Sometimes you just need to take a leap and build your wings on the way down

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Last Wednesday was my last day in Google. I never advertised it on my LinkedIn and not many people even in my circle knew, but eventually the piece of news got out.

And so two camps formed: those who thought the equivalent of omg you poor bastard and those who, especially in the valley, were wondering what startup I must have been sitting on to leave Google.

I think both camps will be surprised, if not disappointed, by what I've chosen.

Computers are evil

Back in the days when Linux wasn't popular I joined Freenode to get some help with installing my first distribution, slackware. As I entered #linuxhelp someone, who would then become one of my mentors and friend, wrote:

Computers are evil

Little I knew how right she was. It turned out that was one of her favorite battle cries when she was debugging some nasty problem.

I've been in technology for almost 15 years and while I loved most of it, I wasn't happy anymore.

I am extremely grateful for what this line of work has given me, I met lots of smart people, I was able to travel and work remotely and in general enjoy a level of freedom that most of the people I grew up with only dreamt of.

But it wasn't making me happy anymore.

I tried to be a programmer, a frontend guy, a db guy, a network guy, I've covered most roles and all of them fundamentally felt the same. For the longest I've been a systems engineer and all I sought was to work on larger and more complex infrastructures.

It was around the time I finished with Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life that I sort of hit a wall. I wasn't really looking to get into more of the same, but I needed cash and so I turned to consulting again.

Devops, management and PHBs

This was the early days of devops in Europe and it was a breadth of fresh air, it was all about culture, collaboration, breaking down the silo - I loved it.

Unfortunately, for the most, it turned out to be tech again, largely about cloud and configuration management rather than working together and talking about value to the user.

But it was enough to provide an opening for me, management, which I had been staying as far away as I could up to then, but now seemed a good vantage point to attach that new world.

I had previous experiences with managing people and they weren't good, mostly it seemed to get in the way of me getting things done, but in retrospect I was too young then and missed the point.

When I got hired as a devops manager by a startup in the Silicon Valley I thought I was on the right path: I was working with people most of my time, not machines, and while humans are much harder to work with it was also far more rewarding.

I used to be the kind of person that just wanted to be assigned a task and left alone, but clearly that was no longer me.

I had very little time for any hands on work, but I thought it was ok, I wanted to be a people manager, not a technical lead. I've come to the conclusion however that, at least for engineering management, this just isn't right.

If you don't sit in the trenches and experience the problems first hand it's hard to relate and even harder to help the people you're managing.

I didn't want to be yet another PHB, but also didn't want to go back being an engineer so that made being an engineering manager not an option for me.

The Lean Startup Peer to Peer Circle

For the last two years I've spent evenings and weekends working with the Lean Startup Circle (LSC) in San Francisco.

Through the LSC I've met with lots of entrepreneurs and I've started running workshops and working with founders as an advisor.

Last May we launched a peer to peer entrepreneurship project that I've been super excited about as it brings together three of my favorite things: education, entrepreneurship and peer-to-peer.

There have been plenty of challenges and working with people is really hard, but it's been very meaningful work.

People > Computers

In retrospect that's something I've known for a while, I wanted to work with people, helping folks solve problems of whatever nature they were.

But the problem is I could never make a job of it.

I tried to switch to product management, which seemed much more aligned with all of that: helping shape a product that in turn would have solved an important problem for someone.

But every time I tried I heard the same story I heard 15 years ago when I wanted to be a sysadmin: sorry kid, you need at least 5 years of experience for this job.

Gah.

Unfortunately this time I'm not a kid anymore, I have a family. This made leaving a secure job, especially in a field where if you disconnect for 6 months you're dead wood, too scary. So I kept going.

The other thing the experience in Google confirmed for me is that I'm not cut out for large organizations. I have my own opinions on the merit of large and small groups, but I'll leave them out and simply say that after this I just know I have no place in a big company.

I like small communities where I can more or less know everybody and understand the impact of what I do on at least a good chunk of them.

The biggest thing I was missing from working as an engineer was that I basically never felt connected to the people I was supposedly helping with my work.

And don't get me wrong, it's not about fame and being in the spot light, it's about knowing that I've made a difference for someone, that all the time I've spent banging on a keyboard was worth more than proving to myself and my geek peers how smart I am.

But then again I need to put food on the table, so what should I do?

Life in a monastery

Last December my wife moved into a Buddhist community in Northern California, to volunteer as a Maths teacher. She's never loved anything like she loves to be and work there. Except for me of course :).

Being there is a whole different post, several even, and while cultivation is a big aspect I'm thrilled about the many things I can do up there including farming and carpentry.

Farming and carpentry are actually incredible experiences, if you care about doing something for someone else feeding them counts as very few other things do. Likewise putting a roof over someone's head has a non marginal impact, especially in winter.

I've been up there many weekends over the last year and there's no doubt that this is the sort of experience I was looking for not to mention being able to see my wife every day again.

I also always dreamt of building my own house and this might be the time I get to learn how. Who knows, maybe one day I'll actually get to do it!

Entrepreneurship

While I will be up there I count on carving out some time to continue my work with the LSC and in general the entrepreneurship community.

In fact I hope that at some point I'll be able to advance a proposal to teach entrepreneurship to the senior students in the community's schools.

So for the time being my involvement with the LSC and P2PC stand and so does the offer to help out whoever is interested in better understanding Lean and how it can help their business so get in touch if you'd like to schedule a call

Conclusions

I won't be earning any money since the LSC work is also volunteer work and that's scary. I'm also going to work on stuff that I have no idea about which if very compelling does add to the fear factor. And if things go south I know it's gonna be a challenge to get back into the old world to try and make a buck to feed the family.

It's a big change and it's scary, but what's the alternative? Continuing on a known path out of fear?

Sometimes you just need to take a leap and build your wings on the way down.

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