If you’d asked me a week ago, I would not have told you that this is an article I was expecting to write. Unfortunately, today the company that hired me (initially as a contractor, and then as a permanent employee) informed me that they would be terminating my contract.
At the start of this year, receiving this company’s interest in hiring made me think “perhaps this year will be better than last”, however, it looks like that’s not the case. At present, I’m still fairly devastated and also in a massive amount of disbelief as to what has happened. I did not expect this, and I did not see it coming. Just last month I started as a permanent employee. Then today, I’m fired?
Well, even through my devastation and disbelief, I feel like I’m still thinking clearly enough to write this article; In the following, I’m going to tell you why I’m leaving tech.
You read correctly: I’m done. I can’t do this any more.
Perhaps it helps for me tell you my story, where I’ve come from, and some of the things that have happened over the course of my life to come to this decision.
Originally, I’m from Australia, no, not Melbourne, not Sydney, but like the middle-of-no-where Australia. I grew up in a tiny little town located about 750km west of Sydney, by tiny, this town was no larger than ten thousand people. This is important as, being in the middle-of-no-where, a place where the temperatures in summer often reached 45ºC, you didn’t really have a heap of things to amuse yourself with. After doing a bunch of hobbies, from playing sports, to learning how to fly, I ended up deciding that I wanted to become a graphic designer at the age of 12 or 13; I signed up to DeviantART, and started designing logos and related.
Shortly after signing up to DeviantART, I became involved in the chat channel called “#h3lp”, which was the place you could go to get assistance with computers. I knew some things about computers, so was able to offer assistance. From there, I meet varies programmers, such as Tane Piper, who helped me build my portfolio, by getting me to design logos for their projects.
After a month, that ban was revoked, and I continued to learn and build things. One project in particular that I found immensely interesting was the idea of building a desktop application for the DeviantART chat network. I had no real idea how to do this, but some how I learned of XULRunner, and started hacking away, at the same time, I’d write about things that I was learning about, and sharing my progress with the community: I called this project dAmnZilla (I thought it was a cool name).
I also started working with another developer on a library to help others to build extensions for the chat network, however, after a little while, this lead me to get banned from the site once again because of a misunderstanding (they thought I’d hacked the site, when all I’d done was insert a DOM Node into the chat messages on my own machine).
As I was working on dAmnZilla, I received a rather out of the blue email: It was from a company in San Francisco called Meebo. They were reaching out because they’d seen what I was working on, and wanted to offer me a summer internship in Mountain View. Up until this point, everything that I did with computers was a hobby, but now, suddenly I had this real company asking me to work with them. I couldn’t really believe it, and neither could my parents: In fact, they insisted that they find contact details for this company, and phone them to double check that it wasn’t some sort of elaborate scam / prank by a school peer. (I used to get bullied a bit)
It wasn’t. In the end, I didn’t end up doing the internship with Meebo: It turns out US law kind of prohibits employing a 14 year old. However, this event resulted in a change of course for me, no longer was I going to become a graphic designer — I really wasn’t that good at it anyway—instead, I decided I’d become a computer programmer.
Somewhere mixed into the above, I also attended my first conference, and got to know John Allsopp and Maxine Sherrin of Web Directions fame. This was amazing, and just went to show me just how many opportunities existed.
In the middle of 2009, I was also accepted into a program for early entry into university in order to study computer science, thanks to Jeff Fellows and the Computer Science and Mathematics faculty at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, NSW.
Now, being this was 2009, Node.js was very new. I’ve in later years traced my first work with it back to approximately version 0.0.95; This was a version in which the API changed almost daily, but that didn’t stop me. Once again through IRC I started to connect with other people working on it, including Ryan Dahl, Isaacs, TJ Hollowaychuk, Tim Caswell and many many more. I even remember the time when Isaac first announced his idea for a package manager, which would later become npm.
It was an exciting time, and I wasn’t just a user of this new technology called Node.js, in the early days, I don’t think that was possible. I was also a contributor: amongst the patches I contributed to the project are things like writing a bunch of C code and conversing with a not very nice linux/C developer in order to fix the file system modules’ error handling, I also worked on the documentation and related tooling. I also started writing node-websocket-server, which I became known for.
By the close of 2010, I’d finished my HSC (similar to A-levels or College), and I was one of the few developers on the top ten contributors to Node.js list who wasn’t in permanent employment. It didn’t take long for me to find work, and in the middle of November 2010, just three or four short weeks after my birthday, and literally the weekend after my graduation, I flew to the San Francisco to start work.
Unfortunately, the company I decided to work with turned out to highlight some of the most toxic parts about San Francisco and the Bay Area, so in early 2011, I parted ways with them. This time, I had a week to kill in San Francisco, and I knew I needed to find another job, so I tweeted “I’m available for hire”, my inbox became a flood of invites for job pitches.
Trigger warning: The next two paragraphs talk about mental health issues, and my struggle, in particular, depression
However, in late 2011, I was struck down with major depression and burn-out: I wasn’t adjusting well to the relocation to London, my sleeping patterns were a mess, and I’d started to drink reasonably heavily, in part due to the tech culture in London which at the time was very very alcoholic. I sought medical help, however, the company I was at decided to tell me that I no longer had a job with them after I told them I needed an undefined amount of medical leave to get better.
Pro-tip, don’t do this. It’s shitty. Like, really really fucking shitty. Like, I should’ve taken them to court shitty. To be honest, the Christmas of 2011 was perhaps one of the darkest periods of my life, and in all honesty, I had to change my behaviour to prevent me from killing myself. However, with the help of the NHS and several doctors, I started to get better.
You can start reading again.
During the first few months, I came close to working for Facebook instead, who’d been in contact the previous year; Unfortunately, due to committing myself to #startuplife, I didn’t have the time to complete their coding challenge. (Funny story, I’ve interviewed with Facebook now probably half a dozen times, and to this day have always bailed due to their coding challenge).
However, I stuck around at this company for a further 23 months, until which point I became unwell again, and decided that I needed to leave the company in order to put my health first. I left the company in November 2013, and then went back to Australia to spend the holiday period with my family. At this same time, I also wasn’t dropping as far into my low periods, as I’d just met the most amazing woman I’d met until that day (she’s still pretty fabulous), and she helped me be happy when days weren’t so great.
Over that holiday period, I also worked with Resin.io on the launch of their Docker for IOT platform, working on the marketing and developer evangelism. Which was something entirely new to me.
I came back from Australia, and looked for my next role, I did a bit of contracting work, learned a fair bit more about AWS and DevOps, and met some great people, such as James Governor. With what little savings I had, I decided to take a break from work for a bit, and ended up helping out at a local community space, where I met some fantastic people.
Eventually I had to go back to work, and I started contracting for various companies, this lead me to work on a whole plethora of different projects. I did this for the next two years, and branded myself as a Startup Tech Consultant. I worked in everything from finance to music, advertising to health/big data.
In the latter part of 2014, my health was poor again, I was suffering from high anxiety, panic attacks and a disconnection from one’s self. This was scary, and in this time, I ended up drinking a lot and spiralling pretty out of control.
On January 1st, 2015, I came out as genderfluid / non-binary / evolving. This helped improve my mental state, and helped me correct course: I had figured out what was wrong with me, and why I’d lost my own self identity.
However, by April 2015, my mental health wasn’t in the best of shape again, so I decided to take a holiday and go to Berlin in May. This was perhaps one of the best decisions of my life, whilst here, I realised that this city is vastly more accepting of people like me, so much so, that by July 2015 I’d moved here. Relocating this time was different: I moved for life, not work, and I was a lot better of for it.
For work, I took a job at a small startup in the music industry, building a rich music player experience for the web. Through this job I became widely known in the React.js and Redux.js community. At the same time, I also continued learning about big data, data science, analytics and backend systems.
In November or December 2015, I decided that I was most definitely a woman, and became known as Em Smith. That is, I went from not really being sure of my gender identity, to having a very clear image of my own self. Work was accepting and whilst there were some fumbles with the new name and pronouns, they managed.
Warning: some depression related talk in the next paragraph
Life continued, until February 2016, when after a lot of stress relating to my living situation (turned out my landlord was a creep) and work piling up and feeling too much, I snapped and feel into another extremely large depressive phase, including an incident in which I went running in traffic in an attempt to get hit by a car and end it. I was in a bad place. I also punched a garbage bin, and let me tell you: The garbage bins in Berlin are fucking solid. With the help of Christoph Sassenberg (and one very early morning knock on his door) I started the process of seeking help again. I went to the doctors and received medical leave, and also got in touch with a great therapist. However, this major depressive episode lasted a full three months. In May 2016, I changed my living situation, and that helped correct my depression, along with the therapy.
Watch out, some work / shitty male behavior about to be mentioned here.
Only a month later however, things at work took another bad turn. In my absence, they’d hired a male developer who was totally unqualified for the job he was hired for. This male developer also seemed to have a major issue working with me, and caused me an immense amount of stress by deliberately wasting my time or starting discussions without any purpose other than to waste my time and pull my decisions into question (I was at that point the most senior developer on the backend for this company, and had rebuilt most of their infrastructure around a set of microservices).
More mental health stuff here, sorry!
Due to this stress, I ended up having to take more time out; Remember, I was still recovering from my last depressive episode which had only concluded in the month earlier. This time, my mental state fluctuated uncontrollably, including an incident in which I was hospitalised after suffering a complete mental breakdown.
I left the company at the end of July 2016. I hadn’t made too much of my mental health issues at the time public, but details were still out there.
From August 2016, I started to look for a new job. I thought I’d easily have something in a matter of weeks. That turned out to not be the case: It turns out even in a city as accepting and open and diverse as Berlin, trans-misogyny, bigotry, exclusionary hiring practices, and absolutely appalling behaviour from tech startups still exists.
In January 2017, I almost left tech. I’d even set up a potential new career in the adult industry, yes, I almost became a sex worker (albeit, not an escort, but something similar: a professional Dominatrix).
At this point I’d been unemployed for almost 7 months. Yes, that’s as a highly skilled software engineer and very well known developer. The only thing that had changed since the last time I was on the job market was that now I was a transgender woman, rather than a cisgender heterosexual man.
I’ll repeat it, just in case you didn’t read it:
Despite being a highly skilled software engineer, as a transgender woman looking for work in tech, I was unemployed for 7 months.
In this time, I’d almost lost my house, I’d used all of my savings and gone fairly heavily into debt. I even had to ask people for donations. One person that absolutely was an outstanding person during this time was Daniel Boatman of Optimus Search: not once did he question my technical ability, or treat me poorly. He continuously assisted me in my search for work, without him, I’d probably have been homeless come winter.
Anyway, back to January 2017; Just when I was almost ready to give up on tech entirely, a person I called once thought of as a friend reached out to me and pushed me to join the company he worked for. After one particularly good interview, I decided to join the company as a freelancer, to test the waters and earn back a decent amount of cash to stabilise my life.
The company pushed for me to join them full time, as a Data Engineer, however, this was conditional on getting my visa changed to have them as my employer. At their insistence, I expedited the visa process, and finally joint the company as a permanent employee on March 6th 2017.
Things appeared to be going well, I’d have some leave due to sickness and a few ups and downs with my mental health, but overall, things appeared to be going well: I liked my coworkers and they seemed to like me.
Then today, completely unexpectedly, they fired me. When pushed for a reason, they cited performance reasons, which pushed further, it was in regards to not shipping the current project I was working on fast enough, despite them also saying verbally to me that the project could not possibly have been done any faster.
Essentially, it feels like I was set up for failure by this company.
So, now, here we are: It’s 4:15am, as I write this.
After seven years working as a software engineer, I feel that it is time to say that I cannot do this anymore. I can’t take another poor experience with another tech company again. I simply can’t.
I don’t have enough savings to continue to live for another seven months just to find another job. Tomorrow I’m heading to the job center to hopefully register for unemployment assistance.
It’s been a varied rollercoaster of many experiences and a lot of learning over the past 7 years of working professionally as a software engineer, and 12 years of being a programmer. I feel I’ve done some pretty great work over that time, but I think sadly now is the time at which I must say good bye to tech work.
After 7 years professionally, and 12 years in total of being involved in tech, this is good bye. I can’t do it anymore.
Thank you to all the people who have contributed over the past 12 years to my personal and professional development, it’s been amazing getting to know you all and to work with some of you. However, this is good bye.
There are far too many names of people who I’d love to thank for our time working together, chatting on twitter about tech, or on slack. I’ve mentioned only a small handful of the vast number of people along my journey. I hope you all know who you are.
Can you change my mind? I honestly doubt it. You would have to try REALLY hard to convince me to give working in tech a shot again. But you are welcome to, you can email me at email@example.com if you would like to try.
So what’s next for me? At the moment a lot of things are uncertain in my life. I’m still coming to terms with the last 24 hours. As mentioned before, tomorrow I’m off to the job agency to try and get unemployment assistance. I will hopefully be staying in Berlin. I’m presently looking at enrolling in a language school, and changing my visa to a language study visa.
I have some ideas for things that I want to build still, but of course, I need money to do so (you’ll need not be shy of investing in things used by the adult industry).
So long tech, this is good bye. Congratulations, you’ve just lost another highly skilled developer who also happened to be from an underrepresented minority group.
That’s all for now.
Yours, Emelia Smith.