Three years ago, on a Wednesday, the day before April fools, I went to lunch with a colleague at my then current job to discuss what I was planning to do that day. Initially I went to work as a State employee to get the best insurance available for my wife. My wife and I accepted that the kind of job and industry I’d go into (higher education) was dull, depressing, full of bad management and the worst kind of politics. While I had a completely awesome manager the first two years there, the last year there was exactly what I initially expected — and worse. The work was lagging years behind what I could have done in a private company, and while most were receptive to the knowledge, expertise, new input and push to improve, I had been identified as a threat to someone else’s job security. That stated, executive leadership at the college was all about continuous improvement, receptive to better ways of doing things, and generally encouraging and as helpful as they could be toward any reasonable goals. I simply felt the constraints on them to actually solve organizational problems made it impossible to bring up my own issues at the time. The situation brought me to question why I was still working there after 18 months (the requirement to get COBRA and then insurance without pre-existing conditions required 18 months of work, then 18 months of COBRA.)
The answer, and why I felt so bad — trapped, actually — was because the economy had tanked and my wife really needs the best medical care and insurance you can get. My original plan to leave after two years seemed frightening and impossible at the end of 2008. It seemed like every other month we had to go to the ER and were admitted to the hospital, with routine Cytoxan infusions, infections and complications from the only real treatments available. My business partner was incredibly patient with us and we continued to work through the situation with contracted help and with me working late hours after my day job.
However, the first two years of working a normal day job weren’t all that bad. I decided to work on my masters in computer science and stay off the radar as much as possible. My boss at the time was a great leader, administrator and supervisor, who provided solid direction and structure while cultivating strong values of respect and collegiality amongst the staff. The environment helped me stomach the easy work and encouraged me to make contributions I would otherwise have held back on. That also encouraged me to teach, and I learned that SACS would allow masters students to teach under some constraints. Being able to observe how the organization worked from that perspective was a gift that I’ll continue to use in any capacity as a leader or manager. Overall, my experience to that point was pretty good, until I got on the radar and the college approached me about “fixing their website.”
So sure, I fixed their web site and provided them with a much better team and method for keeping the site fresh. It was not worth the stress or benefits. Even with regular exercise, I was hitting a wall on how much I could handle. I’d already made up my mind on a particularly bad day dealing with a toxic staff member and was thinking about the most constructive way to leave. A friend of mine at the time went to lunch with me and I told them I felt I could grow the business and live off my savings for a while. At the time, I’m not sure if he believed I was serious or just venting. I’m pretty sure no one expected me to leave, since my wife needed the insurance benefits? But I did resign, with a full 30 day notice, exactly one year after my new role at the college. My life has been great since I made that choice.
Working in higher education as a “programmer” or “web application developer” does little to improve your expertise as a developer, unless you happen to work with other people who inexplicably are keeping up with the latest and greatest. But all that hassle was worth it and I don’t feel like the experience hurt my career too much. Instead, I think it gave me a lot of perspective on how to manage, build teams, discern between problems that are simply a result of toxicity and the constraints on executive leadership, etc.
I later found out that the friend I went to lunch with quit his position a month or two after I left, and two other colleagues I enjoyed working with left — quickly — to other departments. The experience made me think about this post recently. In my own company, we pay people well and want to give them equity and continue working with them after they leave. The genuine idea of collaborating with great people on good ideas worth seeing to completion is central to what we all want to do, past just paying the bills.