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2017 was a heck of a year with many great things for me and my wife! Even though I tend to occasionally be a pessimistic jerk-face, even I recognize that the last year was pretty good. Here are a few things that I am thankful for from 2017 that bear special mention.
Ideally, when someone graduates from college, they should understand their interests and aspirations and map that to a career that the economy can support. For the lucky ones, this happens early and painlessly, and the road to adulthood is a smooth and pothole free onramp onto the fast lane of life. Initially I thought I was one of these lucky few aspiring to be a fast-laner, but then, one day after my promotion to First Lieutenant, a mysterious traffic cop / wizard transformed my car into a unicycle and diverted me onto an offramp towards a swamp. Just as I pulled into the swamp, a great monsoon broke out, and sheets of rain began pouring down. During this sort of situation, it’s impossible to be concerned about the climate controls, what’s on the radio, or if the in-seat butt warmer is active. All you can do is peddle like hell and try your best to keep your balance on your damn unicycle!
Thankfully, at some point since my thirtieth birthday, the storm died off and the swamp dried out. After nearly a decade of toil, I finally had the opportunity to get back on the highway. With the storm cleared, I could see the highway off in the distance, but I had to figure out a way to find an onramp.
While 2016 was the year of making a plan and setting it in motion, 2017 was the year things came to fruition. My plans were all based on the hypothesis was that, given my talents, interests, and values, dumping the technical architecture and leadership aspects of my career and doubling down on software engineering and building software products would lead me to a greater career satisfaction. This seems to be true, as I’m currently happier than any other job that I’ve ever had. It feels like my unicycle might have changed back into a car, but now I need to kick all the bad habits unicycling taught me.
When you’re unicycling in a swamp during a monsoon, it can be difficult to predict how long it takes to get to your destination. At the start of 2017, I was a student at Fullstack Academy pulling 80+ hour weeks building my development portfolio. I was feeling good about my decision to move from IT infrastructure architecture back to hands-on software development, but I wasn’t sure how this bumpy and pothole-laden this onramp might be. Since most of my career experiences since the Great Recession have been unicycling around felled logs while dodging a tentacle that tries to pull me into a gaping maw, I’ve grown to temper my expectations. However, given enough time, felled logs can decompose and job market swamp monsters can gorge themselves on other poor souls until they pass out. After spinning one’s comically large single wheel in the mud for years, suddenly the coast can clear, and if you’re paying attention, you can jump on the opportunity and make your escape. This is how an exhausting multi-month job search can instead turn out to take a week, and how one can start a job in walking distance from your house less than a month from a coding boot camp.
Apologies for mixing metaphors, but when I was a kid I imagined being an astronaut. How terrible it would have been to spend years getting a PhD and learning to fly onto to discover that I sucked as an astronaut! Back on Earth people might think I’m great, but secretly, I would always doubt myself, and my fellow astronauts would hesitate to take space walks with me. No matter how cool a job appears externally, for things to be joyous and sustainable, I need to bring value and demonstrate worth to myself, my peers, and my employer.
When I started at Decipher, I was made the first full-time developer on the Grey Matter framework. To continue the astronaut analogy, this would have been like getting hired by NASA and asked to design, prototype, launch, and then pilot your own spacecraft. While many might consider this sort of assignment a grind, I’ve been spending years unicycling in a swamp in a monsoon, so this was solidly in my wheelhouse! I selected our technical stack, designed our application architecture, and performed he initial development work. Occasionally, key milestones forced me into major crunch-mode, occasionally working 70+ hours per week. After a few months and a few promising test launches, I was given 3-4 other astronauts to get my spacecraft ready for real missions, which was great because these folks were really enthusiastic. By the end of the year, my product/spacecraft had reached version 1.0, was sold to several customers, and was deployed/launched into production/orbit.
Because of this work, I got a few awesome workplace awards that that my work matters and makes a difference. It’s such an amazing thing to enjoy what I do, be good at what I do, and be able to pay the bills!
Speaking of bills, my wife Erica and I have had a bunch. When I married her seven and a half years ago, I immediately sunk into the weird situation of having a negative net worth. It was like as if my swamp-covered unicycle was hitched to a wagon 1/4 full of golf balls, and each semester, people kept walking by and throwing in 20-30 thousand more golf balls into my wagon. What jerk thought it was a promising idea to hitch a wagon with over 200,000 golf balls to some dude riding a unicycle in a swamp during a monsoon?
After years of practice, I am now a golf ball destroying, unicycling, swamp tentacle dodging machine. By pure force of will, I’ve vaporized a bunch of the golf balls, and Erica and I have a plan to get rid of the rest in the next few years. Each year, we’ve got stronger and our load has gotten weaker. I pity the fool that will be racing us head to head once this golf ball wagon isn’t holding us back.
Even swamp unicyclers deserve occasional vacations, and the vacation I took with Erica to Budapest was amazing. We hadn’t had a big vacation like this since our honeymoon, so in many ways, it felt overdue. Hungary had amazing food, amazing history, amazing culture, and amazing extended family. It was inspiring to reconnect and rest, and that helped give us the energy to unicycle forward for the rest of the year.
When a traffic cop/wizard directs you off the highway into a swamp and turns your car into a unicycle, there is a tendency to become envious of the folks that were able to avoid the transmutation of their transport and stay on the highway. From the swamp, stuck in a monsoon, with swamp foot, chafed inner thighs, and a sore butt, one occasionally thinks about these folks driving forward in the fast lane of life, getting a bigger and bigger lead, with nary a care in the world other than their climate controls, radio presets, and in-seat butt warmers. Indeed, one can get envious, and occasionally this envy breeds the sort of despair that causes the unicycler to stop peddling. When this happens, the unicycle tips over and the tentacled swamp monster pulls you into its maw that reeks of crushed dreams and socio-economic decline.
Why does the traffic cop / wizard allow some folks forward on the fast-lane and direct others towards a slow swampy monsoon-y journey perhaps ending in digestion via a sequence of six stomachs inside of a swamp monster?
Truly, this is a mystery we will never know.
What do the fast-laners think of me know that I’m a stinky swamp unicycler?
Who cares and what good does it do you to know?
To avoid the fate of slow digestion in the six cavitied stomach of the swamp monster, I had to keep peddling. To keep peddling, I had to fight against despondency, envy, and comparisons with other people. To fight against those, I had to suppress my associations with and memories of the highway fast-laners that I went to school with.
For years, this approach worked, but it isolated me and forced me to deny a piece of my identity. However, once I was finally out of the swamp, out of tentacle range, with my unicycle transformed back into a car, and my hands steering me towards a highway onramp, I finally was able to come to terms with my early self-identity as an aspiring fast-laner. Back on the highway, I drove all night before pulling off at an exit to stop at a hotel, wash the swamp gas off my skin, and good a good night of rest. The next morning, I got on a bus which took me to West Point for my 10-year reunion. I reconnected with my old friends and classmates, and they didn’t look at might like I was a swamp unicycler. They seemed to accept me and value my presence.
Over the course of a few days, I recognized that, despite my multi-year detour through a monsoon and tentacle monster laden swamp, I’m back on the fast-lane, it feels good, and I’m thankful and blessed that the traffic cop / wizard lets me forward.
Adjusting climate controls, turning on the butt warmer, and tuning the radio to a podcast on web development, I recognize who I am, what I’ve been through, and I daydream about where I might be going. My wife Erica is in the passenger seat with me, but she agreed to switch off driving in a few hours. I change lanes, merge into the fast-lane, and push my foot on the accelerator.