I make my living in software development (and blog about it occasionally over here). This is all I’ve wanted to do since I taught myself to code in the early 1980s. I’ve written a little code, written a lot of user instructions, and tested a lot of broken software. But mostly I’ve led teams and projects. I’ve done that for the last 20 years and I love it.
The new company was a good place to work, and I liked the people there. I’ll miss being there every day! But to my surprise, I wasn’t finding great satisfaction in the role. Slowly it dawned on me that after 16 years in QA I’d done everything I could do in the field. It was time for a new adventure.
I’m not leaving the software world. I’m just shifting to a new role: Director of Engineering, leading the coders. Long story short, I decided that to do what I still want to do in my career, I would need to shift to engineering leadership.
My new company isn’t entirely new to me — they hired me as a consultant the summer I looked for permanent work. Since then, they hired my brother to be their Director of QA. When they needed a new Director of Engineering, they easily recruited me to the role. The company is a startup, with all the risk that implies: iterating on a product idea and trying to find market fit, all the while trying not to run out of investment capital.
But in my career I’ve been driven by adventure, and this is just the kind of adventure I like. So off I go!
I shot this photograph inside the company’s building while there for one of my interviews. I used my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 on Kodak Tri-X 400 film. I’ll get to see this light sculpture every weekday now!
It’s the American mythos: if you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything. But I no longer think it’s true.
Mind you, I’m all for hard work. But I think success also requires good resources and good luck. Actually, I think resources and luck are more important than hard work. They make hard work gain solid traction. Without them, a lifetime of hard work usually yields very little.
I see it all the time in the inner-city church I attend: teens struggling to make a viable life as they enter adulthood, adults working hard only to barely tread water. Many of these people are bright and capable and have dreams they’d like to achieve. Few of them make a stable life, despite their best efforts.
In contrast, I’ve done well in my life. I make upper-middle-class money — not so much that I’m free from financial worry, but enough that the wolves are so far from the door that I’ve pretty much forgotten what they look like.
What has brought my good fortune? Hard work has certainly been important. But I’ve also had resources that my inner-city church friends simply lack, and those resources and my willingness to work have let me capitalize on the luck that has come my way.
My story illustrates my point very well. So I’m going to tell it three times: first through the lens of hard work, then through the lens of resources and luck, and finally through the lens of some of the difficulties I’ve faced, some of which were severe. As you read it, think of your story. How hard have you worked? What setbacks have you experienced? How have your resources and luck enabled — or lack thereof limited — success?
My story through the lens of hard work
Here’s the version of my life story, from the perspective of the success I’ve found in my life. Told this way, it looks like hard work really pays off.
I applied myself in school and got good grades. I also learned how to program computers. These things got me into a top engineering school where I worked harder than ever before or since. I got a degree in mathematics and computer science. I moved into a career in software development, where I’ve worked hard for more than a quarter century now and have risen through the ranks. Today, I’m a director in a software company. I have an upper-middle-class job and I’m doing well.
My story through the lens of resources and luck
I have worked hard. But when you look at my life through a wider lens, you can see how many resources I had available to me, and how good luck at key moments led to important opportunities.
I was born in 1967 to working-class parents who had high-school educations. We didn’t have much for a long time, but my parents were frugal and we never went without. Manufacturing jobs were reasonably plentiful then and Dad worked steadily. He was smart and capable, and in the 1980s was promoted to management.
My parents deliberately created a quiet, stable environment for my younger brother and me. We were well cared for and loved. Education was everything to them. Homework came first. They praised and rewarded our scholastic achievements. They always spoke of college as something we would do as if it were the natural next step after high school.
I was intelligent. I taught myself to read by age 3. And then I turned out to be well-suited for school — I was naturally well behaved and liked the rules and structure. I did the work and got excellent grades. In high school, I was accepted into all the advanced-placement classes, and I liked the challenge.
As I entered high school, the then-new home computers were just becoming affordable. I’d shown aptitude so Dad, flush with a new management-level salary, bought me one. I taught myself to write code on it. I spent hours mastering programming and really loved it.
I started writing programs to illustrate the concepts I was learning in my advanced-placement geometry class, and the teacher learned of it and had me demonstrate them to the class. He was impressed. “Jim, you could do this for a living.” That was a revelation: I had no idea people made careers out of programming computers. “You’ve got talent,” he continued. “You should study at Rose-Hulman. You have what it takes to make it there.”
I’d never heard of Rose-Hulman. It turns out it’s one of the nation’s top engineering schools, and it’s here in Indiana. I thought surely I couldn’t get in, but I applied anyway. To my astonishment, I was accepted.
Rose is expensive, and was out of my family’s reach. But the Lilly Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Indiana pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, was at that time helping bright first-generation college students go to private colleges. Their grant paid for a large portion of my college expenses. I also got a federal grant and a couple smaller scholarships. One federal program let me borrow some money, and another paid me to work part-time on campus. A state program helped me find summer work to earn more money. My parents were left with about 1/3 of the bill, bringing Rose just into reach. They lived on next to nothing while they paid for it.
Rose was enormously challenging. Like that teacher said, I never have worked harder before or since. But I made it through, with a degree in mathematics and a concentration in computer science.
At graduation, the country was in a recession. Like many of my classmates, I had trouble landing a job. I wanted to be a programmer, but those jobs were scarce. But I had taken a technical-writing course as an English elective, and the professor connected me with a local software company that wanted to hire a technical writer. The company was founded by a Rose grad who liked to hire other Rose grads. I got the job.
I wrote and edited technical materials for a dozen years at several companies. At one company, my boss saw something in me and promoted me to manager. And then it turns out I had an aptitude for leading people, and liked it. After completing a successful and important project, he gave me a new opportunity to lead software testing, and mentored me as I learned the ropes.
A burgeoning software industry has formed in central Indiana, and I’ve ridden the wave, moving every few years from company to company to take on greater responsibilities and new challenges. Along the way, several people have mentored me or taught me a skill I lacked. It’s enabled me to deliver well everywhere I’ve worked.
It’s been enough to impress corporate CEOs and Vice Presidents all over town enough that I can call them up and meet them for coffee. Last summer, I reached out to them all in search of a new challenge. With their help, within eight weeks I was in a new role at a company with a bright future.
My story through the lens of life challenges
You might now think that I’ve lived a charmed life. But I have had some deep difficulties and stunning setbacks.
These things have, point blank, held me back from greater success.
Yet they didn’t crush me. They could have; I’m not made of rock and titanium. I see people at my church struggle with many of the same challenges and it devastates their lives, leading to bankruptcy and homelessness, or severe chronic mental and physical illness. Sometimes they never recover.
The major difference, and the reason I’ve come through all of that okay, is because I’ve had good resources: family and friends who offered support, and money (and good insurance) to get help when I needed it.
Key themes in my story
Several key themes are woven through my story.
Timing. That I was born in 1967 is very important. I was about the right age for all of these things:
When I was a teenager, home computers became affordable to a family that had just emerged into the middle class.
When I entered engineering school, the Lilly Foundation was actively helping people in my situation pay for it.
When I entered the workforce, software companies were just starting to exist in quantity, creating demand for talent even during the recession we were in then.
When I began to mature in my field, the dot-com boom was forming and software companies were desperate for talent. It gave me the opportunity to move into leadership, which springboarded my career and, eventually, my income. That bubble burst, but another, more sustainable boom followed, and has created endless opportunity.
If I had been born a few years before or after 1967, I would have been the wrong age to fully enjoy most of these advantages.
Family. The family in which I grew up wasn’t perfect, but my parents loved me and raised me well overall. They didn’t have much money, but they were hyperfocused on making sure I got a very good education. They have been a source of support and encouragement throughout my life, especially during the most difficult days.
Natural abilities. I’m intelligent and intensely curious. My brain is wired just right to understand and enjoy technology.
Working/middle-class life skills. I know how to get to work on time and how to please my boss. I have good life-organization skills: there’s always enough food in the house, I pay my bills on time and have good credit, I keep my car and house well maintained (and do as much of the work myself as I can).
Good people. Just look at all the people who have helped me: The geometry teacher. The English professor. The boss who promoted me to management and taught me the ropes in software testing. The other mentors and colleagues I’ve alluded to who have elevated my abilities and helped me find new opportunities. Friends who supported me through difficult times and connected me with professionals who could help me.
Money. Just look at all the places money came from. My parents’ labor and sacrifice. A philanthropic organization. Federal and Indiana governments. And now, a healthy salary thanks to being a reasonably talented person in a booming field. Funds have been available to pay for college, for lawyers through my expensive divorce, and for healthcare professionals.
These incredible resources have provided a solid foundation on which I’ve been able to build a pretty good life — and recover from setbacks and difficulties.
My story through the lens of great wealth
Let me try to tell my story through one more lens, as best as I can: from the viewpoint of someone who was born into far greater privilege than me.
One of my college roommates was from a very wealthy family. To give you an idea of just how wealthy, he grew up in his own wing of his family’s mansion. Given my working-class roots, we were an odd pair of friends. I had no real concept of his reality, and he had little concept of mine, but we had Rose-Hulman and computer programming in common and it made our friendship work.
He could see that I had no clue about what success looked like in his world. Sometimes he gingerly offered me advice from his perspective. More than once, he coached me hard to save money and build capital. “When you get your first job, save up $10,000 as fast as you can,” he said. He detailed some ways I should invest it. “And then save another $10,000. And keep investing. It won’t take that long, really, for your money to grow to $50,000 or $100,000 or beyond — and then you’ll have money you can really work with.”
I couldn’t get my head wrapped around it. I came from a mindset of working to pay the bills — and if you had any left over, it went into a fully liquid emergency fund. And $10,000 was an unimaginable sum to me then. Even if I could save it, why would I tie it up in investments? What if something went wrong and I needed it?
He also talked to me about the importance of building relationships in my career, especially with VPs and CEOs. But to me, people with such lofty titles might as well have been 25 feet tall. Who was I to them? Why would they want to even talk to me? What did I have to offer them anyway? I’d rather let my hard work and eventual accomplishments speak for themselves.
That friend and I slowly drifted apart after college, I think in some part because he was living in his upper-class reality and I was living life according to my working/middle-class rules. From my perspective, I’ve done something remarkable: moved up one socioeconomic class. But I think my friend was frustrated to see me squander my resources. That’s how he saw it, anyway. From my perspective, I was living successfully.
With my success of about the last 10 years and the world to which it has introduced me, my mind has slowly, finally come to see where my wealthy friend was coming from. You see some of it towards the end of my resources-and-luck story: how I do have VP/CEO contacts now, and I maintain those relationships. But even then, I did it the working/middle-class way: by proving myself through my work first.
– – –
So consider your story. What time in the world were you born into and how did that play into your success? Were you born into poverty, the working or middle class, or wealth? What life skills did your upbringing give you or not give you? Was your family emotionally healthy and a source of strength in your life? Did you have any major setbacks in your life? If so, were you able to recover from them? Why or why not? Do you have good friends, good colleagues, good professional contacts? Where has money come from in your life and how has it helped you get ahead?
Because no matter how hard you’ve worked, without those advantages you would be nowhere near as successful as you have been.
It feels like summer break is ending today. It’s because when I was a kid, school started the day after Labor Day (as God intended). Even though I haven’t been in school in decades, today still feels like the end of summer break to me!
But this year, I really did get a summer break, thanks to my employer realizing the first of June that it couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. I was cut loose, and suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands. It turned out to be wonderful! Here’s what I did with my time:
Networked, networked, networked. I knew networking would get me back to work fastest, so I had coffee, lunch, or drinks with someone every weekday — sometimes 2, 3, or 4 meetings a day. Several people I know introduced me to people in my industry whom I didn’t know. One of those introductions led to the job I started the first of August.
Worked a consulting gig. One of those networking meetings also led to a short-term, part-time job advising a software startup. I worked alongside them, evaluating their processes and learning what their pain points were. And then I gave them a lot of advice from my experience about how to ease that pain and execute more strongly.
Slept in. Whenever I didn’t have an early networking appointment, I snoozed until 8 or 9.
Rode my bike and took long walks. My work- and stress-load had been affecting my health. I’d gained weight and my digestion was seriously out of whack. I felt bloated, sluggish, and tired all the time. So I got out my bike and put on my walking shoes to shake the cobwebs out of my muscles.
Took a lot of photographs. I slung a camera over my shoulder on most of my walks and clicked away. I even got to try the color-film processing at Roberts Camera, a longtime Indianapolis photo store. They recently moved to a Downtown location that’s easy for me to reach. It was great to have scans back in a day or two, rather than in a week or two by mail!
I am so relaxed! I can’t remember any other time in my adult life when I’ve felt so little stress. Money wasn’t even a major worry thanks to landing that consulting job.
And the company where I landed has such a laid-back atmosphere. People work hard, but are trusted and encouraged. This is so refreshing after the pressure cookers my last two jobs were! I feel like I’ve stepped into a brighter, healthier future.
But my summer experience planted an idea seed. Advising the startup was great fun. And through my networking, I heard it over and over again: you could stay pretty busy and make good money advising software startups all over town. What if? It’s fun to dream and scheme.
But I’m born of working-class roots — working for the man is my norm, my default. And I’m mighty introverted — I can sell myself in occasional short bursts, but marketing myself all the time is not natural to me. So I will keep networking to build my contact universe and become known in the software startup community. If I can’t manage that, I’d never make it as an independent consultant.
And even if I can manage it, I might just chicken out. And if so, then I’ve landed a job that looks to be really, really good for me. I am astonished by my good fortune this summer.
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.
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.
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.
I was having lunch with a friend, who also happens to be the pastor at my church. We get together most Fridays to talk church business and to catch up on each others’ lives.
I told him that I feel relaxed. As relaxed as I get, anyway; I’m pretty high strung. But more relaxed than at any time I can remember in my adult life. The last time I remember being this relaxed was more than a quarter century ago, when I’d take a summer job after coming home from the stress and pressure of engineering school. Every summer’s job was different and interesting, but seldom difficult. I loved the change of pace, the experience of something new. I always went back to school refreshed and ready for another hard year.
This summer has felt much like that. After I lost a high-stress job on the first of June, I quickly landed a part-time consulting job advising a startup software company. I asked a lot of questions, soaked in their culture and methodology, worked alongside their programmers a little, and gave them a ton of advice from my experience about how to deliver quality software. It was fun!
Working part-time this summer let my life slow down, too, but I was surprised by how full it remained. I was just running at a peaceful pace, rather than full tilt. It has been wonderful!
Eight weeks have gone by, and now I’m refreshed and ready to return to full-time work. Fortunately, two good job offers landed this week, and I accepted one of them. I’ll be back to work the first week of August.
But I’m not ready to return to high stress. That’s why my friend advised me to say no: that little word really is the key to a satisfying and sane life.
But everything I’m involved in — work, family, church, the Historic Michigan Road Association, photography, this blog — are important to me. And while they make for a busy life, they also make for an interesting life. I’m not willing to let anything go.
So how do I say no without actually saying no? And then it hit me: how much of my former ridiculous pace was self-inflicted? What attitudes or tendencies do I have that lead me to push myself so hard?
Hint: I’m a classic overachiever. That’s what I can let go, or at least work at letting go. Here are some things I’m saying no to, effective immediately.
Say no to a tyrannical personal schedule. I felt like I had to keep perfectly on top of it all. I lived in fear of anything in my work and personal life going off the rails.
During and shortly after my crushingly stressful divorce, I lived in a constant crisis mode where even a small thing going wrong, like running out of milk or clean underwear, or not keeping up with cutting the grass, could snowball on me fast and mercilessly. It led me to keep an intricate and demanding personal schedule so everything is always handled.
It was tyranny. And this summer taught me that I’ve kept it up far beyond its usefulness. In the extra time I’ve had this summer, it’s been easy to adapt and respond to whatever has come. What peace it has brought! I want to hold onto that peace as much as I can.
I won’t return to such a tight schedule. It means things might go wrong sometimes, and I will have to adapt and respond to it. I might have to run to Walmart at 6:30 in the morning for milk for my son’s breakfast. I might have to pay someone to cut the grass, or take an afternoon off to cut it, or just let it grow long for a while. And I will just buy a lot of extra underwear.
Say no to my desire to knock every ball out of the park. At work, I always want to absolutely crush it. I find deep satisfaction in a job extremely well done. But it takes a lot of time, which leads to me packing too much into my days, which leads to a tyrannical schedule at work. No more. The added stress and reduced peace are not worth it. I’m going to figure out how good each task needs to be to meet its need, and stop there, even if it drives me a little crazy at first. I’ve said for years that I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ll put that to the test when I go back to work.
Say no to situations and environments that aren’t a fit. The last year or so at my last company, I felt like I was constantly walking into strong headwinds. I saw future problems we were creating for ourselves, but was unable to get anyone to see them and therefore to buy into any ideas I had to prevent them. I even clashed a little with a few of my peers over it. I was never a great cultural fit there anyway, as it was a strong alpha-male culture and I’m generally more of a quiet collaborator.
But I kept leaning into the headwind, trying to adapt myself to the culture, trying to find new ways to advance my ideas. I might as well have pissed into that wind for all the good it did me. I was on a fast train to burnout.
I’ve had temporary rough patches in many workplaces. I can push through those. But if I feel like I never stop rolling the stone uphill, it is time to move on to a situation where I can have some success.
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.
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.
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.