Growth, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now he’s weeks away from his final year of college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record

On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 10,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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Stories Told

Goodbye, Rick, sort of

Down the Road is on hiatus. New posts resume on Monday! Here’s one last rerun, one that’s special to me. I’m happy to run it again because the first time around (July of 2008) this blog was barely a year old and had few readers.

My brother and I didn’t see eye to eye on most things when we were kids. We didn’t hate each other, we just found each other to be extremely frustrating. We could make each other really mad with very little effort. The house rule was that whoever hit first was punished, so I knew I had really pushed Rick’s buttons when he pointed to his chin and said, “Hit me. Right there. Please.”

Rick

The man in earlier days

After I left our hometown for college, I didn’t see Rick except on holidays. He moved to my town eleven years ago, but I still barely saw him except on holidays. Our holiday times together were always fine, but somehow we seldom phoned and never dropped by.

But Rick was the first person I called when my now ex-wife wanted us to separate. He let me stay with him for a month, and he was a source of real strength as I started to recover from that horrible situation.

And then a couple years ago I ended up getting a job at the small software company where he worked. Understand that I’d spent my whole career, 17 years at the time, in software development. I even got my degree in mathematics and computer science, right up my career’s alley. But Rick got a degree in psychology, then worked seven years as a preperator in a museum and four in mortgage banking before making another big career change to come here. Both our careers had led to software quality assurance, his just through a very indirect route. We even reported to the same boss. And for the first time in our lives, my younger brother preceded me, and I lived in his shadow a little bit.

It has been great. Where daily childhood life emphasized our differences, adult work life has emphasized our similarities. We both like to think things through and do a thorough job. We both actively try to solve the problems we see. We both want to build team processes that make everybody more effective. We both want our teams’ efforts to bring more value to the company. So we regularly bounced ideas off each other, discussed thorny problems, and encouraged each other through challenges. I don’t think either of us knew the other had it in him.

It has long been clear, though, that Rick has grown about as much as he can at our company and was losing his enthusiasm. He needed new challenges – to learn new technologies and software development processes – to get his fire back. And so when I come back from vacation a week from Monday his cubicle will be empty. He’ll have a new job at a place that he thinks will provide the spark.

For the first time in my life, I’m going to miss my brother. Now that we have some momentum going, maybe we’ll call each other sometimes.

I’m happy to report, eight years later, that Rick and I have become very close. We still both test software for a living and swap war stories. And he’s still one of the first people I call when I need someone to talk to.

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Life, Photography

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

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 a long time. 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 filed with great work. Yet they wound up writing and editing books about software, which wasn’t 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 fairly well. Few of them loved the work, but they were grateful to be writing for 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 intrinsically 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 value necessary to capture your attention is much lower than the value necessary to make you pay even a little bit.

If I were to charge even a nominal fee to read my posts and see my photographs, I feel sure that most if not all of you would quit visiting. What I do here isn’t that kind of valuable. And I’m just one small voice on the vast Internet. 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 started to fall, and hard. 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), 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.

Here’s the fatal flaw in my argument: 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. It’ll be ten years in February. I’m very happy that my work creates enough value to keep capturing your attention. I’m working on 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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Life

I shed no tears for Amazon’s white-collar workers — but its blue-collar workers deserve better

Some companies are just hard to work for. Amazon appears to be one of them. I shed no tears for its white-collar workers, but in many cases its blue-collar workers deserve better.

The big online retailer’s corporate culture has been in the news a lot lately after a damning article in the New York Times lambasted the company for unrelenting pace and pressure at its Seattle headquarters. It told stories of ridiculously long hours, of scoldings for midnight emails not immediately answered, of employees undermining each other using an anonymous feedback system, of a brutal annual performance rating system that ends in firing those ranked at the bottom even when the ratings are good, of grown men routinely crying in their offices.

The article smells like a hit piece to me. I wonder what axe the Times or the reporters have to grind. Indeed, people inside Amazon are calling the piece largely bunk, including this employee who tore the article apart piece by piece.

Largely bunk, though, because nobody denies that Amazon is an intensely demanding workplace that wants to attract and keep overachieving A players. Anyone who can’t hack it isn’t coddled — they leave, voluntarily or not.

Plenty of people thrive in such an environment. Plenty of people don’t. And for those who don’t, they all have skills and talents that transfer easily to other companies with cultures that fit them better. Plenty of companies are available for them to choose from. And that’s why I don’t cry for the workers at Amazon headquarters. They have good options.

Inside Amazon's Whitestown, Indiana warehouse. WRTV photo.

Inside Amazon’s Whitestown, Indiana, warehouse. WRTV photo.

But Amazon’s blue-collar workers have far fewer options, and many of those options are poor. Some stories of conditions inside Amazon’s many warehouses enrage me. One warehouse turned off the air conditioning in the summertime and sent the prostrated to the ER. They wouldn’t even open the warehouse doors to vent the heat, to prevent theft. Worries about theft also lead Amazon warehouses to make employees wait for up to 25 unpaid minutes at quitting time to go through a security check. Lawsuits followed. They went all the way to the Supreme Court, which validated the practice, unfortunately.

Even when Amazon warehouse workers avoid dangerous conditions, the warehouse is still far from a joyful place to work. I know someone who worked the last holiday season at the Amazon warehouse in nearby Whitestown, Indiana, and he complained of a deeply intense, almost impossible pace that left his feet aching. But, he added, for anyone who doesn’t like it there, five more people are waiting in line for the job. Few other viable employers are available for these workers.

Low-skill blue-collar workers do have options — they’re just enormously difficult. I think about my dad’s family in West Virginia’s hill country. Coal mining provides most of the employment, and it’s all dangerous work. Worker abuses used to be very common; even during my father’s childhood there, “I owe my soul to the company store” was real. But many in my family found deep courage and took big risks to find a better life. My great grandmother opened a tavern and boardinghouse in a little town where the railroad loaded the coal. It was a bold move for a woman in those years, but my great grandmother had guts (and was a deadly shot). And many of my family moved to northern Indiana in the 1950s to find safer, surer work in construction and manufacturing. That was not done lightly — West Virginians are fiercely dedicated to family togetherness.

Indeed, half my family still lives in West Virginia in or not far from that railroad town, and many of those who choose to work still go down into the dangerous mines. Other jobs are very hard to come by, even though Amazon does have a warehouse up the road in Huntington. This surprises me given how hard those hills are to navigate — this isn’t prime factory or warehouse territory.

I applaud anyone at this end of the worker spectrum who takes good risks to find a better life. But not everybody succeeds, and not everybody can do it. At some point, it becomes necessary to protect blue-collar workers from workplace abuses, simply because some number of them will have no options and can be terribly exploited. It reminds me of turn-of-the-20th-century stories about six day, sixty hour weeks, and about child labor, and about poverty-level wages, because the employers could get away with it. Federal labor law and labor unions ended up solving those problems. I’m no fan of government intervention and I deplore what labor unions have turned into. Yet I do think that working people with limited options deserve some protection, some guarantee of humane working conditions.

White-collar workers are much more likely to have good options; many of them can get another job in the same field near where they live. If any of the abuses in the New York Times article are true, I deplore them. But a software developer or a marketing specialist at Amazon headquarters can quit, and soon find other programming or marketing jobs right there in Seattle. A departing Amazon warehouse worker in Whitestown, however, is much more likely to face long unemployment and an uncertain future.

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Life

The hot girl at the dance

“Oh my gosh, Jim, you’re the hot girl at the dance!”

A former boss called to ask about my week on the job hunt, and that’s what she said after I told her.

Potawatomi dancers

This is an American Indian dancing at a Potawatomi pow-wow. This isn’t the kind of dancing I’m talking about, but I’ve taken few photos that relate to dancing! I feel like I can get away with this because I’m part Potawatomi.

What a week it was! I landed a short-term consulting job with a startup software company. It starts today. An interview with a different company went very well, wrapping with the interviewer saying, “I think you need to meet the partners. I’ll schedule that for next week.” Thanks to introductions from a couple key colleagues, I had lunch or coffee with a handful of software-company presidents and vice presidents, and the chief financial officer at a venture-capital firm that funds startup tech companies. And that former boss even admitted that she was trying to make funds appear to hire me.

I am astonished.

Some context: for about the last 10 years here in Indianapolis, tech has been hot. Qualified people are hard to find. The last time I hired someone, I searched four months to find him.

And then in the past few weeks, I learned that the city’s tech scene is even hotter than I knew. A colleague who owns a consulting firm that serves this industry told me that he knows of about 200 local companies that make software. Most are very small, he said, with fewer than 20 people; many will wash out. But new startup companies are forming all the time. The venture-capital CFO told me that in five years, he expects as many as 300 more tech companies to form.

I had no idea that I’m swimming in so much opportunity. I’ve learned of it only as I’ve reconnected with colleagues I’ve worked with long ago. Many of them are now in executive roles and are well connected in the industry, and are bending over backwards to help me. It helps a lot that I’ve done good work in my career and people have (for the most part!) enjoyed working with me.

It makes me wish I’d stayed well connected with the good people from earlier in my career. I wrote about this on my software blog; read it here. Like I said there, I’m an introvert of working-class roots — a fellow who prefers to keep to himself and let his work speak for itself.

I brought this up to another colleague last week over coffee. He was the president of a software company I used to work for, and has since started his own company. “Jim, you now have two jobs,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing to earn a paycheck, and maintaining and expanding your network.” He admitted his own introversion, but said that he’s worked hard to stay well connected. It’s how he’s built his new business. “You can build these habits too. You should.”

I will.

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Stories Told

Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me

This is the last in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story in January of 2011, but rewrote it for today.

I knew I didn’t fit, but I took the job anyway — I had been laid off, and I wasn’t able to pay the mortgage. I stayed in my field, testing software. But it was an old-line, top-down insurance company, and we were on a government contract. I had always been freewheeling and entrepreneurial. I chafed at the plodding pace, the red tape.

I made manager after a year. Why did I apply? Why did I get the job? I still didn’t fit. But now I could see what drove our chilly relationship with the government: a culture of obfuscation and gamesmanship, fueled by my company’s vice president. I couldn’t play that way. Instead, I built friendly and honest relationships with the government’s project leaders. My peers couldn’t figure out why I was so effective. I earned the VP’s suspicion.

Months later word came down, no explanation, no exceptions: all managers would take a battery of intelligence and personality tests. I’m plenty bright and play well with others, so I didn’t worry. But a few weeks later my boss called me into his office. Normally very animated, he sat still. His jaw clenched, then unclenched. He said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but your test results are in. You don’t fit the profile. HR is coming after lunch to terminate you.”

I sat, gobsmacked. Profile? What do you mean profile? Fire me because I suck at the job, fire me because you can’t afford me. But fire me because of a test? Was this even legal?

It turned out that 20 other managers in the organization got canned that day. The common thread: the managers who remained played well with the VP.

I had no energy to fight: a tattered marriage, unwelcome at home, a fresh lease on a tiny apartment. Strangely, I was asked to stay on for 30 more days “to manage the transition,” whatever that meant. I couldn’t tell my team, and I especially could not tell the government; the VP would handle it. If I kept this deal, there would be severance. Almost generous severance.

My government contacts kept scheduling me for conference calls happening after my last day. With a few days left, the government’s project leader called wanting me to fly out for a meeting. Backed into a corner, trying not to scotch my severance, I told her that as part of a restructuring I would no longer be the test manager, and that she would need to talk to my boss.

My office

My office at one of my career stops. Bask in its beigeness.

I didn’t know she and her boss were at my company’s data center with the VP. She told her boss what was happening — and they made a beeline for that VP. She called me later: “We cornered him and read him the riot act, demanding to know why he was demoting his best manager!” At once, I felt a rush from the compliment — but also dread, because I knew that as soon as the VP came back to town I’d hear from him. And sure enough, I did, at top volume: “Why the fuck did you tell them? Why didn’t you follow protocol? What were you thinking?” I fired back: “Protocol? What protocol? You said you’d tell them; you didn’t. They were scheduling me for meetings after my last day. They needed to know.”

The VP forced his shoulders down, leaned back, pushed out a breath. He smiled, a sickly, clenched thing. “Well, Jim, you’re good people. We want to take care of people we like. Don’t worry, you have a job here. We’ll find you a new assignment.”

I was unfired.

Much later, the government’s project leader explained that they had modified the contract to write me in as a key player. Unbelievably, it meant that the company could not reassign me off the project or terminate me except for cause. Clearly, the VP was trying dance around that, waiting until I was gone to tell our government contacts that I’d resigned to take another job.

Any love or loyalty I had for the company had been trampled, torched, napalmed, and nuked, but I accepted the job they offered me, an advisory role at my manager’s salary. They made no assignments but continued to pay me. It was a blessing: my marriage would end in an awful, protracted fight, stress crushing my chest, sleep elusive for days on end. I thought I might lose my mind. I certainly could not have done the job I had lost.

Six months in, an assignment finally came: performance testing and test automation, which needed technical skills I lacked. I was sure they still wanted me gone and would plot my failure to accomplish it. But the fellow I joined in doing these things had once reported to me. He said, “You’re the only manager here who gave a damn about me and treated me well. I see what they’re doing to you. I will teach you everything. You will not fail.”

He apprenticed me over the next six months while my personal life calmed down. I took my new knowledge to a different company to build a test-automation practice. I was just beginning to build a performance-testing practice there when a colleague called to tell me about a great opening at a highly regarded local software company. I spent four years there running a large testing team and building automation and performance practices. Next, a startup software company invited me to build a testing practice from the ground up. I’ve been at it for almost two years.

I’m at the top of my career today, and I would never have been able to do it unless I’d been fired.


I once worked for a company whose CEO got his whole executive team to lie for him in court about a sexual harassment charge. Read the story.

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