As a little kid, my mom never gets tired of telling me, my dream profession was what I called Auseinandernehmer – a word I had made up. It literally means “guy who takes stuff apart”. That was what I wanted to do. For a living. Take things apart. I was probably in the vicinity of five years old.
The only reason I can guess looking back was that I loved taking apart big, old radios out of my grandma’s basement after she moved out of her house and into a nursery home. We’re not talking 70s vintage here, but probably post-war, wooden boxes half my body size at the time. In hindsight, it was probably only two or three times I had the chance to do that, but in my memory I spent a lot of time on these boxes, taking them apart, piece by piece, marveling at all the stuff I’d find inside. The same goes for watches of all sorts, and whatever I could get my hands on.
Of course, most of the stuff wasn’t working to begin with – why else would my parents have let me destroy it all. But that didn’t matter to me. I also realized that I never really could get the stuff back together. Which never really bothered me. I decided to focus on my strong suit: to take things apart, and let the re-assembling do someone who’s better at it. Looking back, that was probably a good thing, given that at this age it would have likely been unhealthy to plug anything into a socket after I had tinkered with it.
So there was my decision: I wanted to take things apart. Quite why anyone would hire me to do that I wasn’t sure, and couldn’t be bothered at the time. I did know, though, where my shop would be: In our little home town‘s tiny shoemaker’s store. Again, why I chose this particular store I cannot remember; it was kind of dark and smelly, and located on a small road leading into town, above a little rivulet and next to an impossibly steep concrete staircase. Then again, I was a little kid – there was a limited pool of possible locations I had seen in my life that would fit the bill, so the shoemaker store it would be.
Needless to say, my parents were not necessarily convinced that my career choice would be quite optimal, but weren’t eager to dissuade me at this age either. Nobody prompted me to become an astronaut, which was more than fine by me. (One alternative career I pondered, probably around the age of eight, was to make video games. Preferably with a lot of shooting, and/or bats in them. But then again, every kid has that phase, right?)
Years later, late teens I’d say, I had realized that Auseinandernehmer wasn’t the most likely career for me. However, I was frequently annoyed by poorly designed products, or those that weren’t as functional as they could have been. I frequently felt an urge – not to take these things apart, but to make them better, to improve them. Little did I know that later (and probably even back then) there would be a profession doing just that. Not just one, but a whole slew of professions touching on that very subject – product designers, user experience and interaction designers, etc. I had no idea what that job would be called, or that it even existed. At the time, either journalism, IT or web design looked more appealing, and certainly much more likely.
Just recently, at the age of 30, I realized that this has, almost by accident, become a big part of my job and my life. I’m not entirely sure how this happened. Certainly it wasn’t a straight line from A to B, and not even guided by a conscious plan. But I know one thing: Whenever I get a chance to dig deep into something, take it apart and improve it, I’m as happy as I could be. And these days, chances are that the things I dig into is a web service of some sort, so I’m a lot less likely to accidentally electrocute myself doing it.
Which is always a plus.
Image: Vintage radio – Philips / Eva Ekeblad / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0