life is too short to give your time to a company that gives no time to you.
Mastery is for You
This is a sad story of how my first job in web development treated me, and what I learnt from it. Self-improvement and the mastery of skills trump anything a company can offer you.
The year is 2015. I am 20 years old and I love front end development. I spend my time freelancing around my degree. A break from academia sounds like a good idea so I start looking for industrial experience. I applied to small web agencies in Manchester.
I got a job.
I recognise that not all agencies are bad places to work. There is a reputation that agencies take advantage of young staff for low pay. This agency fit that reputation snugly.
I want to recommend a book, Start With Why. This book is about focusing on why you do things over what you do.
- Why — I want to grow my own success and earn the respect of others in my community.
- How — I surround myself with people I learn from and respect, and who treat me equally.
- What — I want to build my own agency, and in the short-term learn from working at an agency.
This job was what I refer to as code monkey work.
- The pay was just over minimum wage.
- No pension.
- No modern development skills. No version control or testing.
- A third of the company were interns. An interns time costs £65 an hour to the client.
At this point, I realised I was having a bad time. I was clinging on to my £15,000 salary. I asked for advice and got:
“That’s good money, don’t quit”
“At least you have a job”
“Jobs aren’t supposed to be fun”
When I started this job I was still working with freelance clients. I was trying to use the CMS this job specialised in. I figured if I am stuck here for a year I may as well master what I am forced to learn. I lacked clear direction, and shortly after my motivation died with it.
Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Another coworker had a similar experience to me. He worked hard and filled his spare time with amazing side projects, comedy podcasts and audio mastering night school. He was the only encouraging person in this office.
Three months pass and it’s time for my probation meeting.
“It isn’t too late to go back to University”
My manager asked me why I didn’t put in an extra effort like everybody else. At this point, I had been so stressed I had not taken a lunch break in over a month. I lost 16 kilograms over the 5 months I worked there. I went into survival mode. There was no point in calling this out. Given the risk of failing my year in industry, I begged for a second chance.
I stopped getting given extra work. I worked on small bug fixes. I had free time and I started learning SCSS and looking into CSS transitions. I started making weird stuff for fun.
In a few days, I learnt the basics of CSS transitions, WebKit filters, SCSS, Grunt, Meteor, Github.
I brought it back to work. The focus from academia of ticking boxes for marks transitioned to confidence and a sense of mastery.
“Can I make this?”
“What can I learn, what could I make?”
“Is there a better job for me?”
I moved onto another company with agile work culture. We had flexible working, mastery time, weekly retrospectives. I showed some emotion again. This company normalised talking about mental health and therapy. It felt like family. Every job since has been better than the last.
Change Detection for Digital Art
My year in industry was over. It was back to academia to finish my degree. I had to pick a third-year project and the title that went with my skills was “Build a website using a modern framework”. This was a boring title and a boring project. If I wanted an easy grade I would’ve picked it. Instead, I picked “Using technology to assist artists”.
My mastery time became about learning Processing. Processing helps artists learn to program and create digital art. I felt a sense of community for the first time in years. I became a moderator of r/processing and maintained a weekly coding challenge.
I returned to the industry as a data scientist. With access to machine learning and a focus on data my “Could I make this?” became “How can I misuse this?”.
I started running sentiment analysis of my Whatsapp chats to show that I am the most positive out of my friends (Tutorial coming soon). I have since worked on three commissioned digital art pieces that utilise machine learning.
For fun, and with a mastery focus, I have learnt so many tools I never would’ve picked up from that first job. I am a better employee for it.
If you take away two things from this, let them be:
- If you can still learn, you are a valuable person.
- If you’re having fun learning, you will learn more.
“But Joe, my business doesn’t really like all this agile stuff. They definitely won’t give us one hour a week for mastery time!”
Incredible. Mastery is one of the three great motivators. People push back on modern development practices because they look fluffy. A loyal employee will do so much more for you. Try to speak to the highest person that cares. Nobody is going to be mad at you for trying to get more perks for employees.
You will learn more from fun projects than from forced technology choices. Pick up a dead project, or start a new one. At work ask about mastery time, talk about the benefits.
Respect yourself, life is too short to give your time to a company that gives no time to you.