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17 Michelle Murrain: Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes...

A careers lesson from Michelle Murrain:

My career has been a strange one, in some ways, although it's pretty
internally consistent if you know me.

I went to college in 1977, a pretty immature, pretty religious 18 year
old, with an interest in science, and parents who wanted me to become a
doctor. My first year in college, I got involved in a crowd of folks who
were hanging out and programming on a PDP 11/34. We played lots of
games, developed programs to do stuff like create different kinds of
ascii drawings, analyze statistical data, and that sort of thing. Where
I went to school was a small liberal arts college that had no CS person
or department - so it was all informal and ad-hoc. By my sophmore year,
I was teaching computer programming, and working on programming an Apple
II, creating wierd and interesting things upon request of artists and
the like (the school I went to had a serious arts focus). I also studied
science, and worked in a hospital - doing a combination of programming
of a data analysis system (in c), as well as doing some scientific
research together. But working in a hospital cured me permanently of the
idea of becoming a doctor.

When I was in my senior year in college, I was either going to grad
school (in biology) or go into software development. In retrospect, I
might have been happier going into development, but I don't regret going
into the biology field. Parental pressure certainly contributed to the
decision to go to grad school.

I spent 6 years in grad school, from 1981-1987, and ended up with a
Ph.D. in Neuroscience. A big chunk of my dissertation was creating a
software package to do 3-Dimensional reconstruction of specific
anatomical features of simple nervous systems, so I basically was
programming throughout my Ph.D. I started out in college with Basic, did
some 8080 assembly language. In grad school, I used basic of various
sorts (the basic on Digital PDP 11's, as well as early MS-Basic. I also
learned pascal then, which was my language of choice for about 5 years.)

After my Ph.D., I did a post-doctoral fellowship, which was mostly
focused on experimental work, although I did do a bit of work on a
system for capturing images of neurons (brain cells) using florescent
dyes (mostly doing customization and tweaking, I wasn't the developer.)

When I got a job at a small liberal arts college in 1989, teaching
biology, I took a break from programming, working primarily on research
in both neuroscience in public health. It was here I began getting
seriously into the net, starting and maintaining some email lists first,
co-moderating a usenet newsgroup, then launching into gopher early, then
into the web. It was the web, and the desire to do web applications that
got me back into programming, around 1994. I learned Perl then and
later, what was at the time, called php/fi. I also learned msql
(mini-sql - died a quiet death a while ago) postgresql, and mysql. (I
remain, to this day, dedicated to postgresql).

During my years teaching, I'd also worked a fair bit with non-profit
organizations on issues relating to HIV/AIDS, which I'd gotten involved
with as a volunteer in grad school. I was regularly asked to help with
technology issues that these nonprofits needed - they were woefully
under resourced in terms of hardware and software, and really didn't
know how to effectively use technology. In addition, I was working with
schools on the same issues. That got me very interested in helping
nonprofits with technology issues, and it lead me to start a small
consulting firm in 1997 that was focused on helping nonprofits primarily
with web technologies.

In 1999, I left academia to focus full time on the work with nonprofits.
As I worked with nonprofits, primarily in helping them with databases
and web technologies, but also pretty generally, I realized that they
were in very difficult positions in terms of software. They couldn't
afford proprietary packages. Fundraising packages were (and still are)
exhorbitantly expensive, niche software (like client management) is hard
to find, can be expensive, and often locks organizations in. This, my
general geekiness, and my general anarchic tendencies, got me to be very
interested in Linux and open source software in 1999. I saw this as a
very important tool that nonprofits could use.

I've been very involved in the nonprofit open-source 'movement' over the
past few years. I was on the steering committee of the organization
called 'NOSI' - Non Profit Open Source Initiative (http://nosi.net). I'm
also now on the board of an organization called Aspiration
(http://www.aspirationtech.org) - although agnostic on the
OS/Proprietary thing, it's focus is working to get more and better
software to the nonprofit sector.

I have worked with a wide variety of nonprofit organizations and
schools over the years. I was an independent consultant mostly, which
had it's ups and downs. In 2003, I joined a small consulting firm (with
8 people). This has been really positive.

There is more to this story, which is where the subject line comes from.
After doing technology consulting for 8 years, I've decided to do
another change in career, in a completely different direction. At the
same time as I was doing all of the research, programming, etc. I was on
a meandering spiritual path, from being a religious fundamentalist, to a
secular humanist, through paganism, settling in as a Buddhist and
Unitarian Universalist. This path has, now, lead me to decide to enter
the ministry. I'm going back to school in the fall to get my Masters in
Divinity. It's way different, but it's also pretty consistent with who I
am. I've always been committed to a life of service, and I'm deciding to
be engaged in that in much more direct ways than I have been before.
I'll always be a geek, but I'm ready for a life with more human
interaction, more hands-on experience, and focus on the spiritual.

I'd say the major lesson I've learned so far is that it's worth taking
risks to do what you want to do, what you enjoy. I was told I was nuts
to leave a tenured acadmic position - and it's true that I had less
stability and security afterward, but I've enjoyed what I've been doing.
And now, although most folks who know me are not surprised, this new
change is causing a bit of head-scratching. But I'm following my heart,
answering a call. There's a great quote I like: "A vocation is where the
worlds great hunger and your good gladness meet." I have been incredibly
lucky in my life to have been able to live out that saying, especially
now.