Web Design

Thoughts on Change

I quit.

This is the first time I've announced it publicly.  Two weeks ago, I was offered a job by Pantheon, and I accepted.  That means I'm leaving San Francisco International Airport after more than two years of service.  I'd like to share some thoughts on why.

First: My intent is to keep this positive.  I could get into personality conflicts or politics, and those things did matter, but that's not a very interesting article, and certainly doesn't belong in the public sphere.

Also: It's worth noting that there is a lot of good at the airport.  There are some smart, talented, hard working people.  I made some friends that I will honestly miss.  But that's not what this article is about either.  My point is that the airport does offer a good value proposition.  The pay was excellent.  The benefits (health, vision, dental, retirement) were unbeatable.  I was earning a pension.  I was there for over two years - by far the longest I've ever stayed at one company.  Most of the time, I did interesting things in a cool setting.  I got to watch 747's go by my window all day.

The value proposition is what this article is really about.  I'm a web developer, and I'm in the unique position of being able to choose where I work.  This is a rare luxury, and one I did not enjoy as an attorney.  My ability to do this is based in part on my life choices and some hard work, but it's also based on an insane amount of luck.  I'm very grateful, and I thank God every day.  I really love what I do.

After a certain point, your career choice is really a lifestyle choice.  Do you want to be an investment banker and earn a million dollars before you turn 24, and spend 80 hours at the office, and have no family and few friends?  Do you want to live alone, work at a minimum wage job, and spend all your free time playing video games and getting high?  Do you want to work at a stable government job with no prospect of upward mobility for 30 years?  Do you want to be a stay at home parent?  Do you want a job that offers "work life" balance so you can work AND have time to raise a family?  Do you want to sell your soul and make millions for an evil corporation?  Do you want to work for a non-profit and make peanuts but be proud of what you do?  Do you want to be a firefighter and risk your life every day?  Do you want to work in the medical profession and save lives every day?  Do you want to travel?  Do you want to sit in front of a computer 8 hours a day?  Or 12 hours a day?

Maybe that's why Americans ask each other "what do you do," when what they really mean is "how do you earn money?"  Because how we choose to earn our money really is a lifestyle choice.

When I decided to leave the airport, I had choices.  Do I want to commute for two hours in a car every day?  How about a private bus that will take me down the peninsula?  How about a company with no office, and I'll only see my coworkers over skype?  How about an office downtown San Francisco that requires me to ride public transit every day?  Some people hate public transit.  I love it.

In addition, because the competition for developers is so high, it's safe to assume that a job will come with perks.  Here are some of the perks I've heard about:

  • Peer bonuses 
  • Free food.  The airport didn't have it, Pantheon does.  Offering food (or at least snacks) belies a more generalized attitude that the company has toward its employees.  The airport's attitude was "we don't care," or "we don't think it's a good use of our money."  Pantheon's attitude is "we want you to be taken care of."  Of course I can choose to go buy my own meal whenever I want, and I certainly have enough money to do so.  I also have friends downtown and will be surrounded by awesome restaurants and food trucks so yes, I'm sure I will eat out sometimes.  But I love knowing that my employer wants to take care of that for me.  And to be honest, that benefit adds up to several thousand dollars per year.

However, for most developers, it's not really about the perks.  It wasn't for me.  Nobody is going to match the health & retirement benefits I had at the airport, to say nothing of the pension, and it will probably be years before I'm earning that much again (at least on paper).  Of course, money matters.  I have children to feed and a mortgage.  But assuming I can get a decent salary, there are more important things:

  • Standardized languages, platforms and rules (so it's not utter chaos) - here's a great Quora post on how Google does it
  • Location: There's a reason Silicon Valley is the center of the tech world.  This is an awesome place to live!  In particular, I decided I wanted to work in San Francisco.  Not Palo Alto, not Emeryville, definitely not Walnut Creek.  A big part of that is because I live in San Francisco, but it's also because I don't want to drive and I don't want a long commute.  Here are two posts about why the Bay Area is such a great place to live.
  • Flexible hours.  No timesheet.  Don't make me ask for permission if I need to take the kid to a doctor's appointment.
  • Meaningful work: Here's a great Quora post on this very subject: Why does Microsoft not have free food like Google and Facebook?  The bottom line: "Meaningful work and compensation are nearly independent variables.  The person who answered that question also left a large organization in order to join a startup.
  • I want to make a difference.  At the airport, I was one employee out of 1,600.  The airport goes to lengths to reassure us that every employee matters.  But it's very hard for an individual to have a meaningful impact in a place like that.  To be sure, the team matters, but that's true at Pantheon too.  The difference is that at Pantheon, I'll be one employee out of 75.  I'll be primarily responsible for working on their primary growth vector.  I'll be surrounded by a lot of people who are smarter than I am, but I'll have the space to do something that really matters to the organization on a daily basis.
  • Career trajectory: I can't tell you what I'll be doing in 5 years.  I can't even tell you whether I'll still be at Pantheon.  But I might be.  And if I am, I'll probably be doing something more challenging than what I'll be doing next week.  This is a place that fosters career growth.
  • On a similar note, Pantheon cares about professional development.  I'll get to go to all the Badcamps and Drupalcons.  If I want to learn node.js, they'll probably support that too (within reason).  My boss wants employees who will grow and improve.  That doesn't just benefit me; it benefits the comapny.
  • Cutting edge: Pantheon's hosting technology is newer and more innovative than the comeptition's.  This comes from an institutional willingness to try new things and experiment.  Responsible experimentation is celebrated, not punished.
  • Pragmatism: If you have a problem, solve it.  If you need a new computer, get one.  If there's an important software update, patch it.  There is a rigorous change management process, but it doesn't get in the way of progress.
  • Passion: At the airport, some people are smart and driven.  At Pantheon, pretty much everyone is.  They have to be, or they wouldn't last.  In fact, places like that are self-selecting; if you don't want to work your butt off and bring your A game every day, then you probably shouldn't work at a startup in the first place.

At one point I confessed to my uncle that I was worried about giving up the stability and security of a government job.  His reply: "You're hard working and reasonably intelligent.  That's your job security."  He's right.

So here I am, on the cusp of a pretty significant career shift.  Same industry, VERY different work environment.  Was this a good idea?  I think so.  I hope so.  We'll find out.