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.
I touched on this in one of my earlier COVID-19 reports, but I’d like to expand on it today: I am surprised to find I don’t mind working from home long term.
I always feared I wouldn’t enjoy it. I like the human contact the office gives me. I worried it would be a lot harder for me to build the relationships I need to influence decisions. Also, I like having a place where work happens and a separate place where home happens. Finally, I have always been sure that if I worked from home, I wouldn’t be able to stay out of the refrigerator.
Where I work, we are in the final days of a large, complex, and critical project. I’m the lead project manager. I was handed this project in flight and asked to straighten it out. The kinds of things that go wrong at this point in a project like this are happening. I liken it to bombs dropping overhead while you stroll through a minefield.
About 25 people are working on this project, and four executives over my head anxiously await its completion. All of us are at home. Thanks to Slack, a text-based asynchronous communication tool, and to Zoom, a videoconferencing tool, communication is flowing well. Thanks to Jira and GitHub, a work-ticketing system and a code-management tool, I can watch the work flow. I know that the team is working hard, and I know when they’re blocked. I know when I need to act to unblock the team, and I can keep executives fully in the loop.
Productivity is comparable to nine weeks ago when we were all in the office. We’re not missing a beat in communication.
It works because we all work from home. We all have to use Slack and Zoom. There are no conference-room meetings or hallway conversations.
I find that when some people work remotely and everyone else is in the office, the remote workers have to work triply hard to stay in the loop and be heard. I know of a couple companies that make a hybrid remote/in-office culture work, but it takes a lot of intentional energy to keep it working. It’s easiest when everybody works remotely, or nobody does.
It helps a lot that my first nine months with this employer were in the office. I built relationships and influence the way I already know how: in person. I don’t know how I’d build it if I started with this company right now, while we’re all still at home.
I was right about one thing, though: I can’t stay out of the refrigerator.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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