In Review: My Spring 2017
Hello and welcome to this semester’s installment of What I did, what I’m doing, and what I’m gonna do starring me, Hamilton Greene. At the time of this writing, it’s been four(!) months since I packed up and moved from ATL (my home of 22 years) to the DC area.
I didn’t expect the transition to be easy and, if truth be told, it wasn’t. There’s so much you have to do when you enter the “real” world: find a place to live, create a budget, pick insurance plans, plan for retirement, select a credit card, buy furniture, etc. Many people started, or at least thought about, these things in college. For some, even sooner. But I was lucky, especially living so close to home, to always have my parents to lean on and, to be honest, shield me from the full brunt of these responsibilities.
This meant that when I finally came out from under their wings, I had to figure out how to shoulder the entirety of that burden all at once. For a while it was pretty overwhelming. But once I accepted that these responsibilities were just things that had to get done, they weren’t that hard to handle — a pain in the ass to be sure, but not difficult.
These real world responsibilities tend to have common sense solutions once you figure out the rules to their respective games. With the dawn of the internet (not that I’ve ever known anything else), it takes naught but some time and a willingness to learn to understand these rules and arm yourself with existing strategies.
What I found in the months since my move was that the hardest part wasn’t the transition to the real world, but the move to a new place where you don’t know anyone.
Moving to a new Place
Goal: Establish and maintain network both in and, especially, out of work.
Before moving to DC, I’d lived in Atlanta my entire life save a few semesters working around the states and studying abroad. At some point I came to the decision that I’d been there long enough and that, after college, I wanted to experience what it was like to really live somewhere else i.e. not just a summer vacation.
So when alum came back to visit, I was most interested by those who had moved somewhere outside of both their college and home town, a situation that mirrored my own plan for post-college life. From talking to said adventurers, I came across two points that were generally agreed upon and that stuck out to me as important:
- We take the strength of our network of friends for granted until we no longer have it. The reason these connections are so strong is because they have been built through shared experience over many years.
- New connections take alot of time and effort to cultivate. You can’t do it overnight and it doesn’t happen by itself.
When I moved, I knew a few people in the area — a friend from high school, some people that went to Tech, a few co-workers I’d met at recruiting events. Most I hadn’t spent significant time with and, even for those I had, that time expenditure was neither regular nor recent.
To put it plainly, there was no one in the area I was close with. I knew people and even hung out with them, but there was no one I could’ve presently called a close friend.
Looking back, I think I underestimated how hard it is to move to a new place without knowing anyone. I’d never experienced starting from scratch before, one of the boons of growing up in a single city — people may change schools, but they often remain in the same area. In college, I’d moved to new places for months at a time and never had an issue feeling isolated, giving me confidence that, of all the things I had to worry about, this one didn’t merit much attention. But after sitting down to examine these excursions again, I realized that I’d never actually been alone. In Barcelona I had Tyler, in Connecticut Naveen, and in Austin Derek — all good friends I’d known for years prior.
This feeling I’m describing isn’t exactly loneliness, for there were tons of people to interact with and I did just that. I think a better way to describe it would be a lack of closeness, a metric I’d define loosely as the ability to share openly and, to a high degree of accuracy, understand and empathize with one another.
This absence is hardly crippling, drawing its potency not from its magnitude at any single moment, but its continued presence over time. It most often manifests itself in small ways. A new movie comes out, who do you see it with? It’s a Friday night and you want a beer, who do you text? There’s a festival in the park, who do you invite? After the interaction, do you feel like you’ve connected with/gained appreciation for another human or simply participated in some arcane social ritual?
You can hang with as many people as you want, but closeness isn’t fostered over night. It takes time to build and, without a font of closeness to rely on during the construction process, it’s easy to fall into a feeling of isolation.
I was really lucky with my move. I knew some people in the area, my workplace is super young (read: around my age —lookin’ at you, Sarah), and DC plays host to a bunch of different events — each lending itself, in its own way, towards rapid, stable network growth. In just a few months, I’ve been able to meet some really cool people and the Capital’s steadily felt more and more like home.
For those who will make or have recently made a similar move, know that it gets better. In time, and by taking advantage of the opportunities around you, you’ll meet a bunch of people, find a few you like, and, just like that, it’ll feel like they’d been there all along.
It‘s not easy and, as I said, it’s not going to happen over night, but it will happen. You just gotta keep chuggin’.
As a caveat, I’m sure the transition experience varies wildly from person to person, so take my story for what it is, an anecdote. For instance, I’m pretty comfortable spending long periods of time alone, so my experience was probably better than some. On the other hand, meeting new people takes alot of effort for me, so my experience was probably worse than some.
I’m pretty interested in how others have dealt with this issue — if it was even an issue at all. I don’t usually ask for comments or followups in my reflections, but I’d like to hear your story about how you moved and settled in. Respond to this post, write your own post, send me a message/text/SnapChat, write me some snailmail, etc. The medium is irrelevant, I’m just trying to gain some perspective.
Alright, enough about me. Let’s talk about my (new) city.
Goal: Explore and get to know Arlington/DC. Become a Local.
I wanted a city and a city’s what I got. There’s tons of free stuff to do — wandering the Mall, exploring one of the 19 Smithsonian sites, going to street festivals — and plenty of non-free stuff to do, too — shows (music, theater), bars/clubs (Adams Morgan, Clarendon, Dupont Circle, U Street), sports (Capitals, Nationals, Redskins, Wizards).
But one of the coolest things about DC is that WE HAVE A TRAIN SYSTEM THAT GETS YOU PLACES!!!1 It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it’s soooooooooooo much better than MARTA — the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. It doesn’t run all night or go everywhere and there’s always some sort of construction going on, but I’ve been amazed at how accessible the city feels with a central and supported metro system. This is probably aided by the fact that DC’s city limits are constrained and, therefore, don’t sprawl with the wild abandon of the A , causing the required effective service area of the system to be that much smaller.
To give some context to those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, this is in stark contrast to Atlanta’s system that had trouble getting you close enough to your destination to make riding it worthwhile. If you’re gonna have to drive from the station to your final destination anyway, why not just drive the whole thing? Don’t ride MARTA, it’s not smarta.
So with an MTA card in one hand and Maps in the other, I was ready to start adventuring.
In Austin Last summer, I set a goal to explore three new areas/events each week. I’m not sure I ever hit that quota, but I did leave feeling that I’d gotten a good taste of the Texas capital (tacos, bbq, street art et al.).
This spring, I wanted to do something similar. I knew that the sooner I got the lay of the land, the sooner I could start taking advantage of all the opportunities it offered. So I set out to see as much of the city as I could.
While I probably still look like a tourist wandering the Mall and gawking at at anything remotely historic, I’ve been making steady progress on my list of 50 Things Every Person Should See In DC Before The World Floods And/Or KKC III Finally Comes Out. For clarification, that’s not an actual list, but I think it conveys the sorts of lists I’ve been referencing.
So far, I’ve mainly hit the most popular and well-known attractions around the city, but I hope to steadily expand this portfolio as I find out about more and more events and locations of interest.
Before sharing some of the stuff I’ve gotten to experience, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that APT had no small part in my explorations. Over the past few months, and especially at the start of my journey, they’ve sponsored numerous events and outings around the city that I’ve been able to take part in. To show you just how much they’ve contributed to my explorations, I’ve marked those excursions with an
Those marked with a
^ are marked for a different reason, but we’ll get there later on.
- Air and Space Museum
- Blagden Alley ^
- Blind Whino (Nike) ^
- Cherry Blossom Festival
- Dupont Underground *^
- Echo Stage (NGHTMRE)
- Embassy Tours
- Escape Room (Alexandria) *
- The Fridge (HKS181) ^
- Hirshhorn Museum (Infinity Mirrors)
- Indoor Skydiving *
- Shadow Lands Laser Tag *
- Lincoln Memorial
- National Arboretum
- National Portrait Gallery
- Northeast Branch Trail ^
- Shenandoah National park (Old Rag)
- Southwest Waterfront
- U Street Music Hall (Imagined Herbal Flows, Kill Paris)
- The Washington Monument
- The White House
- Verizon Center (Capitals) *
- 52 O Street Studios ^
- 930 Club (Mr. Carmack)
To set the record straight, I’m not actually living in DC — at least not yet. I live in Arlington, a suburb of northern Virginia (NoVA for short). I hear people love visuals, so here’s a map:
For scale, I live about 5 miles, or a 15-minute drive (sans traffic), from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But the real kicker is my commute to work. We actually just moved to a new office this week, which increased the distance I have to travel by an entire block or, equivalently, increased the distance by 33%. Do the math. I can wait.
This proximity enables me to — quite literally — roll out of bed at 10 and make it to my 1015 standup with plenty of time to snag a cup of coffee en route. Not that I ever do that, of course.
There’s still so much yet to see and do in the city and I hear summer is a great time for festivals, so I’m looking forward to hitting the town with full-steam.
Where DC’s been great, work’s been amazing. Walking in, it kinda felt like starting college all over again: you’re super excited, everything’s new, and everyone’s way smarter than you. Unlike college, you write a lot more code and pretty much every line gets reviewed. The best of both worlds.
I work as a Software Engineer on a Platform team, which means that we build and maintain infrastructure that enables other engineering teams to more efficiently build and maintain their systems. If APT’s main goal was to build houses for instance, we wouldn’t be the team building the house itself, but we might be in charge of building out commonly used components like temperature control, security mechanisms, and custom tools that those house-building teams could then leverage.
I may take a deeper dive into this in future semesters, but I think that’s fine for now.
SWE: Areas of Focus — Domain
Coming out of college, I really wanted to explore how large systems were put together. In school, you build a lot of small projects that aim for interesting results using the newest, often buzzworthy, technologies. However, because of the short time frame and limited dimensionality of grading criteria, you often end up building lop-sided systems that live up to what was asked for but don’t optimally solve the underlying problem.
In the real world, it’s important that every additional piece of code you add doesn’t hurt the overall stability/quality of the system. This is because you’re working under the assumption that these systems will need to last indefinitely. Where in college your work effectively ends at a deadline, in the real world, you’re stuck with whatever decisions you made for the system for the entirety of its life. So if you make a mess of it now, you’re just going to have to clean it up later, whether that’s while it’s still small, new, and, thus, relatively mutable or later when it’s large, complex, and prone to giving out headaches.
On the way out, I identified these areas of my education as lacking and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity working at a software company provided to more thoroughly explore them.
I’ve been able to find answers to some of my questions and, in the process, have generated a bunch more. Some of these questions (old and new):
- Design — For a given problem, what are the best ways to go about designing for it? How can you look up designs/approaches other people have made for similar problems? What criteria is important when coming up with designs i.e. how can you effectively grade and compare?
- Reliability — How do you create a system that can fall down and get back up? How do you create a system that can do so gracefully? How can you predict what bad things could happen and how do you figure out how to prevent them?
- Scale — How do you make a system that can handle huge loads? Moreover, how do you do this efficiently i.e. limiting wasted resources?
- Quality — How do you ensure that your code quality is high? What is high quality? If it changes by domain/application, how can you figure out what it is for each?
Being on a Platform team has provided a good glimpse into how small systems can come together into a working whole. But four months hasn’t been near enough time to really appreciate all the roles each of the subsystems play or the thought processes behind them, so I’m excited to take a deeper dive in the coming semesters.
SWE: Areas of Focus — Professional
One of the things that I was most excited for when joining APT was their regular review process. Every six months, your advisor gathers feedback from those you’ve worked with and compiles a summary of strengths and ways to improve. To put it another way, it’s kind of like having a professor in college whose primary directive is to make sure you are constantly improving with respect to your goals and those of the school and who has enough time and resources to actually see that through. I wonder if this is what the creators of school counselors initially envisioned.
I believe that mindfulness of self and intent with respect to your actions are of the utmost importance for sustained growth. That’s one of the reasons why I write these reflections in the first place. It’s also one of the reasons why I got so excited about these reviews — they regularly provide an in-depth perspective, albeit within the specific domain of my professional life, that I can use to get a better understanding of where I stand in the world.
Some areas of focus for the coming semester are:
- Project + Impact focus — Why are we building X in the context of the business? How do we prioritize Y vs Z? Why do we prioritize that way?
- Understand our systems well enough to explain it to others.
- Issue troubleshooting — How to efficiently go from an error/bug to the underlying problem to a fix
- Testing — The philosophy of testing, specifically test-driven development and how to test complex systems/operations.
Starting work meant that I had officially completed one of my long-running goals, getting a job. This freed up a few trains of thought to pick up new tasks, so I figured it would be a good idea to explore different areas I’d be interested in working on over the next few years. In a similar vein, I decided to establish a 5 year outlook to help me figure out which paths were most valuable to me and to help keep me from falling into a purposeless stupor. You’ve probably noticed these 5 year outlook callouts joining my goals beneath section headings.
This semester, I really wanted to focus on projects that didn’t involve coding. This is because coding is, primarily, what I focused on in college and I knew it would be my primary focus at work. I love to code but I think all things should be taken in moderation and that it’s important to cultivate a variety of skills and perspectives over one’s lifetime.
During my college tenure, I’d taken an increasing interest in the visual and aural arts so I wasn't surprised when I found a healthy stack of the category sitting on my backlog. With a large amount of material and recent interest in those areas, I figured it was as good a target of exploration as any.
I see it as a reasonable, and perhaps expected, progression to become interested in how the things you enjoy are created. Couple this with the many shows I’ve attended in the last half decade, playlists I’ve created for studying and not studying, and the many people I know who have begun their own journey into producing/mixing music and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I too got curious.
So I downloaded some songs, installed some software, and spent a week experimenting.
And it kinda sucked.
I didn’t like what I produced, I felt I couldn’t do what I wanted with the tools I had, and I realized that what I really wanted to do was listen to music and not slave over arranging sounds.
This came as a surprise to me. I’m usually extremely happy going through the, often tedious, process of making, provided that I know what the work will produce and that I have deemed the output worthy of my input.
Yet here I was, just not feeling it.
I’m relatively certain that it’s not a lack of value from a music standpoint that caused this phenomenon because I really do love music. I listen to it all the time. I subscribe to both SoundCloud and Spotify and almost took the plunge for 8Tracks as well. I’ve got several sets of noise-canceling and bluetooth headphones and speakers. Since I’ve been in DC, I’ve averaged a show a month and I’d wager that’s well below what I hit in school.
But despite this strong attraction to music listening, it just didn’t feel like creating was worth it. I didn’t like the process and the process is what really matters.
I think I would’ve had a better experience if I had taken more time to learn the tools and really think about what it was that I wanted to accomplish, but I’ve made so much progress and have so much excitement for other pursuits that I’m not sure I currently have the patience for that. In time, I may find myself revisiting music production, but for now that curiosity has been put to rest.
Last spring, I started an Instagram account (user: sirhamy.img) to publish my photography. In a matter of months, and certainly by the time I’d moved to Austin, it had shifted to become almost exclusively focused on street art. This semester, that street art account broke 100 followers.
DC has a much more vibrant art scene than I would’ve ever imagined. The above pictures were all taken right here in the District and all the
^ in my list of adventures indicate that they were art-centric, specifically with a large street art/mural/graffiti component.
Having been so interested in the subject for an extended period of time, I felt that this exploratory phase was perfect to see what it would be like to produce street art rather than just capture it.
But I’d never wielded a spray can (well), nor painted anything I’d been particularly proud of so I was a little hesitant to start taking over the walls of buildings with work I wouldn’t want to call my own. Luckily, street art comes in all shapes and sizes.
Of particular interest to me was stickers – you know, the little pieces of paper you see checkering the signs, newspaper stands, and light poles of urban areas. They interested me for several reasons, but chief among them were that they could be created on my computer — which meant I wouldn’t have to get my hands dirty — , could be mass produced (by machines no less) — so I could minimize manual labor — , were easily shareable due to both size and medium, and took basically zero effort to apply — just peel and stick.
So, this semester, I took my first foray into street art and it was pretty cool.
I began ideating soon after I came to DC and I think the influence shows through pretty well.
I haven’t created any more stickers since my first, but that doesn’t mean I stopped making. In fact, I found that I really liked producing visuals digitally and I could always push it to a sticker if the need arose. So I just kept making.
At some point, I do want to try my hand at free drawing/painting, but I’ve really enjoyed the current process and can see those experiments branching off as natural extensions my current trajectory. I’ll probably also try out wheat paste this summer due to its popularity among artists and similarities with the sticker process.
So I told myself I wouldn’t work on anything code-related but I just couldn’t stay away. The intersection of code and art is just so fascinating. To me, it’s like productionalizing the imagination in the sense that you are taking an idea of a system from your head and making it work in real life. This is also how I see software as a whole btw, so take that as you will.
I don’t have any details to share yet, but I’m hoping to get an MVP ready by the end of the summer, so get stoked for that. My site may also be getting a redo, but I haven’t made any concrete plans.
- Continue growing network, especially outside of work. I’ve met a bunch of cool people in and around APT, but I know there’s so much more this city has to offer. To test this hypothesis, I’m going to begin researching and joining different groups of interest and evaluate how they go. I think this’ll be a good endeavor because 1) it’ll force me to get out of the house and go to new places, 2) will help me expand my network, 3) could potentially be alot of fun, and 4) will give me insight into current ways of discovering and participating in local social opportunities, which could lead to some interesting insights and future pathways. Current areas of interest I’m looking for groups in are: art, Judaism, music, running (when my knee feels better), software.
- Continue making. Push on both visual and code projects. I got a lot done this semester, but much of the time was spent investigating pathways rather than following them. This semester, I really want to dig in and see what I can accomplish with some focus, real goals, and a hard deadline. The three areas I’ll be pushing are digital art, street art, and code art.
You can check back next semester to see what I’ve done or follow my progress on SIRHAMY.MAKE.
- Focus on being a good team member and improving as a software engineer. As I mentioned, making in school and for yourself is a lot different than making for an organization/team. I think I’m doing a pretty good job with the transition, but I think additional mindfulness of these differences can lead to large improvements in my optimizations and, further, results. To that end, I’m going to work towards my personal Software Engineering areas of focus while exploring what it means to be a good team member, specifically how an individual contributor can affect the results of a team, organization, and every layer in between.
- Keep exploring. Take advantage of the warm weather as much as possible. On the front end of my stay in DC, I got a taste of the cold weather and it was brutal. The summer is an excellent time to be outside and to travel in the northern hemisphere, so I’ve got a few trips planned and rooftop bars starred to take advantage of the weather. Additionally, I hope this semester will mark an end to my DC tourism days, at least to the extent that I can say “Oh yeah, I’ve been there” or at least “I know where that is” to the most common landmark callouts.
As always, thanks for reading and I hope you got something out of it, even if that something was what I did, what I’m doing, and what I’m going to do. My last two reflections were each about a month late, but I’m determined to get back on track with my next installment in late August/early September. I’m hoping by then to have uncovered some really cool spots in DC that I can share, so look forward to that.
Before I go, I wanted to say again that I really want to hear about your story concerning how you moved to a new place and settled in. It was an eye-opening experience for me and I’m really curious how it was for others. So if you’ve got something you want to share, please send them my way.
I’m also all-ears for creative criticism and suggestions/ideas so if you love/hate my stuff feel free to reach out as well.
Alright, that’s it. See y’all in September.
Hamilton Greene, signing off.