Essay, Photography

Few people make real money following their passions, and you probably won’t be one of them

(Originally published 7/26/2016) I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever thought about making photography my living.

A portrait of the artist
Nikon D3200, 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Nikkor, 2016. Margaret Grey photo.

It sure sounds wonderful to spend my days driving old roads or looking at historic architecture, making photographs as I go — and getting paid for it!

The other question I get asked, a lot, is whether I’ve ever thought about making writing my living.

And my answer is not only yes, but I’ve done it. For many years early in my career, I traded my written words for my supper. There I learned a crucial truth:

The kind of work you do for yourself is very different from the kind of work that pays.

I hadn’t dreamed of being a writer when I landed my first writing job. I wanted to be a software developer. But the country was in a recession then and jobs were scarce. I was willing to do any job I could get in the software field. I wound up writing manuals, and it turned out that I really enjoyed the work. I did it for more than a decade. I even contributed to a few published books on popular software products. It’s a rush to see your name on a book’s spine!

In that field I met a lot of talented people who had dreamed of being writers. They came with degrees in English and poetry and journalism, and extensive portfolios filled with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software — not remotely their dream. For the kinds of writing they wanted to do, the supply of talent far outstripped demand. And then they found that the software industry paid well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing something, anything for good pay.

It’s much the same in photography. Many of us who shoot probably dream of creating great art and making a living through sales, or maybe patronage if that’s even a thing anymore. But most working photographers shoot things like weddings or consumer products. My first wife is a talented photographer, but when I met her she made her living in the United States Air Force shooting portraits of officers seeking promotions.

Photographers can find this kind of work rewarding, just as I truly enjoyed writing software instructions. But who dreams as children of being technical writers or wedding photographers? We back into these jobs because they leverage our skills and pay our bills.

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Nikon F3, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Foma Fomapan 200, 2016

Those jobs pay because they create clear value. This blog creates value, too — you wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t find my words and images to be valuable in some way. But the amount of value that captures your attention is much lower than the amount of value that opens your wallet.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, most, if not all, of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. Even the big players struggle to make online content pay.

There was a golden time when personal blogging could be lucrative: approximately 2004. Several talented early bloggers found large followings and made good money with online ads.

But in about 2011 online ad revenue dropped off a cliff. The bloggers that didn’t have to find day jobs again created other revenue sources: writing sponsored posts (where the blogger writes an ad and tries to make it sound like it’s about them or their interests), creating product lines, and offering services such as personal coaching and workshops in an area of skill or expertise they have.

These are great, legitimate ways to make money. But notice how these things aren’t personal blogging. They’re not the passion that made the blogger start blogging.

If your passion is something like managing hedge funds or starting tech companies, and there are really people with passions like that, well heck yes those passions can pay, and handsomely. But for most of us, we just want to make something that represents us or showcases our talents, and put it out into the world and hope people come to see.

Is that you? That’s me. And so I persist. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’ve dabbled in ways to generate a little passive income and hope to pay this blog’s costs and maybe some of my photography. But I have no delusions that this will ever let me quit my day job. The same almost certainly goes for you.

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Personal

Last day

Today is my last day at my job. Yes, the one I started in January. I start a new job on Monday.

My soon-to-be-former employer has been a decent place to work and I haven’t been unhappy. I lucked into a good boss who was helping me see some of my blind spots and was challenging me to grow as a leader.

There were things I didn’t enjoy about this company, things typical of a company in its business climate at its phase of life. And I didn’t see a growth path beyond perhaps a promotion to Senior Manager. But given that it didn’t hurt to work there, I thought I’d soak up as much experience as I could. I’m still early in my engineering-leadership career and I need to build credibility.

About eight weeks ago a recruiter from another prominent local employer of software engineers contacted me about joining them as an engineering manager. I know that this company has completed a business and technology transformation that was starting to pay off in their marketplace. They were also using more modern processes and delivery methods. That’s exciting stuff. But the job was a lateral move at the same pay and I told them that I couldn’t consider a change unless it was for a higher position and more money.

I figured that would be the last I heard from them. I was stunned when they contacted me again a couple weeks later, saying they’d recast the position one level higher with a compensation package to match.

Having worked for many software companies in this market over nearly 30 years, I know people pretty much everywhere software engineers work in central Indiana. So I contacted a couple people I know at this company and asked what they think. They were enthusiastic about the work environment and about the company’s prospects, and said I should join them.

So I went in for an interview. It went well, and they offered me the job. It was easy to say yes. This choice is right for my family now and for my career in the future.

But it feels all kinds of wrong to quit a job after just five months. Having managed people for 20 years I know full well how disruptive it is. I did not enjoy telling my boss, who has treated me well; or my team, which I enjoyed very much, that I was resigning. Fortunately, they took it well.

I’ll come home tonight with my things in box, which I’ll carry with me to my new job on Monday.

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Personal

I suppose having my midlife crisis in startup software companies was better than buying a sports car or dating younger women

I’d been a first-level manager in the software industry for 15 years, leading testers and technical writers, when I was passed over for a promotion to Director. It pissed me off. I was a good manager who had accomplished a lot for that company, and I was ready to stretch into the next level. I thought I deserved the chance. I don’t think it’s just my ego talking when I say I would have done a better job than the man they brought in and for whom I had to work.

Then I got a call from a startup software company: was I interested in being a Director for them?

Why yes. Yes I was!

I don’t know where my ambition came from, as I’d had little of it before then. Since I was a teen I had wanted only to work in the software industry. For a long time I was perfectly happy writing technical documentation and testing software to make sure it worked as intended. I didn’t seek to move up the ladder; my first management job fell into my lap.

Office
I’ve had a lot of desks in my career, but only twice a private office.

Yet through my early 40s I felt pangs of discontent. I could see ways to do things better, but as a manager I lacked the authority to do much about it. I itched to have more clout and make a bigger impact. Also, as my kids were headed toward their college years, the extra money of the Director level appealed to me.

I got the job and dived belly first into boiling water. What a mess things were there. Not only did I build their test team from scratch, but I also turned around their broken software delivery system. I wasn’t able to fix the company’s fatal flaw, however: the product was a hard sell, and we kept widely missing our sales goals. We rolled and pitched as upper leadership had us build this and then that into the software hoping something would catch on in the marketplace. Nothing ever did, not enough to make a dent in the market, not enough to satisfy investors. Sales became frightfully poor for six months and it became clear they’d have to cut staff. They showed me the door.

I moved on surprisingly quickly to another young company, beyond its startup stage but not yet mature. I built a couple functions from the ground up as a Director there — another testing team, and a program management team. It was great fun and I liked it there a lot.

Yet I’d started dreaming of being a Director of Engineering. Testing had become old hat for me, and because of changes in the industry opportunities were drying up. But also, I knew that quality starts at the top — you have to build it in. To deliver software as well as I knew it could be done, I’d have to do it by leading the software developers.

My chance came two years ago. An executive I knew and admired wanted me to lead engineering at his startup. I jumped at the chance.

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The view from the Director of Engineering’s desk.

I proved there what I wanted to prove all along: that building a product well from the start is better and faster all around. Our product had few bugs, it held up under load, and it scaled with the business.

But after we built the core product, there were internal disagreements about what to build next. It undermined everything. The executive who hired me had ideas, but he didn’t win over the rest of the execs and in the end he resigned. The person they brought in to replace him treated me badly, and as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for the last six months she fired me with neither explanation nor warning.

I had proved to myself that I could do all the things I wanted to do — but so what? It didn’t save these companies, it didn’t give me the feelings of accomplishment I wanted, and it sure as hell didn’t bring me the respect and admiration I was secretly looking for. Instead, I wound up on the street.

The job I was able to get before my family’s finances got rough is as a first-level manager. It stings a lot to have been essentially demoted.

At least I’m still in engineering. Also, I’m a deeply experienced first-level manager; this is a job I can do well. Even better, I’m in an organization that, while not perfect, functions reasonably well. As in all companies there are business challenges, but there are agreed-upon plans to work through them. If you’ve ever worked for me, you’ve heard me say it: even a mediocre plan will work if everybody follows it. Also, because the company is mature it pays market rate, something startups don’t do. I make the same money I did before as Director of Engineering.

I’m dancing on a fine line. To accept where I am feels like giving up on my dream. Even though I found out my dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, a part of me wants to double down on it to prove it was good all along. Maybe I should get a new dream. Or maybe I should stop dreaming and be content with what I have, because it is objectively good.

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Essay

Hiring managers and recruiters: tell the candidates you didn’t select that they didn’t get the job

As I start my new job today I am going to vent a little about how few companies got back to me after any conversation about, or even my application for, a position they had available.

Closed

There was one shining exception, a small and privately held software company. My interviewers there included the CEO, who is from a prominent family in my city. He called me a few days after our interview. “I’m sorry to say that you are our number two candidate,” he began. “I’m sure this is not the news you want to hear. But I’m calling you personally to say that you impressed us all. It’s just that the fellow we hired has direct experience building integrations to a couple of our customers’ systems, and we need that in the short term much more than we need leadership like you offer. It was a tough call. But I can imagine all sorts of places I could plug you in later, if you’re open to me calling you back when the time is right. And now you have my personal number, so if you ever think I can help you with anything, please call me.”

What a class act. A quick email would have done the job but this CEO didn’t lose the opportunity to make a fan out of me.

The only other company to officially tell me “thanks, but no thanks” was a mid-sized medical services company with a large internal software-development team. Seven weeks after my interview their recruiter emailed me to say they had chosen another candidate. He admitted that the holidays had delayed their decision process, at least.

No outlet

A colleague referred me for a job at his company. He and I and the hiring manager all worked together at the same company several years ago. I thought the interview went great and I was excited about the opportunity. But then I heard nothing for a few weeks. I reached out. The manager said that he was pursuing a couple other candidates but that I wasn’t out of the running. I never heard back from him or his recruiter again. It’s been almost two months since then. Certainly they chose one of the other candidates.

No other company with which I had interviews followed up with me at all.

I applied to a dozen or so jobs where I did not get an interview. Only one communicated with me at all about my status as a candidate.

I could have followed up with these companies myself. But one company made an offer, a good one. As I tried to read the tea leaves of my active opportunities I could see nobody else was going to offer me anything better before my family’s finances got rough. I accepted and moved on.

Wash out

I’m not upset that I wasn’t chosen for the other jobs. Every job search involves hearing “no thanks” a number of times before hearing “you’re hired.” Even though I know I could have done well in each job for which I interviewed, there could have been candidates in the running that offered something valuable that I didn’t.

But I wanted to hear the “no thanks” and have the loop closed. I hated having so many balls in the air. It would have let me move on cleanly as I continued to pursue other opportunities. And, daggone it, it’s just professional to do so.

From now on, whenever I fill a position on a team I lead, I will either personally write the “thanks, but no thanks” notes, or confirm that my recruiter did.

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Day one

I start my new job today, as a manager of engineers in a large software company.

I’m happy to be going back to work. It was nice in a way to have the last month off, unpaid as it was. I needed some serious downtime and I got it. But I felt unmoored. I like to work.

The job search was challenging for a number of reasons. First, in the last couple months of the year many companies just push off hiring to January. I heard it over and over: we could use someone like you during the first quarter of next year. Awesome, but I’ll be homeless by then.

Second, I began looking while I was still reeling from getting the sack. I was fired after a crazy difficult ten months under new executive leadership. I think I did an exceptional job leading the engineers through a chaotic time, and I had been praised for my work. To find myself no longer wanted was deeply confusing and upsetting.

Everyone asked why I was let go, and I struggled to tell the story. As the days stretched into weeks, I kept unpacking what happened and it changed how I told it. No two people heard the same story, though everything I said to everyone was true. Also, I was still angry and really wanted to say some things that, while true, put some people at my past company in an unflattering light. That never goes over well, so I avoided it. But that left gaps in my story, which led to questions I couldn’t answer well.

One way to Lucas Oil

Third, despite my successes I had a weak story to tell about being a leader of engineers. I just hadn’t been doing it long enough — only 16 months. I had been in QA (software testing) leadership for the previous 18 years.

I was fortunate to shift into engineering, as changes in my industry are leading to fewer QA leadership roles. And I was ready for new mountains to climb — I’d done everything I ever wanted to do in QA.

I have a great story to tell about delivering a very good quality “version 1.0” software product in a short time. It impressed everyone who heard it. But as people asked questions that would reveal my depth, I had to lean on my QA experience, which didn’t connect with them.

Fourth, my technical skills kept being a concern to interviewers. I’m far more technical than the average person, but I lack a deep understanding of the technologies my last few employers used. I am convinced that it’s a rare unicorn who can be deeply good both in technology and in leadership. Becoming the leader I am has required my full attention over the last 10 years and it meant letting my technical skills go stale. But I feel certain that the leader who had focused on technology would not have had the same success I did building leadership alignment on direction, and bringing my engineers through that startup’s “version 1.0” delivery as well as through the chaotic, difficult months that followed. 

Yet nearly everyone I spoke to had some level of concern — dare I call it bias? — that I’d need to be a committed technologist to be able to lead engineers. It’s bunk. Here’s a great article that explains how your VP (or Director) of Engineering is different from your Chief Architect or Chief Technology Officer. Search Google for “VP Engineering vs CTO” — you’ll find many similar articles. I’m a classic Director of Engineering, with strong people and process skills, and enough technical skills to get by.

Still, there’s no way to escape that I did not spend enough time in the technology at my last company. I took a JavaScript course online and read a book on functional programming so I could understand the approach and language the engineers were using. But I can’t draw you an architectural diagram of that application, can’t tell you much about how the application is configured on the server, and know little about the state of the codebase and what challenges lie ahead in it. I needed to know those things as Director of Engineering. There were just so many challenges I needed to solve at that company with straight-up leadership that I kept deferring getting into the tech. I will not make that mistake again.

This reminds me of 18 years ago when I pivoted from technical writing into QA. I’d been a technical writer for a long time, and I’d done all I cared to do in the field. I liked to joke that if I had to write open the File menu and choose Print one more time I was gonna go postal. The company I worked for offered me a QA role, leading a test-automation team and building a lab of testing hardware. I did that job for barely two years, during which time the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 happened. Software companies everywhere went into tailspins. The one where I worked went through waves of layoffs. I got caught in one of them.

After three months of unemployment I got picked up by a large health-insurance company. I was to be a QA engineer, testing software applications for them. My QA story was weak; I had not done it long enough. I think they liked that they could pick me up for cheap. I’m glad they did as it kept the wolves from the door. 

It was both a difficult place to work because of its top-down control culture, and an easy place to work because the expectations weren’t high. On that job I built solid experience as a tester, and then as a manager of testers. And then in the craziest thing that ever happened to me in my career, I was fired and un-fired from that company. Read that story here. I eventually left on my own, my QA cred well established. I had zero trouble getting jobs, and had great success building QA practices from scratch at several other software companies.

I hope I’m in a similar place in this job that begins today: about to build deeper experience and credibility as an engineering leader. I’m going to rest on my leadership skills as they are and switch back to learning technology. I will know how the product is architected, will understand what headwinds we face in the codebase, will know how it is deployed to and configured on the servers that run it, and will learn how to do at least basic things in the programming language they use (Java). I was able to do all of these things early in my career, and I know I can learn it all again in these modern technologies. That will set me up well for the rest of my career, wherever it leads.

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Personal

Job search update

I accepted a job. I’m going back to work January 7 as an Engineering Manager for a national software company with a large office in Indianapolis. If you live in the US and have children in school, you probably have used, or at least have heard of, the product I’m going to help build.

I had hoped to find another small company ready to scale. The company I’ll be working for is well established, with a mature product and thousands of employees. Smaller companies have been my “sweet spot” where I’ve found great satisfaction and delivered solid results. But I didn’t find such a company ready for a person like me on this job search. 

Yet I am relieved. And this company should provide a solid platform for growth.

When I found myself unemployed in 2015, I was in high demand. Several companies expressed strong interest in me, I picked up some side consulting, and I got to weigh two competing job offers.

But in 2015 I was selling myself as a Quality Assurance leader. (QA people test software to make sure it works as intended.) I have a great story to tell there, backed up with deep experience.

Since then I made the transition to Engineering leadership. It came not a moment too soon, for as I discussed in this post on my software blog QA leadership roles are drying up, and for good reason. 

But in Engineering I find myself in a much larger pool of competition. Frankly, it hurt me as a candidate that I haven’t coded in ten years and am only lightly familiar with modern development and infrastructure tools and frameworks.

I claim that this doesn’t matter. What I might lack in technical chops I more than make up in skilled leadership. I made a deliberate choice some years ago to double down on being an outstanding leader, and it had the natural consequence of letting my technical skills wither and age. But I get outstanding results anyway, because I know how to harness my teams for best engagement and best results.

This turned out not to be as compelling a pitch as I imagined. In two opportunities I was passed over for candidates with more recent technology experience. Maybe this is ego talking, but I would be surprised if they had anywhere near the leadership skill and experience I do.

But I have to take this as an important signal. In my new role, I need to learn the technologies we use. I must go deep enough that one day when I’m on the market again, I have a technology story to tell that removes any doubt about me.

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