. The consistent background theme that helps me keep my identity and not go crazy is one of excellence. It’s one of personal best. It’s one of living right at the edge of your capabilities where it’s interesting, and not in the comfortable, cozy zone of the known.

I’m as much a New Yorker as all the other foreigners who flood in and make it here. I’ve planted new roots, and have gone through several sub-transitions here—switching jobs, getting married, switching to Linux, having kid, buying into a co-op (in that order)—using New York as my base of operations. It all worked out. I’m currently fending off a political attack by a neighbor that to all objective observers appears irrational, petty, and potentially dangerous to my child. We will prevail in that too, and that will be a story for another time too… perhaps very soon.

Grabbing for the brass ring (does anyone really even know that expression anymore?) is scary, but necessary. Taking whatever steps you need to in order to see beyond the mundane daily-grind of mediocrity that often surrounds us is necessary. Breaking deeply-held, but no longer useful tribal affiliations is necessary. None of this is easy, and none of it plays out quickly. These are years-long transitions that take planning, and insight, and maybe even a little bit of luck.

But life is not just the genetic jackpot. And life is not just the geographic jackpot. I will be the first to admit that genetics and geography deal you your first and most important hand in life. There’s no denying that being born into certain ethnic groups in the Sudan has irrevocably stacked the odds against you. But for privileged American suburbanites who are sheltered from the harshness of life and have become correspondingly soft and complacent, the world really is your oyster. And the world is not distributed evenly. There’s just so much more of it, in New York. For example, there was the woman who was destined to become my wife.

So to all of you in those earlier formative years; to all of you who I am encouraging to program on Raspberry Pi’s and other similar devices; to all of you already at the age that I am preparing to help years from now as a result of the education curriculum I’m planning for Adi—to all of you, I say to consider urban life, and particularly New York City, for some time. Don’t think of it as a right of passage. Think of it as doing justice to yourself. Think of it as giving yourself the opportunities you deserve in life. Do it while you have the flexibility and daring as a young individual to endure a transition or two.