Facing the fear: “Going it alone”
This post is set in the past, whereby due to an almost serendipitous turn of events, I found myself embarking on a new chapter of my career: working for myself. Like most career changes, this is something I’d often considered but never truly thought I’d “run with”. When the time finally came though, it wasn’t a moment too soon.
But first, some background
To really explain the decision it’s worth going back over a year previously, where I’d just left a software engineering job at a healthcare technology company. I loved both the people and the product, and it was one of the few places where I truly felt things “clicked”. I was truly sad to be leaving.
I was leaving to begin an adventure though, a 6 month contract in wonderful Sweden, working for a previous client. I hastily acquired a flat for my duration, bought some language books and began to let the excitement take over. This was going to be amazing..
Then it happened, in the weeks leading to my departure my grandfather passed away; a man who played an immeasurable role in making me who I am today. My world began to shatter and I decided to stay in London where I could be close to my family.
After several weeks I made the move to a larger organisation where I was involved in creating a new development team for their SaaS offerings. I learnt a lot there, genuinely loved the new team that I helped build and enjoyed having more input with regards to infrastructure.
Despite these positives I began to grow frustrated: I had the social element, with a loud and diverse team and friends in all departments, but red tape meant that weeks were going by without any tangible work. Was it possible that I was simply at work for the social life, and not the actual work?
As any developer in London will tell you, gaining work can be relatively easy. Within 2 weeks I had 3 job offers, all identical salaries and different environments.
Learning from my previous role, I opted to take the job at the most vibrant of the offers. The company was friendly, well known, successful, and above all: had an awesome tech stack.
The balance had shifted
I count myself fortunate that I was able to work with some really intelligent guys and girls, ones who would be able to keep you on your toes if you felt as though your interest was waining. I also got first hand information from every department about how they worked, complemented by in-depth insights in to the entirety of the infrastructure behind the company’s product. I thought I would thrive in this environment, it seemed ideal. It should’ve been perfect.
In a stark contrast to my last job though, I soon learnt a very powerful lesson —not having a social life is more painful than not having any actual work. In fact, I felt the effects of this change to my social life in the way of depression: sleepless nights filled with dread, an inability to concentrate, constant tension and an absentmindedness that I had lived to recognise previously.
I soon began counting the words I would hear said to me on a given day; often being able to count them solely on my fingers. I’d look around and question how I knew so little about the people I shared an office with when I’d already been there over 2 months.
Despite having lunch provided for me in my office, I instead opted to go to a ramen bar with my old team one afternoon, where I listened with delight at their progress as they’d finally overcome their red tape issues. As I glanced at my watch I realised it was time to return to my office and I begrudgingly began my wander back. I knew that I couldn’t go on feeling quite so isolated, and seeing my old colleagues had reminded me of what the “missing magic” from my new workplace was, and how it felt.
On a frustrating Thursday evening commute home I sat down for the final leg of my journey — a short 15 minute train ride — unaware of the significance of what was about to occur. As I sat cramped in the corner staring at the floor, I began to overhear a telephone conversation from a few seats behind.
After a few minutes of unintentional eavesdropping I came to a dark realisation; I knew more about the mystery caller that I was sharing a train carriage with than any of my own colleagues. My mystery caller was married with 2 kids, did his shopping online with Ocado, his wife worked at a bank and got home earlier — allowing her to accept the delivery — and he was going home to eat a family favourite — Shepherd’s Pie.
Meanwhile, in comparison to the stranger I shared a train carriage with for 15 minutes, I knew nothing about the colleagues that I spent 40 hours per week with. Their names and jobs were a given obviously, other than that I only knew that some liked electronic dance music and others enjoyed video games; information I’d gleaned from Slack channels.
A light at the end of the tunnel…?
The weeks that followed were bleak, I could either continue working in an unhealthy environment or..? Truthfully speaking, I didn’t really know of an alternative, for this experience had began to put me off development as a career path completely.
Meetings with HR at a coffeeshop near the office proved fruitful though — not only were they supportive, but they understood.
Similar issues had been noted by others in the company, and things had deteriorated to the point where teams had to be restructured, usage of internal non-verbal communications channels were being revised and there was a genuine effort at bringing everyone together.
I did some soul searching and prepared to return, when I realised something: that environment was never going to work for me. It’s simply not possible to try and enforce conversation amongst people, in fact for a large majority of the engineering department it could be said that they actively enjoyed the current environment; after all, morale didn’t appear to be an issue for most of my co-workers.
With that in mind, I realised it would be wrong of me to continue the charade: I was never going to be happy at this company. Subsequently I offered my sincere best wishes for everyone involved, and began my departure.
Feeling the fear
To say that the situation felt bleak again would be an understatement. I viewed any new potential workplace as a gamble: the odds were stacked against winning the perfect combination of challenging work and a stimulating social group that I could identify with.
This is when I received a message on LinkedIn from a former colleague following a recommendation that I had wrote him.. The thought occurred to me: you’ve made some reliable contacts and have a genuine enthusiasm for your work, so why not focus on that? Why not simply sell your services and go freelance, moving in to consulting?
I realised that I’d spent the past several years seeing how different companies work; agencies, startups, SaaS providers, healthcare tech providers and more. I’d been responsible for cloud infrastructure, mobile applications, feasibility studies, development work and even staff selection.
Not only that but I’d experienced first hand issues that go beyond the technology and in to the DNA of a team: how people work effectively together. I even counted myself fortunate enough to know of some trusted people specialising in everything from graphic design to penetration testing.
The fear of the unknown
Then came the fear. If I did this then I needed to jump in with both feet, give it my entire attention and understand one thing; if this doesn’t work out for me then I have no one to hide behind anymore.
This rush of adrenaline was exactly what I needed to wake me up from my slumber and confront the tunnel vision I had seemed to have gained; there was a light and it was there to be taken.
Like my recent foray in to sharing my writing online, all I needed to do was confront a simple fear.