Not all of us have a clear goal in life, and sometimes, even if we do, we reach dead ends and start traveling on a different path than intended. What was once considered stable can disappear and you’re left hesitant on the next step to take.
Justine and Tria shared their job path and started a collection for it, so I thought I’d join in and share what I went through in my path to a career. Even for an engineer, the path ahead isn’t always so straightforward.
I loved video games ever since I saw my dad pull out an old Famicon he had from Taiwan and plugged it into the ancient tube TV, fuzzing screen and all. I saw Mario jump on the screen, hit a question block that revealed a moving mushroom, and flatten goombas. I was probably 3 or 4 at the time, but the moment I saw that, I just had one thought in my mind: I want to make that.
As I grew up, I learned to program on a Commodore 64, angered my dad by locking out my first computer and not knowing what to do, and making small games for friends to play. My desire to make games changed into something more general as I picked up new hobbies and watched my dad make furniture, houses, and toys from wood:
I want to make things.
Into the Real World
I graduated from Duke University and Carnegie Mellon University with absolutely no preparation for the world. Two degrees in hand doesn’t mean anything to anyone when you don’t know what to do. All I knew was I wanted to program, maybe join a game company like any other young programmer with that dream. I was a student with no internship experience, no real job experience, and focused too much in school work that I didn’t apply for jobs until 3 months before graduation.
Luckily, a few job interviews later, I landed in a small startup company in robotics somewhat near where I lived. I worked with lasers and 3D imaging devices and met some great PhDs who were brilliant in what they did. It was a small close-knit environment and everyone knew each other. It was like college again, except there were no grades.
And the Sky Came Falling Down
A merger happened, all the PhDs left for other jobs, there was some miscommunication with the manager who grew increasingly distant from the company, and in the end, I was fired. I updated my resume and started the job hunt.
A month later, the housing market imploded and stocks crashed.
I had a few interviews, but after the crash, everything went dark. People lost jobs, I couldn’t get any response, and for the next 7 months, I lived off of my savings with no unemployment pay. Toward the end, my bank account had 3 digits left and I began making the hard choice of whether to abandon everything and head back to a small hometown or stay and risk losing everything.
Looking through Facebook didn’t help either as I saw friends who became CEOs, VPs, managers, and all other positions much higher than I could reach. What did I do wrong?
I kept moving forward, writing a list of things to do in the worst case scenario. What if I can’t find a job for years? What can I do to keep going? I had another skill that I could use besides engineering and programming: art.
I started selling photos in microstock and becoming a freelance photographer for anyone who was willing to hire me. I made jewelry and sold it on Etsy. I showed my mom a check for one of my photos to prove I could make money with art.
My friends started saying that I should start my own photography business. I researched forming a business, becoming self-employed, and looking at how other photographers in the area were doing. I laid out price plans, designed my website, thought about expenses and a storefront if needed, and downloaded those IRS forms in fancy legal speak.
And then I stopped.
Years ago, my friends told me my photography was great and that I could make money. Brimming with pride and a feeling of confidence, I looked up photography companies and submitted my best photos, only to be shot down with a dose of reality. They didn’t accept it.
I looked at what everyone else had compared to mine and realized that my photography was nothing. There was a reason why they were professionals and I was just a kid with a camera.
6 years later and the situation was the same. I cleared away everything my friends said and took a step back from my portfolio. I looked at my photography as objectively as I could. Could this support me? Scenarios went through my head, the what if’s, and no matter how I thought about it, I reached the same conclusion every time.
In my current state, I will fail.
I could get better in a trial by fire, jumping into the market and working hard, but with the dwindling money supply, my photography wasn’t good enough as a full time job.
Sense of Stability
In the end, one small footnote on my resume saved me. A recruiter noticed that I made video games in my spare time, and based on that and a quick interview, I was hired by a small game company at 30% less pay than my robotics job. I didn’t care about the pay. Beggars can’t be choosers and hey, I get to make video games.
Although the games weren’t the mainstream action games, it was still relevant to what I’ve done. It was smaller than my first job with about 10 people total in a small downtown office. We later moved to a bigger place, had more room to grow, and started on a bigger contract.
Two years after I started, I was laid off and spent another 6 months unemployed. It was the most unfortunate timing. A few months ago, I was invited back to Duke as one of those “successful alumni” to talk to undergrad students about their job, their experiences, and give advice. I lost the job the day before my flight. Awkward doesn’t fully encompass my experience, trying to talk to students about a job I no longer had. I doubt they’ll ever invite me again.
More Programming, Less Talking
I found a job at a local train company to maintain their software that manages trains all over the world. The job wasn’t what I wanted to do and I became bored after a year. All I did all day was stare at a screen and make sure things didn’t break.
The work environment was sterile. I was one of the youngest people there among a sea of cubicles. Everyone else was much older with family, doing what they needed at the job and going home. Every day, it was the sound of keyboards clicking and the occasional alarms from the testing lab. There was nothing social that connected anyone. There was no drive to become better. It was a Dilbert cartoon with water cooler talks and managers you never met.
I hated it.
After two years, I left and made a major move to Seattle where I would work for Microsoft.
The End of the Path?
There’s no grand message in my rambling, just a series of events as I wandered around different jobs. Even now, I don’t know what it is I want to do, but I do know that each job I’ve taken has given me a better idea on what to do next. Although I had setbacks beyond my control, each period of unemployment was a time to re-evaluate what I wanted, a small break in my hike up the path. With each break, I learned more about what to do and improved my skills so I would be ready for the next challenge.
So have I reached the final job in my career? Probably not. If my experiences have told me anything, it’s that what was once considered normal to have a stable career path is no longer common. Every time I thought I had something that would become the foundation for my life, it was taken away and I had to restart. I envy those with a steady job, never having to worry about what to do next, but at the same time, if it wasn’t for my setbacks, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
My long stint with unemployment has also rekindled my desire to create. If nothing else, I want to see how far I can take my photography now that I had 6 additional years to improve. Who knows? Maybe a photography side business would be a good change of pace from engineering.