2010s: Decade in Review
March 18, 2020
Photo by Khadeeja Yasser
When I wrote my last post, I felt like my life was moving in the right direction. I was learning new things at work almost everyday, had just moved to a new city with a woman I loved, and I felt like I had momentum in a way that I never had before. Shortly after publishing that post, my life changed completely. My experiences over the past year compelled me to do a lot of self reflection as a reminder of how far I've come and how much further I have to go.
2010 - 2014
The first part of the decade was spent earning my degree. From Foothill college near my home, to Santa Barbara City College, to UC Santa Cruz, I bounced around aimlessly following friends but mostly trying to escape my hometown. Apart from my major, I took courses across the spectrum from Astronomy to Black Studies, but rarely did anything make me feel inspired. There was nothing that pulled me in as something I could imagine making a career out of. I felt lost.
I graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Politics, but no sense of direction, drive, or purpose. It all felt like a formality, like I was doing a poor imitation of how I felt my life should go. Shortly after graduating, I was clueless as to what my marketable skills might be. Writing, I guess? That's what I spent the majority of my undergrad doing so I found and interviewed for the first writing job I could find in town. It paid 12 dollars an hour.
I had no idea what to expect from my first job out of college, and despite the pay I was excited. Over the next seven months, I became very close with my coworkers. All fresh out of college or still finishing up, we mostly spent the day doing our best impression of buzzfeed, trying to produce click worthy content that we thought our editor might enjoy reading.
What left an impression on me was the kindness of the people I worked with, the weekly dinners at the "office mom's" apartment overlooking the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and the two hour lunches where I bonded with everyone in a way I forgot was possible platonically. In the end, the start up closed its doors when it was apparent that the site wasn't generating any meaningful amount of traffic or buzz despite our best efforts. It was a bittersweet time, softened by the fact that I had just met my girlfriend and could not be happier.
Learning to Code
Landing the Job
After failing a few interviews, I made it onsite with the start up that would eventually give me my first job. The whiteboard interview went ok, I brute forced my way through the problem and showed enough enthusiasm to make a mark. My lack of experience didn't sit well with the CTO though and he seemed hesitant to give me an offer. After some conversation about the company, I found a way to get my foot in the door. I offered a month of my time for free as a trial period. If he didn't think I was a good fit after that, then fair enough.
For the next month, I worked seven days a week; four at the restaurant and three at the start up. I went in early and I worked nights. After all that, I finally got an offer. I was ecstatic to receive the call but it wasn't quite the outcome I was looking for. Without any leverage, the CTO offered to match my salary at the restaurant in an effort to extend my trial period. I was finally a "Software Engineer". An engineer making only a 30k salary, but an engineer nonetheless.
At the time I didn't realize how badly I was selling myself short, I was just grateful for the opportunity. A few months later, I was upgraded to a more liveable Bay Area salary of 65k. I was working like crazy and looking for any opportunity to make an impression, but my blinders were on and I was getting comfortable.
By the end of the year, I had taken ownership of my first project when the senior dev who was hired at the same time as me had jumped ship after only six months and I was asked to conduct interviews to hire my new teammates.
Learning the Hard Way
By the start of 2017, I was no longer the only dedicated front end dev at the company. We had hired two more juniors and one senior to lead us. We were tasked with our first large scale project together which was a huge CRM built with React, Redux, and Styled Components on a legacy PHP backend. A few months into the project, it was obvious that the senior dev and I were leading the technical direction of the project and took on the brunt of the workload. The senior dev gave me glowing performance reviews and suggested to leadership that I be promoted. That process is how I first found out that I was being paid 15k less than the two juniors who I had interviewed and helped to hire.
At that point, I began to feel taken advantage of. Despite not having a CS degree, I believed I was showing more promise and technical capability than my teammates. Negativity was introduced into my mind like rot. It would spread over the next few years, poisoning my belief in the company and myself. At the next review, with heavy support from my manager, I received a raise that put me slightly ahead of the two coworkers on my level. Shortly after, the senior dev and one of the juniors were let go for reasons related to performance. Despite the red flags I was seeing with the organization, I stayed put. I still felt like I was just lucky to be there.
By the beginning of 2018, I was almost completely burnt out. Going from an office to working remote alleviated my feelings a bit, but there was one product manager juggling every project across the 150+ person organization and it proved to be a massive bottleneck. There were projects that never saw the light of day due to changing priorities from the leadership, and I was pouring every bit of effort into my work. I used my free time at the office to learn new frameworks, libraries, and updates to APIs in existing dependencies hoping to improve our applications in any way. I had a knack for system architecture and spent a good deal of time optimizing our webpack builds or creating test suites that would never actually be used. I felt good enough to continue working and I tried to push past the burn out by remaining positive and providing value.
About midway through the year, my manager (who was offshore) gave me the space to build out my test suite for our largest application and present the result at a tech talk. It seemed like a great opportunity and I gave it everything I had. It took a few months to research and implement everything, and whenever I had a question or a blocker, there was no one to ask. I was in uncharted territory with the tooling I had chosen and no one else in my team could/would help. I found ways to mock out the insane amount of backend API data needed to get the application up and running in Jest and wrote a test for every major feature and page. If I wasn't burnt out before, I was definitely at the precipice now. Being the inexperience junior dev that I was, I couldn't see what was coming.
I gave the tech talk to dozens of engineers across the organization and it seemed to go well. My slides featured a little too much code though and I could almost feel everyone's eyes glazing over, waiting for the end of the presentation. Afterwards, only one person outside my small team reached out to congratulate me and I received no feedback for the work I had done. I asked my manager for help automating the tests with some sort of continuous integration tool, but again, there was no one to provide guidance. I had a visions of how releases might go more smoothly with test driven development, but at this point it felt like I was just talking to myself. What exactly was I working so hard for? It all seemed like a waste of time and effort, and unfortunately that feeling stuck.
I still went into the holiday season with a slight sense of optimism that things might get easier in the new year. On a surface level, I was told my work was great and my contributions were appreciated and I yearned for a greater level of responsibility over the product. In 2019 though, it seemed as if the rug was pulled out from under my feet.
2019 to now
You can feel the optimism in my previous post. Remote life in Los Angeles was a little difficult, being so far from my friends and family back in the Bay Area, but with the continued support of my girlfriend obstacles felt surmountable. Without going into the gory details, she left me in February. Or rather, I had to move out of the apartment where we had begun to build our life. Working too much was definitely part of it. The separation revealed to me just how unhappy I was with other aspects of my life, and forced me to take an honest accounting of the man I had become and the life I was creating for myself.
The first few months were as rough as you might expect. I moved my things into my brother's house nearby, just a dozen or so miles from the posh Brentwood area I was leaving, into a household with my newborn nephew and sister in law. Despite their situation, they were kind enough to take me in during my lowest moment. Feeling as though I had nothing else to meaningfully fill my time, I doubled down on work. Have an issue in IE11 no one else can figure out? An autocomplete to build with no volunteers? It didn't matter, I took almost every challenge I could, hoping desperately to find some sense of self worth in my code. Anything to fill the void caused by a four year relationship gone sour.
I worked needless hours, talked people's ears off about issues I had found in my obsessive time spent coding that neither test cases, code reviews, or QA had found. Looking back on my behavior now, I'm sure I was a nightmare to listen to. It's not that the information I was delivering was incorrect, but rather the way I was relating information to my coworkers was completely manic and self-involved. I was broken and driving myself insane trying to succeed at the last thing that appeared to provide me with a sense of self worth and dopamine. Coding.
“Sure, the money was good, but at the end of the day I'm not going to look back on my life and wish I had spent more time in front of a computer writing algorithms with faster time complexity.”
Around this time, I managed to get positive performance reviews and provide what would be my last solid contributions to the company. After three months of living with my brother's family, I moved back near my childhood home to an apartment in San Francisco where I currently reside. With each passing day, I felt a growing aversion to the time I was spending in front of my computer. Eventually, it grew to the point that I could barely make it to lunch each day before leaving the house aimlessly for a 2+ hour long walk. Work moved along as usual, but I found myself unable to pay as much attention to detail as I once did. Small bugs or visual issues were left unfixed, even though I was perfectly aware that they existed.
The only time I felt alive was when I was lifting weights or running long distances, so that was basically all I did. I worked less and exercised more until one day at the end of November, I couldn't bring myself to even open my laptop in the morning. I knew I would just stare blankly at my IDE, waiting for the day to end. I could not bear to work any longer, so I drafted a short resignation email and quit. Despite the raise I had received just a few weeks earlier, putting me above six figures for the first time in my life, I did not have the will to continue. Sure, the money was good, but at the end of the day I'm not going to look back on my life and wish I had spent more time in front of a computer writing algorithms with faster time complexity.
Putting life before work
I took to the streets, trails, and mountains running. I stopped drinking caffeine or any other mind altering substances and set my alarm for five every morning. My intention was to take a step back from coding and focus on my physical and emotional well-being. From the time I left my job until February, I trained for a half-marathon while maintaining a five day powerlifting routine and when race day finally came, I had never been in better shape in my life. I achieved my goal time of sub 1:45:00 and am now training for a full marathon in July. While this hiatus has felt revitalizing, I haven't lost sight of what afforded me this privileged position in life in the first place: coding.
“You are not your code, and success at work is no substitute for self-love.”
I know someday soon, I'll return to my computer and continue the grind we all have to submit to in order to survive in modern society. But this time, I'll do so with the knowledge and experience of what truly matters to me. It isn't the money, the job title, or the ability to write perfect code, but rather the people I surround myself with and the vibe we choose to share between us. If I had spent a little less time coding and a little more time appreciating the people around me, I don't think my feelings of burnout would have gotten me where they did. You are not your code, and success at work is no substitute for self-love.
These days, I strive for balance in my life. I want to keep coding, work, and physical + emotional well-being in harmony. Regardless of where I land next, this balance won't be simple to maintain, but I now have the tools to recognize when that balance is lost and readjust accordingly. I never got around to adding any technical entries to this blog as promised in my first post, but moving forward this blog will not only be about coding. It will be about life, and all of the passions I find enjoyment in. I still love creating web apps, but I return to my IDE wary of the trap that I see so many developers like me fall into. Burnout is very real and is symptomatic of enforcing a value system that does not align with your internal compass. You can probably check out web development and programming communities on Reddit or elsewhere and see numerous posts describing the same feeling.
For some of us, coding means financial freedom. For others, it can be an escape from menial jobs they feel perpetually stuck in. It's important to define what coding means for you and set boundaries so you never lose perspective of everything else you need to lead a happy, healthy life.
If you've made it this far, I would like to thank you for reading and I wish you the best on your personal journey. I'm not sure who needs to read this, but if you're anything like me I hope my story finds you well.