COVID-19, Stories Told

Changing jobs during a pandemic

Even as I approached the building, all was strange. The front was still boarded up after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the only such building on the block. My key card let me in the front door. It was irrational, I’m sure, but I thought it might not still work after not having used it in ten months. The lights were off in the lobby, as they were on my floor as the elevator doors opened.

My desk was as messy as I’d left it. I didn’t know when I took the week off in early March that I’d never use it again. The company ordered us all to work from home starting the Monday I was to return.

Fast forward to December. I received a fantastic offer from another company, one I would have been foolish to ignore. I took it. On my last day, I drove to my soon-to-be-former office to clean out my desk.

I’ve left jobs before, a dozen times. I have it down. I take stuff home little by little during my last two weeks so my desk is clear on my last day. After lunch I walk around and say personal goodbyes to everyone I can find who I ever worked with, wrapping up with my boss. Not only will I miss the people, who I genuinely enjoy, but also I want to leave a good final impression. The market I work in is small enough that I’m likely to work with some of them again. When I’ve said my final goodbye, I slip out the door.

This was all different. There had been a Zoom happy hour in my honor, which was a nice gesture. I said goodbyes in my normal meetings all during my final week. Anyone I didn’t see, I Slacked. But it all felt so disconnected.

Stepping off the elevator, the floor was silent but for the whoosh and hum of the HVAC. The last time I was on this floor it buzzed with such activity that I needed noise-canceling headphones to be able to focus. I sorted through my things, leaving a healthy portion of it in the wastebasket. I left my laptop and my key card on my desk, picked up my box, rode the elevator down, and walked out for the last time.

Monday morning I started at the new job. My commute didn’t change a bit: I came downstairs, sat at my desk, and started Zoom. But the faces I saw on the screen were all new.

The new company did a terrific job of onboarding, easily the best experience of my career. They committed to everyone’s first full week being nothing but group meetings with various people in the company telling us the company’s history and mission, how we make money, how administrative things work, and what our product looks like and how it works. We got to meet all of the executives.

Yet I kept wishing to see my old team in those little boxes. I really missed them! I always miss the good people I worked with when I leave a job, but never this acutely. But then, I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye.

This post also appeared on my software blog earlier this month.

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Personal

Five jobs in six years

I started a new job today. Again.

I’ve changed jobs a lot in my career: 13 times in almost 32 years — including five times in the last six years. It’s true that the software industry, in which I work, is volatile. Everybody in this industry knows we’ll work for several companies before we retire. But I think my career is a little extreme.

All swagged out at one of the five companies of my last six years

I’ve been laid off a couple times when a company’s fortunes fell. I was also fired twice. The first time I was also un-fired, which is quite a story. The second time was just a couple years ago and was the most painful experience of my career. But most of the time I’ve left of my own volition. A couple times I quit a bad situation and the rest of the times I was recruited away for a better opportunity.

My career has been anything but a straight line. I went to school to be a software engineer, but I graduated during a recession and jobs were scarce. The best job I could land was one writing software user manuals. I liked it a lot and did it for eight years, at which point I saw I’d gone as far as I could go in technical writing. My programming skills had gone stale so I took a job in Quality Assurance as a tester. There I was shortly promoted to manager, and over the next 17 years I built and led testing, test automation, and performance testing teams at various companies.

In 2015 I had been Director of QA at a startup (Company Zero) for 2½ years. After some terrible financial results they laid off a lot of people, including me. I did some consulting that summer before being picked up as Director of QA at another company (Company One). While there, I came to realize I’d gone as far as I could go in QA. I set my sights on moving into Engineering, but didn’t know how to get there. Then the company needed someone to lead its Product Management group, so I took that on too.

After I’d been there about 18 months, a startup founder with whom I was acquainted asked if I’d join his company as Director of Engineering. That was a huge stroke of luck! So I joined his company (Company Two). After about nine months that founder was forced out in a management shakeup. The the person who replaced him ran off or forced out the entire management team she inherited. She finally fired me late in 2018.

The best job I could get before money ran out was a step back, as Engineering Manager at a large, established company (Company Three). It was an okay place to work, but I had concerns about the company’s future. I’d been there only a few months when another large, established company (Company Four) recruited me to be a Senior Engineering Manager, leading four teams and their managers. It was easy to say yes. That company had a wonderful culture, an excellent software delivery process, and an outstanding product architecture. It was a genuine pleasure to work there. I felt like I’d hit the workplace jackpot, and decided to settle in for a long stay. I still wanted to be Director of Engineering again, but this company was such a good fit for me that I decided to enjoy the ride. But then last autumn the company made some changes that affected me and my teams in some ways I didn’t enjoy. A couple key reasons I had been happy evaporated, and I couldn’t see my own future there anymore. I was underutilized and bored. I remain shocked by how quickly things changed for me.

Today I start as Director of Engineering at a young company (Company Five) that I would say is coming out of its startup stage. Going on two years ago a colleague introduced me to their Chief Technology Officer and their (now previous) Director of Engineering. They were looking for some perspective on building out their testing team. I was happy to share my experience with them, and they were able to adapt it well to their situation. When their Director of Engineering decided to start his own venture late last year, they called me about taking on the role. This company makes a useful product, has solid financials and a great growth strategy, and has a reputation as being a wonderful place to work. It was easy to say yes.

And so today I begin. Again. I’m eager to stop this merry-go-round of job changes and do good work here for a long time. Everything I’ve been able to learn and discern about this company gives me great hope that I can.

Because I’ve changed jobs so often, I’ve learned how to recognize when it’s time to go. I wrote a couple posts about it on my software blog: here and here.

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COVID-19

I’m looking forward to going back to the office

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my family is incredibly fortunate that neither I nor my wife have lost our jobs because of COVID-19. The virus has spiked unemployment; more than one in ten Americans who want to work currently lack a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bureau of Labor Statistics chart, retrieved 30 July 2020.

Therefore, I know I’m considerably privileged to say that working from home is getting old. I now look forward to it being safe to return to the office.

I very much enjoy some benefits of being home all the time. Yesterday, for example, I put a pork shoulder roast into the oven early in the afternoon — well marinated and then roasted low and slow, baby, mmhmm! — and dinner was ready when everybody got home, with little fuss. When I work in the office, either my wife or I have to figure out dinner after we get home, no earlier than 6, when frankly the last thing we want to do is more work. And then we eat so late, and then the day is over. It’s nice to be off that treadmill

Also, I’m riding my bike a lot during my lunch hour or, when the day will be too hot, in the morning. Not today; it’s raining. I’m writing this post instead. But I’m riding 5 to 7 miles three or four days a week. Once in a while I’m able to arrange my day so I can take a longer lunch, or start work later in the morning, and ride 10 miles or more. I haven’t gotten so much exercise in at least 15 years. I love to ride my bike! I so enjoy feeling the wind on my face and exploring the streets and roads around my home. I’ve been out of shape for years and this is starting to change that. But when I return to the office, these wonderful rides will end.

I also have more time for my personal projects because I’m not commuting. I’m writing more, making more photographs, developing and scanning more film. I’ll have less time for this when I return to the office.

A scene from my bike ride yesterday morning.

So why do I want to go back?

Because I miss the people I work with. I see my teams on Zoom all the time. But it’s not the same as seeing them in person, being able to go to lunch with them, or being able to laugh over something that came up randomly at our desks. Also, there are people on other teams that don’t report to me, people I enjoy, who I haven’t seen since our office shut down in March.

Because I miss the informal conversations I had with key players. I used them to build influence, move my own initiatives forward, and get the straight dope on what was going on. I’ve yet to find a good substitute.

Because I miss being Downtown. I really enjoy working in Downtown Indianapolis! The city energizes me. I love being able to walk everywhere I want to go. I miss all the options for lunch! And I miss being able to meet my brother at one of the dozens of great watering holes for an after-work drink.

Because our home doesn’t have space for me to have a private office. We didn’t buy our home with working from home in mind; there’s no spare bedroom for me to work in. So my desk is in our living room. I’m happy enough with the arrangement, but the rest of the family needs to be quiet from 8 to 5 weekdays because I can hear pretty much everything in the house from here. They don’t get to fully live in the house while I’m working. We were all willing to accept that when we thought this would be short-term temporary. But now my company has announced we’ll work from home at least through year’s end.

Because my home workspace isn’t as ergonomic as my office workspace. I bought my desk and chair long before the pandemic, with frequent but short-duration use in mind. I intended to write my blog and process photos here for an hour or two a day. I’ve worked from home from here many times before, usually a day or two at a time, and it’s been fine. But after about six weeks of this, my lower back started to crab at me thanks to my chair’s poor lumbar support. I stuck a tiny pillow back there, which has helped. Also, twice since working from home I’ve managed to strain my wrist. I did it most recently last week. I think I haven’t found the optimal chair height and position yet that lets me use my mouse without strain. I’m wearing a wrist brace as I type this; it’s limiting my wrist’s mobility so it can heal. In the office, my workstation is more ergonomic — and I don’t sit at it all day, because I have meetings in person.

Many of these challenges will be hard to solve until COVID-19 is no longer a threat. I’m not setting foot into a bar or restaurant for the foreseeable future, for example. But that doesn’t mean I can’t find creative ways to partially meet these needs. On nice days when my wife or the kids have a day off from their jobs, I can work from the deck with my laptop to open up the house. I can set up Zoom happy hours with some of the colleagues I miss, or even with my brother.

One of these challenges is fully solvable. I can buy a fully ergonomic desk and chair, if I really need to.

But all of these things are best solved when I’m back to work as normal. I look forward to it.

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COVID-19

Too soon to declare victory on distributed work

It’s a foregone conclusion that my company will keep us working from home through the end of the year. There’s no compelling reason to go back. We are delivering as well now as we did before mid-March, when the office closed. But more importantly, no amount of office safety precautions can eliminate our risk of the virus.

I work in tech. We can work anywhere there’s WiFi. A group of voices in our industry has said for years that we would all be more productive and have a superior work-life balance if we all worked from home. Now that we’re all working from home and it’s basically working, they are crowing victory.

Office

I say, not so fast. We’ve been at this only four months, not long enough yet to be sure. Let’s see how we feel in mid-November when it’s been another four months. Given the virus’s resurgence, it doesn’t seem far fetched that this could last even longer than that. Let’s see how we feel at the one year mark, four months later in March.

A software engineer on my team said to me recently, “I really miss everybody. I wish I could get a group together to go to lunch, like we did every day in the office.” I miss that, too. I used to bring my lunch, but anytime I wanted lunchtime camaraderie I knew I’d find some group of engineers going out, and I’d be welcome to join them. Many of those engineers are on projects I’m not involved with and I haven’t seen them in months.

He said he especially missed the in-person dynamic of our seven-person team: “I know I see you and the other engineers on the team on Zoom in our daily check-in meeting and in our regular tech discussions, but I miss our energy in the office. I feel isolated here.” Then he asked, “Do you think it would be possible to get us together, maybe for lunch at some restaurant outside? If people want more distance than that, maybe we could all bring our lunch to a big park?”

I checked in with the rest of the team and they were all enthusiastic about getting together, as long as we keep physical distance. We’ve laid in plans to spend some time together this Thursday, outside, at a place where we can stay spread out.

I also manage the managers of three other teams. Our four teams work toward common corporate goals, but we’re set up so that each team has its own backlog of work. It’s efficient. But part of what makes it work is that in the office we all sit in in adjacent groups of desks. This is deliberate. It lets us see each other all the time so we can stay in frequent contact.

It’s been harder since we started working from home. We’ve done our best to stay in touch, but haven’t found a replacement yet for the random, organic, quick check-ins we were used to. I’ve noticed an undercurrent of tension growing among the managers. Recently, there have been a couple spots of friction among them.

We needed to talk things through. My gut told me we’d be better off meeting in person rather than over Zoom. I asked the managers if they’d be comfortable meeting in a park with masks and good distancing. After they thought it over for a while they agreed — the benefit outweighed the (mitigated) risk. We met Thursday afternoon. We talked through the challenges we’re facing and came up with some collaborative and creative ways to stay aligned, both with each other and with some key peers we work with. All of the managers told me that it was good to be able to see each other in person, and to read body language as we interacted. They wished we could do it more often.

The distributed tech companies will all tell you that meeting in person from time to time is essential. But they tend to do it in big annual or semi-annual whole-company gatherings.

Also, these companies either built a distributed culture from the start (such as Automattic, which makes WordPress, the software that runs this blog) or shifted to a distributed workforce a long time ago and evolved their culture to fit it.

Companies like mine — most tech companies finding themselves with a COVID-driven at-home workforce — have not completed that evolution, if they’re even trying. We are used to the dynamics of working together in person.

Several people I work with closely tell me they’re perfectly happy and could keep this up forever. But the rest of us are still figuring out how to adapt. I can think of a couple people on my teams who might never fully adapt. They might need an office environment to work best.

I don’t look for my teams to meet in person regularly. We are all best off limiting our exposure to people we don’t live with. But during these summer months we can meet in person if we need to. There are plenty of wide-open spaces in our city parks, for example. But what happens when the warm-weather months end? This is Indiana, after all. It’s cold in the winter, and we get a lot of snow. For those of us who feel isolated now, just wait until winter takes away all of our reasonably safe options to connect in person.

All tech companies need to keep intentionally evolving toward more effective ways of working while distributed. I think it’s a long journey, one that is unlikely to be accomplished in the short term. I wish us all luck during the long winter.

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Essay

Juneteenth: are we really woke this time?

My dad was the sole white member of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club in South Bend, my hometown. Dad was interested in economic development in the city’s depressed west side, where he had lived as a teenager. He worked with a few west-side groups trying to move initiatives forward, and the Men’s Club was one of them.

Through this, I think, he became aware of the challenges black families faced in South Bend. Whenever I’d see him he’d eventually steer our conversations toward those challenges. He could talk for hours about them. As a dyed-in-the-wool Republican he always advanced conservative solutions. The men of the Men’s Club were Democrats to the core and vigorously disagreed with Dad, but they came to like him anyway.

This is how I first heard of Juneteenth. There were celebrations every year on South Bend’s west side, and my parents always went to them.

I work in technology, specifically in software development. This industry is overwhelmingly the domain of young white men from the middle and upper classes. Where I work now, we have the most diverse team of anyplace I’ve ever worked. That doesn’t mean it’s highly diverse — we just have some women and a few black people on the team. We also have several immigrants from India and China and a few old white guys like me. That’s enough to set us well apart.

The murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis was the one-time-too-many that finally captured this nation’s attention. People of all backgrounds are saying enough. It’s time to treat black people with the same dignity and respect that is afforded white people.

At work, leaders have been talking a lot about how to improve the diversity of our team. Because I follow a lot of the local tech companies on LinkedIn, I see through their updates that they are having the same kinds of conversations.

I see it as systemic that our industry is made mostly of young white men. Most jobs either require or favor a four-year engineering-related degree. In my experience, that’s overwhelmingly the domain of young white men of some means.

Technology companies should eliminate the degree requirement. Then they should invest in training and apprenticeships. Yes, let’s apply the old trade model to technology. At least in software development, there are coding academies that teach the basics. Companies can band together to create scholarships to those academies, and heavily recruit people to those scholarships who are not young white men. They can then bring graduates on board and show them the ropes on the job.

Personally, when I have an opening on my team I scour LinkedIn for people who aren’t young white men and I recruit them. Plenty of young white men find my opening on their own. I’m still selecting from the same pool of people who are already in the industry, blocking people who want to get in but don’t yet have the bona fides. But it has led to my last two offers going to a black software engineer and a woman engineering manager.

Out of the blue, my company this week announced that they are giving us this afternoon off to celebrate Juneteenth. My brother works for another local tech company that has one-upped us: they’ve made Juneteenth a paid company holiday, starting this year.

I’m cynical. Are we just signaling virtue? Will we actually carry our discussions about diversity through to action?

None of the social welfare and justice initiatives Dad was involved in drove lasting change. It was an uphill climb, and it required persistence and cooperation beyond what my father could arrange. The same persistence and cooperation is required to drive diverse hiring in the tech industry. It’s also needed across the United States for the good of our whole nation.

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COVID-19

The surprising benefits of working from home

Schwinn Collegiate

I realize I’m fortunate that COVID-19 hasn’t affected my or my wife’s employment. I’ve written about my challenges adapting to the changes lockdown and reopening have brought, but at no time have I missed a mortgage payment or chosen buying groceries over paying the electric bill. I merely had to adapt to the changes and forge a new normal.

I’m still working from home. My company has announced that we’ll keep it up through at least Labor Day. Word on the street is that it’s unlikely we’ll return before 2021.

Fortunately, there are some real benefits to working at home. Now that spring is truly here I often go for bike rides on my lunch hour! I have always loved to ride my bike. For years and years I’ve struggled to make time for it. It’s easy to get a ride in when the bike is 20 feet away in the garage and I have an hour to myself!

I use my lunch hour in other ways, too. On rainy days, I develop the film I’ve shot lately. The other day I ran over to Meijer to buy a few staples we ran out of. These are things I used to drag myself through while tired at the end of a workday, or put off until the weekend.

I’m also sometimes able to start dinner for the family during a gap in my work schedule. Before, making dinner after my wife and I both come home meant we frequently didn’t eat until far later than any of us like. Or we were both too tired to cook and spent a ton of money going out. But working from home I can often arrange my afternoon to prepare a roast or a stew or a soup that can cook while I work the rest of the afternoon. We eat earlier and have the rest of the evening to do other things.

Also, not commuting is giving me a full hour back each day. I’ve mostly used the time to write more in my blog — posts like this one!

My evenings and weekends are more open now, because I work from home. It is going to be hard to give that up when we are eventually called back to the office.

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