It’s been one year since I was fired.
The Big Boss at the time wanted everyone to work out of an office in Melbourne (because by the end of 2020, everyone thought that The Pandemic was over), and I was moving 250km to the west.
What’s more, is that I was an opinionated asshole who cared too much about things and got angry about it. The whole pandemic thing didn’t help.
It was the third time I had been let go from a job in just over a year. I was made redundant in November 2019 and again in April 2020. In 13 months, I had left 3 jobs. That doesn’t look so good on a resume.
So I thought I should change things this year – usher in a new era of stability for myself and my family… and instead undertook consultancy work which has meant that I’ve had at least 4 on-the-books jobs this year. But why go into consultancy after so many years of working full-time? And especially why go into consultancy work despite wanting all that precious stability? And in the same year that I got a mortgage?
Sure, the consulting money’s good (like, really good), but there’s a simpler answer: burnout.
I was burned out on companies, especially when it came to the culture and values they espoused. Especially the “F” word: “family”.
I became too invested in those companies, and when it was time to wrap things up there, it was traumatic and devastating. There’s no nice way to sugar-coat things.
I want to share a bit about the history of that trauma today, as (I guess) a way of coping with it.
Perhaps others out there have experienced similar situations. I share this to cope, but I also share this to say to those people that you are not alone, and things can get better.
The job I was made redundant from 2019 was my favourite job so far. I was running a Junior Engineering Program, and had trained up about 20 different developers. I was expressly told to start plotting and scheming for a 3rd iteration of that program. Two weeks after the “plotting and scheming” meeting, I was told I would be offered a redundancy. I took the remainder of that week off to cope with the whiplash.
This was in July. I was slated to wrap up in November. It was a nice long goodbye.
I cared deeply about the company, and its mission, and its people. I forgave it for its sins and transgressions.
I forgave it for its office in Richmond with its oddly-named, incredibly stuffy meeting rooms. The same office that had windows that were fixed opened directly to the outside, even in Winter. The same cathedral-like office that couldn’t prioritise sound-proofing to prevent the conversations of the 150-people inside echoing off every conceivable surface.
I’ve almost forgiven it for the time that it decided to run a 5-day-long all-hands conference, where the days were rougly 15 hours long, but may as well have been 150 hours for how exhausted I felt at the end of it all.
Then November 2019 came around, and the person who did the exit interview at that company wasn’t my manager, or even a long-term HR employee. It was practically a stranger, someone who had started there that very week in HR and she conducted my exit interview. I had never met this person before this interview, and I haven’t seen her since.
I do not forgive the company for that.
What softened the blow was a sizable redundancy payout. One that helped me buy the house that I’m now sitting in. I like that I have a house that’s progressively getting to be more and more my own, brick by sandstone brick, and less and less the bank’s. But I digress.
It’s after this whole redundancy process that I came to realise that I cared too much about the company. I was too invested in its values, its success, its culture. I had tied too much of my own value to the company’s value.
It was devastating to be shown the door.
April 2020 Redundancy
Then I found a job with a company whose values I very strongly aligned with. A company that trained up junior-junior developers. People who were just getting started with their programming careers. I thought I could make a real difference here in educating the next generation of developers who were entering the industry.
Then a little thing called a pandemic hit. I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now. The parent company of the one I joined relied on international students for a large majority of its income. A pandemic in Australia meant closed borders (easy to enforce, as we’re a giant island), and closed borders meant no international students, which ultimately meant little-to-no money for that company.
I, along with the entire company, were told about potential redundancies happening in a staff-wide email on a Monday at the end of March. During this week we found out it was going to be 235 people across the whole company. I got that dreaded call back on Friday at 3pm. That was a particularly unproductive week, let me tell you. This time again it wasn’t my boss, or even a long-term colleague. It was some high-up HR woman who sounded absolutely exhausted.
About 5 minutes after this phone call, I was locked out of Slack, GitHub, and email. It was clinical and effective. I went into the office the next week and collected my things. That was the last time I was in an office.
I had become too invested again in the company’s success.
And I was cast out, without pity and this time without compensation.
With the pandemic hitting its stride by April 2020, I didn’t exactly put a lot of thought into where I wanted to go next. What I did put thought into was that I didn’t want to be made redundant again after being made redundant twice in quick succession, and that I didn’t want to lose my job during the pandemic.
I cared about this job, and poured my focus and attention into it. I wanted things to be right for our customers. A little too hard. I cared about things that I shouldn’t have cared about. I got upset when things that I thought were important were not considered important by others. I cared about creating a good working culture for the development team. I cared about replacing parts of our Backbone code with something from this decade. I cared too much. I got angry.
And I got fired.
So this year, I started out as a consultant which is a pleasant way of saying “an opinionated asshole for hire”. I could choose to work 3-month contracts with no strings attached. I didn’t need to care about the company culture, or get invested in its success. I needed to trade labor for dollars.
I got to work with a few different teams releasing some major features in Rails and Rails-adjacent tech, and even upgraded a Rails app or two. I was trusted for my opinion on things, but really worked hard on giving the opinion in a nice way. I joked to close friends that I should’ve hung bunting above my desk spelling out the word “PROFESSIONALISM” in giant letters. Sometimes I think I should still put it up.
Ultimately, I was successful in doing the consultant thing of trading labor for dollars. And leaving things better than I how I found them, just for my own moral satisfaction.
But, ultimately, it was lonely stuff. Working out of my house this year, by myself, with a 15-minute call for standup at the start of the day… just doesn’t tickle the social aspect of my brain in the right way. It often felt like I was an interloper into these projects, tossing grenades (or bouquets, depending on the mood) into projects and then skipping off into the sunset with my fat bags of consultant cash.
You ever walk into a meeting room, except it’s the wrong one? Well, if you like that feeling, become a consultant because that’s the feeling you get every damn day.
Interviewing in 2021
Around about the time that I figured out the “fucking hell, this is lonely work” thing I wrote this post. I write this post today to provide some context, some colour, around why I sound so… bleak in that other post. It wasn’t just the pandemic.
At the time of that post in July, I interviewed at a number of companies. I got offered coding tests. I got angry about being offered coding tests. And I refused to do them this time. Some people balked at that. I stood my ground, and was outright refused by some companies because I refused to do coding tests.
The other half of the interviews that companies love to do is the culture part of the interview.
A culture interview essentially boils down to “are you an asshole?” and, honestly, you could spend an hour reading about who I am and what I’ve done and get a pretty good idea about that. Or you could spend that hour talking to me and I’ll tell you the same thing. The best answer I can give you right now for that is: “you would probably rather hire 2021 Ryan than 2020 Ryan, and you’d certainly hire 2020 Ryan over 2015 Ryan”. Just wait for 2022 Ryan. Jeez that guy is good.
Things have improved. There are things that need improving that I am aware of. There are things that need improving that I’m not aware of. This is what makes us human. We’ll work on it together. I’ll try my damndest to not repeat the mistakes of the past and to prevent future ones.
A culture interview can sometimes have questions like “what value of ours do you most identify with?” and if you’re interviewing at several different companies and have either been made redundant or fired from the last three big companies you’ve worked for… chances are you’re going to be particularly burned out on that aspect. You’re not going to have done your homework on those values of this one particular company, and you’re going to flub that particular question. Like I did.
Later on, when at least 5 friends suggest that I would be really great for that company’s Developer Mentor role (a different one to the one I applied for) that they’ve been advertising for months… the job where you could train junior developers and get paid to do it and holy fuck you’d be so good at it because this is your wheelhouse…. it kinda smarts and I get to re-live the trauma of failing an interview as a really experienced developer again, and again, and again. All because I didn’t read the fucking list of values on their website, because I was seriously burned out on the whole “culture and values” thing.
Who doesn’t love re-living moments of such abject failure?
To me, it is not important what the values written on a page of a company’s website are. It’s all the same bullshit.
What matters to me is what happens there every single day. The values are not what is written on a website. The values are the stuff in between the people every day. It’s the holding the proverbial bucket for the developer who’s just found That Piece of Legacy Code. It’s giving people time and space away from the damn screen when they need it, no questions asked. It’s allowing people to make mistakes, and not punishing them. It’s about making sure the people doing the work are treated like people.
These are the values that matter to me. It’s ironic that I write these values, on a page, on a website. But there you go.
Working full-time, again
I joined a company in August. I do a little bit more than “crush code” – I’m working on improving this company’s approach to frontend design and tooling. I’m working on building out a design system. And yes, I get to train up other people too. I spend a lot of my time convincing people that the scary frontend boogeyman is just code, like all the rest of the app. You can understand that, so you can understand this, too. Here’s some pretty buttons you can use.
I have learned a lot about becoming too invested in the culture and values of the companies I have worked for in the past. I still struggle with that to this day. That ever-burdensome question of: “am I becoming too attached here?”. Every day I measure how well I would react if today was the day I was told I was being let go. My mental “grab & go bag” still sits, heavy in my brain. Would I be as upset as those three other times?
The trauma of being let go three times in 13 months left a deep, mental scar. I trusted people to make decisions, and those decisions were unfavourable.
At my current job, I get told that my work is deeply appreciated and I feel like my opinion is respected. And I share that opinion in at least what I think is a non-asshole way. And I trust people to tell me if or when I’m being one. I can still hold strong opinions around the right way to do things. But I’ve learned to share those opinions in a nicer way. They’ve even trusted me to interview and hire other people.
But occassionally, the trauma flares up and says “what if this, too, is all bullshit?”. That’s what counselling is for. I’m grateful that the Australian government subsidises these sessions, and even if they didn’t they’re worth more than their full price. I’ve talked through these feelings, and worked out some coping mechanisms. The trauma flares up less occasionally, and when it does I have things to bat it back with. Lights to push back the darkness. It’s forever present, lurking. But I’m armed now, and I am ready for it.
I wouldn’t say that I am anywhere near as invested in this company’s culture and values as I have been with previous companies. That isn’t to say that I am uncaring about the culture or values. I am simply not as attached. I still care about the happiness of the people around me. I reckon that’s what’s essential here. If things were to wrap up today, tomorrow or next week, I would probably cope better than those three other times.
I choose to work full-time again, to become trusting of a company again, to help with those interloper consultant feelings.
I guess that’s an indicator of personal growth. While trauma does happen, we can always grow around it. To come up against adversarial situations is a part of what makes us human. We are not alone in these situations, as much as it can feel this way sometimes.
I hope that sharing a little bit about my history and how I’ve worked through it helps you, either today or into the future.