Zack's Blog

The Dark Side of Why I Write Software

Published 2014-05-08 4 min read

Motivation is a big part of programming for me. Why I do what I do…why write programs when there are many other options for what to do with the hours in which I work? And closely related, why write this kind of program vs another kind of program?

The answer for me is easy, but you won’t believe me. It’s trite…it’s expected…and heck, even an HBO Series is making fun of this part of Silicon Valley, but oh well…here goes:

I program computers to make the world a better place.

I’m a devout optimist and in a past life, figuratively speaking, I’ve gone on record at conferences in front of 2000+ people to the same effect. I was being genuine, that’s really who I am. The trick though, is it’s not for any reason you could probably think of…

The Dark Side of Zack

I’m so hopeful for technology because I had a difficult childhood. So many have had it far worse, so I don’t hold this as some unique story of woe…all I can do is reflect on my own story, and in my adult years I’ve processed much of what I’m about to write down.

A fractured childhood is the best way I can think of to describe it…on the one hand, my real family that I spent 90% of my time in childhood was the very picture of the Brady Bunch…truly incredible and still is to this day. We love each other, we make time for each other, and we have so many fond memories and ongoing traditions that bind us together.

But that 10%, well, that 10% destroyed a part of me. You see, I had a very abusive birth mother. That thing, the love of a mother for a child that seems like it should be written in stone somewhere, was a broken promise in my childhood. Against a backdrop of her drug use, extremely violent boyfriends, and an environment that preyed on us daily, my trust in people was broken.

I can remember laying on the ground in some public housing apartment in South Seattle while a gunman tried to break into the apartment and get to us. I can remember the coked out boyfriend turning violent when he came home after we accidentally broke something in the house (I was eight?). And then there was the Vietnam vet that broke my leg in a PTSD rage…I remember the Bugs Bunny stamp on my cast but it took a while for my brain to realize my leg was broken because of violence not an accident. Trauma to a young brain is sometimes inexplicable.

Turning Inward

So probably like a lot of people that have had the outside world betray them, I turned inward. I became extremely accomplished in the academic pursuits…I dedicated myself to the world of the mind…and every step along that path my computer was with me. From that first Timex Sinclair to the maxed out MacBook Pro that I have now, every single one has been an appendage of me to try to effect change in the world. I don’t want people to be alone in their suffering, I don’t want people to feel unloved, looked over.

I want the world to be a better place, and I think technology can make a HUGE difference.

To this day I continue to hear stories of people who have had their life changed (in a good way) from things that I’ve built…people who have fallen in love, who have found community through hard times, who have felt a sense of belonging in a bewildering new environment. These things make me HAPPY! They are things that matter and that bring real change to the offline world.


I know this is already rather long, off my usual technical topics, and exceedingly personal. I’m sure I’ll probably regret writing this for any of a number of different reasons. But if I can leave you with even one passing thought, my faithful reader who has made it this far, it is this:

Work to make the world a better place. You have the skills to do it.