Solid career advice for tech managers, tech leads

First a warning that this blog post contains not safe for work language, in the form of a few expletives here and there. For anyone like me who has ping-ponged between engineering and management over the years, this is worth thinking about: a suggestion that this is a valid career trajectory. Charity makes a good argument, that aligns well with other solid advice I’ve read on being a lead and being a manager.

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In Some Small Measure, Wisdom

Picture of the Interior of the Jefferson Memorial, taken by Thomas Gideon

Yesterday I took what ended up being an epic walk. I have already written about how I have been walking more lately. Walking more has been easier over the last two months. I had been taking days off or at least working from home while focused on my job search. The other week, I had a sudden run of days in DC but hadn’t yet come up with attractive walking routes to help me keep up my new habit. In looking around an online map of what was nearby, I found Constitution Gardens. The Gardens truly are one of the hidden treasures of DC and I wish I had found them sooner. There is a huge water feature within which is a small island that has a ring of stone engraved with the signatures of all those who signed the Declaration of Independence. The Gardens are a decent half hour walk from where I work. Worked–today is my last day and my new gig is located much closer to home, in the suburbs.

During that first walk to the Gardens, I paused near the World War II memorial and happened to noticed the Jefferson Memorial was close by. On that day, I promised myself I would come back to see that site before my last day working in DC. I did just that yesterday, taking advantage of some cold but stunning weather.

The online maps make the memorial seem far closer to the Gardens then it is, at least by foot. I walked around the World War II memorial. I crossed several beating arteries of downtown traffic and started around the tidal basin. The view of the memorial as you walk under the cherry trees is breathtaking, especially on a clear, sunny day like yesterday. The view lingers as the walk around the basin is a good twenty minutes. When I finished my visit, I continued my around the other side of the basin which is even a little longer than the side I walked on the way down.

The time and distance (an hour and a half and more than four miles respectively) were only part of what made the walk epic, at least to me. Thomas Jefferson holds a special place in my regard. He attended my alma mater where we refer to him as either Young Thom or Our Thom. We used the latter especially around UVa students. Jefferson founded UVa but he was a student at William and Mary. The claim to him is part of the two schools’ long standing rivalry.

More importantly, when I was just getting involved in online activism, exploring topics around creativity and intellectual property in a post-digital, post-network world, a quote of his spoke to me deeply. In a letter to Isaac McPherson, he wrote this particular turn of phrase in talking about intellectual property, its nature and how we should think of its regulation, for instance by copyright:

Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Visiting his memorial was a touchstone. At first I thought also it might be a farewell, a sort of personal resignation. I am leaving the world of working directly for the public interest to return to private industry. The memorial is filled with inspiring quotes, four of them in massive panels interspersed with openings out onto views of the tidal basin, the Potomac, and parts of DC. A more subtle quote is worked into the stone just beneath the dome.

I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Standing in a contemplative space dedicated to someone whose writings called to me across the generations, thinking about this transition in my life, that last part really struck me. Even though for reasons related to my own pursuit of happiness I was leaving the service of the public interest, in my own way I can certainly hold to fighting every form of tyranny over the mind of man. I can do so wherever I find myself, not in the least on this site and in my podcast as I am renewing and recommitting to my writing and thinking here.

That thought touched off what I hope is at least some small measure of wisdom I can take away from this job, more so than I have managed to realize when leaving jobs past.

Earlier in my career, I often gave into the urge to demonize the the people or experiences from a job I was leaving. I’ve read enough to understand I am not alone in feeling the urge to do so. Humans are story telling creatures. We continually weave a story of our own life. Our own individual narrative first and foremost supports who we think we are. When the world around us is at odds with who we believe ourselves to be, we feel pain in the form of cognitive dissonance. The easiest way to relieve that pain is to change our narrative, despite the facts, to restore the version of ourselves we believe is true.

I increasingly believe the secret of true wisdom is to resist rewriting our personal narratives. If we admit our own faults, the tale becomes the richer for it. We invite in opportunities to learn, to actually grow and honestly become more of whom we would like ourselves to be, in fact and deed. In holding more to the complicated, messy, objective facts of our lives, we can better embrace humility, honesty and courage, rather than simply rewriting the narrative. If we revise our story, we miss that chance to harness our faults and mistakes to urge us on to do and be better in the future.

Searching for Myself

Detail of an orrery made by Benjamin Martin in London in 1767, used by John Winthrop to teach astronomy at Harvard, on display at the Putnam Gallery in the Harvard Science Center, used under CC-BY-SA, by Wikipedia user Sage Ross

I sat across a table today from an account manager at a staffing firm. I didn’t expect to be there. I had taken a phone screen the week prior, my first in-depth technical assessment, that I thought I had completely fumbled. Looking back at my notes from right after the call, I wrote in big block letters, FAIL.

Right after that, I wrote three quick bullet points, things I needed to do in order to avoid failing like that again. In a nutshell, I had not prepared for the call. Things I knew when I was more actively programming refused to pop instantly into my head. Instead, I struggled even though I knew I knew the answers to his questions. The questions were mostly what I call technical trivia, information that is easily searched for online and rarely demonstrates a grasp of useful programming knowledge or skill.

I have since made good on those action items in my notes. I promised myself I would not take an opportunity for granted again, preparing as best I could for each one from here forward.

I have been on the job search a handful of times over the years. I am not sure I previously had such a moment of self awareness. In the past, even under difficult circumstances, I found it too easy to take my knowledge and skills for granted. If I failed, I wrote it off and blithely looked towards the next opportunity. If I had to be charitable in explaining myself, I suppose I would say that more often than note I have had the good fortune to be looking when time was a luxury, when I was still employed. Dismissing a failure without learning from it didn’t seem to carry any meaningful risk.

For some reason, this failure was different. Maybe it was because of an earlier failure in the same search. I had come close but ultimately failed at a first opportunity when I started my search in earnest, back in September. That first chance was like all the others, I guess. I didn’t especially prepare. I relied on my wits, my ability to communicate, and luck more than anything else.

When I didn’t get that job, I was crushed. I really liked the company and the people. The whole experience was great, even doing a thirty hour quick turn around trip from coast to coast. The role was a new one to me that seemed like an amazing way to both return to more hands on technical work as well as to continue to engage my writing and speaking skills. They even found me through my podcast, rather than the other way around.

Maybe the disappointment, in myself as much as anything, was a wake up call. I had used several weeks pretty much exclusively on one job prospect.

At that time, I didn’t have an end date for my current job. I have been blessed to have my hard work during a difficult transition be rewarded by my current employer with support and patience. I now have an end date, one that is still incredibly generous, not in the least because they know I am actively looking. On some level, I knew even before I discussed an explicit end date that it would come, that it would be soon. Realizing I had worked through several weeks with no other prospects to show for it definitely lit a fire under me.

I may have over compensated. I usually am skittish about working with recruiters or staffing firms. In my experience, they don’t save time and often focus on opportunities very different from the ones I find most rewarding. Despite my prior experience, I didn’t feel like I could afford to leave anything unexplored. After I applied to all the obvious good fits, I kept on applying, to the consulting and contracting jobs I know I could do but that I would not enjoy anywhere near as much.

That is how I ended up, today, at a staffing firm talking to an account manager.

Up to this point, I had convinced myself I could and would pursue this all the way through. Part of me added, “if I had to,” to that last sentence while the rest of me, prior to today, worked hard to ignore that contingency. This account manager called me on it.

He grilled me about the usual stuff. Had I used this technology and where. What about this tool. How had I approached this challenge, solved another problem. At some point, he stopped. He looked at me and asked me frankly if I felt I would be happy at this job he was pitching. He went so far as to explain that his reason for asking is that he suspected I wouldn’t be. At the risk of his commission, he didn’t think that made sense in the long run.

For a moment, I prevaricated. I doubt he even noticed, the moment was so fleeting. I admitted he was right. I admitted it as much to myself as to him. Giving up on an opportunity, even one I knew wasn’t right, didn’t feel great. But the notion of stringing it along only to say, “no,” when a better offer came along didn’t feel any better.

At that moment, I realized that this entire  job search really was different. In the past, I have always at least tried to focus on what I really want to be doing. I haven’t always succeeded. I don’t think I was making as intentional choices as I could have, rolling with what came my way and rationalizing it after the fact. My engagement and especially my learning from those experiences were thin at best.

For this search, the stakes haven’t really changed. I still need a job, ideally before the end of this year. What has changed is my openness to being honest with myself. I am far more willing to learn from every single experience along the way this time around. Maybe opening up will improve my prospects, maybe it won’t. I am pretty sure I will find the rest of my search far more rewarding by admitting that I am both searching for a job, for a career next step, and at the same time, searching for myself.