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.
Another thing happened while I was on my blog hiatus last month. I was fired.
I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. I had led the building of “version 1.0” of our product. I doubled the engineering staff to an even dozen, put in the practices and processes they used to do their work, and collaborated with the product-idea people to make sure the engineers had solid backlogs of work to build from. In short order we turned a chicken-wire-and-chewing-gum prototype into a real software product that sold well and provided real value to customers. I’m proud of what my team and I accomplished.
Those accomplishments apparently didn’t matter in the end.
To tell you the whole story would probably violate the confidentiality agreement I signed. I’m left to guess at much of it anyway, as they wouldn’t tell me why they were letting me go. Financial considerations could have played a role. My boss and I had lately been at serious loggerheads over some matters and I feel sure that hurt me considerably.
I saw some classic signs that it was coming: of my boss canceling meetings with me, of some of the successes for which I had once been praised being reframed as not so successful after all, and of me being left out of tactical and strategic discussions. My boss even suggested strongly that she was losing confidence in me. I was dead man walking.
I’m astonished by how fast things turned. I had been praised as a key player through about the end of the summer. My performance had netted me an off-cycle pay raise, and there was talk of promoting me to Senior Director.
When my boss messaged me late one afternoon to ask me to meet with her at 8 am the next day, I knew the axe was falling. (The office would have been deserted at 8 — in the software startup world most people reach the office well after 9.) There was no way I was going to toss and turn all night in stress and worry and then make the 45-minute commute just to get fired. So I made her do it that night at a nearby Starbucks.
My exit left me feeling played, brutalized, and ultimately humiliated. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy since then processing what happened and my feelings about it so I can be at peace. I’m not quite there yet but I am close.
Those of us who work in software must simply accept its volatility, especially in young companies trying to find their way. Fortunes turn for the worse and layoffs follow. Strategies change and people who were once key players suddenly find that they are no longer the right person for their role, or that their role is no longer needed. This involuntary exit isn’t my first — in 30 years I’ve been laid off twice (I wrote extensively about the last time, here) and fired one other time (and then un-fired; read that oh-so-hilarious story here).
Of course, I have only so much financial runway. If I don’t take off in another job before about the end of the year, my family will be in challenging circumstances.
I remain well known in the central-Indiana software community, so I immediately started reaching out to colleagues to reconnect with them. I always asked them for introductions to people I don’t know in the local industry. It’s remarkable to me how willing people who don’t know me are to meet me for coffee on the recommendation of a shared colleague. It has been interesting and fun to make those connections. Some of them revealed opportunities that haven’t been made public yet.
I also applied for a couple jobs that were available. One of those applications led to a solid interview. The title is Engineering Manager, so I’d be stepping back a level from my last job. But they’ve given me an idea of the salary and it’s not much less than I was making before. It’s a well-established company, and those generally pay better, job to job, than startups. They like me and tell me they want to offer me the job, but as of today my candidacy is held up in some corporate red tape and I feel like it’s a coin toss whether it will come out in my favor.
I remain charmed by the startup world and would love to hold out for a leadership role at another young company. But landing one of those jobs — any job, really — takes patience and serendipity and I need to support my family right now. Wish me luck. If you’re a person of faith, my family will be grateful for your prayers.
The tiger lilies and the phlox in my front garden always bloom last. Their annual emergence is my sure sign summer is here.
The days on either side of solstice are my favorite time of year. The days last so long, with 15 hours of glorious daylight. It’s usually temperate in Indiana, with highs in the 70s or 80s. The trees are fully leaved, young bunnies hop all around the neighborhood, and the flowers just keep coming. It’s so easy to feel happy as spring fades into summer.
Except that I’m not really doing them. I started a couple long-neglected yard chores but they remain unfinished. Except for a few long walks and one good bike ride, I really haven’t launched that fitness regimen I’ve long talked about. I haven’t finally cleaned and reorganized my garage. I haven’t given more time to the church or to the nonprofit I help run.
What I’m finding is that everything I normally do has expanded to fill most of the extra time — I’m taking things slower. With the rest of the time, I’m sleeping in a little and I’m stopping more often to breathe the air and look at my flowers.
There are two reasons, I think. First, I think I don’t really want to do those things. They’re just things I think I ought to be doing, and I blame lack of time for not doing them. I think we tend to naturally prioritize the things we want to do, within the time available to us. It turns out that sleeping and enjoying a little idle time were actually next on my must-do list.
But second, my life was toobusy before. I frequently burn the candle at both ends. Working only part time has let me ease up. It feels like a vacation. I’d like to keep some of this when I eventually return to full-time work.
Does this resonate with you? What do you say you want to do if you had more time? What do you think you’d actually do with that time?
As soon as I got the news that I was being laid off at work, I texted my closest friends and colleagues with the news. And after I packed my office into my car and drove home, I emailed a bunch more friends and colleagues.
I was deluged with replies. I had a call from a recruiter by lunchtime, and by mid-afternoon a coffee was scheduled with a woman I once worked for who is now a VP at a major local employer of software developers. She gave me a bunch of practical, useful advice on my search, and sent me a bunch of information about companies she talked to around town earlier in the year as she searched for the job she now holds. She told me she’d introduce me to anybody she met at any of those companies.
The next day, one of my oldest friends, who is well known and well connected in the open-source community, started asking around about freelance jobs I can do to make some money while I search. And I started reaching out to colleagues I enjoyed working with in the past but who I haven’t talked to in a while, to schedule lunches and coffees to catch up and see if they could connect me to people who might need someone who can do what I do. I’m booked for lunch for the next two weeks and have coffees sprinkled across my calendar.
And then the CFO of the company that let me go emailed me to schedule coffee, at which he opened his considerable contact list to me and offered to connect me with anybody he knew. That led to a few more coffees being scheduled with software-company CEOs and VPs around town — and directly to one job interview, with a company that needs to build a software testing practice. That’s exactly what I do best!
The strongest advice my VP colleague gave me was don’t settle. She urged me to wait for just the job I want — one with the right cultural fit (collaborative and collegial), at the right level in the organization (Director), with the right salary, doing the things I like to do the most (building and leading teams of technical people, driving projects, delivering software).
The closer I get to the money running out, the more I will have no choice but to settle so I can pay the mortgage. I hope that right next job is in this tidal wave of responses. This surge will peter out sooner or later, and then I will have to start working on alternate plans: aggressively seeking freelance and consulting jobs, and looking at permanent positions that aren’t exactly what I want but which will pay the bills.
But today, I feel like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, when everybody he knew in Bedford Falls collected money to make up for the Building and Loan’s $8,000 shortfall. I feel affirmed and valued, at a depth I didn’t know existed. They say that in hard times you learn who your friends are. I’ve learned that I have far more friends than I ever knew.
My older son graduated high school on Saturday. It’s a day for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. I was glad to celebrate this passage with him, though he said he felt much as I did when I graduated high school: “Dad, I’m a good student; was there ever any doubt this day would come?”
But I’ll admit it, the day tore open some hard feelings for me — regrets that thanks to the divorce and living apart, I didn’t get to spend every day with him as he grew up. And I see even less of him now as he has taken a job and prepares to go to Purdue in the fall. I really miss him.
When we’ve managed to get together lately, we’ve had some really good talks. He loves video games as much as I love old cameras and film photography. He deeply understands game design and has a remarkable feel for story arc and how it is best used in games. He also has good insight into the business of video games, which is enough like the business of software (what I do for a living) that we can talk meaningfully about the ins and outs of what makes both a video game and other software products successful, and why sometimes a seemingly sure thing fails.
In college, doing homework, as usual
But I also got to say some things to him about heading into this next phase of his life. I remember going off to college at 17 and feeling not just that I was expected to keep moving forward, away from my parents and into my adulthood, but that the door had closed behind me. I’m sure my parents didn’t mean for me to feel that way, and would have been supportive had I reached out. But I felt alienated from all I had known just the same.
And then I had some typical difficulties of adjusting to college. Because I chose a tough school, I was buried in homework and worked harder than I ever have since. I struggled with some of my classes and briefly wound up on academic probation. I kept getting sick, as the same bugs got passed around the dorm over and over again. I became deeply depressed, and I felt like I had to bear it all alone.
I was unusually fortunate then to know my calling: making software. I pursued it, I pushed through the difficulties, and for the last 26 years have spent my working days doing it. But my son is more typical. He has a general direction in mind, but the picture of his future is cloudy.
But even if he knew exactly where he was headed, I don’t want him to feel as alone as I did. I told him that no matter what, I’m on his team. If things get tough, he should call; I’ll listen to him dump and vent. If he needs to come home to decompress for the weekend, I’ll go get him. If he wants to change majors, he should just do it. If he decides Purdue isn’t for him, then for heaven’s sake don’t stay. Come home and we’ll figure out a next step.
An apple on my former desk in my former office
It’s ironic, then, that I’m not making software at the moment. I was laid off from my job last Monday. My boss came to my office, ashen-faced, first thing to break the bad news.
I joined the company when it was small to build a testing team from scratch. (Programmers write the code, and testers make sure it works.) They make a very useful product, one that has a real chance at changing an entire industry for the better. But the company has always struggled to sell enough of it.
And so I wasn’t terribly surprised when my boss said that the company needed to cut expenses to match revenue, and that it meant my job and the jobs of several of my colleagues.
Truth? I was flooded with relief. I had been unhappy for some time. There were things I had hoped to do there that I thought would deeply benefit the company but in which I couldn’t generate any real interest. It was frustrating and disappointing to see my ideas repeatedly rebuffed. And I just didn’t mesh with my peers in management. The company culture loves bold alpha males, and so the middle-management team tends to be lone wolves who operate independently. While I’m all about moving initiatives forward powerfully, I’m more of a quiet collaborator. I kept feeling steamrolled and countermanded by my high-independence, high-action, high-emotion peers. It was exhausting.
I’m not wealthy — the modest payout the company gave me will run out sometime this summer, and then I’ll have to start paying the bills with the money I plan to send to Purdue. I have plenty of anxiety over that. But fortunately, I’m well connected in my industry in my town, and I’m working my network hard. Right now, it’s very hard to fill open positions in software development here, as pretty much everyone who wants to work in the field has a job. The last time I hired someone, resumes trickled in and it took four months to find a good candidate. So I’m optimistic that I’ll be back to work before the money runs out. Wish me luck.
But there is a bright side: when my son visits this summer, at least I’ll have time to spend with him.