They say, change is painful. You must become vulnerable. I hate being vulnerable. And yet I have to expose myself to change something …
I have a weird and strange past. I have not finished school, no formal graduation nor degree. Drop out. Lost hope, got depressed. I tried to kill myself; and—fortunately?—failed there as well. Crappy jobs and social system. Lots of wasted time of my life.
Later I tried to get my A level and some office administration in a dual vocational education and training, but also something I had let slide again. Circumstances were difficult and I was more concerned about our social system than actual education. When you have to apply for Schüler-BAföG, Kindergeld, Halbwaisenrente, and Hartz IV, you definitely learn something no school will tell you. I definitely did. But you don't get a degree in surviving the system.
These two paragraphs cover basically 25 years of my life. There's a lot more I could tell, but those are different stories for another time.
Getting into jobbing again. Found my first long term gig and even mildly enjoyable over time, as I could shift into a more technical area there (it was about online marketing and I should have focussed on acquisition, but ended up helping users with WordPress plugin setup and such stuff). This was from 2008 to 2011.
During this time I not only tried to hone my tech skills in general, but also more seriously got into programming and found a new language: Ruby. Oh boy, I wish I had discovered that many years earlier. It was definitely more pleasant to work with than with PHP and Perl back then. I felt this could be something I could stick with and enjoy doing for longer. I mostly played with it, but I had no big plans yet.
Some day in summer 2011 a friend approached me.
»Hey, do you know by any chance someone who's a Flash Developer?«
Yes, this was still a thing 10 years ago. But nope, I didn't know anyone.
»Nah, I'm sorry. But you wouldn't know by any chance a company looking for a Ruby Developer?«
It was a shot in the dark. The worst what could happen is that the arrow comes back and hits me.
»Um, yeah, sure. We do. Wanna talk with our CTO about it?«
And so I finally stepped into the professional software development. I made it very clear from the beginning, that I had no experience and would probably lack a lot of knowledge and skills. But I was willing to learn and absorb everything. And did get the position. It was not for too long though, but this initial trigger was all I needed to settle somewhere I truly felt comfortable and competent enough.
And yes, once you have your foot in the door, it also becomes much easier to find a new job in tech, because you finally got your first records in your CV, so it's easier for recruiters and HR to consider you. But to be fair I got extremely lucky over the years and had always a good connection for the next company on my path. For the last 10 years it still wasn't too difficult for a Ruby engineer to get a new job, as we have quite some startups which have built their products and services with Rails. And I would expect it to be still the case for some more years. Ruby's dead my ass!
So, yeah, almost a decade of professional tech work. I made a hobby my job. Something I enjoyed a lot in my spare time years ago became my work. And surely does it pay well, no doubt there. But I also noticed changes.
In the early days of my tech career I was full of energy. I visited basically every Ruby user group meeting (I consider myself inventory now), I was an active part in the community, built and contributed to open source software. I found some refreshing breeze in the Elixir world, and given that many Rubyists took a look I was again surrounded by nice folks again.
My work became my life
So I spent a lot of time at work and at home doing tech stuff. Also vacation was something I needed to get reminded of. And if you jump into an early phase of a startup you might totally forget about that completely. Who needs time off when it's so much fun already?
Well, in more recent years I could feel the impact of it. Slowly I lost drive, motivation, and energy. My contributions came basically to a halt around 2016. I still didn't take vacation more seriously. Mostly a week here and there, maybe 2 weeks around the holidays. If possible. I mean, how can I leave that important work for more than a few days? We need to build a product and the team was small. They need me. And I need them. My work became my life.
There were only brief periods of slightly different interests. Though fiddling with electronics and microcontrollers is way too close to my work anyway. I tried to pursue fitness, and while hitting the gym and lifting the weights and getting gains is a pleasure, there were things that made it also annoying; obsession over body image and diets, eating disorders, … let's say the fitness industry is very good in hiding the dark side of itself.
I tried some short distance traveling, but never left Europe. It's okay, I'm not a globetrotter. There are places I'd like to see eventually, but there's no rush. I can be a little bit stereotypical here and leave this stuff for my pension time, can't I.
2020 Rock Bottom Edition
So there was a slow and steady downhill … and then came 2020 around. While the beginning of the year looked promising, around March it hit us all. And the realization that everything has changed.
Feeling already gloomy and dark most of the time, having no joy in life but that little bit of work, and then add social distancing, work from home, and isolation to the mix. »Oh, but you are an introvert, you should be fine.« Well, it is not that simple. Of course, I can entertain myself for a long time, but I still need people and social interaction. The complete absence is frustrating. The virtual meetings a very, very light substitute. And the anxiety to be constantly surrounded by willfully bad or ignorant people trying their best to spread a dangerous virus is basically killing me at least psychologically and emotionally. I love the city for it's comfort of life, but the public space became a hostile environment to me. Taking a train or walking through discounters and malls are pure stress.
Chronically depressed, burnt out, anxious, socially isolated. What a happy life!
And I haven't even talked about my uncertainties and insecurities around professional career growth. I think one of the trickiest pitfalls is, when you become so invested in your current job, that you try to seek every opportunity to stay there (it's also comfortable after all) and find ways to progress as much as possible. But the hard questions I have avoided so far: Can I still grow there? Am I just afraid to try something new? A new beginning? It's quite unusual for me anyway, almost 6 years at the same company. Inventory again. Between the founders and me are only 3 more people. And all of them in slightly better position than me anyway. I'm so bad in selling myself that I feel like the janitor of a school you'll find there for the last 25 years. In startup years I probably have reached that status I guess. Oh, have I forgotten to tell you about my impostor syndrom?
Okay, pseudo-objectively viewed I am a decent programmer, if you have a web based product or service I'm capable of pulling off something somehow. And once I touched or navigated through most of the codebase I have enough context and experience to feed of for the future. At least I can provide history and anecdotes, just in case you need some sarcastic and salty entertainer.
I'm also getting more comfortable in designing components and systems. I have enough ops experience to deploy and run the stuff myself, out of necessity in most startups. Running your monolith on physical bare metal servers colocated in a nearby datacenter up to microservices in the kubernetes orchestrated cloud, I have seen now my fair share of everything.
Due to circumstances I was the lead for two projects (we call them opportunities or initiatives, but in the end it's still all the same), the second one with significant product management aspects. Admittedly more than I actually anticipated in my role as an engineer, but most career ladders will expect that from you sooner or later anyway. Check.
Over the last year I've also built up a beautiful mentorship relationship with a coworker. I'm truly impressed by their progress, basically fresh into tech from a bootcamp and now an invaluable part of the team, and still so eager to learn more and grow further. It has been true pleasure. (Thank you for the opportunity! Helping you has also helped me quite a lot.)
Public speaking was not my strong suite yet, but I gave a few talks in the company and in meetups, I had a conference workshop once (what a disaster!). I haven't really written about tech that much, probably mostly due to »who wants to read or hear my crap anyway?« Yeah, confidence is my middlename. Not.
Talk to me about a topic I love in private, and I'm all in. I will overwhelm you with all the stuff I know and can share. But ask me to do that in front of a crowd? If I don't have to, I'll pass.
And writing into the internet always feels weird. Back then when I had blogs with a comment function I was afraid about feedback, and the growing landscape of social media platforms confirmed my suspicion, people are bad. They write mean things, behave as if there was no human on the other side. I don't like it. And so I stopped writing publicly.
Last but not least, am I a thought leader? I'm probably not CTO material. I don't come up with great ideas before everyone else. Sometimes I have a good hunch about what will work and might have a future. I still remember how I wished tabbed browsing would be a thing before tabbed browsing was even a thing. If I just had been employed by a company developing a browser, I could have been renowned by now. Adam Stiles won that prize. (And to my defense: I was a teen.)
And while everyone is still probably figuring out how to migrate their legacy system to some microservice oriented kubernetes cluster farm I think that the focus should be more into the serverless and edge computing area. The signs are there, the vendors built up their portfolios, but compared to good old tech this is all still in its early days. But with my developer hat on I can say this is definitely more fun that fighting with gazillion of YAML files to please some cluster to run my workload. (Don't get me wrong, I believe that kubernetes has its use cases and containerization was a very important milestone, but it is not a means to the end, it was mereley a beginning.) I wrote an company internal post touching this topic and related to a project. The future will tell if I will be right about that development and thus how much of this so called thought leadership is in me.
If you remove the sarcasm and lack of confidence, not too shabby so far, right?
Wrong! tells my mind. »You're a fraud. You just got lucky. You don't know shit.« I still apologize for all the crappy code I wrote. I didn't know better. (And still don't know. I'm just better at hiding it now.) I apologize for all the mistakes, misdecisions, and misplannings. I apologize for not being able to take compliments. I cannot celebrate success. I always fear something will just blow up the moment I take pride in my work.
Just a little over 2000 words just to tell you one thing: I am stuck.
The Andon Cord
Mentally I spiraled so far down that I needed to pull the ripcord. Or the Andon cord for more dramatic effect. HALT EVERYTHING!
So in June 2020 I talked to my Engineering Manager about a break. A sabbatical. 3 months. We agreed on a date. And here I am. From September to November I have time to sort my life. Rest. Recover. Refresh. Energize. Find purpose. Find motivation. Find lov… just kidding, we're not trying to overachieve here. But some kind of happiness in life would be still nice. I don't really know if I'm capable of feeling true joy again, but I can try.
This was my first day:
Starting today I have now 3 months to figure out, how to find more purpose in life again. Even before the pandemic everything revolved around work for way too long. No drive and motivation for anything else. I hope this long break will help me to realign myself.
I cannot fully describe the situation, it is parts burnout and parts my mental issues. And this year has amplified some of them, introduced new, shifted others.
In the end what I realized: I cannot go on like this forever. I need a break. I need to rest and recharge. Recover.
I need to force myself to think about something else than work. Which is hard. Lately most of my social interactions have been with coworkers. I started the day with them, I finished the day with them. They become basically friends and family, at least in my mind.
It doesn't matter if it's real or not. Oh, and a fair bit of warning: the wrong companies will exploit this. If they sell you the "family" vibe, run.
So my mind screws reality. I have been an idealist and dreamer anyway. But I have trapped myself. Cornered myself. And now I don't know how to get out of it. So I take a break. 3 months. Long enough to get bored, so my mind needs to escape its trap it has laid for itself. I need to break up the false routines. Don't let the depressive part take over. Never stop going. Face my demons.
I'm at day 1. My fears are still: Will they miss me? Will I have a job when I come back? What do they think of me? Will this hurt my career?
It's day one. I'm broken. I'm afraid.
It's a step.
And now my first week is already over. I have done nothing. Zero. Just lots of Netflix, YouTube, gaming, sleeping, resting, existing. I have still checked work mails and peeked into Slack a few times, but it got better. I still feel guilty, about everything. About doing nothing, about checking stuff, about thinking to check stuff.
It's like being an addict. And maybe it became an addiction. If your life is really fucked up then work can be a drug. I had smoked cigarettes, I know how much it is just the mind and less the body.
Quite saturated by all this passive consumption now, my fingers are itching to do something. That I can write these lines here, emotionally a bit more stable, is already a win.
I still have no plan how I want to spent the remaining time. (I'm probably not going to travel, infection numbers are raising again, and I also don't want to sit in a train or plane right now.)
This piece has so many hidden topics I could dive in. Maybe this will be part of the journey. Maybe I have to reflect more on my past me, before I can really focus on future me. And maybe I should care less about if someone wants, needs, has to to read it. In the early 2000s I had less problems with that, so maybe I can do it again.
I need to come clean with myself, I need to become vulnerable, honest and true.
To quote a fellow who's in a similar situation like me:
But the exciting question still remains:
Who are you ultimately without your work?
Challenging and valuable at the same time if you ask me.
This is definitely not an end. It is the beginning of something new. I don't feel that excitement, that spirit of optimism yet. And maybe I never will. And that's okay, too.
I just need to keep going. Somewhere. Anywhere.
The writing is as chaotic as my mind. If you couldn't follow, don't worry. I do not expect this to make any sense. By writing down my thoughts and feelings I enter a cathartic space. This is my healing process, and you are invited to listen and watch. Be my guest, have a cup of tea or coffee. Wanna have some cookies?
This is also the first post touching the human side of this blog, the part I was always missing here so far. I kind of feel that I should have started with something like this. And weirdly enough it had to be about me to realize this. 🤷🏻♂️