Leaving Austin Essay: So Long and Thanks for All the Foobars

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1. Austin: The Girl that Got Away

By Robert Nagle, October 2003
Summary: Part 1 of this essay covers how Robert Nagle moves to Austin to work and live as a geek.

Austin is a beautiful mistress who laughs in your face when you run out of money.

At least, that's what I thought while loading my belongings onto the moving van. Jobless and broke, I tried to remember what I liked about Austin in the first place.

I grew up in Houston having heard fabulous stories of Austin slacker life. In the mid 1980's I had a choice between accepting a scholarship at UT Plan II or going to a small liberal artsy college in San Antonio. I accepted the latter and always viewed Austin as the missed opportunity, the girl that got away.

In the mid-1990's, I worked for a Houston firm that counseled college students about career decisions. I frequently interviewed UT students (past, present and future) and career changers from Austin. A large number expressed a desire to stay in Austin, even it it meant making compromises. One woman with a master's degree in music made do with waitressing. Another person with a Phd in English found long term contract work with an educational publishing firm in Austin. Despite several promotions, she was ineligible for health benefits and considered her salary barely subsistence level. Why then, I asked, would you stay at a job that required such sacrifices? You don't understand, she told me (with awe in her eyes), I get to live in Austin, the best city in the world.

As fate would have it, in the late 1990's I accepted a technical writer position with an Austin computer company. A few months later, my sister had moved from Denver to work in Austin. We were living the Austin dream; The economy was swell, Zilker Park was lovely and so were the 6th Street bars. Creative geeky types were everywhere, and I enjoyed being able to bike around north Austin without opprobium (in Houston, you'd be run off the road). I signed up for UT graduate classes and enjoyed the feeling of being a student again.

On my first day at the job, I went to lunch with a group of fun-loving developers; one jointly owned an airplane, another had just bought farmland and a third (in his early 40's) was actively planning early retirement. For someone who had just rebounded from three years of Peace Corps-type work (and poverty), it was awesome enough just to be surounded by people who owned cars(I took the bus). Over time, however, I became accustomed to certain amenities. My company, in addition to offering nice salary and relocation allowances, was throwing options and profit sharing at me; free soft drinks, catered lunches, morale boosters at parks and video arcades, generous training budgets, ambitious expansion plans and scores of new job openings. Working in this company, my first boss said, was like fighting a wildfire; you couldn't stop it; you could only try to keep up with the maddening pace. A senior manager at the company, in describing the various stages that every technology company went through, mentioned one stage, that of "cash cow" where a company led in market share, innovation and reputation. This was the stage all high tech firms aspired for, even though remaining there was almost impossible. The pinnacle of this company's cash cow stage came during its annual company gathering at the city's indoor stadium. As thousands streamed through the turnstiles and grabbed free concession food, the CEO came charging inside on a horse, bedecked in jangles and a Stetson, while PR cameramen transmitted images of his arrival onto the stadium's big screen. Later, after a pep talk about company strategy (along with cameo appearances by several 2nd tier Hollywood actors), a polished music video of a pop song appeared on the large screen, interspersed with faces of vice-presidents in cowboy garb and customized lyrics about corporate strategy. While the company's marketing department entertained and inspired us, we had no way of knowing that the company was in fact bleeding money (although most of Wall Street already did).

NEXT: 2. Not Tiding Me Over

Robert Nagle is a writer, creative geek and weblogger who lives in Houston, Texas. . Most recently he started a share the music weblog .

Additional Resources
  • The best way to see what Austin geek life is like is to watch Richard Linklader's film Slacker.