Over the last few months I’ve had a wild and crazy ride of a career transition. I’m still in IT, still a geek, but I’ve had a whirlwind rollercoaster of a ride over the last few months and finally had some friends convince me to share the highlights of the story with the world. So here goes…
Prologue – Build Your Bridges Before You Need Them
Before I get into the story of the team rollercoaster ride that brought me to the end of 2015, I need to discuss what I did beforehand that I’m convinced led me to this being a great situation instead of a horrible disaster.
A few years ago in my career, I was working on a project converting a Perl application to Ruby on Rails. During this time, I attended the local Ruby users’ group on a regular basis. I showed up when I could, participated, talked to people. I never did a presentation, but I built up some great relationships. At least as good as you can with people you only see once a month.
Even after I moved onto a different project that didn’t involve Rails or even Ruby, I still kept attending the same user group. The connections were too good to walk away from.
Prepare for the Worst but Hope for the Best
After having been at the same company for a few years, I decided it was time to move on to a smaller company working with friends to build some software I felt fairly passionately about. It would help people in countries around the world get started with their own Internet based businesses.
When I started the new job, it was right after one member of upper management had been replaced. Then two weeks after I started the new job, another member of upper management was replaced. I asked some people what was going on and everyone on the team seemed to be of one of two mentalities “Everything is going to be OK” or “WE’RE ALL DOOMED!” I tend to be a pretty positive person so I chose to ignore the “WE’RE ALL DOOMED!” crowd.
Ignoring them as much as I did was a huge mistake, but I believe freaking out would have been a huge mistake too. After the layoffs, I realized that I had the right reaction at work – jumping in and working as hard as I could, doing the best job as I could while I was at work. The part I screwed up was the reaction OUTSIDE of work. I should have been hitting the pavement trying to line up another job as fast as possible, just in case the “WE’RE ALL DOOMED!” crowd turned out to be right.
The week before Thanksgiving, on a Wednesday afternoon we got an email that there was going to be an offsite meeting for everyone in IT at the company. People who had been through mass layoffs before had been through the drill and explained what was going to happen. We’d all arrive at the meeting location and there would be two lists of names. Everyone on list A would go to one room and be told they have a nice, safe, secure job. Everyone on list B would go to another room and be told they are getting a severance package. As you may guess reading this, I was in group B which was to be expected as someone who had only been at the company a grand total of 4 weeks.
We asked a couple questions to clarify what was involved with getting our severance packages, continuing health insurance, and unused vacation time. After this, most of the team gave the people in the HR team a hug. It was obvious this was very hard on them and definitely not something they wanted to do at all.
After the meeting, we all went to a diner that was a favorite for one of our main team members, vented a bit about what just happened and came up with a plan.
Network, Community, and Connections
Most of the people on this team were there as a result of being active in the developer community. This tells you two things about these people: they want to improve at their craft and they want to help people out. Anyone who does not have these two traits would not spend the time outside of work to talk to other developers.
At the diner, we decided to all hit up all our contacts any way we could. Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, and even good old fashioned email. Everyone connected on Linked In, did recommendations, and posted messages to Twitter saying we’ve got a whole team of fantastic developers looking for their next adventure. We had favorites, retweets, and new followers coming out of the woodwork including some contractors who had been let go before the main layoff hit the employees.
After going through this exercise, everyone on the team, and I do mean everyone had people reaching out to us to schedule job interviews. We did not have to send resumes, apply to jobs on Monster.com or Dice.com, or fill out any job applications.
There were companies looking to hire good developers that were literally inviting our whole team to meet up with them to interview. Some were local, a couple were not.
Don’t go it Alone!
One of the companies that reached out to me flew me to Chicago for an in-person interview after a phone interview and sending in some sample code. To me, that let me know that I was at least the kind of person they were looking for. The interview went as quite well except some stumbles and bumbles I made during a live coding part of the interview. That’s my Achille’s heel – the techie equivalent of public speaking or performance art – and I’m practicing to get better at that.
After the interview, I met up with one of the guys from our Chicago team and we had some fantastic food at the Revolution Brew Pub (visit if you’re in Chicago!) and over the course of around a couple hours found out just what quality people the team I just got laid off from had picked up. This guy had taught himself Korean and ran his own business which is more than some people accomplish in a lifetime and this guy did it before he was 30.
On the way back to the hotel room it hit me like a ton of bricks what I had lost. For the first time in my career, I had been part of a team of amazing developers that were willing to accept me as I am and teach me how to fill in any gaps in my technical knowledge. No laughing, talking down to me, or saying things like “You don’t know how to do that?” It was usually more of a “Oh, this is how you do that. Cool, huh?” Everyone could just show up, be the best they knew how to be and just keep getting better and it was OK. We even had a “Fail Flag.” If you screwed up, grab the flag, plant it proudly on your desk and tell people what you learned and how you would keep from doing that again.
When I got back to the room, instead of just curling up into a ball, going into a rage, or doing something I would regret, I reached out to our team chat room and just kind of unloaded my emotional baggage. The first response I got back was from a friend I had known for at least 5 years from an earlier job and local user group. It was a simple “<3 you, Kenny”
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a coworker say they love me except maybe in a joking way. Most situations I can think of where someone may say that would end up being reported to HR or a sexual harassment case, but with these people we had such a connection I knew they meant it and not in a creepy, weird, or disturbing way. It was more in a “We’re connected as human beings and I’m glad you’re part of my life” way.
At this point I kind of melted and the floodgates opened up. Some part of me felt that I did not deserve this at all and I ended up asking the ones I had felt the closest to over the vast expanse of my 4 week journey “Why does everyone like me so darn much?”
The answers I got back were some of the most heartfelt, honest, humbling, and fantastic things I’ve ever had anyone say about me. Including being called “awkward” in such a way that gave me some of the best warm fuzzies I’ve ever had.
I saved off these replies to a folder in EverNote called “People who think I’m awesome.” After this, I walked around Chicago feeling like I may be able to fly back to home without a plane.
You Never Know Where the Next Connection Will Lead
After a couple days back home, I got some devastating news from the Chicago interview. There were some things in my interview that made them decide they did not even want to consider hiring me. At first this made me mad and depressed but then after talking to some people I decided that all that meant was there is something better out there.
I just kept moving, reaching out to any connections I could find, and emailing people saying what kind of team I wanted to work with, what kind of company I wanted to work for.
Not long after sending one of these messages, I get a message out of the blue from a recruiter at a company I had quite frankly never heard of saying my name had been passed along to her by another person as a possible great fit for their team. I looked up this person’s name because I did not recognize it at all. This person’s Linked In profile indicated they are a bit of a big deal. I don’t feel at liberty to discuss exact details on my blog, but I will say he is basically in the business of building technology businesses in the city I live in and leave it at that. Definitely someone I don’t know personally and not in the circle of friends I usually am connected to.
I am not 100% sure about this, but I believe previous leadership at my former employer had passed along my contact info and resume when the layoffs happened and this business person and recruiter both thought I was worth reaching out to. This is a group of leaders who understands that you get back what you give. Find good people, help them out and they will return the favor somehow, some day. Sometimes it will be by paying it forward by helping out the next guy that needs help.
Starting 2016 Looking for my Next Adventure & Looking for a Team
As I write this, it is January 2, 2016. I am still
unemployed looking for my next adventure. I have a couple options I am pursuing that look very promising and hope and pray that I will not be in the looking for an adventure space much longer.
I’ve learned in my career I do much better plugged into a team. If it’s just me, I struggle and muddle through things and eventually figure things out. As a part of a team where I can just show up and share me at my best, and everyone else is doing the same, it’s so much easier to accomplish great things.
I am not asking for much. I just want a place where I can have these three things:
- Building something fun, interesting, and somehow making the world a better place. If you’re not doing that, why bother doing it? My sweet spot is to build tools to help others succeed and all the opportunities I’m pursuing fit this description to a T. One is fixing some major problems in the healthcare industry. Another is going to be making something that millions of developers worldwide use even better. Yes, MILLIONS.
- A team of sharp, passionate, unique, and fun people that I can work alongside and everyone can just be themselves and keep getting better at what they do every day. I want to be in a room where I can learn from EVERYONE. And if I can’t be me at work, I don’t want to work there.
- Realization that work is part of life, it isn’t life. I have a wife and two kids and family is very important to me. I know people that want to climb the corporate ladder and will work 50, 60, 70, or 80 hours a week, or more, on a regular basis. That’s not me. I’ll come in and bust it for 40 hours a week with gusts of 50 or so as required to hit a big project deadline. But my family is first and time to maintain my health is important. This is one thing I realized at my previous job – everyone had something they did outside of work that made them unique, better at there job and a more rounded person to be around. We had people that did arts & crafts, fencing, photography, writing, music, and various other things.