Biggest Blessings of 2017
Ideally, when someone graduates from college, they should understand their interests and aspirations and map that to a career that the economy can support. For the lucky ones, this happens early and painlessly, and the road to adulthood is a smooth and pothole free onramp onto the fast lane of life. This is how I thought of myself in 2007 following my graduation from West Point and my commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. However, life had other plans, and one day after promoting to First Lieutenant, I found myself medically discharged without clear career objectives during the height of the Great Recession. Without money, connections, or clear direction, it took me around two years to figure out my career ambitions, and eight years of career pivots to finally get to a position where I'm firing on all cylinders and excited by what I do each day.
While 2016 was the year of making a plan and setting it in motion, 2017 was the year that I finally took a leap and left my safe federal job behind to be a fullstack developer at a startup. I'm currently happier than any other job that I've ever had since leaving the Army, so the decade of compromise seems to be behind me.
When I left my federal job, I chose to take a sabbatical to reinvest in my development skills. While software development had played a large part of my career from 2010 onwards, my software skills were really looking long in the tooth for the sorts of startups I was targeting in 2017. Java or PHP with jQuery and Bootstrap really just didn't cut it any more! Furthermore, my federal gig helping the FAA migrate to the cloud took me out of active software projects more than I had anticipated, so I had gotten rustier than any point in years. To be able to market myself effectively and get through developer interviews, I knew that I would have to re-skill.
This is why, at the start of 2017, I was a student at Fullstack Academy pulling 80+ hour weeks building my development portfolio. While I had quite a bit more software experience than my peers, I needed to build up a portfolio of single-page apps to rebrand myself as the sort of fullstack engineer that could succeed at build products for a startup. I wasn't sure how well this effort would work, but due to the hot job market and lucky timing, I landed a job in walking distance from my house less than a month from graduating from Fullstack
When I started at Decipher, I was made the first full-time developer on the Grey Matter framework. This assignment gave me more freedom that I've ever had in any previous project. I was free to select our technical stack, design our application architecture, and perform all initial development work. Occasionally, key milestones forced me into major crunch-mode, working 70+ hours per week.
Based on the initial success of my product, Decipher gave me the go ahead to reach out to my network and hire other new developers. By leveraging the Fullstack Academy alumni network, I was able to connect with two recent Grace Hopper Academy graduates. These two highly enthusiastic candidates made it through the interview and became Decipher's first two female software developers. Shortly thereafter, we hired a third new front-end engineer brought to us from our recruiter. After being the sole front-end developer for Grey Matter, I found myself back in a leadership position, running our agile process, reviewing pull requests, and mentoring our newest junior engineers. I think our team ended up being the most fun-loving and enthusiastic at the company, making our sprints a job.
By the end of the year, the Grey Matter product we'd been working on reached version 1.0, was sold to several customers, and was deployed/launched into production/orbit. Because of this work, I got a few awesome workplace awards, vindicating that that my work matters and made a difference. It's such an amazing thing to enjoy what I do, be good at what I do, and be able to pay the bills!
Speaking of bills, my wife Erica and I have had a bunch. When I married her seven and a half years ago, I inherited her medical student debt and immediately sunk into the weird situation of having a negative net worth. For years, I sacrificed leisure, focused on my earning potential, and took on side hustles to pay down our debt. At times, it felt like I would never be able to escape the cycle of debt, but 2017 was the year where I finally felt like the debts were shrinking at a meaningful rate and I could see light at the end of the tunnel. While we're not yet at the point where we can enjoy life like normal people, we're appreciably closer.
Even though I was working pretty crazy hours at Decipher, Erica and I had the chance to take an amazing vacation to Budapest. We hadn't had a big vacation like this since our honeymoon, so in many ways, it felt long overdue. Hungary had amazing food, amazing history, amazing culture, and amazing extended family. It was inspiring to reconnect and rest, and that helped give us the energy to unicycle forward for the rest of the year.
For years following my medical discharge from the Army, I largely distanced myself from my West Point classmates. I did this because I often found myself becoming despondent and envious when I heard about their interesting assignments and deployments. I would compare myself to them and find myself lacking.
What is writing software compared to being a leader of character dedicated to duty, honor, country?
By distancing myself from my classmates, I isolated myself and sacrificed an important piece of my identity. In many ways, attending my 10-year reunion forced me to overcome my fears and embrace my identity as a West Pointer and Army veteran. I reconnected with my old friends and classmates, and they accepted me as one of their own.
I know that by-and-large, my ability to start software products from scratch, manage teams, and achieve business value comes from the self-discipline and leadership skills I developed as West Point. In 2017, I finally felt comfortable coming to terms with this and feeling free to look for ways to interpret the values of "Duty, Honor, Country" in the context of my life and career as a software developer.