There's a natural sorting that happens in the first few years of employment whereby you sort yourself to a job where you offer the highest value. You may start as an engineer and end up as a manager, or you may start out as a designer and become an engineer. If you're more outgoing and social, you'll end up in a career where that helps you succeed; if you're ridiculously good-looking, you'll end up in a career where that serves you (do you really think it's a coincidence that most salespeople are incredibly good-looking?).
What then tends to happen is that you identify with your role more closely. You've spent years developing this role and it becomes part of your persona. You know your strengths and weaknesses and, most of the time, play only to your strengths. It's natural and expected. But it's also nice to try to break out of your self-imposed role to try new things. This happened to me today at work.
Something had slipped through the tracks and it was my job to implement it...fast. There was very little front end work required to implement the feature and my initial reaction was, "ah crap, I don't know how to do this." Literally, I was starting at zero knowledge of how this feature would have to be built. A slight sense of panic started to overcome me. Maybe I can just assign it to someone else.
But I took it as a challenge instead. Okay, I've spent years becoming a good front end engineer...I can do other things too, why can't I be good at this as well? So I took the position that I was going to do this, and not only would I do it, I'd write up what I was doing to help others who may have to do the same thing later. So I started talking to people who might be able to inform me. After talking to about four people, I finally found someone that could walk me through the process. She, in turn, sent me to speak to several other people to help along the way.
At the end of the day, I had implemented most of the feature. I had started at zero and ended up almost complete thanks to the help of a handful of others. I stepped outside my usual role to do something new, and I was happy with the result. Perhaps I'm not just a front end engineer anymore.
It was two years ago on July 26th that I arrived in California to work for Yahoo! Last year, I wrote a post describing what had happened in my life during that first year. Truth be told, I didn't know if I would actually stay out here after a year. Being so far from my family and friends was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. I held onto my condo in Massachusetts as a security blanket, knowing that I could change my mind at any time and head to my life as I formerly knew it was comforting. But I decided to stay and continue on into another year.
I definitely didn't play enough in the past year. There were major stresses related to my home life, my condo in Massachusetts, and my health. At times I felt like I had lost my smile. The one exception was getting closer with my friends, Shelby and Courtland. You guys rock in so many ways that I can't even begin to describe. Oh wait, yes I can: Hawaii.
Hawaii was my first real vacation in years. I'm not just talking going away, I'm talking leaving the computer, watch, and cell phone behind. I'm talking sleeping when I felt tired, eating when I was hungry, and the toughest decision I had to make was to hang by the pool or go to the beach. All made better by sharing the experience with Shelby, Courtland, and a few others. The only crappy part was that it was so short (four days). Viva Hawaii!
This year didn't see much in the way of dating. As it turns out, having your heart ripped out makes one a little gun shy when it comes to the fairer sex. I was definitely pickier after that, picking my spots much more deliberately in the hopes of avoiding more such pain. The result was a year of very few dates and certainly none to write home about. In lieu of having a love life of my own, I found myself giving more relationship advice than ever before. Apparently, I'm the go-to guy for everything from how to pick up a girl to interpreting signals to picking out gifts. Whatever I can do to help.
I've now moved into a townhouse, my third home in four years. Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate moving and how poorly I deal with major life transitions. If anyone had told me ten years ago that I would move three times in four years, I would have laughed them out of the conversation. For a guy who didn't even live away at college, this has been quite the lifestyle shift. All of a sudden, I see things not as how much I like them, but as how difficult it will be to move them. My love for large furniture has certainly been cooled through the experience.
I've also written more in the past year than ever before. If I wasn't writing a book, I was writing a blog post (for myself, for YUI, for others). I've written as therapy, I've written for work, I've written letters to people...just a lot of writing all around. It seems like something is trying to be expressed through me all the time and I need to get it out of my head and onto paper (or computer) to free it. Yeah, kind of esoteric, but I'm sure you're used that from me.
I think this past year will undoubtedly go down as one of my most productive years ever and possibly one of the least fun (except for Hawaii!). Now, the goal is to take my foot off the pedal and relax a bit. Once my writing is done, and once my latest round of condo issues are resolved, I'm ready to settle into a life with more socialization and less around-the-clock responsibilities. Yes, I think year number three will be a big one for me, and I can't wait to see what happens next.
I'm often accused of thinking differently than other people. It's quite common for me to hear people say, "hmmm...I hadn't thought about it that way." Actually, I take great pride in getting people to think about things in a way that they may never have considered; it's what makes life fun. I take nothing as an absolute and consider several areas of gray whenever possible. But I wasn't always like this. At one point, my life was just white or black, on or off, true or false, good or evil.
As far as I can remember, there was one moment that broke me out of binary existence. It occurred in 1992 while I was still taking karate (shaolin kempo, to be precise). I was a brown belt at the time and a tournament was coming up that would have representation from a bunch of schools. Now, I was never very good at tournament fighting, and anyone who's practiced martial arts knows that there's a huge difference between tournament fighting and street fighting. But I was encouraged to give it a shot. Sure, why not?
There were five people in my division at the tournament. My singular goal was not to come in last place. It shouldn't be too hard, I only needed to beat one person to avoid being fifth place. Except that it was hard. I got beaten and ended up in last place. Dammit.
The interesting thing was that they were placing four people from each division at this tournament. That means a plaque was awarded to places 1 through 4 with everyone else going home with nothing. That meant I would have been the only one in the division to go home without a plaque. One astute official realized this and found an extra plaque, took a sticker and wrote on it, "5th Place." He promised that he'd talk to the other officials and get an engraved plate sent to my school so the plaque would look official.
I returned to my school the next week to find that the official had kept his promise. My instructor Paul handed me the plate and said, "congratulations on earning fifth place."
"Congratulations?" I shot back in my typical sarcastic tone, "I came in fifth place out of five. I could have stood there, just let him kick my ass, and I still would've gotten fifth place. I don't deserve congratulations."
"I think you do," Paul said with a smile beginning to appear on his face, "you see, you're looking at it as coming in fifth out of the five people at the tournament...I'm looking at it as coming in fifth out of the five people at the tournament and the hundred other students I have who didn't even try."
I was blown away. From that moment on, I began inspecting things in a different way. The martial arts gave me a lot growing up: confidence, strength, knowledge. But perhaps the best lesson I learned was how to think outside the box and see what other people were missing.
Rumors of demise have been exaggerated...slightly. This past Tuesday I fell dreadfully ill with what could accurately be described as the worst flu I've ever had in my entire life. Now, I'm not a big fan of conventional medicine or doctors, usually going the Chinese medicine route for just about anything that ails me. I've become quite the student of herbs and teas, and most of the time, it's worked fabulously. This time was quite different.
Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am a pragmatist, I rarely speak in absolutes and certainly don't believe in them. I understand that it's the exception that proves the rule and I accept it. The exception for medicine (in my mind) is that conventional medicine is absolutely the best thing for emergency situations where your health needs to be stabilized fast. After throwing up for about five hours with only intermittent breaks for breathing and nearly passing out on the bathroom floor, I realized I had reached that point.
As luck would have it for me (certainly not for her), my mom was visiting this week. I asked her to find me a doctor as I still don't have a primary care even 20 months after moving to California. She did her mom thing, found a walk-in clinic, somehow loaded me into the car and got me to the San Jose Medical Group. Let me again say that I am not a fan of conventional medicine or doctors, but these people were incredible. From top to bottom, nurses, lab techs, and the doctor, they were all incredibly compassionate and treated me wonderfully. Aside from the requisite uncomfortable tests and the too-short-for-me stretcher, they made me as comfortable as possible while pumping me full of fluids and meds and trying to rule out appendicitis and food poisoning (which they did).
The end result is that I just had the flu as the telltale fever and blood pressure drop appeared several hours into my stay. I can't recall exactly how long I was there for due to the anti-nausea meds making me extremely groggy, but by the time I left I was able to sleep pretty much straight through until late the next morning. I'm now recovering, though quite slowly. Still with the dizziness and nausea, though those are much less than earlier in the week. The fever is gone too. Hooray for small victories.
I just have to publicly thank the staff at the San Jose Medical Group for being the absolute best people I've ever dealt with as far as conventional medicine goes. I wish all hospitals and clinics would take a lesson from how you treated me. And of course, a big thanks to Mom for proving once again why she's the best. Hopefully next time you visit we'll be able to do something that doesn't involve vomit and needles.
So Valentine's day was a couple weeks ago now. My friend Shelby had read my Valentine's post and told me I was right on with everything I said. She then went on to tell me how she had tortured her boyfriend this year by sending him a bouquet of flowers at work. This is part of why I love Shelby, she and I have the same sense of humor...our evil minds think alike. Brilliant.
As we continued talking, Shelby had an even better story (which is pretty much the norm). This one was so funny and so involved that I begged her to blog about it specifically so I could link to it. Now, two weeks later, she finally has finished the story. Please, read the following two posts:
I defy you to find a funnier, more torturous Valentine's story. Having read it, you'll know why Shelby and I get along so well...and why I'm so glad she's on my side.
I was a purple belt at the time, still in middle school. My brother and I were going to karate around three times a week. It was good exercise and kept us out of trouble...oh, and we loved beating the crap out of each other. I'm sure it wasn't any more or less than any other brothers growing up, the problem was that through karate, we both knew how to really hurt each other. But that's a story for another time. On this particular day, there was a different opponent.
The instructor had placed a brick between two planks and asked if anyone wanted to try to break it. Being young and lacking the forethought to understand exactly what was being asked, nearly every one of us volunteered. We formed a line, as you often have to in middle school, and one by one everyone took their shot. One by one, people left with hurt hands. And then it was my turn.
I sized up my opponent. It really didn't look all that big, maybe a couple inches thick. When I placed my hand on the brick, it was cool to the touch. Here goes nothing. I pulled back, closed my eyes, and slammed my hand into the brick as hard as I could. If you are unfamiliar with the sound of flesh and bone hitting concrete, then the sound this made probably would have sent a chill down your spine. I opened my eyes to reveal the brick, still in place; it hadn't moved at all. There was, however, an addition to its appearance: my blood. My hand was all cut up and sore, and I secretly feared I had broken a bone. Stupid brick, why didn't you break?
That moment stayed with me for some time. I kept going back and forth in my mind. Perhaps the decision to attempt the feat was foolish, I shouldn't have even tried. But, I thought to myself, if I had done it, I would have felt great. Of course, I didn't do it, so instead of wondering what it would have been like I have now tried and failed. And my hand hurt. A lot. As time went by, my hand healed though my ego most certainly did not. Stupid brick.
A few years later I was working out at the dojo. By this time I was a black belt, practicing with other black belts. One of the instructors brought out some boards and bricks that had to be removed. He said we could use them if we wanted because either way they had to go. We started playing around, breaking a few boards. Then, there were only bricks left. One of the other students walked up and broke one with ease, then invited me to do the same. Ah ha, Mr. Brick, we meet again.
As I stood over that brick, flashes of my first encounter went through my head. What did I do wrong the first time? It was one thing to be a foolish kid trying this, but now I'm a black belt, with other black belts watching...I have to do this. I placed my hand on the brick and felt the same stark cold I had felt years ago. Now or never. I pulled my hand back, let out a yell, and thrust my hand towards the brick. Oh no, I think I broke something for sure this time.
I felt my hand hit something really hard and I thought there was no way to escape injury this time. I opened my eyes to see my hand on the floor. I had tore through the brick and hit the concrete floor; the brick now lay in two pieces off to the side of my hand. Stupid brick.
As I'm sure everyone has heard by now, this was a rough week at Yahoo! as a bunch of people were laid off. I just wanted to post a quick note that if you were one of those people and are looking for another job, contact me. I have contacts at a bunch of companies, both small and large, that I'd be happy to use to help people land a new gig.
There are some days I believe that no one actually visits my blog. I'm not actively tracking this information, nor do I actually care. I've also said that this blog is just about me, my interests, my life. It's my way of expressing what I feel like expressing at any given time...an outlet for my particular form of psychosis. Some people hate it, others love it.
My cubemate Steve was nice enough to pass this along from one of his friends, Luke C. from Livermore, who wrote (to Steve):
Luke, you'll be happy to know that Steve did, in fact, read that out loud in our cube. I also think it's a fairly accurate description, though I detect some slight disdain. Where's the love, Luke? Where's the love?
I'm also shocked from time to time when my posts are quoted or picked up elsewhere. Apparently, my post about IE8 made it onto PPK's Elsewhere page. Does my opinion really matter enough to be mentioned there?
As I've said, this is just my little corner of the Internet. It's my sandbox to play in and I'm happy when people want to come and build sandcastles with me. Before I take that metaphor too far, I'm going to call this post done.
I've overheard girls telling each other that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. Grossness of the visual and silly fairy tale references aside, this often tends to be the truth in a great many things in life. This past weekend I was pondering my journey to Yahoo!, a journey that started in 2000 when I graduated from college and went to work for a small company called Radnet.
I had interned at Radnet the summer before I graduated, when it was still a very small company of around 50 people. I worked in IT that summer and learned a very important lesson: I did not want to work in IT for a living. I really liked the people there and they wanted me back when I graduated. I was just starting to get interested in web development, and I told them I'd come back but only if I could work on web stuff instead of IT. They said they'd try to hold a position open for me. As luck would have it, their webmaster (remember those?) was leaving a few months before I graduated, so they held that position for me until I got my degree.
A little over a month after Radnet closed, I got a call from my former boss saying that he was going to a company called MatrixOne and wanted to bring me on board. I and a few others from Radnet joined him there and spent the next four years in one of the most miserable jobs I could ever imagine. The dread I felt going into that job every day was ridiculous...it literally would take me two hours every morning to talk myself up to driving the 1.5 hours (each way).
Things weren't going well for MatrixOne financially, the stock had dropped from around $27 a share when I got there to about $4 when I left. I survived four rounds of layoffs and every quarter we all were looking over our shoulders. On top of that, a hiring and salary freeze meant that nothing was going to change anytime soon. I never knew what I should be working on, priorities shifted way too quickly for me to keep up. Sometimes I'd spend 3-4 months working on something only to throw it out because someone decided it wasn't important anymore. It's difficult running a race that moves the finish line whenever you get close. I knew I had to do something to get out...this is when I started writing my first book.
As I had hoped, having a book on my resume got me in the door at VistaPrint. VistaPrint's atmosphere was great: smart people, serious deadlines, and tons of people younger than 30. I made some really good friends there, people I'll probably be friends with for the rest of my life. I got to flex some backend muscles, working on .NET and SQL Server. Just getting away from MatrixOne was great, but this place was unreal. It was pre-IPO and very well organized. The entire place ran like a well-oiled machine, systems and processes abound. It was comforting to have that sort of structure...for a while.
I really enjoyed working with the people at VistaPrint, the problem was that I was getting bored. The work that was interesting initially became repetitive and mundane. I started to feel like I wasn't being challenged and there weren't any new problems to solve. As luck would have it, it was around that time that I first got contacted by Google about working for them. Shortly thereafter, I had some extended conversations with Eric Miraglia and Thomas Sha (both of YUI fame) about working for Yahoo!. Eric first contacted me to let me know that they were using my book to train new Yahoos and when he heard I was interviewing with Google, wanted to make it known that I'd be welcome at Yahoo! as well. And as things played out, I left VistaPrint and headed west to work for Yahoo!.
It really has been a long road to get here, and it certainly hasn't been all fun and games. Though clearly, without a few lousy experiences along the way, I never would have ended up at Yahoo!, which I still consider to be the best job I've ever had. My criteria are three-fold: 1) interesting work, 2) great, smart co-workers, and 3) a product I believe in. This is the first time in my career that I have all three, and I'm very grateful for that.