All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favourite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.
– Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, 22 January 2010
Conan O’Brien was, for lack of a better term, screwed over by NBC. The Tonight Show, the pinnacle of late-night television and the one show that every television personality wants to host, was Conan’s for just under a year. He took over from Jay Leno, the man who had hosted it since May of 1992, on June 1st, 2009. His last episode was aired on the 22nd of January the next year.
Conan was a writer for The Simpsons before he became a television personality hosting his very own show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Conan and Jay were both ratings leaders for their respective time slots. Conan had been promised that he would take over from Jay Leno for almost 10 years, and Jay had been told during his renewal in 2004 that this would be his last 5 years hosting the show.
It all went horribly wrong1.
Conan’s viewer demographic was vastly different from Jay Leno’s, and crucially, somewhat smaller. Faced with reducing viewership, NBC gave Jay Leno his own show just before the Tonight Show. This backfired, crashing ratings for both the Tonight Show and The Jay Leno Show.
NBC’s solution to this problem was to move The Jay Leno Show to the Tonight Show’s timeslot, moving the Tonight Show further back into the Late Show’s timeslot. This would bring the status-quo back to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno era, and Conan would be left hosting the Tonight Show just in name.
Conan decided to not play along with NBC. In a statement issued during the height of the crisis, he said he “would not participate in the destruction of the Tonight Show.” Just over 7 months after starting any television host’s dream job, he left the show. And in his final closing monologue, he said this.
Halfway around the world, on a small television screen in Kolkata, I watched it live. I was 15, and was I just beginning to go enter some very difficult times. This monologue would end up being burned into my brain forever, and all my values I would hence develop would now be based around these words.
I’ve had a privileged life so far, and there’s no doubt about it. That is not to say, however, that it was a happy life.
Some of the sadness was chemical. Taking after my family’s history, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety and Major Depressive Disorder, and prescribed Paroxetine, a strong antidepressant in my first year of college. I bought the medicine and took it to college with me. I didn’t get to take any, however, because I found a couple of friends in the nick of time who counselled me through my darkest times.
In my first year of college I had no sleep cycle. I would sleep for an hour a night for a week, and then I would sleep nearly twenty hours a day for the next. I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t be productive. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t study, and I wasn’t scoring the way I wanted to in my courses. I had less than no self-esteem. And for a time, I was impulsively suicidal.
This year put a fear of failure into me. This wasn’t an unfounded fear, like the rest of my fears that my anxiety had convinced me were worth attending to. I had seen some very hard financial times in my family and I had to make sure I didn’t end up in the same boat. What the anxiety did to me was turn that from one of the factors I would take into account my planning my life ahead, into the only thing that mattered: I could not fail.
In school, I would study only the minimum amount required to pass my exams, but the way my parents would scold me for spending all my time in front of a computer and not studying would play at the back of my mind for a long time. I never dated while in school or in college, because it had been driven into me that a girlfriend would simply be a distraction and would take away the minimum amount of concentration that I still had for my studies.
I tried all throughout my first year and the next half to improve myself academically. I just couldn’t do it. I sincerely believed I was at fault, that I was being distracted by the Internet, by social media, and my other hobbies. It took me until the end of 2014 to realise that I just didn’t have the mental make-up to be an academic, but that wasn’t the end of the world; I could still be successful. It helped that I gave success a definition: I wanted a certain kind of life, and if I could have it, I would call myself successful. Success would be different things at different times, but I promised myself that as long as I could meet the milestones I had set for myself for that particular time, I would not beat myself up.
But I was still depressed and mentally fogged, and I needed a kick of inspiration to actually make me follow through on my plans. That came from a man whom I would only get to meet more than a year and a half later, but whom I would see as an idol, as someone who set the standard for the kind of engineer I would like to be. He was almost four thousand miles away from me, in Germany, and he had a blog. His name was Martin Gräßlin2.
Martin was, and as of writing this, still is, the maintainer of KWin, the Window Manager used by Plasma Desktop. Plasma, KWin and a lot of other software is developed by volunteers worldwide, who organise themselves into a community and a support group, called KDE. KDE used to stand for Kool Desktop Environment, the product these volunteers created, but eventually KDE just became KDE and denoted the community of people, not the product.
I had been a Linux user since I was 13, and used to write from time to time for a local magazine called Linux for You (now called Open Source for You). I used to subscribe to a few people from various open source software projects, and Martin was one of the people I was following on Google Plus.
At that time, KWin was undergoing major overhauls, to accommodate the shift from X11, the decades-old standard that was used to implement graphical user interfaces in Linux, to Wayland, the newer, faster, leaner and more secure way of producing nice images on the screen. Martin was doing some groundbreaking work during that time - he basically had to re-invent bits and pieces of X11’s functionality and put them into KWin. All this while, he used to blog about his approach to solving problems, his thought processes, and the actions he took as a result of his analyses. I was studying to be a computer engineer, and what he wrote gave me an unique insight into how an actual computer engineer functioned.
It was a kind of glamour I instantly craved. But because of my self-esteem levels, for a long time I thought this was something I would only watch from a distance, never participate in, because I just wasn’t good enough and never could be.
This changed in the February of 2015. A Dengue Fever scare (I didn’t actually contract it) forced me to stay home with a high fever for three weeks. I was pretty good at C++ by then, and also had built a small tool to proxy DNS requests over HTTP ports and basically blow right past every single firewall that our university had in place to prevent us from accessing certain content, using Qt5. During this fever-induced downtime, I contemplated looking at some KDE code, but was always limited by my own lack of confidence - I knew I just wouldn’t be able to contribute at all.
Then there was one astute moment of clarity, which I distinctly remember, when I woke one day, very late, and thought, “I am a computer engineer. If I’m not able to actually do this, I don’t have a career.”
In the next 4 months, I re-built KDE’s screenshooting utility from scratch. Called KSnapshot-Next, then KScreenGenie, then Kapture, and then Spectacle by the time of its first KDE Applications release by the end of the year, the amount of things I learnt by the time I finished building the core feature set was more than I had learned in the past decade about computer science and coding. I was brimming with confidence and took on new roles within KDE without a second thought to my abilities. Writing some of the backend code from Spectacle finally gave me a chance to work with my idol - I would constantly have to bug Martin to figure out low-level details about X11 and the xcb library.
The secret sauce? The KDE Community. Some of the friendships that were forged in the IRC channels during my Spectacle days were the difference between life and death for me. Little did I know I was just about to enter a crisis period that would last me almost until the end of college, and my friends in KDE were like a second family to me at a time when I seriously expected to no longer have my first one.
And the fact that I now live in München is a direct consequence of my abandoning my academic ambitions and spending all my later university years with KDE.
Being a part of KDE would not only rescue me from clinical depression, it would also give me a career. But before that, it would give me my first and second foreign travel opportunities.
The first time I ever went outside India was to Berlin for Akademy, KDE’s annual world conference in Europe, in the last week of August. I was operating out of a friend’s house in Gurgaon at that time, and when I left the house for the airport that night, I still hadn’t thought of a life beyond the next week. What was to happen at the airport would change that.
There would be a person whom I would meet at the airport that night, whom I would end up spending every waking moment in Germany with when I wasn’t at the conference, and who would change the way I used to think, used to reason, and the things I believed forever.
And apart from that person, meeting all those people whom I had only interacted with online, and who had held my hand and travelled with me through my journey in KDE so far, while attending the conference the entire day, attending parties and dinners in the evening and exploring the city at night would leave me mentally and physically exhausted for nearly two months.
During those two months, my major depression diagnosis was reconfirmed, but I again decided to ride this episode out without medicines. It took me another trip, this time to San Francisco to meet more KDE friends at Google’s offices in Silicon Valley to end this episode. But this time I hadn’t lost one of my powers - mental clarity. While during this episode I cried after almost a decade of never shedding a tear, after that day I could still think without despairing. And I knew one thing: I had to go back to Germany.
So I started job hunting, but it was another friend from KDE who scored me an interview at his company. It was the first video interview of my life, me sitting at my friend’s house in Gurgaon and my future boss interviewing me from the office at Munich. At the end of that interview I got up feeling a genuine inner happiness that I hadn’t felt for years. I wasn’t a complete idiot.
As it turned out, I had applied to another German company for a work-from-home job, and the morning that I was supposed to leave for San Francisco, the folks from eGym called to confirm that I had indeed got the job and that they would be coming back to me with an offer soon. That same afternoon, the other company also confirmed that they would offer me a job, this time with a salary offer in place.
It wasn’t until I had passed through security at the airport that night and was waiting for the flight to Amsterdam to board that I had the time and mental faculties to think about what had transpired over the last twelve hours. It took me half an hour to decide that I would be taking the eGym job, even if I were to get paid less than half the salary I would be paid at the other one, for the simple reason that I would be able to realise my dream, one that was nearly 3 years in the making, of living in Germany.
After returning from San Francisco, I spent the next two months getting all the paperwork and the money together in order to be able to make the move to Munich. And finally, on the 9th of January, I left India, allowing myself a small week-long holiday in Paris to recover from the last three and a half years, before finally moving to Munich to start my new life.
It has been more than a decade since my adolescence brought along my inner turmoils, which perfectly coincided with a shift in dynamics in the family that would end up leaving me with adult responsibilities during a time I were to experience my teenage years. I don’t regret any of it – if anything, what I learnt during that time has helped me almost instantly find a balance in my life here in Munich.
But I’m finally happy. Happy to be living life on my own terms, happy to be living amongst some very good friends, and incredibly, happy to be living in a country where I don’t feel like an outsider. It is true, I did feel like an outsider in India, being just simply unable to connect with the country’s sentiments and ways of life. I finally feel at home.
And work is awesome. I actually wake up early in the morning every day and look forward to going to office. And what’s more, my boss is also ex-KDE!
Here’s to the next six months of my life, after which I still have to figure out where I’m going to go, if anywhere, next.