One year ago I was in the early design stages of Goodnight Server Room. Back then the project was just snippets of poetry and hastily drawn page outlines. Now it is real.
It’s 6:40am. I’m standing in a parking lot just off of West River Road near downtown Minneapolis, unloading books from my car to put into a USPS drop box. The wind off of the river is chilly; it will be another hour before the sun fully hits the sky. I’ve done this three times in the last seventy two hours: Stay up late printing shipping labels and wrapping packages. Wake up early to drop off the books before work. Repeat.
I’m a software engineer by trade. When I work from home, my sons (three years and eighteen months) watch me typing at my keyboard with mild curiosity. They do not know how to read, so all they see are boxes and shapes moving around on the screen. I started writing Goodnight Server Room to give my boys a glimpse into what I do when I’m gone at work all day. I wanted to plant the seeds of understanding in their minds: computers are about data.
I think most parents have a secret (or not-so-secret) desire to raise their children to be just like them. I would love it if my boys grew up to be software engineers, but for now I just want to expand their ideas of what careers are out there, to prepare them for a world where the capacity to create and invent is critical.
The artwork for Goodnight Server Room was created by Emily Krueger
Kids learn by copying. When I talk to my sons, I use words they do not yet know so that they get comfortable enough to say the words themselves. My three year old heard the word, “fiction,” many times before he felt confident enough to ask, “is Spiderman fictional?”
The ideas to which children are exposed shape their understanding of what is possible. I want the word “data” to be familiar to my sons so that five years from now computers will not seem daunting or intimidating. Before I started Goodnight Server Room, I searched Amazon for kids computer books. Every book I could find was targeted at kids eight or older, with titles like “Game Programming in Python.” There’s nothing wrong with programming in Python, but it jumps past the critical question: is programming something I can do?
My boys do not know how to read or use a keyboard—programming can wait. I want to introduce the terminology of my job, to plant the seeds. My sons can not drive a tractor, but they know the word, “tractor.” I want them to know the word, “server.” I want software engineer to be in their view of what is possible right alongside doctor and firefighter.
The common thread in all of computer science and information technology is data. Every component in a computer has some role to play in manipulating, moving, or storing data (or supporting parts that do). I decided that Goodnight Server Room would focus on the data, rather than on the computers. If my sons could start to understand that computers are about data, they could start to understand what I do and to understand me.
Being a parent can be infuriating when your children do not understand. Why do they need to go to bed? Why can they not draw on the walls? Why does Dad have to work instead of playing? They just ask, “why?” and I try to explain, but I do not always have the words.
I don’t know whether Goodnight Server Room will make any money. Nevertheless, it already succeeded. My three year old, despite some reservations about wifi signals invisibly going through his room, can conversationally talk about data. He is not writing his own apps yet, but he is on his way there. He might not know exactly what I do at work, but now I can tell him that I need to move some data from a computer to a backup. He understands.
I love trucks and trains, but there are enough books about trucks. There are enough about trains. There is so much more to the world. Goodnight Server Room is my way to tell my kids more about me: This is what I do all day. This is my passion. This is why I am tired today. This is the problem I am struggling with. This is my job. For you, this is a possibility; for you, there are many.
Do your children understand what you do? Do they understand what is hard about your job? What you like about it? Think about ways to share your career and passions with your kids. They might not know what they are missing.