It's over!

Good lord, I have no idea if anyone will get this reference –Homestar Runner, 2002

2020 is here, and I'm writing this from Brooklyn Roasting Company off the tail of about 7 hours of accumulated jetlag. I'm in New York! This is crazy and surprising and surreal, and my first impressions are… New York is cool? I mean, that's not exactly an original thought; but I like that it's clean, and there's parks, and holy crap the metro network is enormous and so well-branded. In my first day here I saw ads for free coworking for freelancers and heard about the “tech talent pipeline” program. It feels like the antithesis to San Fransisco, not just because it's on the opposite coast, but because it feels like it's got the public luxury thing happening. In the words of the immigration official who pulled me into a room for a ‘chat’ when I landed:

I feel like [the rental market] has something for everyone here.

And, like, I know it's expensive and gentrifying and kinda segregated, but it's still a long way from the total systemic failure that's the Bay Area housing market1.

Ok so yes, this is a nice city. But this isn't about New York, it's a post about how I ended up here, and everything that 2019 was.

There is a lot in flux

The end of 2019 / start of 2020 feels like a period where everything's in flux again. My life apparently has a cadence of about 3 years:

Work

I started the year working at Sendwave, and ended the year wilfully unemployed. It was a stranger, more nebulous, more fulfilling year at Sendwave than in previous years.

Managing people

I managed a team for about six months at Sendwave. We'd historically treated management as an afterthought, and so the team fluctuated in its composition, and my role remained extremely unclear the whole time I was a manager (but I understand this is kinda normal for engineering management jobs, and also kinda normal for small companies).

Managing people was… not what I expected. I think the most surprising things for me were:

The book Resilient Management was instrumental for me in getting my head around both of these surprises. Not only did it offer super practical management advice, it also did a great job of drawing distinctions between leadership as a manager and as a senior engineer. I'd recommend it to anyone dancing along that Senior Eng / Manager knife-edge, along with Charity Major's thoughts on the Engineer/Management Pendulum.

The most satisfying thing in this role came on my final day. In saying goodbye to two of my teammates, they told me that they came away from 2019 feeling much more empowered and confident in undertaking security, web infrastructure, and performance work – all notoriously difficult fields to break into from a technical, but also a industry-cultural perspective. Seeing them take ownership of and gain confidence in these hard topics was such a rush. I'm so proud of them.

Projects

My work in 2019 was differently focussed to previous years. I was working on important things, but they were more continuations of long-term arcs than concrete projects that I can sum up neatly on a résumé. Some examples:

I also got to live with the repercussions of decisions I'd made in previous years, which was awesome for learning:

A bunch of small observations I wrote down on my last day

On Leaving

In October, I visited Jackie in Cairo, and while we were sitting around one afternoon, she said “you've been talking about the Recurse Center for ages! Why haven't you applied yet?”

And indeed, I found a draft application on my laptop from December 2018. So I submitted the application, and then two days later I found myself telling my boss that I'd applied, and so I wouldn't be around from January to March. She said that I could take unpaid leave if I there was a 70% chance I would come back after… but nah, I'm ready for a new set of problems. And hopefully less work hours.

Mostly, I'm excited about not having a concrete job immediately – I've been working consistently for 10 years now. I'm excited about exploring ideas for what's next; about working on things for their own sake, rather than because a company wants me to do them to make more money. We'll see how long I can handle the self-directed-ness of it all, but it's something that I'm hoping to get good at while at RC. I heard once that 12 weeks is long enough to build a good habit? Well, I'm hoping to return to Berlin in April with a handful of good habits.

Books, again!

2019 was the year I reconnected with Voracious Reader Fabian, who can't put a book down once he's into it. The highlights were, in no particular order:

Side projects! Blogging!

Yes! It's all happening again!

I got more into film photography, went hiking again, built some more bottle lamps, and released a small software utility named after a bird (and incidentally also after the whisky my Dad used to drink when I was a kid). I blogged about a surprising amount of it. I'm super excited to be blogging again; it's a great way of clarifying my thoughts on things, and I really enjoy writing!

Looking forward

Ok, so what's the plan for 2020?

First the obvious things; the continuations of all the things that are already in flight:

Now, all the less-obvious but more profoundly important things:

Building capacity for courage, or for giving fewer fucks

Repeatedly in 2019, I realised that my track record of caring too much about what people think of me is jeopardising my ability to live to my goals. I'm a case study of the bystander effect in that I never want to be seen as doing something out of ‘line’, and given that I theoretically care about justice and equality and dismantling the patriarchy and diversity in my industry, I need to actively become not a bystander.

I realised this a lot at work, I think. I was happy to complain about the way changes to the promotion policies were made specifically because I felt like I had nothing to lose in doing so (the changes didn't affect me). On the other hand, I was given responsibility over engineering hiring at some point, and I was super keen to instigate a bunch of changes to the way we did it – namely, make our interview process less strenuous and more people-focussed, on the basis that reducing your unjustified rejection rate is an important step in reducing hiring discrimination4. But, the repercussions of messing that up felt huge, and terrifying, and I didn't have the guts to push the idea through, and so someone else took over, and the interview process moved in the opposite direction. Maybe if I had had more courage, we would've ended up with something more equitable.

In August, I read that white dudes are able to hire minority candidates without personal risk because we're automatically assumed to know what we're doing, and it stuck with me that if I've got the capital-P Privilege to not risk anything personally by advocating for diverse candidates than I've got a responsibility to exploit that. So, in 2020, I want to grow courage to take up space or be a pain in the ass or to basically just do the right thing without giving a crap about what other people are thinking about me.

Something about living more intentionally?

2019 was a year where I realised that I sorta needed to get my shit together and spend more time figuring out what I want, and then actually pursuing that, rather than procrastinating and then causing a bunch of disruption to everyone around me when inspiration finally strikes. You know, making plans and sticking to them like a responsible adult. I think if I had've thought about this more carefully, maybe I would have been at RC while Jackie was in Cairo, and we wouldn't have had to spend as much total time doing distance (because we both would've been away simultaneously). The other piece here is – my parents are turning 60 in the next couple months (if you're reading this, hi Mum, Happy Birthday! 👋). It's only just occurred to me in the last week that it could have been super nice to have been around for that. But now I'm in New York, and from here, the right thing to do is to stick at this trajectory. I kinda just wish I had've had more forethought here.

I think 2020 will involve trying to figure out a framework for being more proactive and consistent with my decisions. At a detail level, it'll probably involve trying to articulate the tension between my life in Berlin and my history / family in Wollongong, and to have a plan for reconciling those two separate pieces of my life (which, thus far, has mostly just occurred by coincidence). At a meta level, it probably involves trying to “live more authentically” or something. I don't even know exactly what this means, yet – but I'm excited about figuring it out.

Towards a healthier approach to Social Media

I ditched Facebook (the app, not FACEBOOK, the company) in 2018 for mostly ideological reasons. 2019 unfortunately saw me fill that void with Twitter and Reddit instead, both of which are also sometimes great and sometimes toxic hellsites in their own regard.

In my better moments, I've been pushing towards:

In 2020, I want to solidify this, and kick the Twitter / Reddit habit entirely. Wish me luck.


  1. I know that what I've written here is a super naïve take based on spending a day walking around and chatting superficially to a couple of folk here, and I'm looking forward to having a better understanding of the issues here by the time I leave. ↩︎

  2. I also enjoyed this rather grumpy critic's review, which feels like a fair critique, but also like it's playing into exactly the worldview that the book is a reaction against. ↩︎

  3. I heard about this book through an interview with Kalaf Epalanga in NANSEN Magazine issue 2. Both issues of this mag have been incredible; keep an eye out for issue #3. ↩︎

  4. Engineering projects are often kinda crazy seeing as we purportedly “just want to see how people think”. I'm 99% sure there's better signals than getting people to do a 4 hour take-home project. But, for a remote / async company, we really do care about how well someone can communicate about what they're working on, so figuring out ways to measure that is probably worthwhile. Actually, I think that's probably true of most engineering. ↩︎