Three years ago, I started working for megacorp, my first job after university (but not my first job in the industry). I was lucky - I had stability, I had job security, I was working on a challenging project with a small team of smart software developers and I had great overseas travel opportunities. It was pretty much all you could ask for in a graduate position.
Of course, there were some negatives - working for megacorp sometimes felt like scenes right out of Office Space, and the office wasn't in the greatest location, requiring a 40 minute drive each way. The pros outweighed the cons though, so I happily stuck with it.
Fast forward one and a bit years and things started changing. I started feeling the itch again, the itch to do something different, to do what I enjoyed and make everything else work around that. My to-do list started growing and side-projects were started but never finished. With the time I was devoting to work and the associated transport time, I simply did not have the time to do the things I wanted to do.
Sidenote - don't underestimate the effect transport to and from work has on your lifestyle. This is particularly true if you're driving. Even if it is against peak traffic, with few traffic lights and mostly on a freeway, it is still wasted time. About the only thing you can do is listen to the radio or podcasts (TOFOP/FOFOP, The Little Dum Dum Club, Stack Exchange and Risky Business were the main ones for me; I found startup and tech podcasts, while informative, also reminded me about what I disliked about my career, so I gave them a miss). Catching public transport is slightly better in that you can do other things, but there's only so much you can do with zero personal space during peak hours and or services that are infrequent enough in the off-peak to be very annoying.
Megacorp was always a stepping stone for me; throughout university I had always dreamt of being involved in startup or a small company and the idea of being free from the constraints of a typical 9-5 job was always at the back of my mind.
However, having spent the four years prior to megacorp with practically all the time in the world only to end up with not an awful lot to show in terms of career development, I decided I needed some real-world experience first. Megacorp was probably a bit of a leap to the other extreme, but they worked on some pretty cool stuff.
There were some other factors at play at work, but ultimately, I came to the realisation that I had learnt all the things I wanted to from them and it was time to move on. I could stay, but I knew if I did, I'd just become more and more unhappy and frustrated with myself.
The realization was easy; committing was the harder part, due to the fear of leaving a safe, stable and predictable environment for the great unknown. I decided that things couldn't go on like this though, so I set a deadline and started telling friends. The accountability was just what I needed, and by the end of last year, the wheels had been set in motion.
My boss had seen it coming and was understanding when I told him. Money was offered, but as nice as that would've been, I couldn't take it, stomach the situation for a few more months before attempting to bail again. Not only did that feel wrong, accepting it was really just me caving into procrastination.
The notification period was long… eight months long. It didn't need to be anywhere near that long, but I felt it was the right thing to do. The date was chosen because it coincided with the release date for the new version and as I was responsible for a significant feature, it also gave me time to complete it as well as transition my work and knowledge over.
In hindsight, I realised I must've been a very difficult employee for the company machine to control - money didn't motivate me, I happily worked unpaid overtime, I attempted to cause havoc with their performance management processes by giving monkey answers, I gave an excessive notice of resignation period and I actually told the truth about why I was leaving during my exit interview (I didn't have any issues with any particular person, just the processes). I left on good terms with everyone though.
It's worth pointing out that I absolutely don't regret working for megacorp. There are things that working for a megacorp teach you first-hand that I don't think you can get elsewhere, things like dealing with processes and hierarchy, how to liaise and work with large customers and how to manage a large project with many legacy components across multiple teams. Plus there was lots of new, shiny, expensive tech to play with.
The journey so far
Today, it has been a bit over three months since I had a job. Armed with enough savings to sustain me for a while, I've been slowly working through the things on my todo list and working on a couple of projects ever since.
One of those projects is close to being complete, at least for version 1. It uses all kinds of fun new stuff like AngularJS and d3.js, things that I've always wanted to learn but didn't have time for and couldn't work into projects at work. I've also started exercising more, going to a gym and learning Spanish for fun. There's no grand plan here; of course, I'd love for one of my projects to become profitable and help finance this lifestyle, but realistically I'm happy to accept that I'll be job-hunting again at some point next year and hopefully end up in something more aligned with my career aspirations and lifestyle.
The ups and downs
It hasn't exactly been smooth sailing - being completely in control of your entire day requires discipline, and lots of it. For me, it was extremely easy to let a day or even a week slip by without achieving much at all, yet not feel like I have been wasting time either. I found myself doing all the small tasks instead, then when they were done, thinking of more small tasks to do. As the weeks ticked by, this scared the hell out of me. I had plans with (unrealistic) timelines and I wasn't meeting any of them.
This sounds like I'm just not interested in my projects, but I am. It is just that it takes a kind of mental preparation to get 'in the zone' and that's something I was conditioned to do at work, but not at home. Back at work, working in a shared quad office, I often used headphones to get 'in the zone'. On some days I can get there without, but as soon as anyone mentions anything mildly interesting like 'donuts!', the zone disappears. In the past few weeks, I've started wearing headphones at home to emulate this, and as silly as it sounds, it works. Even though there's barely any background noise at home, listening to music through speakers just doesn't have the same effect as listening through headphones.
The plans were changed as well to include attainable tasks and I reminded myself that this gap year is as much of a learning experience as it is a productive one. Yes the projects were important, but so is being able to enjoy this time, reflect on how things are going and broaden my experiences. I didn't want my projects to feel like work, taking me back to square one, except without the income.
Explaining what I'm doing to others has been an interesting exercise too. Some understand completely, others are completely baffled, with the usual question being, 'don't you get bored not having anything to do all day?' The answer is a resounding no. I can honestly say there hasn't been a period of time during the last 3 months when I can say I was bored. Maybe it is due to the career I've chosen, but I always have a project on my mind that I want to explore. Besides that, I've always got books to read, TV shows to watch, places to visit, travel plans to research and more. In fact I'd say I might even have a problem of trying to do too many things at once and not seeing things through to completion.
Catching up with people is important though, if only just to keep yourself sane. It can be easy to not converse with anyone face-to-face, but I find that demotivating and makes me less productive. Sometimes meeting with someone is enough to re-motivate and re-focus me to work on whatever or help me look at a problem from another direction. My general rule of thumb is, if I don't know what day of the week it is, I need to head outside. (I also now understand the appeal of working in cafes. Unfortunately, I don't have a MacBook, or even a functional laptop at the moment, so that'll have to wait.)
There are plenty of positive side-effects as well, besides being able to work on the things I love. It's amazing how much I have improved my diet by simply having my fridge, my pantry and my kitchen around during lunch instead of the same three fast-food places back where I used to work (never got organised enough to bring lunch to work). Not having a strict 9-12-5 schedule also means I can spontaneously meet up with people; I can choose to not have lunch around 12pm (and not be left with the cafe leftovers when I eventually do have lunch), in fact I can choose to eat whenever, however frequently I want; and I can choose to go out for a run at 2pm and return to work after. Being in a much more central location also means I can now visit the bank or other service outlets without having to take a morning off. Little things matter.
Just doing the things you love doing isn't as easy as it sounds, even if you take the financial concerns away. In many ways, I'm finding it harder than working for megacorp - the lack of certainty and structure still wrecks havoc with my mind. It is definitely more rewarding though, and should be even more when I get this current project out there.
I've got a list of ideas that's slowly growing, other languages that I want to learn, plus I'm hoping to squeeze some travel in at some point, so the next few months are going to be pretty exciting.
I've been pretty lax with my website here for the last few years, but I do intend to keep it up to date with the various things I get up to.
(Yep, this post was inspired by a similar one here.)