I have crossed a threshold as a web developer. I can feel it. I’ve hit that point, when you take on any task over and over again over a long period of time, that real confidence sets in. Today, in my annual performance review, my boss honored me- he told me that he felt I had crossed a threshold as well, and that he shared this confidence – he told me that at this point, he felt comfortable throwing just about anything at me. It was a meaningful moment, and validated a long climb back to grace: my last performance review almost ended my tenure at my current company. Here’s the story of my programming career’s worst plateau, and how I overcame it.
You might expect my career’s low point to have something to do with my expertise or the conditions of my job itself, but it doesn’t. It was personal.
I graduated from UNCW in May of 2011. I had already worked at my current position with my current company part-time for over a year. After a 2-week trip to Spain, I came back to Wilmington and settled in to what was now my full-time position. I was deathly afraid of becoming boring, by virtue of having a desk job and a predictable life. So, instead of finding a new apartment when my lease was up, I moved into a van. I was also in a very committed band and dating an energetic girl finishing up her degree. I was constantly overwhelmed, and I relished in it. It was an exciting period of my life.
By summer of 2012, the band was opening up for nationally touring musicians, recording an album, and I boiled in excitement for our future. I had become more invested in that than in anything else around me. The time I dedicated to it caused conflict in my relationship. Making music and performing it fulfilled me and I came to rely on it. I moved out of my van so I would have a better place to practice and record. My relationship ended. And, shortly after, my job came into jeopardy.
I had my annual workplace performance review in June of 2012. I did poorly. I just wasn’t getting enough done. It was clear I was distracted. There was the ominous implication that I needed to improve my performance, or… else.
So, I did. I worked harder, but my heart was in my music and absent from my code. My increased efforts were simply for my own security. I felt like Peter from the film Office Space, when he told the Bobs, “That’s my only real motivation, is not to be hassled- that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” That’s what I did- just swam hard enough to stay above water – because my real career, I had decided, was in music.
And then, poetic as you please, the band began to crumble. One original member quit for circumstances beyond his control. Emerging personal issues plagued another member, and legal issues a third member. Then, as we struggled with our wavering line-up, our lead singer, who had been building up both his reputation as a solo artist and the fanbase of the band, decided that maintaining both images was too taxing. Meeting with myself and the other bandmates over subs at Jimmy Johns, he informed us of his plan to spearhead all his efforts under the flag of his solo career. Ultimately, that meant rebranding the band under his name, and – the most devastating aspect for me – abandoning songs written by other band members. That meant my songs.
His decision was final. If I couldn’t write music for the group, I decided, I didn’t want to be part of it. So, the day after our biggest gig thus far – opening for Trevor Hall in South Carolina – with my voice shaking and tears in my eyes, I quit. And in that instant, in the time it took me to utter those few words, all of my overwhelming, exciting future vanished. I saw the road ahead crumble before me. Beneath my feet was the only means of fulfillment I had left in my life – the one I had all but forsaken. The desk job. Making websites.
It didn’t fulfill me at first. I had had a grip on the beginnings of a real musical career. When that dream suddenly leapt far out of reach, I felt cold and bitter, apathetic towards any other paths I might take. Every day, I woke up, went to work, crawled up to my desk, made things work for eight hours, and left. I went through the motions, and that was it. The creative energy I used to feel was gone.
I think going through those motions saved me. Coding slowly reminded me of why I liked to code. Like retracing the steps you took on your first date might bring back waves of nostalgia; like smiling for long enough will make you feel happy, even against your will- this is how I think I came to enjoy my work again. This, and I got better at it. Trudging along, coding, not enthused but not distracted, it was easy to forget that I was constantly learning, that every problem I solved was educating me. Perhaps it was the lack of distractions, or perhaps it was just my time to come into my own as a developer, but I began to get things done quicker, to write code that did more in less lines, to see patterns and solutions faster, and to have to revisit my code less and less often to fix bugs. This improved my morale and determination, driving further upward my overall abilities.
It is now a year after the performance review that almost got me fired, and this time, my boss smiles at me as he hands me my evaluation. I won’t gloat, but the numbers are good. I still love and play music- I had a few-month stint with another band formed by a friend and I, and have been experimenting with EDM and dubstep on my own. I still seek adventure; I still wish to thwart the predictability that may often accompany life as a programmer. I don’t know what I will ultimately “do with my life”, what my crowning achievement will be, how I’ll make my living five years from now. But I have rediscovered my passion for coding – the simple joy of making a website look awesome or do something awesome. Now, I can embrace that passion, armed with the confidence and experience of a maturing developer.