Personal

Opportunity and Chaos

Today is my last day at the company where I've spent the last six years. Tomorrow is my first day of exploring a world filled with potentially terrifying opportunities.

As part of an organizational restructuring within my department, the work I've been responsible for over the last two years was merged into a different role. I declined to pursue any of the other positions available, having decided they weren't good matches for my abilities or – more importantly – my interests. So it happens that today, September 30, 2013, is my last day. I leave knowing my experiences at the company, both good and bad, have helped shape me and my career, helped focus me.

The first question everyone asks when they find out I'm leaving is, "where are you going?" The assumption is always that there's a definite plan, that there's something already set up and waiting, that there's another cubicle waiting to be filled somewhere the next day.

Except, there isn't.

What will I do? At first, sleep in. No bleating of an alarm clock to intrude on my blissful sleep, no status meetings, just me and my pillow. Then I'll be taking some time for life – travel, exploring, seeing places I've never seen before. Catching up on my reading list. (Read: roadtrip!)

After that is a vast expanse of The Unknown. There's no defined plan. No clearly-marked path of life to point to and say, "yep, it's all plotted out neatly." The answer to everyone's question is "I don't know." And that seems to freak everyone out. It freaks me out too. But that's okay. It needs to be okay. We need to learn to cope with the unknown in ways that don't always involve fear and panic. There will always be unknowns in life, some bigger than others, some more easily negotiated, but ever present. On the grand scale, changing or losing jobs is pretty insignificant.¹

So no, there's nothing slated to immediately fill the void. But it's amazingly liberating.

I can do anything.

I can stay here. I can (actually, will) move away. I can find another job just like the one I had, or I can find a job in a completely different field. I can lay on the couch for a week straight downing pizza rolls and Mountain Dew, or I can go to the gym every day and explore the limits of my fragile physical existence. I can take up yoga. I can learn the finer points of the Elvish languages.

Life becomes all about possibilities, which feels like a better mindset than outright panic. (Though I'll admit to my share of anxiety over the last few weeks.)

Today is the end of one opportunity that opened six years ago, and the beginning of a whole new slew of opportunities that may be perfect or may just be stepping stones to The One True Thing.

There's no plan. And that's okay.


¹ I don't wish to belittle the hardship of losing a job, particularly in the current state of the economy when many are struggling. I'm by no means rich, but through a combination of good fortune (getting out of college with no student debt) and common sense money management (mainly, spend less than you make) I'll survive.

General

Two simple rules for managing my work life

I have two simple rules for managing my work life:

  • Don’t think about work after office hours
  • Ask why, and don’t be afraid to say no

As simple as these two rules are, they’re invaluable for maintaining some semblance of sanity and a reasonable work-life balance. These were my only two pieces of advice to a new employee, and I wish someone had told them to me.

Don’t think about work after office hours

It’s important to “check out” if you’re not actually supposed to be working. Weekends, vacations, sick days, whatever. Don’t give your time away for nothing, because that’s what your time will end up being worth: nothing.

When I first started at my current company, it didn’t take long to get sucked into the department culture of working all the time. Emails from managers at 3am on a Sunday weren’t uncommon. It was exhausting, and burnout was frequent. It’s not sustainable. You have to set boundaries.

Unless lives are literally depending on you, your work can wait. Once you leave the office (or finish your set work hours), turn it all off. Don’t check your email. Set your work phone to silent. Do whatever you have to do to switch work off and your personal time on.

Ask why, and don’t be afraid to say “no”

If you find yourself having to do something that you honestly believe provides no value to the company or your customers, don't just go with the flow and do it. Ask why it has to be done. Ask why it has to be done that way. What value does it add? Maybe there's a good answer, maybe not, but you won’t know unless you ask.

If you do get a valid answer that justifies the task, make sure you document the why, not just the how. If no one can reasonably justify the task, find a way to kill it.

Sometimes the reason is that someone with a sufficiently large paycheck said you have to do it, and there’s not much you can do about that. But you should still ask. As long as you’re genuinely concerned about quality, and not just trying to get out of work, eventually this will (or should) be respected.

The second part of this is the importance of learning to say no. Sometimes you have to stand your ground and tell people “no, I can’t do that right now”. An inability to say “no” will lead only to overwork, poor results and eventually burnout.

→ Basically: Work to support your life. Don't die to support your work.

General

Document the Why, not just the How

Documentation is important. Everyone knows this, everyone agrees with this, it’s not really a topic of debate. It’s important to have your processes written down in some format to make ongoing work easier. If Person X wins the lottery and promptly quits, never to be seen again, can their duties be picked up by someone else relatively quickly? If you have good documentation, hopefully the answer is yes.

Unfortunately, documentation is too often confined to the how of the work, and leaves out the why.

Sure, you can lay out a step-by-step process of how to do a given task. That’s easy. I’ve written a great deal of process documentation in the last several years, with the intent of making life just that much easier for the next guy who fills that role.

What’s too often lacking is an explanation of why something is set up the way it is, or why a process has to be done a particular way. Maybe there’s a lot of tribal knowledge in your organization that covers these questions, but until someone documents that, it’s essentially useless.

If we don’t explain why a decision was made that led to the current state, it becomes much harder to work towards something better. Maybe there was a significant problem discovered along the way that required doing it a particular way. Maybe it was a budget constraint or lack of available resources. Maybe it’s just that no one thought of doing it any other way and that’s the way it’s always been done.

If no one documents the reasons, you’re condemning the next person to re-invent the wheel, to catch Sisyphus’s boulder and roll it back up the mountain themselves.

// 
// Dear maintainer:
// 
// Once you are done trying to 'optimize' this routine,
// and have realized what a terrible mistake that was,
// please increment the following counter as a warning
// to the next guy:
// 
// total_hours_wasted_here = 35
// 

What is the best comment in source code you have ever encountered?” on stackoverflow, via the Internet Archive since the original thread was removed

I’ll be making an effort to include more of the why in my own documentation as part of my ongoing work, and for great justice the sake of your sanity and your successors, I’d encourage you to do the same.

General

It’s not easy to “check out” but you should do it anyway

Julie at Boelter + Lincoln writes:

Here I am on vacation in the Northwoods writing this blog. I will be on vacation all week and will check my email every day – several times. I will log in to check on client campaigns and meet deadlines that could probably wait a few days. I am not an on-call rescue person, I work in advertising. But we have been conditioned to be connected all the time. What if I miss something?

– Can you “check out”?

My rule is very simple: if I’m not in the office, I’m not working. Obvious exceptions apply: those days when I’m just sick enough to stay home rather than infecting everyone else but not sick enough to be bedridden, days when last night’s blizzard buried my car in three feet of snow, and so on. But otherwise: no office, no work.

When I leave at the end of the day, my work laptop gets turned off and put in its bag. I don’t have a corporate-issue cellphone, so there’s nothing to persistently ding with each incoming email. The laptop doesn’t come out of its bag until the next workday morning. Once I’m across the front lobby threshold and into the parking lot, it’s me time.

However… I recognize that there will occasionally be instances where something needs to get done outside of business hours. If that happens, someone has to contact me directly. There needs to be a phone call, or a text message, or – depending on who’s asking – a Twitter mention or message. It needs to be initiated by someone from work; I won’t be actively looking for something.

It’s simple, but actually quite effective. My boss is well aware of this policy – it was made quite clear my first day on the job. If you really need me to do something, no problem, but it’s not happening unless you get in touch directly. I’m checked out otherwise.

Personal

Five Things I Wish People Knew About Me

Amber Naslund had a great post a little while back, “What I Wish More People Knew About Me” in which she lists a handful of things about herself that maybe weren’t that well known to others, but should be.

Social media can create really superficial vantage points. We can see a few tweets or a blog post or a Facebook status from someone and think we’ve got them all figured out. So much nuance can be lost in the midst of snippets of electronic and fleeting communication.

Absolutely true. We live with a stream of constant tweets, check-ins and status updates, and yet how much about these “friends” do we really truly know? And how much about ourselves do they know? My guess? Not much. And so Amber lists a handful of things about herself that help us get a better sense of who she is, then in true internet fashion issues a call for the rest of us to share alike.

So, doing my best to avoid sounding narcissistic, here are a handful of things I wish people knew about me. Warning: candid revelations below.

Continue reading “Five Things I Wish People Knew About Me”