2020: The Lost Year
On March 6th of this year, I posted about leaving my role at WebDevStudios is pursuit of new opportunities. It might as well have been a decade ago.
That weekend, I celebrated “funemployment” by hanging out with some of my closest friends at The Lab in St. Paul, a conceptual taproom of sorts where brewers and beverage makers can try out new recipes in small batches that they can sell to those with adventurous palates. I didn’t have a new role lined up just yet, but I was studying and working through online tutorials to teach myself Python. At the time, I was in the middle of an interviewing process with a company where I’d have the opportunity to branch out beyond both WordPress and agency and finally get to experience the world of product development, all while becoming acquainted with a programming language that was both new and yet somehow familiar to me.
Last winter, lots of tech folks in the Twin Cities had started co-working occasionally at BlackStack Brewing, in large part because of 1) the ample taproom space, and 2) BlackStack’s change in business hours and structure; while still a brewery, they’d also begun marketing themselves as a coffeehouse by day. With fast wifi, a low-key environment, and a staff that was friendly to folks settling in and writing code throughout the day, I made plans for it to be the place where I’d spend my first day with some downtime to write some code for fun.
Much to my surprise, when I showed up to BlackStack that following Monday, I ran into some friends and former colleagues alike. The pandemic hadn’t completely settled here in the U.S., but the news was becoming increasingly scary by the day. Folks were showing up throughout the day, some (such as myself) already very mindful about not shaking hands, but of course, in early March, nobody was wearing masks yet, and a group of us went out for lunch together at The Naughty Greek, a fast casual Mediterranean restaurant just up the street.
Those are probably my last tangible, positive memories of The Before Times, though of course they were already tainted with my experience of working with an epidemiologist for almost 4 years earlier in my career and the worry about what was to come.
Later that week, I hosted my last in-person weekly board game night, something I’d organized for a full four years prior. My friends Nick, Bela, Austyn, and I played Great Western Trail, a game about herding cattle from Texas to Kansas City, where you later ship them off by train. Two days later, on Saturday the 14th, my friend Will was the last invited guest to our home for the entirety of this year. He, my partner Abby, and I played the cooperative game Horrified, which I’d purchased in South Dakota just two months prior when Abby and I visited her folks, oblivious to the fact that a global pandemic was looming.
Of course, we all know the rest. And it’s hardly been just the pandemic that’s resulted in this year being, perhaps inarguably, the most terrible of our lifetimes.
The Python job that I was interviewing for in March became suddenly unavailable as a result of the economic downturn from the pandemic. In May, I was fortunate enough to land a position working at a local startup, but it quickly became evident in the subsequent weeks that the culture and development stack wasn’t a right fit for me. I turned in my resignation at the end of June, and starting fresh in my search. That very day, I heard from Steve Henty about an engineering position on the product team at Rocketgenius. After a couple weeks of interviewing with him and various members of the team, and learning more about the company’s mission and vision, I decided that staying in the WordPress space but making the switch over to product was going to be the right fit for me.
Man, am I ever glad I did.
I think I have a hard time articulating sometimes what it is I’m looking for out of my career, or even what I want from an employer. Every company that I’ve worked for in the WordPress agency space has done something smashingly well. Some have given me the opportunity to learn and grow, either by paying for memberships to online tutorial services, or helping sponsor travel to attend or speak at a conference. Some have recognized the benefits and challenges associated with remote work, and have taken great strides to do what they can to make their culture open and inclusive. Some have recognized holidays as official company holidays where others haven’t. Some have granted autonomy and trust to you, as an employee, to make decisions and take actions in the interest of the company, without the need for a special sign-off – making the pitch is usually enough.
I don’t know how they do it, but I’ve been with Rocketgenius now for 5 1/2 months, and somehow they do it all, and I’ve worked at enough places at this point in my career to know not to take this for granted. Every day, I am astounded by the thoughtfulness of my colleagues and leadership, the kind ways with which we interact, and the hard work and care that everyone puts into our products. We plan and communicate and check in with one another in ways that I’ve only seen glimpses of in past roles, and it’s made going to work each day something to look forward to; a welcome distraction from the madness of everything else.
Since that festive gathering in the beginning of March, I’ve managed to see my friends a handful of times this year, at extremely social-distanced outings in large backyards, city parks, and the front lawn of the Minnesota State Capitol. I’m grateful for those moments of simply reconnecting with one another, of catching up, of celebrating each other’s wins, and of hoping that we can all hug one another again when we finally get a calendar with a new number on it.
My friends have still managed to make this year special through trivia nights, board game tournaments, scotch nights, meetups, impromptu online gatherings, and the occasional telephone call (hi Josie!).
Above all else, I don’t know what I would have done this year if not for Abby. We celebrated our 12th anniversary at the end of October, and we’ve largely spent the year doing a handful of activities: taking walks around Lake Phalen largely as an excuse to run our car, playing a board game I can talk her into playing, watching a movie she can talk me into watching, finding occasions to use the oven instead of the microwave, and sending each other cute stories we find and as many animal-related pictures and gifs as possible. She supported me by remaining optimstic about my career change, even after it quickly got scarier than I’d expected, and I think what I’ll most cherish about this year is her dedication to getting me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to take a walk in the neighborhood or go sit in the park for awhile. We started the year playing trivia at our local brewery nearly every Wednesday, and pandemic or not, I’m looking forward to warmer summer nights when we can go hang out in the park some more: the sun for her, the shade for me.
There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s going to be the same when we wake up tomorrow morning as it was through most of this year. Still, I think there is reason for optimism and hope, and for the new year, I’m planning on a small set of goals to keep me focused and motivated:
- First and foremost, giving more than I did last year. I wrote a bit about some of my charitable giving over the summer. I’ve given more since then, both via official and unofficial channels, but I recognize that there’s more that I can do and now that my situation has thankfully stabilized a bit, I’m seeking opportunities to do more of that. One thing I’m considering is a monthly donation to Second Harvest Heartland beginning in January.
- Reading more. A lot more. I’ve fallen out of the habit, and things were already sufficiently dire before 2020. I only managed to finish three books this year, and two of them I’d started in 2019: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life by Alex Trebek. I’m not setting a hard goal, but more non-fiction, non-memoir I think is a good place to start. That said, I’m still trying to get through Exploded View by Sam McPheeters (made all the more difficult since it’s a police story) and The First Bad Man by Miranda July.
- Writing more. Amazingly, this is my 16th blog post this year! I even got my first-ever reader e-mail the other day, related to my post about Xdebug 3. I’m hoping to write more about technical topics, and in particular, I want to write more about the process of learning. I’ve been less motivated to spend additional time in front of a screen that isn’t something mindless like video games or engaging like playing a board game with my friends, and I feel that my tech exploration has suffered as a result. I’m hopeful that we might start to see things normalize at some point this year, and that I’ll regain that excitement to learn and share what I’m learning more.
That last bullet sorta dovetails into some professional goals I have, too. In a particular, I’m working goals at work to open-source some tools, and a plan for sharing/presenting information about those efforts in some fashion. More on that at another date, I suppose.
To sum things up: so long, 2020. You were terrible, but I’m thankful for the good stuff.