Good Employees

I used to run a business that handled backups and security, or hack mitigation for websites and small businesses.  It was a good business, and I enjoyed it.  It started from nothing, and slowly grew until it could support me full time, without much extra.  But right around that time, I started running into issues – the business needed to grow, and in order to grow, it needed to change – to be lower touch, and scale better, larger.  We were at the limits of what I (as the only technical staff) could provide.

But that’s not what happened, because I needed money.  And when you need money, you start making the wrong decisions – prioritizing one-off deals that provide short-term cashflow over the slower, steadier work of scaling the business.  So that’s exactly what I did – a lot of individual deals, a lot of individual work that would get us by, month to month, but didn’t provide any lasting benefit, and didn’t really help the business grow.  Because we needed the money, we needed it to work, we stalled, and couldn’t continue growing.

I’ve been an employee now for several years, but I can see that the same concept exists here – with different consequences, different symptoms, but similarly dire outcomes.

Good Employees are not warm bodies

I’m grateful to not be in a business that just needs a warm body in a specified location, following well defined directions.  I’m paid not just to blindly follow instructions to get something from point a to point b – I’m paid because I’m a person with thoughts and ideas, who can offer insight and solutions to problems.  I don’t think I’m particularly unique in this.  My particular field, and employer do a good job of emphasizing autonomy and the idea that everyone is expected to think critically about the business – but I think deep down this is basically universal.  I think good employees, in most positions, and most fields, are hired not just to accomplish tasks, but because they’re smart, driven, and willing to give themselves to the problems and challenges a business faces.  An employee who just does the work asked of them as it’s laid out is a very smart robot, and will soon find themselves replaced with just that.

But I need this job

But there’s a conflict here.  Employers want their employees to be happy and productive.  Employees want to feel secure.  But often employees feel like they are tied to a job, to a company, for whatever reason – maybe they’re living paycheck to paycheck and don’t think they can afford the time it would take to find a new job.  Maybe they’re afraid they can’t find a job with benefits they’ve become accustomed to.  Maybe they’re afraid of starting over somewhere new.  It doesn’t matter.  As soon as someone decides that losing their job is a real risk that they’re unwilling to take, they’ll start acting to protect it – in ways that are often counter to the best interests of themselves and the business.

Honesty

Conflict is difficult for most people, especially conflict with superiors.  However – conflict, used constructively, breeds success.  A workplace without any conflict at all – opposing ideas, heated discussions, impassioned cases – is doomed.  Even smart people have dumb ideas, and if no one is questioning the people making plans, everyone will be worse for it.  If employees aren’t willing to stand up for what they believe in up to the point of leaving a job for it, it’s a loss for them, and for the business.  Passionate people do good work.  Agreeable people have a pleasant, comfortable time making garbage.

Balance

Relationships are subtle things, that require delicate balance.  To achieve full potential, that balance constantly has to be checked and tweaked, making sure that both sides are happy and committed.  The moment one side falls down and admits that they need the other too much, that they’re willing to accept too much compromise, that they’ll do work they don’t believe in as long as they keep getting paid, the balance is lost.  It doesn’t matter if there are good, caring people on both sides of the equation – when one needs the other more than is reciprocated, it’s impossible to work as well as it could.

Good employees are willing to quit

This is not to say good employees should quit jobs often, or early, or that an employee who has been somewhere a long time is bad – rather: in order to maximize productivity and satisfaction for both sides, the employee has to be as ready to quit as the business is ready to fire them.  Part of the employee’s job then, is to make sure that they’re always in a position – financially, emotionally, whatever – to be able to leave, and survive until they can find a new position.

So I don’t know, the least you can do is conspicuously keep a “go-bag”  with a couple of days worth of clothing and some beef jerky in it by your desk.  Just to let everybody know how ready you are.  When your boss gets out of line, just subtly point at it and raise your eyebrows.  Or, I guess, get your finances in order.  Less fun, but probably more effective.

School: the Farmers’ Almanac of Success

Spoiler: The Farmers’ Almanac is terrible at actually forecasting the weather.

I’ve never been a particularly good student. In fact, in high school, you could safely classify me as a “poor” student. I was lazy. I had a hard time paying attention in class. I often misunderstood (or completely ignored) the concepts being taught. I almost never did homework. I graduated on time, but my doing so was more uncertain than I like admitting.

I feel like my school career up to that point was particularly hard on my parents: being told by teacher after teacher that I could be great, if I just applied myself. The subtext seemed to be: “Well, you got the genetics right, but you raised a lazy, apathetic child. You should try harder.”

I was just a bad student.

After high school, things didn’t change. I got accepted to a few 4 year schools (due entirely to my ability to do well on standardized tests), but I ended up attending the local community college. I continued to flounder there, and gave up after a few years of lackluster effort.

Somehow, giving up on community college was the right choice. Things slowly started to improve. I taught myself to bumble through code (which had been of interest to me for years), and started doing maintenance and small website projects for people. I really enjoyed the work, and I enjoyed the challenge of learning on my own, so I excelled. In some ways, this was surprising: I enjoyed learning, and I was good at it.

This love for code and fascination with learning slowly blossomed into a career – a great career that supports my family, in a growing industry, doing work I love. I naiively assumed that everything would work out in the long run. I was never worried about being dumb, or not being able to make it.

But I imagine there are lots of kids who do poorly in school — who refuse to memorize formulas, who can’t force themselves to do homework, who realize suddenly halfway through a lecture that they have no idea what is going on — and assume that this is indicative of their chances at success. It must be terrifying for them, and for their parents.

Good news! I’m not dumb, or lazy, or even “bad at learning”. Worst case, I’m “different”. I didn’t learn very well via traditional methods. As it turns out, that just means that I don’t learn very well via traditional methods. That’s all. It doesn’t mean I can’t be gainfully employed, or productive, or happy, or successful. It just means I was bad at school.

And nobody pays me to go to school.


Some people excel in school, and continue to after, just as we all assumed they would. Some people excel in school, and struggle after. Some people struggle in school, and excel after. My high school grades did not define my future. I’m guessing it’s this way with nearly any time period in life:

My current (if temporary) trajectory always feels permanent. If things are going well, I slip into the mindset that I’ve made it, and it will be smooth sailing from here on out. The fight is over, the good guys won. Conversely, a few bad days, poor decisions, or bad luck too easily feel like our lot in life.

I suppose I have to take some tips from my irresponsible, lazy, shortsighted high school self. Nothing is certain. Your current situation does not determine your future. So keep working.

The Treachery of Optimism

I used to own a business. It was successful, and I’m very proud of it – but it wasn’t a home run. Most of the time it was just successful enough to not be a failure. I paid enough of my bills every month to avoid serious discomfort. When things were good, we caught up. When life was expensive, we fell behind.

The service I offered – a backup and security product for WordPress websites called CodeGarage – came with stress. The code didn’t always work right, and when it went bad, people were occasionally left hanging. If customers got hacked, or new customers needed help cleaning up the mess left by hackers, they were impatient to see results and have things get back to normal. I worked a lot of late nights, cleaning up problems and helping customers. I enjoyed the work, but the stresses it created were not trivial.

Over time I grew tired of the endless financial stress, and felt like I was stagnating professionally. I wasn’t growing as a developer or a business owner, I was just keeping my head above water. In an effort to figure out how to keep moving forward, I applied to, and eventually sold CodeGarage to Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com), joining them as a developer. Personally and professionally, this was a huge victory; vindication that the hard work of the prior years was worthwhile. To top it off, Automattic was (and continues to be) a dream job — a company I had watched and admired for years, which turned out to be even better on the inside than it appeared on the outside.

Overnight, my lifestyle changed significantly. I had gone from a struggling small business owner to an employee. I knew exactly how much money I’d make every month. It was enough money, every time. I knew when it would hit my bank account. I even had health insurance. Real health insurance.

Not all the change was financial. I slept more, and I slept better. I was easier to be around. I could take time off. I lost weight. I could go an entire weekend without working. The release of stress and the accompanying benefits was not slow and gradual – it was abrupt, and obvious.

But somehow, things felt off. I was restless. Uncomfortable. In spite of the fact that I was making enough money to live comfortably, my work/life balance was better, and my stress was way down, I couldn’t shake the idea that something was missing.


My entire adult life had been about hustle: after eeking out a high school diploma, I floundered at community college. Soon after, I found myself working in a factory. I was unhappy, and I knew I could do better. So, in those long nights on the factory floor, I convinced myself that things could get better. Hard work could create a better career, a better life.

Struggle became my life, my mantra. Each step along the way was a victory – the first time I convinced someone to let me build a website for them. The first time I won a job on rentacoder.com. The first paying customers for my SAAS business. The most crucial piece though — the thing that made it all tolerable, even exciting — was the dream. Owning a big, self-sustaining business. Thousands of customers. Financial freedom. The big payout.

Struggling to get by, and to convince myself (and those around me) that owning a business is a good idea, I felt like I had to dream big. Working long hours and dealing with constant stress (financial and otherwise) didn’t feel worth it if the payout was just an unstable income, and less flexibility than a normal employee has.

As a business owner, it’s easy to believe that you’re just one big deal, one solid marketing campaign, one killer feature away from massive growth. This optimism isn’t necessarily irrational. CodeGarage saw at least 2 occasions that worked exactly like this: events, ideas, or sales that singularly propelled the business to a new level. Without the continuous belief that things will continue working out, and continue growing, I’d have quit or failed long before any money was made. This was the required mindset in order to keep going. However: it came with side effects.

Since I was convinced that I was just a few good decisions, ideas, or turns of fate away from greater success, I knew that these things would come to me. They’d happen, and probably soon. Success was not a question of if, but when, and more than that, it was “how soon”.

In practice, that meant I knew that within some period of time, the business would be successful enough that any of my current problems — work/life balance, money, stress — would disappear. So why bother worrying about them?

Assuming that impending success will solve all of your problems is a bit like praying instead of going to the doctor. It gave me the acute ability to ignore, or at least postpone dealing with problems. Financial problems (say, the massive expense of childbirth without maternity coverage, or poorly calculated tax liabilities) in particular were easy to ignore, as I was convinced greater success would soon solve them.

Of course, living like this is precarious. I slowly realized that while it did just take a few events to massively change a business, I might not have the requisite skills to facilitate those events, or I might not be able to learn them as quickly as circumstance demanded. Most terrifying, they might come too late. I was fortunate to land at Automattic, where I can continue to learn and grow. Maybe someday I’ll end up running a business again – this time with a new array of skills and tools to find success.

This brings me back to the vaguely unsettled feeling I developed after a time in my new, stable job. I had grown to believe massive (and most importantly, financial) success was just around the corner, all the time. In many ways, moving to my current job is that success I sought. However, it’s not “buy a yacht” success. Or “Own a second home at a ski resort” success. It is “Improve your skills working on interesting projects with smart people while not having to worry about whether your child can go to the doctor next month” success.

Having a job with a stable income, and compensation not tied directly to performance (at least, not in the way it is as a business owner) has meant accepting that I’m not going to buy a yacht next year. Conversely, it meant that I could buy a comfortable house this year. Much more importantly, it means that any financial problems I run into actually have to be dealt with, and not put off until the next theoretical deal can erase them. It’s a bit like losing touch with an old, fun loving, terribly irresponsible friend.

I’ll miss you, buddy.