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Adulting so far: Why I quit my software engineering job

KELLI RUSSELL YOGA

When I graduated from undergrad, the idea of facing the weight of real adult-life pushed me into an anxious state of survival mode. I just wanted to confirm that I have the ability to take care of myself — to land a job in my field, show up every day and contribute, pay my bills on time, eat healthy, participate in enough physical activity, nurture a love life, maintain some relationships and have some occasional fun. That is the standard I set for myself. And if I were able to achieve this, then I thought I would be elevated from that anxious state and able to plunge into a state of stable equilibrium.

This turned out to be true and I have confirmed my ability to take on adulthood with what I consider the basics. Now, with some thoughtful risk analysis, I can process what I have learned to set new goals for myself.

1. The big name of the company does not make up for them being too big, too bureaucratic and too old

You know their names and you know their brands, but you may not know what it feels like to work there from day to day. And the company culture that is advertised is not necessarily trickling down to the masses. This was clear almost immediately at the first company I worked for.

It can take weeks to complete a task that should take hours at an efficient company. There are five processes and hoops to jump through for each step of what should be a simple task. And for every new idea, there are 30+ powerful people working to make sure we keep doing things a certain way because “that is the way it’s always been done”.

I went from solving problems weekly under the immense pressure of homework and working towards producing research with clear incremental goals to… a warped slowed down universe with obscure goals and undefined roles. It was as if time feels slower in traditional corporate culture. People even talk slower. And I seriously felt my brain begin to slow down, which is good in some ways but soon spiraled into unbearable boredom.

2. Big established companies have not quite figured out how to engage millennials (The mystery of how they will survive when the baby boomers retire)

All of a sudden, the articles on young people being willing to take lower paying jobs for more meaningful work cultures did not seem so farfetched. As a person of color from a low income background, I always thought this sounded like madness and privilege. To be sure, it is a privilege to be able to approach a job as a career opportunity instead of as a method of survival.

On some level, the outdated company cultures rely on people expecting the job to be a method of survival. But as we expand what it means to have a meaningful life and work to offer that same life standard to all people, this expectation is becoming null and void. I would rather get three roommates, not have children, and offer freelance tutoring than to be in this type of huge company culture. So, company culture has not changed with the new generation.

I was able to work on multiple teams at different times, and among the team members was always a technical expert who has 30+ years of experience in a given topic. The issue is most of this knowledge was contained in the person, meaning there is not much in place to transfer that knowledge. So, I often posed the question: What will happen when [insert technical expert] retires in a couple of years? And the response was that this was a very good question that they had not found an answer to yet.

I am not sure when they plan to address this problem, but given that there are so many baby boomers who will reach retirement age around the same time, this seems to be a critical problem worth solving very soon. Not sure what these companies are waiting for.

3. Direct managers or supervisors can truly make or break the experience and the opportunities for growth

Coming across such an effective manager in my first job is apparently rare. After other experiences in the company and engaging with many of my peers about their experiences in the work force, I cannot understate the importance of having a direct manager who empowers and enables early career individuals.

This is not an easy task or something that is learned unintentionally overtime. My first manager was proactive and had a clear set of tools ready to positively enable me to contribute meaningfully. On my first day, he clearly outlined his expectations for me and a roadmap for his overall team vision. He handed me “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering”, a book by William J. King that concisely summarized what it would take to have a successful career in engineering.

Then, he set up a weekly meeting with me and pointed out that I should be developing early career mentors. “Would you prefer someone who looks like you?”, he asked me with a smile but also with an understanding that it might be useful for me to have a black female example. He went on to introduce me to a senior engineer located in Chicago and offered his office space for me to use during our meeting times. It is the small things like acknowledging that I might need a space other than my open cubicle to speak with someone openly about my career path.

Finally, at the end of our weekly meetings, he would offer some fun engineering knowledge — sometimes in the form of a youtube video with explanation and other times in the form of talking as he drew on a white board. Bottom line is he took the time to appeal to various learning styles and made an effort to keep the work interesting and keep the bigger picture in mind at all times.

Again, I realize now how rare this experience was and I am grateful to have him and other effective mentors helping me push my career along.

When I left his team for another group, I had a contrasting experience where my manager was young and did not provide nearly enough opportunity for me to contribute. This left me, a well paid- not stressed- happy with my work environment- engineer feeling extremely bored and unmotivated. Each day I would wake up dreading going to work, because I knew that the work I would be given was not nearly enough to fill my time. Nothing I was doing was meaningful to my team.

These experiences underline how critical the direct manager is in a young employee’s experience at a company.

4. Even as engineers and scientists, we have a responsibility for the applications of our work (especially in areas of Defense which in a lot of US companies should really be called Offense)

When I first considered working as an engineer for a private company that supports US Defense sectors like the Airforce and the Navy, I admittedly did not think very deeply about it at all. It crossed my mind that I could possibly become involved in work that did not align with my moral values, so I did ask a few people about that when I visited during the interview process. The responses were not relatable but I reasoned that at least I would be making money to help support my mother and family as a first generation college graduate.

It is important for me to pause and reflect on the fact that I was approaching the private sector with expectations I had in academia as a researcher. Meaning, as a researcher, I was accustomed to explaining the ‘real world applications’ and sometimes relating to Department of Defense (DoD) missions in broad ways. For example, I was examining optical properties of nanoparticles used for decontamination and we could apply for a DoD grant based on the fact that the material produced could potentially be used to decontaminate water or air for DoD sectors in harsh environments.

What I misunderstood was the fact that I would not necessarily be working on keeping humans in tact but on taking them apart- warfare.

As a young engineer, I was not having any measurable impact or contributing on an individual level to actual killing, but the applications of most of the work I would do fall into that category. I am even ashamed to admit that as I write. What has been the most fascinating about that entire experience is how common it is for engineers at these companies to grapple with this question of morality and then to reconcile that conflict in problematic and dangerous ways.

I would often ask senior engineers what they make of the applications of their work in Defense. And the responses went from extreme nationalism to outright wrong views of the world. One woman said that everything we do is for the greater good of Americans and keeping Americans safe. One guy said that violence done on the part of the US government is the responsibility of all Americans alike; engineers working on the projects are no more responsible than other Americans who benefit from the work we do. A few people said they just remember that they are paid well enough to live a lifestyle of ease and they try not to think about the social impacts of their work.

Underneath it all was a clear separation of their personal humanity from the perceived threats and enemies to justify contributing to warfare. The word “we” and “us” was used a lot. Often, I would challenge this language and ask who they really meant to protect with their work and who the threat really was identified as. And the conversation would get awkward and uncomfortable and we most likely wouldn’t talk again.

Much of the extreme nationalism prevalent in my colleague’s responses relies on the separation of the “we” and the “them”. It would be no surprise then that many of these very intelligent people also voted for Donald Trump and subscribe to white nationalist views. With all of their logic and reasoning, they have found a way to reconcile working on warfare by essentially removing the responsibility they have to humanity from their work as engineers.

They cannot see a connection between the work they do and global violence, because this would require seeing the global “others” as friends instead of foes, as humans instead of national identities, as ourselves instead of necessary evils.

Truth is, the connection does exist. And we are responsible for the applications of the science we do. In order to develop more equitable and peaceful solutions, we must confront this truth head on. And then, take action instead of accepting it as an unfortunate reality. My action involves removing myself from that industry, for others, it might mean something else.

Most of the people working in Defense just want to feed their families and live meaningful lives like other humans, but why does their livelihood depend on the continuation of warfare? And why do they reconcile this by taking up a nationalist ideology and distancing themselves more and more from the “others”? How is it that someone as “woke” as me began to also rationalize this in the same way as them?

Hence, why I had to GET OUT. (fortunately, i have a new job lined up)

5. Learning what you don’t want to do can be helpful to confirming what you should focus on

So now that I know that I definitely do not want to use science for warfare and constantly depend on the continuation of violence for my well-being, there are a lot of career options as a scientist that are crossed off. I cannot understate the number of science and engineering jobs that involve this directly or indirectly. Which is also why it is critical for the moral responsibility to remain with the scientists themselves. There has got to be a better way for this country to frame STEM, but I digress.

Basically, knowing what I don’t want makes me feel more confident in what I do want. My last semester of college felt like I was surrounded by people with a clear vision of what they want in life. While I was excited about doing research, I felt like I needed to explore myself more to be completely sure before I commit my life to it.

And now that I have some experience outside of academia and outside of research, and now that I have confidence in my ability to be an adult, I feel more clear and focused. I am still exploring my specific area within my field, but I am much closer and a much better person for this experience.

in freedom,

Jamelle

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