The best-laid plans…

This is an entry that’s never going to feel appropriate to write but needs to be written before I can move on with more useful blogging topics.  I had a really hefty year-end-summary post that was in the works that is now scrapped because it is forever tainted by the present.  So it goes.

Twelve days ago I went to work and reported as usual during the usual team scrum stand-up about my work on that week’s “red hot engineer” (the first Google result on this is the best, and MAY IT ALWAYS BE) tasks, i.e. I was dealing with any production issues that came up so the rest of the team could focus on our actual sprint work. It’s a great rotating role that we had just finished sequencing through as an entire team, and it allowed us to share a layer of knowledge and responsibility in a way that kept the group engaged. As an augment to the traditional scrum team model I only have good things to say about it, and it must go by other names elsewhere if the current Google results are that silly.

Immediately following the morning’s report I had a 1:1 with a higher-level manager who had been visiting for the week. At that meeting I learned that my position had been eliminated; I was one of the dreaded 10 percent of employees who faced the chopping block.

The day before this happened I had this most amazing shadowing experience with a Customer Service agent for about 2.5 hours. This was part of a larger team effort to, as a technical team, better understand the CS team that shared an office with us, and figure out ways we could help them (and customers) with the part of the product that we managed. Very cool! I was totally wowed by the professionalism, efficiency, and smarts of the agent I was shadowing, and I was reaffirmed to see that my company really did treat their customers well. To top it off, these folks managed to handle an epic harrowing final call with an impeccable grace (I would have caved and made an embarrassment of myself, no doubt).

This same week there were also some good reconnections with New York coworkers who were in town and a lot of conversations about the year that lay ahead, our team’s values, and other discussions that are nice to have at the start of a new year. The company had downplayed the severity of layoff rumors, and my team didn’t look short for work (or overburdened with too many heads). I don’t think I could have been more forward-looking and engaged with my team, my role, and the company at the time this all happened.

Needless to say, the news came as a complete and utter surprise. I was downright optimistic, excited for the future and the work we’d take on after the amazing ups and downs we’d gone through in the past 10 months. We’d built a well-functioning team that embodied software development values I really believed in and consistently delivered a reliable end product.

I’m an experience junkie; while I hope to never become Justin from Parks and Recreation (season 2) and just be a person who “collects stories”, I knew “my first layoff” is something of an important milestone and was going to happen eventually. For that reason alone I’m coping OK; I just really wasn’t expecting such news at this time, in this context. What I learned from my own “layoff story” (and I still haven’t watched “Up In the Air” yet, but probably need to) is that I don’t really emotionally react at all to this news in the moment. I guess this isn’t a big surprise. I’ve learned that my emotional reactions are a bit of a thunderclap – happening reliably on delay from the actual event causing the response – and I have a bit of working time for my rational self to take over and do the work it needs to get out of the way first. So I got out of there and home safely before the emotional side kicked in.

Beyond that first hour I don’t think it’s fair for me to fully reflect on this experience of being laid off and being able to claim unemployment and all of those “worker drone rites of passage” that I’m getting to participate in just yet. (Several more paragraphs lay ahead for your ingestion nonetheless.) I’m still very much in the moment with this experience, and it’s evolving (emotionally) day-by-day. Right now, I’m really just sneaking in a moment of post-karaoke relative stability to reflect at as dispassionate a stance I can take at this point. I know these moments are still fleeting.

That said, I can say without a doubt that in the case of this particular layoff / transition / what-have-you, my first and most gutteral response was heartbreak. I was heartbroken because I had lost my team. Per my opening, it was a particularly good week at work for feeling smitten with my team and pumped for what we were going to do collectively in the future. That had not been an easy place, personally, to get to. After years of mostly working in isolation, that much teamwork was initially scary, and I had to grit my teeth through so much of it. I had trouble believing my (more experienced – overall and with the tech we were working with) teammates really respected me and saw me as an equal and this made me especially sensitive to occasional unconscious slights that communicated a lack of trust in my intelligence and perspective. Those slights had formed a bit of a discouraging, silencing pattern for awhile, but thanks to some hard work and great management we’d gotten past that. I could finally stop feeling like the god what’s her problem lead weight who seemed to be the only one visibly struggling in an environment that was constantly shifting, and I cannot tell you how happy it made me to finally feel safe in the assertion that I belonged. It is heartbreaking to lose that, so close to finally feeling certain in it for the very first time since we’d embarked on an agile approach.

I spent the first days after being laid off grieving. Not freaking out over money or what would come next – that will be figured out in the weeks to come – nor even much of feeling angry or resentful (not that such feelings have been absent.) I wasn’t grieving over the loss of a company I really believed in or now-forever-shelved trips to New York, but the loss of my team and the work we had ahead of us. That loss was felt deeply, only comparative to the times I have (for various reasons) lost close friends or partners. The rest of the processing of this sudden change has been downright simple in comparison, and I suppose that’s been reassuring.

There’s more to come but for now I’m still in transition: the place I worked was far from perfect, but its imperfections were either a.) interesting or b.) symptoms of a systemic issue, not a company issue, and I was by no means ready or interested in leaving or moving on to other work.  In the face of needing to look for other work, my current mindset is “how can I keep doing what I was doing (in a technical sense).” It’s the same attitude I had when buying my house, which is less than a mile away from my final rental property: “I like this neighborhood, and even if I have to move, as little else should change as possible, because I didn’t welcome this transition in the first place.” (Keen minds will point out that the transition was nonetheless for the better.) I’m guessing my interests will probably evolve a bit more than that in the coming weeks.  I have absolutely no idea what my opinion of my now-former employer will look like in a few months; that’s been a very interesting relationship to track with my other former employers.  (I have more former employers than I’d prefer at this point, but far more interesting experience than the average person 5.5 years in, so I will live with the lot I’ve drawn.)  Working with other fascinating and smart people, engaging with different exciting opportunities, etc. has not yet become a “perk” of this transition just yet, but I’m optimistic it will be.

I was a dedicated employee and customer who believed in the company and its business model and pretty much love everything I bought there (and I bought so much; far more than was really reasonable.)  I leave with a fresh pile of More Wonderful Winter Coats Than I Could Possibly Need and the world’s two best Free People cardigans, acquired with my last batch of employee credits.  The wonderfulness of the coats (and cardigans, which I wore as I burrowed in bed those first harrowing days) is not really much solace for the loss of everything else, but it’s a contrast nonetheless, and I think it maps out the complicated relationship I’m likely to have with this particular job in the future.  There are no simple answers or summaries here; I learned so much and had the most productive 10 months of my career – I loved my work and had such a thrill out of being able to see that it was impactful – I had the first truly productive technical managerial relationship of my career – I finally worked closely with a team and despite the initial and numerous growing pains I really came to love working within that team unit.  At the same time, and these were pre-existing feelings that the layoff cemented, I leave so much less confident in myself (by way of having such outstanding peers to compare to and very little positive individual feedback), legitimately worried that I cannot be successful in this industry even though it’s only for cultural reasons, seriously wondering if I should start to think ahead to a career “escape hatch” that is not software engineering for the first time ever, and more fighting mad about women-in-tech issues than I have ever been.  I suspect that it’s going to take a strong shift in focus away from this current loss and onto future opportunities before those two competing forces balance themselves out.

In the meantime I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to my personal and professional communities for really stepping up and providing me the best support I’ve ever received in light of one of these transitions, as well as the coworkers who accepted and supported me despite my stubborn feminist engineerness often overruling other engineering identi-forms as the safest and most self-protective option. My friends have been incredible and my network within the Portland tech community has never been more rewarding. I owe the Portland tech community so much and am reminded of that every day.

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