In Consideration Of Going Solo

by Jon Davis 21. June 2013 07:46

I’m beat. I spent today packing up items I had valued—a guitar, a nice camera, a big collection of Stargate DVDs—to ship off to various buyers around the country. I had no regrets as I went dumpster-diving at Guitar Center trying to fetch a shipping container suited for the size and shape of a guitar. After all, I need the chump change this transaction will produce. It will cover a fraction of my rent.

Ever play the game EVE Online? I used to. But I was never particularly good at it. I tended to enjoy the agent missions, and I was just not quite good enough to be of great help in PvP team versus team gameplay, mainly because I was terribly intimidated by actual human beings. Nevertheless, I came back to it now and then for a month or two, each time I’d look for a corp (EVE’s equivalent of a guild) to join. I’d end up staying solo, though, and ultimately I’d let the account subscription expire again, either before or after I’d get dismissed from the corp for not logging in enough. Each time I play EVE, indeed each time I tell myself “okay I’m going to do better this time at devoting my attention to a corp”, it becomes more pointless, because a) my corp history would be increasingly filled up with a strangely high number of employment records, and b) I’d be the new guy in the big, long-standing corp again. I’d have to learn the names again. I’d have to understand the corp’s ways of going about the game again. And they’d look at my history and detect what I already know—I’m either a flake or I’m a creep. Not that I choose to be either. But this was a lose-lose situation, and a vicious cycle. And so I end up logging back into EVE Online now and then, just me, hauling some simple battleship, knocking out non-player characters as I do mundane agent missions. And then I get bored by it all, and stop logging in .. until next time.

It does sadden me that I fear that my EVE Online profile and history may be a reflection upon my real-world employment history. And it isn’t even that I don’t have the capacity to be an excellent team member, or to produce excellent output, or to exhibit a personality that people can get along with. It’s that, to say as much, is a little jarring. I can be an excellent team member; I can produce excellent output; I can exhibit a nice personality. What happens, unfortunately, is that each day, indeed each hour, I have to choose to do these things, because the moment I let up my guard, my natural tendencies kick in. And they are ugly. And when it happens, I run the risk of being no longer the man of charm and professional skill, but a man of incidents. A loose cannon. And after a lot of internal checking, I am left with a mess of conclusions.

1) I have lacked the ability to demonstrate respect for authority. And it isn’t that I don’t recognize authority or appreciate how finances and business operations flow. It’s that my bosses are always wrong. Just kidding. It’s that as time has gone on my own experience in the industry has begun to match or exceed my bosses and so now I am forced to go along with the imposition of the business structure of the business that hired me on the basis of that structure alone. I can no longer earn stripes by gaining knowledge and experience in the field, I now have to earn stripes by brown-nosing. And this feels wrong to me. But it is the way it is, and that’s just life in the “real world”: if you want to work for a company as an employee (as per your signature on a Form W-4) and be its b---- then get in the kitchen, shut up, and make the man a sandwich. Do it now, grunt, or every second the man has to wait it’s another dollar taken out of your bonus! There is simply no ability to put soul into this. My desire to be motivated to succeed and to do well tends to be based upon the success of the business and upon the quality and world-changing impact of the business’s product. Instead, as the grunt, it becomes based upon the success of my boss, upon the quality and performance of my duties, and upon my compliance to allow the boss to dictate the measurements of “quality”, which if it’s right then it’s opportunity for me to learn, but if it’s completely wrong it’s the active practice of ritualistically worshipping Satan. And this is one area in which I tend to explode in disgust. Tact and self-control have gotten a lot better over the years, but it’s still an area for improvement.

1008337_607242282626833_1150274984_o2) My history precedes me. Life has been a long journey of learning about myself, about other people, about corporations, about all kinds of things, and in this journey I’ve suffered an awful lot of failures. Failures are success stories because you learn from them—well, that’s nice, except that my history precedes me. And at 36 years old—wait, I’m 36, right?—I’ve begun to get pessimistic. If a job didn’t work out over here, and another job didn’t work out over there, who really do I want to work for? I’ve learned that I do not want to work for someone I admire because rejection as the grunt hurts a lot. Does this mean I want to work for someone I dislike? Of course not. Well if I choose not to have an opinion about who I work for, I run the risk of lacking loyalty and, well, soul in my work, but at least I wouldn’t be disloyal either.

So I end up here. I’ve been here before. It has never gone well—on the other hand, I apparently end up back here anyway, and it’s actually a little more peaceful here. The only thing missing is soul. Soul is passion. Soul has made things miserable in the past, where applying it was in hopes of making things wonderful. So if soul has made things go bad, why? Is this an attitude problem, a skill problem, a focusing problem, an approach problem, a setting problem, or a target of interest problem? Discipline? Maybe I'm just imbalanced. Could it be all of these? Yes, I suppose it could. So perhaps I should drum up some new rules to consider on this, based on these things:

Attitude – Be passionate with a proper attitude among others. Does my passion make others feel kicked around or like they’re being told they’re inferior? Too selfish. I should find out if others have similar passions; if so, I should refocus my passion on enjoying their similar passions when I am with them. Also, I should always be appreciating the practices of the team that work, and not get too hung up on practices that don’t work, because the ones that don’t work always have someone’s ego associated with them and they were perhaps passionate about setting them up. They had a passion that I should appreciate even if the output didn’t match mine.

Goals – I need goals to have an objective I can target and pursue while harnessing the power of passion and skill. Goals should derive out of an attitude check, not the desire to make money or be a boss. Neither making more money nor being the boss reduces stress--in fact, it makes it worse. Living a simple life is remarkably mind-cleansing, and I can only imagine what kind of stress a top-tier leader must have to go through. On the other hand, if money is seen as a tool to do the world good, a means to make the world a better place, and likewise being a leader is seen as an opportunity to make the business owners or executives happier and doing that while accomodating the needs of the grunts is looked on as a welcome opportunity, these are not bad drivers for goals. Neither is passion a bad driver (unless my passion is in basket weaving). So setting up goals pertinent to technology skills growth is certainly ideal, especially in a field where technology is always evolving. As a Christian, I also have some eternal goals; as one who believes in God I desire to make whatever I do pleasing to Him. If I had a family and my interests were in making a wife happy, again, making more money is not a goal in itself but setting up a budget and adhering to it might be. I might like to marry someday; I should start practicing budgeting. I also want to have some residual income flowing in; I should set goals to write a book, or write software that I can sell. Figuring out which goals to prioritize so that goals that become projects can see the light of day is a lot of work but necessary.

Skill – A passionate web developer should always be learning, and should always be practicing by either looking for problems to solve or creating problems in a sandbox at home that can be solved safely there. If there’s not enough time to learn and to practice, perhaps there isn’t enough focus on the passion! I’ve also found that it’s easy to build up a surface-level understanding of development concepts or tools, but can be difficult to master them. Master them.

Focus – I’m guilty of not being able to focus. I tend to have A.D.D., but on the other hand I can get around this tendency by adjusting my environment (choosing or making a clean place) and restructuring my priorities and the sequence of approaching them. Some people have tried The Pomodoro Technique to deal with time management, and have had some great success.

Approach – It is not enough to tackle a passion. I need strategy. And my work needs to integrate cohesively with others’ passionate output. What happens when you get five musicians in a room and so they practice and play a solo—all at once? You end up with chaos. The whole notion of “you need strategy”, however, is too vague to demonstrate in words because every situation is completely unique to the problems and personalities involved. I just need to use my head—not just left-brain logic but also right-brain intuition.

Setting – Having a passion in Objective-C is great if you’re working at Apple or in an Apple-oriented shop. It’s not so great if you’re in a Java or .NET oriented shop. This example is too obvious, though. Being passionate about restaurant point-of-sale systems is borderline dangerous if I'mtrying to lose weight and the workplace is Dunkin’ Donuts. Passions + Setting should not conflict with Goals.

Creativity – Creativity is that necessary component that allows me to stop stomping around asking everyone "hey I need ideas so I can build upon my passions, help me?" I'm guilty of doing that and it's pretty lame. Creativity is itself a skill that needs to be developed. Passion and creativity build upon each other. If I'm not creative enough I should get more passionate. If I'm not passionate enough but have some seedlings of creativity sprouting up, I should keep building on that creativity, passionately.

Target of Interest – For years, I’ve had Ruby on Rails books sitting around, and have had Ruby installed, but I never made Ruby on Rails my passion. How likely is it that my whole world would be turned upside down if I dropped ASP.NET and focused that on Ruby on Rails? I think it would be pretty hairy. Rubyists would argue that I should, that it could only be better. But I am confident in the capacities of ASP.NET MVC, and so my target of interest in my passion is well chosen I believe. But what about other passions? Keep exploring. Find something that clicks. Or, fall in love again with what is proving already to work for me (i.e. ASP.NET MVC).

Discipline – I suppose one of my biggest problems has been that I tend to get A.D.D. when I read or when I do pretty much anything. At home I have 19+ personal projects lined up and the list is so overwhelming I end up hunkering down and playing PC games instead. To address this problem, I have had to prioritize my projects, and I printed this out and taped it to my computer monitor at home:   


I need to build up a greater curiosity and interest in the practices that I work with. Programming used to be fun. That and more should still be fun – it should be fulfilling. But regardless of how I feel, I should be driven by wisdom, and by the desire to be a greater, more proficient, and more respectable person in the field. 

Balance – Passion without balance makes people rich but it is more likely to make a person crazy. I don't mean to necessarily clock out at 5pm or 6pm. If I get back on my computer at home I've found no balance. I need to step away from the computer. Go to the gym. Go swimming. Go for a walk. Meet up with friends. Study the Bible and pray (yes I'm like that – or want to be). Go to a sports game. Actually I'm not into sports .. maybe I should go anyway, and bring a friend. Go spend a weekend up at the Grand Canyon. Stop playing PC games for free time. Have more responsibilities, outside of "personal projects". Take care of people. Become more well-rounded.

At the end of it all I should keep circling back around to all of these, giving special heed to attitude and balance. These are the elements that are making me a more whole person, while becoming a better, more mature person in the field of software and web development.

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About the author

Jon Davis (aka "stimpy77") has been a programmer, developer, and consultant for web and Windows software solutions professionally since 1997, with experience ranging from OS and hardware support to DHTML programming to IIS/ASP web apps to Java network programming to Visual Basic applications to C# desktop apps.
Software in all forms is also his sole hobby, whether playing PC games or tinkering with programming them. "I was playing Defender on the Commodore 64," he reminisces, "when I decided at the age of 12 or so that I want to be a computer programmer when I grow up."

Jon was previously employed as a senior .NET developer at a very well-known Internet services company whom you're more likely than not to have directly done business with. However, this blog and all of have no affiliation with, and are not representative of, his former employer in any way.

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