Last year, when Obtiva was purchased by Groupon, I wrote a “what I learned” post talking about things I thought I came to understand about software projects after working on a bunch of them. Now that I’ve moved on from Groupon, I started to think about what, if anything, I learned while I was there.
I keep coming back to three different things — this is a more personal set of lessons than the last batch, so maybe they’ll be less generally useful. Maybe not, though. Think of it as a little long-term career management advice.
These are all things that I think I kind of knew going in, but there’s knowing something and knowing something, know what I mean?
Also — nothing here is meant to say anything against Groupon Engineering — I freely admit that what I’m talking about are issues of me managing my life and time.
Coding is the Input to Everything I Do
I like coding. (I thought I’d start with something controversial…) I like it a lot. That said, I’ve never been the guy who needed hours more coding in his week above and beyond work. For most of my professional career, my personal projects have been writing projects. And while I love to continually learn new things, it’s been a long time since I felt the need to forgo sleep to do so.
Groupon was the first time in my professional career where coding was not a primary responsibility — my primary responsibility was organizing training. And I’ll stipulate that I went into it eyes open. It sounded pretty good. No coding project deadlines, and I love to teach. A room of students who have to listen to me sounds good.
At first, I was actively building the curriculum, that was pretty good. Then there was less curriculum work to, and in for reasons that I don’t really need to detail, the things asked of me became a lot more administrative. The point is that as I got further away from everyday coding, I felt like I got less good at all kinds of things that I want to be good at. I didn’t have interesting problems to blog about, I wasn’t learning new things as much. I felt less credibility as a teacher and speaker as I got a little removed from practice. Combine this with my occasional tendency toward impostor’s syndrome, and things got less fun quickly.
There were options available to me at Groupon that I chose not to take for reasons good and bad. The main point for me is that by the time I realized what I was losing, it was hard for me to feel like I could get it back. The point for you, I guess, is to be confident in knowing what you like to do and what parts of your work are satisfying. Know what you need to have as your inputs to be successful over the long term.
Big Companies are not Small Companies.
I know, duh.
I’ve joked for years about “big company problems” vs. “small company problems”. In a small company you have to maintain the CI server yourself. In a big company, there’s a whole IT department, but it takes you six months to requisition a CI server. (True story, at Motorola. Also they told me the CI server was causing too much network traffic, and did I have to run it after every checkin.)
There are two structural issues at big companies that have tended to drive me batty. The first — that people are often making decisions about other people who they don’t know and only have a dim idea of what they do — was not a major issue for me at Groupon. The second — that big companies tend to encourage people to specialize — decidedly was.
I want this post to be about me, not about them. So here’s a related story: when I first entered the job market, I wound up with two serious offers, salary identical. One of them was at Nokia, for an R&D department in Boston where I would have done usability research tangentially related to what I had been doing as a grad student. The other was what we’d now call a small web consulting shop, 12 people or so separated between two cities. I’d never done any web programming. They had done only a little bit more (they thought of themselves as documentary filmmakers by trade). When I went for my interview, the CEO of the company was vacuuming the floor of their 2-person Boston office.
Obviously I went with the tiny company, which even as I type this sounds kind of insane. And while I’d love to say something self-serving about how I picked the job that scared me, I don’t think that’s true (both jobs scared me). I do think, though, that I was excited by the prospect of doing a lot of different things. Which I did, the job turned out to be a kind of immersion in the entire lifecycle of software projects in the way that pouring ice water on somebody’s head is kind of a way to get their attention.
Ever since, I’ve been happiest when I’ve been able to do all kinds of different things on a regular basis. Big companies, of course, tend to specialize because they need to, and because they can. Once you have 200 developers, suddenly you can spare somebody to be full-time in charge of improving training. (Well, almost full-time…) Which sounded great, for a while, but then, see point #1. I flatter myself that I do a lot of things well, and whether that’s true or not, I still want to try to do a lot of things.
Introversion and local maxima
This one is a little tricky and it’s really a personal anti-pattern.
Look, I’m in introvert in the classic definition. Every time I’ve taken a Myers-Briggs test, I bury the needle for I and N. On a day to day basis, one thing this means is that, while I usually like my co-workers (and my Obtiva/Groupon collegues are an outstanding group of people), I’ll often choose, say, eating at my desk over going up to a group in the lunchroom and joining up with a group of people.
On a related note, for most of my last six to nine months or so at Groupon I was a team of one. Then the person I reported to left, and I wasn’t even reporting to anybody else in Chicago. I swear this is true — I was literally sitting in a corner with nobody on my two orthognal sides. I’m saying I was a little isolated. I’m also saying that of course I could have handled it better. That’s part of my point — one thing I learned is that what seemed like the best thing to do on a day to day basis, ended up being isolating in the long term. I would be able to go large chunks of a day without interacting with co-workers. Even a staggering introvert like myself has limits.
What does it mean?
Dunno. Just being a self-indulgent blogger. I expect most of you to read this, roll your eyes and say “Duh.”
I do know that I’ve spent most of my six weeks at Table XI coding and helping run a small web project. I know it feels great even when it gets weird. It feels like I’m using muscles that got a little rusty. (I’d have some technical blog posts for you, but I’m backed up with the book. Coming, I promise.
Table XI provides lunch in house every day, which makes it a lot easier to actually talk to co-workers. Which is good. (I realize this lunch thing sounds totally insane to a significant percentage of you. I’m okay with that.) During my first week, I had a meeting where we planned out what kinds of things would happen as part of my first few months. One of my cards was “do something new”. I don’t know exactly what yet, but it’s important to me to keep moving forward.
Thanks for listening, I hope you will, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, find this valuable in bizzarre set of circumstances some day.