The wilderness years

One year ago today, I was fired from my job leading software engineers in a startup.

I’d been unemployed before, but never had I been so brutalized on my way out the door. I’ve had plenty of time to process it now, and I believe that the new VP wanted all of her own people in place. Two of my three peers were fired within her first month, and a third saw which way things were going and quit a month later. I didn’t feel great about things, but having just lost my father the last thing I could handle was a job search.

I was politically well connected and well liked, and I believe she knew it and realized she’d have to play a longer game to get rid of me. She strung me along with promises of a big promotion, and gave me duties she said were in line with that role but which ultimately removed me from the day-to-day duties of leading the engineers. I also participated heavily in preparing for the company’s Series A funding round. The lead investment firm, by the way, praised our engineering team, saying it executed better than any engineering team in their portfolio.

After the funding was secured, I found I had little to do. I started being left out of meetings and decisions. The VP also started questioning my ability to lead, offering as evidence that the chief architect and head of DevOps had lost respect for me. When I asked those two gentlemen about it, both expressed what looked to me to be genuine puzzlement over the VP’s statements. And then the axe fell, and I was out.

Astonishingly, six weeks later that VP was terminated.

As I’ve written before, it was very challenging to cut through my intense anger as I searched for my next job. But I managed to land a position that started the first of January. I still led engineers, albeit with a lesser title. It was a decent enough place to work and so I got on with it and tried to put what had happened behind me.

In January, a remarkable thing happened. The CEO of that startup contacted me to apologize for how badly I’d been treated. At first, it felt like he’d reopened the wound. But after my emotions settled, his apology helped me start the long process toward forgiveness.

I stayed at the new company just five months. I was lured away to an engineering leadership role at a growing, vibrant company with better pay and more responsibility — more than I had at that startup. I’ve been there about five months now, and I’m pleased to report that I’m truly happy there.

I’m happier than I’ve been in my career since 2011, when a big company bought the company I worked for. I’d been extremely happy there in a great job working with great people I trusted and enjoyed, but the big company ruined everything. I decided to try my hand in the startup world, which I did starting in 2013. I worked for three different startups between then and 2018.

But since 2011, it’s felt like I’ve been wandering in the career wilderness. I’m glad the wilderness years are over.

You can read all the posts in this saga here. If you’re curious, my LinkedIn profile is here.


14 responses to “The wilderness years”

  1. urbanhafner Avatar

    Wow, that’s quite a horrible story. I’ve been staying away from larger companies for good reasons then. My personal sweet spot seem to be companies that aren’t early stage start-ups anymore but that haven’t grown too big either. I quit the job at my previous employer after they’d grown to 150+ (I started as no. 11) and I’m not back in a company with ~25 people.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The company that fired me was just 65 people. The company where I work now is a much better place to be and we have more than 65 engineers and well more than 1,000 employees overall, and at least the product/engineering group is the best run I’ve seen in 10 years.

      I’d like to do a startup again someday, but for now I’m happy and building solid experience here.

      1. urbanhafner Avatar

        Yeah, in the end it always comes down to the people. We all can just hope that we’ve learnt something for next time.

  2. -N- Avatar

    As stated earlier, people make the job. Unfortunately, the people in power often are the ones who destroy, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. It’s a sad truth in the work world.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah. I’m mostly sad that fate or random chance or whatever put me in a position where I could be played like a fiddle. I try to focus on the fact that I never ever have to see that VP again.

      1. -N- Avatar

        We all encounter people like that, and it is really sad they leave such deep, bitter memories.

  3. Les Avatar

    Jim – May I ask just what kind of engineer are you? You know I had a similar experience a few years ago. I had worked in Industry as a Class A Plastics Machinist for 30 yrs., now retired, but after working there for all those years employment started getting to me with working in thousands of an inch everyday. I left there, retired, and then decided to get a small part-time job delivering auto parts at a local Chevrolet dealer. The Boss hired me right away and I started the next day. It was not a hard job at all. After a week of delivering parts, the Boss came up to me and said “I’m sorry Les. We have to let you go.” I was shocked and darn pissed off! I had no idea what I did wrong! They just left me go! I was darn angry, to say the least! A day later, I went back and told the Owner of the Dealership what happened. He told me “I will look into that.” I never, ever got an answer. To this day I don’t know what I did wrong. I will never, ever buy a car from them or give them any kind of my business from me! Like you, Jim, I had to let my anger & frustration mellow out. Now, I will stay retired.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m a software engineer, making a software product that runs on the Web.

      There are all kinds of lousy people in the world who will treat you badly. I wish it weren’t so.

  4. M.B. Henry Avatar

    What a terrible way to treat an employee :( It’s just not right. I’m so glad you are at a place now where you are truly happy – you deserve it! Glad you made it through the Wilderness!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you! It’s a relief.

  5. J P Avatar

    I am always amazed (but shouldn’t be) at the way some people use others like they were disposable tissues. I have been fortunate to have never been under people like this in my career.

    I am glad that you have found a good place to work, especially with all of the other life challenges you have described.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It turns out my brother was the peer who exited on his own. His exact words: “She thinks of people as fungible.” He was right

      1. DougD Avatar

        Fungible is the Down the Road vocabulary word of the day. I had to look it up, I thought it meant “suitable for being eaten by fungus” which in this case isn’t too far off.

        Glad you made it though the wilderness Jim. Our company is merging with another Finnish company, we are very much the smaller partner so who know’s what’ll happen? I could be heading into the wilderness again myself.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Ah, mergers. Seldom fun. Good luck navigating yours.

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