How I Got Here: 12 Questions with Writer and Software Engineer David Auerbach

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Successful stints at two tech titans weren't enough for this Renaissance man; he’s now a successful writer and editor.

Centered would be a good way to describe current freelance writer and former Google and Microsoft employee David Auerbach. After a career as a left-brained software engineer at two of tech’s most profitable companies, the Yale-educated Auerbach turned to writing as a second act, satisfying his other hemisphere. He currently writes the Bitwise column for Slate and is a contributing editor for The American Reader.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, anyone who has texted is certainly familiar with his most famous creation. In fact, most people take advantage of it several times a day.

David was one of the creators of the typing indicator in chat, a technology that millions (billions?) of people encounter every day when they notice the person they’re chatting with is responding.

He recently took his fingers off the keyboard long enough to answer a few questions for Techopedia.

Techopedia: What does a typical day look like for you?

David Auerbach:
Make insufficient progress on reading queue. Make insufficient progress on numerous writing projects. Make insufficient progress on email backlog. Make somewhat sufficient progress in family life.

Techopedia: What does a great day look like?

David Auerbach: When the complex symbiosis of technology, society, politics and literature appears vividly in my mind in all its intricacy, awaiting analysis.


Techopedia: OK, what about a terrible day?

David Auerbach: When that symbiosis seems terminally incomprehensible and fuzzy.

Techopedia: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done or achieved in your career?

David Auerbach: When I was a very young software engineer at Microsoft in 1999, I was part of the so-called "instant messaging wars" where Microsoft’s Messenger client was talking to AOL’s servers without their permission.

[I was recenlty] nominated for an American Society of Magazine Editors award for my commentary on the technomess in 2013. It was a great honor to be nominated alongside some sterling writers.

Working at Google in the glory days of the mid-2000s was cool in general – the sheer quality of the people there was amazing in itself – but in a somewhat more technically satisfying and less flashy way.

Techopedia: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

David Auerbach: Two:

"Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession, and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change. It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; those events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time. In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whose appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently."
— Robert Musil, "The Man Without Qualities"

"In scholarship, on the other hand, a man can only be a master in one particular field, namely as a specialist, and in some field he should be a specialist. But if he is not to forfeit his capacity for taking a general view, or even his respect for general views, he should be an amateur at as many points as possible, privately at any rate, for the increase of his own knowledge and the enrichment of his possible standpoints. Otherwise he will remain ignorant in any field lying outside his own specialty, and perhaps, as a man, a barbarian."
— Jacob Burckhardt (1879)

Techopedia: What’s your workplace pet peeve?

David Auerbach: My need for sleep and my own cognitive limitations.

Techopedia: What’s your productivity secret?

David Auerbach: The ever-approaching specter of death.

Techopedia: What technology do you rely on the most?

David Auerbach:
The written word. I’ve also found that the Nexus 7 makes a pretty good eReader for PDFs as well as MOBIs and EPUBs.

Techopedia: How do you use social media?

David Auerbach: I use Facebook and Twitter for professional and personal contacts, but in general there’s much more to learn from books or the obscure recesses of the Internet than from anything that percolates up on social media. Social media can be good as a way of divining conventional wisdom as long as you don’t treat it as more than that.

Techopedia: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve been faced with on the job and how did you solve it?

The long analysis of Thomas Pynchon that I wrote for The American Reader was probably one of the most difficult pieces I’ve written. I lived and breathed his work for about a month so my mind was working on it even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.

Techopedia: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

David Auerbach: Épater le bourgeois? I didn’t have a specific vision for myself, but I alternated between computer programming, writing fiction and doing a bit of minor journalistic muckraking. When I got to Yale, the humanities were not especially inviting, and so I opted for computer science and wrote on the side.

Techopedia: What’s your dream job now?

David Auerbach: I think I have it. I feel very fortunate to be able to write with a fair amount of freedom for a variety of audiences.

Check out more How I Got Here career stories here.


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Robert Springer

Robert Springer is a freelance writer based in the small mountain town of Sisters, Oregon. He has written articles for national magazines, online publications, websites and newspapers. Before freelancing, he worked in the banking, television and information technology industries. In addition to writing, he enjoys being delightfully distracted by his school-age twins.