Friday, January 27, 2017

Tim Gunn Was My Spirit Animal

So, last summer, I got to experience something I've never experienced before: I got fired. Let go just shy of twelve years at my employer, suddenly and unceremoniously. I was home with my son while my wife and daughters were across the country visiting family, and so had to balance the panic and fear of a destabilized routine with the projecting the calm, cool, fatherly assurance of Everything Would Be OK. I am a software developer, and I am living in a part of the country absolutely thick with software developers and development opportunities. But after just-shy-of-twelve-years, I'd also been insulated from some of the hype and glory of the industry. I'd traded a daily commute into San Francisco for a local position so I could be home more often and be "dad" more often. My elder child was about to start school, and the then-youngest was about to start talking. Priorities were priorities, and I walked away from a lot of excitement for stability and proximity.

When stability disappeared as it did last summer -- twelve years and a third child later -- I anguished about the change. I don't cope well with change. I'm a software engineer! We're practically the textbook definition of autism spectrum in my field: people who generally find it easier and more satisfying to spend their days unpacking logical puzzles than to interact with illogical humans. I'm sure there's more than a few in my field who wish we were Kirks, but know deep down we're Spocks. So I reacted in the most Spock-like way possible, looking for exactly the same job in exactly the same area so I could have exactly the same life.

And then, thank goodness, a few amazing coincidences happened.

First, a massive ego boost because of this:

He liked it! He really liked it!

I commented on some new pulp-style covers his publisher had done for re-issues of his novels. It was a total bit of fanboy sycophancy, though the sentiment was genuine. The first was for American Gods, which is an excellent, and deeply weird book. I love that this cover looks like it was pulled off a shelf of vintage paperbacks in some funky secondhand shop with a pay-what-you-like public coffeepot and a pair of bookstore cats.

The cover announcement came the day of my dismissal. I think this tweet was the day after. Mood: elevated.

And then this bit of also-fanboyism from J. Michael Straczynski ("JMS" to the Internet) who is a creative force and a writing wonder. He has touched many mediums over the years, and right around the time all this was happening in my life, he revealed that he was leaving behind comics because of severe vision-related medical reasons
that he had mercifully managed to get past, and was now literally and figuratively seeing things in a new light. I could relate to the fear and the worry that he felt, and then just to kick it up a bit, he gave a talk with a Q&A session in which an audience member presumably asked a question about "advice for the recently fired."

JMS' response was so excellent, so personally relevant, that I transcribed it, overlaid it on a still from the talk, and carried the quote with me to interviews. Here it is:

JMS advice

Mood: illuminated.

Seeing this clip, and writing these words, and feeling all the many, many feels finally clicked something in my mind. I missed San Francisco. I missed the ugly commute, the semi-permanent smell of urine. I missed the weirdos and the tech bros and the hipsters and the hippies and the tourists. I missed the energy of The City. I missed being in with "my tribe." I missed it, so very, very badly. One interview convinced me, and subsequent ones reinforced it. I wanted back in. I missed my spectrum tribe.

And it took a lot of time, and a lot of trips, and a lot of anxious night-befores and nervous whiteboard exercises and code tests and reviews and refreshers and tutorials to really lock that in my mind. And now I had the wisdom of those twelve years, plus the eight before when I was surfing dot-com 1.0. I'm better attuned to sniff out the dreamers from the doers, and hopefully am better at navigating the whole Professional Developer process. And I was also humbled. Laid low by interviewing with coders half my age, asking about now-hot skills that simply passed me by in the 'burbs. Keeping my chin up and the search going through screening after screening, interview after interview, and the dreaded "we appreciate your time, but..." email.

Spoiler: I did, in the end, find a job. A job I'm very happy with, with people I like very much, being challenged and pushed and poked out of the comfortable rut I'd worn for over a decade. I reassessed, but I reassessed on my terms. With the code-test for my current job, I did what I thought was more Kirk than Spock and made it my own Kobayashi Maru. And I thought of Tim Gunn, one of the co-hosts of our household guilty-pleasure TV Project Runway.

Tim acts as mentors for the contestants, who get gradually more and more stressed and sleep-deprived as the season progresses. Every few days, they are called upon to create a piece of clothing out of a limited budget, sometimes out of ludicrous "unconventional" materials, and often to play nice for a judge. They have a day to do this, are judged severely, and those who pass the judging move on to do it all again in a day or two (a week in TV time.) The show casts right along reality-show types: the Outspoken One, the Quiet One, the Sassy One, the Old One, the Young One, etc.. They're all trying to win, and win big, and keep their sanity in front of the cameras. This season especially, I felt I could relate. Through it all is the kindly, guiding voice of Tim Gunn, reminding the designers to stay true to themselves, regardless of the absurdity of the challenge. And so when the code challenge crossed my desk, I did just that -- stayed true to the skills and experience I had, and presented something I was proud of.

It didn't get me the position, but it gave me more confidence in the interview, more persistence to keep calling back over the holidays, and I'd like to think those lined up for a second interview for something else entirely.

Today was my first official payday in six months. Mood: relieved. Six months to the day since I stuffed the last box in the back of my car, shook hands with everyone, and drove off. Six months of stress and worry and snug budgets and tight belts and lower thermostats and postponed haircuts and resume after resume after resume.

Totally worth it. Thanks Neal. Thanks JMS. And thanks, Tim. I made it work.