And So, Let Us Begin

Two months ago today, I got dumped. Not by a woman. By my job. A job that I had performed loyally for eleven years.

I started out at this company as employee Number Eleven and watched it grow from those original eleven people to over a hundred employees. I survived two acquisitions. I watched the company expand from its original core business into other areas in order to survive and keep growing.

Throughout all this, I kept telling them how happy I was to be there and that I just wanted to keep going until I “got the gold watch.” I never complained, never pushed. I always happily accepted whatever they asked me to do. I only wanted our story tracker to keep providing me with new features and bugs to work on until I couldn’t physically or mentally do it anymore.

Well that “dream” came to an end the morning of November 9, 2018, when a cryptic meeting showed up on my calendar… for less than an hour away. I’m no dummy. My heart sank.

Sure enough, I and another employee in my office were taken into a small conference room and handed packets. First sentence: “This letter confirms your employment with [the company] will end on Nov. 9, 2018…”

At this point, everything becomes a bit surreal. It takes 20-30 minutes for the HR person on the video conference call to explain all the ins and outs to you, which is something of a waste because your mind is racing and your heart is beating so hard you’re a bit worried you might have a heart attack. I don’t think I heard much of what she said.

If you’ve never been let go from a job – especially one that you have held longer than any other in your life and one that you expect to hold for the rest of your life – then you can’t really understand the soul-crushing effect of that loss on your psyche. It was small consolation that I was let go for budgetary reasons. You still feel like chopped liver.

My earlier comparison to being dumped by a significant other is the closest analogy I can come up with to explain it. The parallels continue past the initial hurt heart. You are escorted out of the office, which is very similar to being told by your ex that you have to move out. The things on your desk are mailed to you, which I suppose is better than having them thrown out on the lawn. Basically, the foundation that you’ve based your life on for years is out the window.

And over the coming days and weeks, the parallels go on. You question what you could have done differently. “Maybe if I’d just done X, I wouldn’t have gotten dumped?” You think about the plans made together (e.g., Xmas party) that will no longer happen for you. You tell yourself you weren’t actually happy in the relationship anyway. You gradually put your head back on your shoulders and your heart back in your chest.

An amazing book

One of the first things I did after getting laid off was… Okay, the first thing I did was get “properly pissed” as the Brits say. But soon after that, I told my family. I think no matter how close or distant one is to their family, they are always the people you turn to when something painful happens.

They all had encouraging and kind words. My older brother, who is also a software developer, had plenty of advice, including recommending I read a book called Developer Hegemony by Erik Dietrich. This book was an amazing eye-opener. Totally worth the time to read it.

In it, Dietrich very astutely tore through all the complete bullshit in the corporate software development industry. I highly recommend that all software engineers working for a salary at a company (i.e., not freelance consultants) read this book!

Dietrich divides people at a software company into three personalities: opportunists, idealists, and pragmatists. The opportunists are the type-A personalities, who do whatever is necessary to get ahead, even to the point of sociopathic behavior. The idealists are the “yes-men” who champion the goals of the company and put in extra hours to show how useful and effective they are. Finally, the pragmatists are the worker bees. They are the people who just want to do enough to get their paycheck and keep on rolling that way as long as possible.

If you, dear reader, are a software engineer, you may be chafing at those descriptions and patting yourself on the back for how much you don’t fit in any of those buckets. But this is an entire book devoted to this subject and let me tell you, Dietrich makes his case very effectively.

Reading this book was almost as traumatic as getting as laid off! Okay, maybe not that bad. But I totally did the “not me, not me, not me” thing while I was reading it. Eventually, however, I had to accept that I fit pretty well in the pragmatist bucket.

What did I say above? “I just wanted our story tracker to keep providing me with new features and bugs to work on.” Heh. I might have had a touch of the idealist, since I cared about the company and wanted to do whatever it needed me to do. And I would never have just done busy work to make it appear that I was working when I wasn’t, which is an attribute Dietrich ascribes to the classic pragmatist.

But I certainly wasn’t angling for more responsibility, or campaigning for a say in our technical direction, or spending my off-hours doing something extra for the company. When a newer dev was promoted to manager over me, I said that was fine because I didn’t want to manage, I wanted to write code. At this job, I quickly settled into my rut and lost interest in keeping up with software trends or learning new things outside work (not that this job was asking me to do so). I had my music and socializing and fun to eat up my non-work hours. I think that was a reasonable thing to do, but it didn’t help my career at all.

So really, I don’t have as dim a view of the pragmatist as Dietrich may have. He mostly argues that these people aren’t going to go anywhere with their career and are destined to get old – hmm… like me – and wind up getting passed over for younger programmers. They are also treated like pawns at many companies (though, I never felt that way at my company).

I did question whether these realizations were some sort of sour grapes: me telling myself I didn’t really like that girlfriend after all. I don’t think so. Part of me really did want to keep doing that job into my seventies. But part of me always knew that I was a bit of an odd duck at the job and that sticking with it forever wasn’t really doing myself any favors. I stuck with the proverbial bird in hand. What I gradually realized is that I was in a rut and I need to find my programming mojo again.

Anyway, the point of Developer Hegemony is that developers should get off the corporate hamster wheel and become independent consultants - independent professionals like a doctor or a lawyer. These independent engineers might be part of an organization or partnership, but they are not stuck in the typical corporate farce.

I wholeheartedly agree with that idea, but I’m an INTP and risk-averse, so I may not have the stomach for totally striking out on my own. It’s not in my nature to try to convince people that they need to give me money for something. (Ironically I’ve been told that I would be a perfect salesman because I am friendly and approachable and not a jerk; I don’t think those are the personality traits that make a classic salesperson though.)

A timely opportunity

However, as life’s vague currents often do, a timely opportunity had wandered into my life a few months back. An old friend (son of a former girlfriend) had an idea for “an app.” I generally shudder and run away when someone says that to me. But this idea was for a software-as-a-service app targeting a very specific niche. There are competitors, but not many, and my friend had some very solid ideas for improving what they offer.

I started talking to him in more detail and decided to give building this thing a shot. It will be a lot of work and quite possibly might fail, but it will also be a tremendous learning experience. And it will be a way to “get my programming mojo back.” (To be clear, I feel that I did my job very well and fulfilled my duties. But I stopped seeking out new knowledge and trying new things a long time ago. I only learned what was required to do my job.)

One of the things that Dietrich identifies as an important task for an independent software engineer is to build a public persona as a developer. This includes things like blogging (hey, what are you reading?!). I wrote a few blog posts 15 years ago, but decided that there were plenty of blowhards in the world and no one needed another. However, that was because I didn’t have much to say. This project will give me plenty of ideas and experiences to share.

Starting a company will also teach me, whether I like it or not, how to go out and hustle for my own benefit, how to deal with bureaucracy, how to make hard decisions, and more. Even if we don’t succeed in making money with this endeavor, those experiences are worth it.

No more time-wasting

While in my comfortable pragmatist cocoon I checked out of the developer community. I stopped going to meetups (to be fair, they conflicted with band practice), lost interest in conferences (to be fair, there is rarely anything really new at RailsConf), and never managed to get around to contributing to open source.

These are all activities that Dietrich champions. And they are all things that would help in getting a job… and probably a better one than I could otherwise get. Well I’m motivated now! I’m hitting several meetups a month (it helps that my band broke up a month before I got laid off), starting this blog, and I plan on being very vocal and social as I work towards building my app and my new company.

I am also stepping out of my comfort zone as far as my app’s technology goes. I’m not just going to crank out more code using my well-worn, longtime tools (Ruby On Rails and friends). I am picking up new, exciting tools (and trying not to cut off a limb with them). This may be adding risk to my venture, but I have my reasons (to be explained in a future post).

Also I feel very strongly now that “always be learning” is the way to be. It’s surprising how wasting time on Netflix or scrolling endlessly through Facebook or going to a bar “just because” fall by the wayside once you have an strong intellectual pursuit to follow.

I suppose it’s something of a survival instinct. Well, if I just wanted to survive, I’d be begging for any job I could get. But this project I’m starting – and all the additional efforts it portends – will be so good for my mind, my spirit, and frankly, my employability.

The future is bright

I feel so much better today than I did two months ago. And it’s not just that I’ve gotten over the pain of being dumped. I am more focused, more curious, more ravenous for knowledge than I’ve been in many years (probably since I was in school, finishing my CS degree, or at least since those first few exciting years after school). I feel healthier (I quit drinking for the new year) and happier. And I’m very excited about the next several months of my life. Please tune back in and see how things go!

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