I Resign

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I’ve held eight jobs related to programming or software over the years. For three of them, my leaving was involuntary — a natural result of being a contractor for a while. The other four, I left of my own choice. Usually, I left for greener pastures.

As I write this, I’m about to take my fifth voluntary departure. This time, there’s no job waiting for me on the other side, though I hesitate to say that the “greener pastures” notion doesn’t still apply. I’m convinced, after years of simmering on the idea, that this is what I need to do: not so much leave this company as leave the idea of working for any company.

I graduated college burnt out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but our senior project (universally agreed to be a mild fiasco) wore away any remaining energy I had for the field. I spent more of my senior year in the arts buildings, learning cinematography and editing a literary arts magazine, than I spent in the computer science neighborhood. My first full-time job was fine — I got by, well aware that it wasn’t a Google or Apple (the “cool names” five years ago) but also well aware that I wasn’t going to make it at that level. I resigned myself to a modest career.

The next few years focused on self-care and side projects, allowing me to get through that fit and keep going as a developer. I even rediscovered my enthusiasm, which I channeled into my own (failed) programming projects. But it didn’t last. Back-end work still couldn’t engage me. The JavaScript world moved from “hot” to “on fire” to “destructive conflagration.” Burning out again, and harder, was inevitable.

None of this is to criticize where I work. Every time I’ve expressed thoughts of leaving, my managers and coworkers have done all they could to keep me around. Sometimes they’ve gone above and beyond what I felt I deserved. Even so, by the time I raised the issue, I felt like the decision was more or less made.

It’s not even a case of being exhausted by the rampant sexism in the tech industry. That’s usually what pushes women out. But, across all my jobs, I can’t say I’ve really experienced it; or, I have, but I’ve always been willing to excuse it for one reason or another. Boys will be boys, or I’m just not at the skill level of my peers. (Nevermind that I know boys can be girls and that some of my past peers were decidedly not up to snuff.) I feel like an anomaly because I’m not being pushed out by the people.

I hate to express an “it’s not you, it’s me” kind of sentiment, but it’s true even if it’s cliché. I can’t blame the company for the fact that I’m leaving; I’d be leaving any company in this situation, even a Google or Apple. That, as you might expect, made the exit interviews a little strange. What could they have done to keep me around for another two years? Not pay me enough to establish a runway. Nothing else would’ve done it.

As a writer, I’m always vaguely curious about etymology. Resign comes to English by way of Old French: resigner, to renounce or relinquish. The meaning hasn’t changed much, which can be unusual for words with more specific, nuanced definitions. Resigning isn’t simply stopping: it’s a release, a letting go of something old, something that no longer works. It did also have associations with no longer making entries in an accounting book, which could be a frighteningly prescient thought in my case. Yet, considering most resigning is from jobs, it’s still a bit valid.

Going back further, its roots are Latin, resignare. To give up.

A part of me wants to give up on programming. That part’s always been there, hanging out in the arts building, writing and making videos. But I know what my background and experience looks like. I know what people value and what they’re willing to pay for. The world, right now, values programmers. Still, I hope to write less and less code as the years go on, both because of that loss of enthusiasm and because many cases don’t require much code in the first place.

Though the sentiment is nine years old and slightly passé now, Dell Conagher expressed my goal fairly well: solving practical problems. I believe the heavy value placed on programmers is inexact. What people need isn’t code, they need solutions. They need their problems solved. Sometimes that’s done with code, sometimes that’s done without code, sometimes that’s done with existing code applied in some new way. In any case, it’s understanding and respecting the problem that leads to actually solving it. Just writing code doesn’t solve practical problems; half the time, it creates new ones. There’s nothing appealing about that.

I’ve been writing, off and on, for a long time. I had a story in my high school literary magazine, did a bit of poetry during college, and after years of attempts finally wrote a book. It hasn’t been a chronic compulsion for a handful of reasons, but it’s been a steady undercurrent that I’m finally starting to expose.

I’m going to be writing a lot more. I’m going to put together a second novel and query it to agents. (For one possible novel, I even have a specific agent in mind.) I’m going to submit short stories to anthologies. I’m going to win NaNoWriMo this year, my third time doing so. I might even take a pitch that Boss Fight Books rejected and do it myself. That storytelling urge, primal and unyielding, will be let out at every opportunity. That’s what deeply appeals to me.

But the reality is, the writing happens in between other things. Making writing my full-time gig would be nearly impossible. Even Kameron Hurley (a two-time Hugo winner!) has a day job. There are other, more technical ways to tell or help tell stories — podcasting, making a video series, freelance audio/video editing — but those wouldn’t be as immediately sustainable as freelance programming. They’re a goal, but a goal realized over time. I need to be patient about them.

Going out on my own frightens me. The pragmatic part of my brain has been screaming to stay put, to try and power through yet another period of burnout. The pay’s been great, the benefits lovely, the people as good as any I’ve worked with. By all accounts, I should not be doing this.

But I have to. I’ve been with my brain for almost 30 years now and I’ve started to get a sense of how it works. I’m never going to be satisfied working for a company, no matter how glitzy or well-regarded. Maybe, down the line, I’ll be okay working at a very small company. But it’s just as likely I’ll be flying solo the rest of my life.

I’m not resigned to that fact, though. I’m excited about it.