Column

A Crisis of Confidence

Illustrated by Julia Hanke

"Honestly, why should I try any harder at this point in my career? I mean, I get paid huge bucks to be flown around the world, with airfare, hotels, and all expenses paid, just to save the day of some poor customer in dire straits..."

Though Justin had just arrived not 15 minutes earlier, he was ready to get back to his desk. Randy just would not shut up about his job.

"...and, when I'm at home, I can basically work in my fricking boxers! Sure, I still have to work, but between us, most of the time I'm just dialing it in. Without a real office, nobody's looking over my shoulder. Post an occasional meme in Slack, update a support doc, and then fire up mousejiggler.exe, am I right? Ha!"

Justin chuckled just to be polite, but at the same time, he was dying a little bit inside.

At first, he thought it was a good idea to meet and chat. Randy and he were roommates back in college, but since graduating three years ago, they'd lost touch. Sure, Randy posted his exploits all over Instasnap-Vienna, Singapore, Tokyo, Portland, Sydney-but what exactly did he do to get shipped out there? "Working hard!" he'd boast while posting pics of himself raising a beer against some random city's skyline at sunset, which looked great. Meanwhile, Justin was working a deadline-getting documentation together, sprints, daily stand-up meetings, being confused about what "DevOps" really means, refactoring code from 2007, and setting up and cursing the cloud when things didn't work like the docs said they were supposed to. Randy had somehow hit the career lottery. For Justin, it sucked.

<DING!> A text notification dinged on Justin's phone announcing a 20% sale on USB hubs on NewEgg.

"Whoa! Sorry, Randy. Something big just broke back at the office! Supply chain in parts of Asia are down and, well, duty calls!"

With that, Randy gave Justin a slap on the back and they exchanged good-byes. Randy promised to catch up later next time he wasn't out saving the world, finishing his coffee and scrolling through SnapGram like some smug jerk.

Feeling Out of Sorts

Justin had been feeling a level of existential conflict for a while now. After starting at SmartCorp, he'd been hungrily digging into whatever technology stacks he could get his hands on. Infrastructure, databases, network routing, on-prem, off-prem. Though he was still a Tier III Analyst, the starting out developer tier, he'd started to be included in some of the system architecture discussions. Not as a contributor per se, but he had a piece carved out for him. Some of the calls were early morning or very late to accommodate multiple time zones, but "this will be worth it!"...someday. With only a little bit of experience under his belt, Justin had a general picture of how the Supply Chain app worked for their 500-plus customers.

Of course, shipping and receiving is kind of a non-exciting industry to be in, but he felt like he was leveling up with the promise of a promotion every time he worked on a new aspect of how it all worked.

But today...Justin felt like he somehow missed out years ago.

Just like Randy, he got placed with a company for his internship, but unlike Randy, he got placed within a corporate-shared developer resource group. Meanwhile, the company behind Randy's internship put him on a specialized team that handled calibration for a plastics extruder and conveyance system of their hardware product suite. "Basically, I go to a client's site, plug my magic box into the serial port, and I replace some parts that the diagnostics say are bad," Randy explained earlier. "Once, I had to get into a screen and flip some config bits. The customer was really intimidated by my elite skills, but between us, so was I! I hadn't been at a command prompt in about forever around then. Got taken out for a huge lobster dinner because they were so impressed." Randy made it sound so easy. What a jerk.

Justin had been living in a terminal window as much as he could at the advice of one of his senior teammates. "Get out of the GUI!" he'd say. "They're always improving things, but in the command line, you have full control!"

Any time Justin worked from home, he had to work from home. No shortcuts. No mouse jigglers. He was accountable for his work, and hours were tracked and billed to the customer. The senior guys all joked about how there weren't any real heart and lung machines at their customers' sites, but, "Watch out! When things go sideways, you'll see just how vital our software is!" As such, the culture was that even the littlest tweaks were taken seriously.

Hoping to be better prepared, Justin had signed up for email newsletters and read forums and blogs and whitepapers just so he could get the gist of what everybody was talking about. It was hard work in addition to the work he already did; that sometimes gave him a headache at the end of the day.

What exactly was fair about this arrangement?

After a Good Night's Sleep

The next morning, with a night's sleep and hours of frustration between himself and meeting up with Randy the night before, Justin made it to work and walked up to the office with Frank-one of the most senior and friendly guys in his group-who had been Justin's internship coordinator a few years ago. Middle-aged and middle-career, he'd been around for a while and had seen a bunch of crazy stuff, but he was still a real geek at heart.

Frank gave him a side eye. "Something on your mind? Grab yourself a cuppa whatever ya need to get started, and come on over to my place."

Skipping caffeine, Justin went into Frank's office to explain his situation.

He detailed how he'd just gotten done chatting with his friend Randy the day before and how Randy must have hit the proverbial lottery. Randy was going around the world consulting on a specialized piece of hardware and getting lobster dinners and everything.

Frank just took it all in, then started nodding, and...smirking? What the hell!? Justin thought, starting to feel himself tense up.

"Dude. Relax man. Here's the dealy-o. First, you need to let go of whatever envy you have of Randy. Be happy for him. He landed a great gig right out of school, but..." Frank sighed.

"Remember that it's a marathon. Not a sprint. You've got what...45 years left in your career? You need to be able to shift and pivot around. Believe me, making tons of stupid money now when you don't have any kids is really awesome. Let me tell you a little something-between us-for a really short period of time, I was your friend Randy. Except way less glamorous. It turns out, fresh out of school, I was semi-literate enough in COBOL to hop onto the Y2K bandwagon that was coming right around the corner."

"So, like mainframes?" Justin asked.

"Oh yeah. Burroughs. Tandem. IBM. All these were the big names at the time. It seemed like being able to spell COBOL got you in the door, but I went and learned all I could to fake my way through the interview, and then kept on learning. Being super young meant that I could stay up late coding, grab a coupla beers after work to relax, and slam espressos in the morning to recover, ready to catch my next flight to wherever the money lead me."

"So, you got rich?"

"Yeah. For a hot minute, I was both young and stupid rich. First, when I was actually at home for once, I bought a brand new corvette. Paid entirely with cash. Which, let me tell you from experience, is a real female dog to drive in the snow," explained Frank with a wink. "Then I had to live off the cash I had left in the bank for more than a year. Turns out, after Y2K, the need for COBOL hackers like me had gone downhill, and then with a recession in 2001 and later 9/11, I didn't have any real prospects."

Frank continued, "I ended up doing a lot of soul searching and a lot of reading. First, I started out buying some books...C++, VB, Perl...all the hot languages. Nothing really matched the lightning in a bottle that I had found back in the late 90s. Then finally, it clicked. A former recruiter from one of my many stints pointed out something so obvious that I had been missing."

Justin leaned in. "Well, what was it?"

"I needed to change shapes."

Adventures in Shapeshifting

"Huh?"

"Yeah, I didn't realize it at the time, but even though I was fiddling with banking systems, HR, medical, and hotel reservation systems, and really any system you'd expect to be in the cloud nowadays, I never really learned what these systems did. The only real accomplishment I acheived was to pigeonhole myself into someone who knew how to read a mainframe program, find the date bits, compile it, and do it somewhere else."

Frank made his way to the whiteboard wall, which was covered in diagrams and magic strings and clearly labeled "DO NOT ERASE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES." He rubbed off a tiny corner and started to draw.

"This is what I was."

"See? Back then, I was shaped like an 'I'...which represented the sum of my COBOL hacking knowledge. And that's about it. I just did what the project manager said to do, and that was that."

"No lobster dinners?"

Frank patted his midsection. "Heh. More like double burger combos in those days! But yeah, what I learned was that my skill set had to be shaped more like a 'T.' It's like how they make you take a minor in college; you need to be more well-rounded."

Frank drew a rectangle top to his "I" and started writing in the empty space.

"Soft skills, project management skills, leadership, empathy. All those things, I was legitimately heartbroken to learn, were skills I lacked and desperately needed."

Frank drew some more vertical boxes and labeled them.

"Skip ahead to today-I'm more like an 'M.' I still have that hacking specialization I picked up in my COBOL days. But lookie here-nowadays, I'm a systems architect! Also, because I've had a hand in architecting things for our customers around the world, one of my core specialties is knowing how supply chains are designed."

"Yeah, I guess you have seen it all at SmartCorp. Why not keep going? Get really deep in your specializations?"

"Ha! I'm scared! That's why!"

Justin was taken aback. "Scared?"

"Sure. Check this out." Frank tapped on the whiteboard.

"These are my passions. What keeps my brain juices flowing? Keeps me engaged? Supply chain is a big concept that's always evolving, no matter the language or tech stack. So is being a system architect. Again, always in motion. And, believe it or not, so is my ability to read weird code that I've never seen before...I use these skills every single day, and keeping everything else going...believe me, that is *plenty."

Frank continued. "You see, if you try and specialize in too much, you're going to find you lose something. It's about balance and being able to shift. See up top? My specialized generalist abilities all connect to my specialist knowledge."

"Yeah, I've only got three areas that I focus on up there, but over the years, I've gotten wiser and I leveled myself up so I can rely almost on instinct to let me see the overall picture. Your friend Randy is doing really well for himself. If he's doing it right, he could be building up toward a really nice 'T' for himself. But if he's not careful, if there's a slight shift in how his employer is perceived or in the economy, he might find himself in a tough spot."

"Some of the mainframe guys that I was working with back in the day, they knew the coding style and crazy custom systems that worked at their employer. They were Saint Foobar Hospital Systems or wherever 'certified' in the little section of the world that they had built from scratch. And those super-specialized skills didn't transfer easily. The days of having your career locked into a single technology or application stack are long gone. Scary, huh?"

Wide-eyed and at a loss for words, Justin just nodded in agreement.

Meaner or Greener Grass?

Following his chat with Frank, Justin had a different perspective on his current situation.

True, there wasn't anything as sexy as being able to travel around the world or make a pile of cash like Randy was doing. But given his background working in SmartCorp, he had been exposed to different areas and experiences. The climb is slow, but knowing what he does now, allowing himself to settle in a specialized rut would be a career-limiting move...and not to mention a huge mental drain.

Sure, the money in the short term would be really nice, but is posting memes and running diagnostics fun in the long term as a career? Not very likely.

In the end, Justin still felt a little twinge of jealousy, especially at student loan payment time, but he resolved to continue keeping in touch with Randy. After all, Randy might need his help one day.

Mark Bowytz

author

Mark Bowytz is a connoisseur of IT failure and has been writing about this topic for more than ten years. His cautionary tales of development disasters are always adjusted to protect the identities of both the guilty and innocent alike. He also believes that failure is the best teacher as it shows that no person, process, or technology is ever truly perfect.

Julia Hanke

illustrator

Julia Hanke is an illustrator living in Warsaw, Poland. She worked in creative agencies, currently works as fulltime freelance Illustrator, mainly making Illustrations for animations and web design. Now she is shifting her focus on editorial and children's book Illustrations. You can follow her on instagram @julia_hanke.