... and a Happy New Year, as I won't be writing until January.
It seemed like the natural time to talk about the weirder things I've done in the past two years, how they turned out, what comes next, and most entertainingly, how my employer is almost certainly going to fire me next year.
I. On My Soul and Exiting the Safe Path
Selling out (I'd rather call it "compromise")
Is easy to do (sometimes you have to close your eyes)
It's not so hard (being rich is no disgrace)
To find a buyer for you (put on your shoes and join the race)
When money talks (it has a very soothing voice)
You're under its spell (it's up to you to make the choice)
Ah, but whaddya have when there's nothing left to sell?
(Before you know it there'll be nothing left to sell)
From 2019 to 2022, I played the perfect by-the-books game in life. Coming from Southeast Asia, but being deeply immersed in Western culture through the good old remnants of imperialism, media, and literature, I had the dual qualities that make each of these cultures valuable in the modern marketplace. That is, I was disciplined coming from Asia, and quickly figured out the Western knack for both cunning and fluent bullshit - we have plenty of bullshit in Asia, but compared to the West, we are humble students at the feet of the masters. And in turn, you have much to learn from us about blatant corruption and nepotism.
I crushed interviews, picked up the business lingo quickly, took to wearing white shirts, and saved up almost AUD 100K by virtue of my only expensive weakness being that I buy too many books.
Cunning got me my first real job within 24 hours of starting the search, fluent bullshit allowed me to enter the workforce with no experience on an exorbitant salary AUD 117K, and discipline allowed me to received a 10K raise on average every year. Notably absent from this formula is anything related to producing value for anyone or my beliefs. I suppressed those things, because they weren't compatible with corporate culture.
In my first three years, I saved up AUD 100K without trying particularly hard, after losing tens of thousands of dollars to the Australian government's extortionate immigration schemes - fun fact for Australian conservatives by the way! Did you know the Australian government awards points in their immigration scheme for doing a year long, AUD 12K course containing such vital information as how to write emails to white people if you're a stupid brown person like me? I'm sure glad that the government is actually keeping the "bad people" out with their immigration policies, instead of letting elites from other countries buy their way in!
In any case, everything was going perfectly. Reasonable work hours, big money, etc.
I was absolutely miserable by 2022. I woke up every day, did mediocre work on projects that were obviously doomed to fail by virtue of the organizations and incentives involved, and eventually found myself unable to work at all. And then no one noticed that I wasn't working. This culminated in dropping down to three days of work, costing me around AUD 70K a year in total compensation, because I simply couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't. The thing that broke me was being pulled off the literally lifesaving project I had signed up for to help a ratfuck bastard (an actually famous one) clean up the SharePoint morass his team had created so he could look better for a promotion. Someone told me in a meeting that I should have called a table
Work_Area instead of
Work_Site, and suddenly ludic.exe stopped working.
The first lesson is being a miserable programmer isn't so bad, because a miserable barber can't afford to cut their work hours like this.
I was worried that giving up so much money was irresponsible. Many people warned me that the grass is always greener, and that unhappy people aren't going to be less unhappy because they've changed their material circumstances.
Those people were being very reasonable, are right in some cases, and were also totally wrong in this one. It turns out that our monkey brains aren't calibrated for staring at screens for hours at end, writing tedious SQL for reports that no one reads. This is going to sound crazy, but what if reading a book in a cafe is better than that?
The second lesson (obvious) is that where I spend my time, who I spend it with, and what I spend it on are actually important. When I was younger, I clung to the stoic idea that happiness lies in transcending your attachment to anything beyond your control, including your ability to control your comfort and safety. The truth so far seems to be that you need to transcend some things because life can't be perfect, but you don't have to transcend the pain of ramming knives into your eyes if you stop ramming knives into your eyes.
The third lesson is for the people that sadly approach me and longingly say they wish they had the same deal. It took me two weeks to arrange work at three days a week, as a non-FAANG immigrant. Just be smart about it. Even if you are much, much worse than me, maybe it'll take a year to make it happen.
II. On My Career Being Doused In Kerosene
I received an email this year from a reader titled "Career-Limiting Moves". They talked about their many experiences that aligned with my writing, but wisely put much more effort into remaining anonymous.
You can't always break the rules
People who try are fools
When you get older, maybe then you will see
I've always found ideals
Don't take the place of meals
And that's how it is and how it will always be
I am probably going to lose my job next year.
I've been on the front page of Hackernews four times this year, with each and every post being filled with wrongthink. Several people in my office know I write this blog, which means, no matter how well-intentioned they are, it is no longer a secret. My employer will eventually decide to either contact me directly and ask me to stop writing (and I don't negotiate with terrorists so I'll be forced to leave), or they will restructure and conveniently decide my role is redundant.
In all likelihood, this blog will blow up a few more times in 2024. My real name will eventually start turning up in searches alongside it - I've already met people who have come across my writing without realizing it was me. At this point, all of the people that Taleb calls "empty suits" will no longer want to work with me, and many of the people that aren't empty suits but are nonetheless subject to the whims of their vampiric overlords will be too scared to work with me. Some of my professional network will disintegrate, because the worst people will recognize themselves in my writing, and it will be too politically toxic for the good people to associate with me in formal settings.
My future is in total flux - I don't know what happens after that. I might land in the best roles I've ever seen, working with top-tier programmers solving important problems because I've driven away the people I dislike. Much more likely, I will have to struggle to make ends meet. The people I dislike seem to capture most large enterprises for various reasons - namely, that they're shameless liars. You can't always break the rules, as Tom Lehrer says, but not lying isn't one of the rules he's talking about. The real rules are things like "don't embarrass your superiors that appear in tech leadership magazines by writing about how their team wastes half a million dollars in idle Snowflake compute". The bill will come due for all of this.
But I also don't spend my time worrying about whether I'm going to regret all those wasted years on my deathbed, so you know what, the empty suits can still go fuck themselves. I'll go to my grave calling out this waste of human potential, you slack-jawed fucks. You mud-soaked yokels. You absolute midwits. I'd rather work at McDonald's with a bunch of acne-ridden teens than apologize like a housebroken dog. At least someone can eat a burger - I have no idea what the hell the last three years of my work has produced for anyone.
I don't even know what the lesson is. I guess we'll all find out together, based on whether I resort to blogging from a cardboard box. I'm under no illusion that I wouldn't urgently and gratefully sell out to escape that cardboard box, but at least I'll have a good reason for it.
III. On Owning Risk
My girlfriend got a pet rabbit this year, and despite being a dog person, I love this little bastard so much that I was almost conned into buying a $60 bag of hay because I thought it might be healthier for him. I still worry that it is better for him, because my precious boy is going to go to Harvard and needs the nutrients for his mandated violin lessons. I'd gleefully kill every one of you sons of bitches in cold blood to improve his well-being by a fraction of a percent.
The lesson for me is that I'm guessing that's about 10% of the intensity of what people feel for their actual children, and that is why I understand that no one is going to bail me out when the secret police come for me. They've got kids, or rabbits, to feed. My readers are wholesome engineers for the most part, not sociopaths running companies with the resources it would take to hire me if I run into difficulty. The system is very much capable of crushing me like a little ant.
The other thing to consider, derived from paying attention to the world for thirty seconds, is that sometimes you just get cancer and die. This is a very personal decision and I'd never say that saying no to money is more correct or noble, but I hope that everyone has done the calculations on this one. Things extraneous to the system are very much capable of crushing me like a little ant.
If nothing else, I hope that we all go into 2024 making the courageous decisions that will allow us to meet the inevitable descending boot with the feeling that we had a good run.
IV. On Sacrifices
It's so nice to have integrity
I'll tell you why
If you really have integrity
It means your price is very high
I had the opportunity to get two grotesquely well-paid jobs this year. One of them was with Shell, where I had a friend almost pass the final interview, and frankly I was basically guaranteed to get it. I still insist that I'm a mediocre programmer at best, but interviews are laughably easy to hack at most companies - theirs was no exception despite being more rigorous than most. They were offering AUD 200K and another 10% bonus on top of that. Enough money that I could buy a house, have kids, buy anything else that I wanted, etc, probably for the rest of my life. My reply was as follows:
Thanks for getting in touch. I had a read through the role and was on the fence, but I don't think it's for me at the end of the day. While I'd love to work somewhere with more mature practices than [CURRENT_EMPLOYER], an oil megacorp is a bridge too far for me ethically.
The offer I spoke about here, which I also rejected on principled grounds, was similarly lucrative. That one was about AUD 200K all up.
It is unlikely I will be approached for any other roles in those salary ranges anytime soon. I have to rely on my network very heavily for such highly paid roles - they don't just come around every day. I'm proud of staying principled, but I also wanted to be clear - it cost me a whole house in one of the most inflated real estate markets in the world. I could genuinely just be rich now and live in a gigantic property instead of this tiny apartment. Instead, it's the tiny apartment for the foreseeable future.
People have congratulated me on being brave about this. It always feels weird because I didn't feel brave at all. I feel like I didn't really have a choice. How much money are my happiness and soul worth?
I said no to the money, and I didn't die. I'm still happy. It was a choice.
V. On Improv
I spent a lot of time this year attending improvised theater classes at Impro Melbourne. They're awesome, and I have met so many wonderful friends doing it. I could not recommend it highly enough. I'd also like to shill for this book. And as far as Impro Melbourne goes in particular, their monthly shows are amazing - if you're in Melbourne, hit me up and I'll go with you! A big goal of mine in the next two years is to perform at an actual event.
There's another school here called The Improv Conspiracy, and I've been told that it feels super commercial and unpleasant by students who have attended both. Apparently they're very money-oriented, using something I don't understand called the Chicago method, whereas the people I work with at Impro Melbourne clearly have their soul in the game.
The lesson there is pretty self-evident.
VI. On Not Talking If You Don't Do
At the risk of sounding arrogant - and it should be clear by now that my appetite for risk only grows with every passing day outside the corporate world - I am a very polished speaker, a skill I cultivated in the typical nerd's quest to not have my whole life feel like high school. I have, at many points, been offered the opportunity to speak. Before the interruption of Covid, with a little sprinkling of nepotism, I was scheduled to give a talk at a major medical conference on the applications of artificial intelligence to healthcare practice, an area I have no lived experience in at all.
The problem with this, I now realize, is that my ability to speak far outstrips my life experience. I'm not even 30 yet, but if I really wanted to, I could be on stages talking about how Agile is absolute bullshit and brand myself as some sort of no-nonsense developer advocate. All coming from a guy that has only worked at organizations so incompetent that I've deployed less than 150 lines of code in the past 18 months.
I'm going to be sick just thinking about it.
There were several points this year where friends pointed out that I could probably transition my blog's success into a lifetime of interviewing people, affiliate marketing, and pandering to middle managers that want to feel like they're still edgy. This is probably true. My most successful writing did about 200K hits in a period of a couple of hours, and I write fast enough that I could have churned out a couple of clickbait titles to capitalize on that. Instead, I write about whatever feels authentic and enjoy the declining numbers as a sign that I'm writing for the right reasons.
The only thing that differentiates me from an Agile snake-oil salesman is not actually technical knowledge, though that's nice. The real thing is that I understand that there's no substitute for actual experience. I'm happy to talk about how bad the average organization is at extremely simple things, like actually using version control or motivating employees, because those are things where there really aren't any serious political obstacles. I would never venture that I know how to successfully increase the revenue generated by data functions at an organization, because I've never done that. This is why all my advice in that area is some variant of "just shut down the analytics department lmao". Executives have assured me that this is achievable, even in countries with strong labour laws, via the judicious application of restructuring.
Going into 2024, I hope to either succeed with my company, or have it gloriously explode. In both cases, I'll be able to do something I've really been enjoying, which is writing and talking in an arena where there's no room for self-delusion. We either make money or we don't, but I'll have stories either way.
VII. On Technical Skill
My technical skill is still very weak compared to many of the people that write in - I'm no slouch but muscles atrophy from disuse. I've yet to work on a single large project that had a serious effort put into designing, implementing, or maintaining it, let alone ones where this was my primary responsibility. Please note that a serious effort is not the same thing as a lot of effort. A lot of effort is what you get from ten thousand idiots flailing away at Jira, a serious effort is what you expect from your surgeon.
I was expecting my skills to continue weakening relative to my time in industry, but I had much more time to study. I'm only including technical study, because I read a great deal of management material but even the strongest books failed to blow me away in this domain, with the possible exception of the legendary The Mythical Man Month.
This year, I've gone through most of Rich Hickey's talks, which were delightful and gave me a lot to think about. I've since added Jose Valim to the sadly short list of people I look to for programming inspiration.
I finished up about 250 pages of Programming Elixir then put together a fun application with realtime functionality using Phoenix and LiveView. It is very cool, though I must confess that I somehow managed to grok functional programming much more quickly than CSS, which I still don't understand at all. The main thing that struck me, which slots neatly into the previous chapter on the asymmetry between theorycraft and being a practitioner, is how hard design actually is without experience - which is why I advise new engineers not to waste any time on mediocre organizations. The median organization simply doesn't think about good design at all, only about how to churn out the next feature faster, so you'll end up like me, not having learned a damn thing in years were it not for putting in all that time after hours.
I was also able to experience Rich Hickey's assertion that well-designed systems allow you to go faster over time during this brief foray into web-development, illustrated in this image for those who are unfamiliar. Almost every time I decided that some element of best practice didn't matter on such a small toy project (though not trivial due to my low skill in the domain), it inevitably ended up slowing me down later.
I worked through Primagen's algorithms course because, I kid you not, my "top 100 globally" university cancelled the postgraduate Data Structures and Algorithms offering due to only < 20 students out of hundreds deciding that was actually worth taking. I remind myself of this fact every time someone says that Sturgeon's Law isn't a thing.
Following that, I quickly worked through Jay Wengrow's A Common-Sense Guide to Data Structures and Algorithms to solidify some concepts. That's right, nerds, I got the title of senior engineer without understanding Big O - that is how heavily companies factor in being sociable and confident during interviews. It dominates all other considerations unless you're talking to the 5% of the market that is savvy.
Next year, I am going to finish both of Thorsten Ball's books, one where you write a compiler and one where you write an interpreter. I will take a bit of extra time out to crunch through How Linux Works. I will certainly finish up the excellent Fluent Python, because while I am slowly developing into an actual senior engineer and viewing languages as complex tools with varied characteristics suited to handling different problems instead of looking for the One True Solution, a journey greatly accelerated by my introduction to the awesomeness of Erlang's Open Telecom Platform, the typical employer just wants me to do Python magic tricks for no reason.
I will also reluctantly complete both Star Schema: The Complete Reference and Fundamentals of Data Engineering, because it is nominally my profession and it would be wise to know the magic incantations that get me more money if I ever need it. In reality, I just Google these things and use my brain for real projects, but that isn't how interviews work.
I'm going to spend the rest of my time reading totally different things, because life is short and this shit is, fundamentally, for dweebs. I'm certainly going to finish off the whole Taleb collection and otherwise make a dent in my bookshelf.
VIII. On Writing
I've met a lot of cool people this year, and I'm going to keep writing so that this keeps happening. It looks like I have sent 167 blog-related emails this year, with only 6 left in my inbox before I reach what passes for Nirvana for adults.
I don't know if I have that many interesting observations on corporate culture left - it is, largely, a shallow and poisoned pond. There are more important things in life. I'm sure I'll get something out in the area from time to time, but I find myself lower on vitriol every day as I make choices that bring me away from the things I hate and closer to the things I love.
I'm also planning to take a two month trip around Europe, where I hope to meet plenty of readers. I have been promised a lunch in Croatia, and I will happily spend thousands on plane tickets and accommodation to collect. Sorry to the folks in the U.S - that probably has to wait for 2025, as I don't have the energy for back-to-back trips, and also don't want to go through an American airport as a brown, bearded man after all the horror stories.
IX. On Helping People
There are things I want to help my friends accomplish, and they're more important than anything I really want for myself - my wants are very simple. And helping people is a lot more fulfilling than printing more money for myself.
In 2023, I helped two friends leave their awful jobs for higher pay and the ability to care for their families more effectively. I advised another two on their job search and provided emotional support, which got them there.
I am currently coaching one reader into getting his first job, coming from a non-tech background. I love doing this, though I really am not good enough personally to do this for anyone other than an outright beginner.
My company is structured such that all six of us get an equal share of profit regardless of the time each person has put into work, an absolutely unscalable structure. It is my hope that, if I crank my brain up to a 1000%, I can generate enough recurring revenue to get them all off the hamster wheel.
Finally, I am actively looking to find work for the following three people. Please reach out to me (email@example.com) if you think you can do anything for them - it would be a great start to the new year:
- A close friend who is an excellent cybersecurity specialist, located in the U.S. He advises my company and has access to all of our internal comms, so I obviously trust him implicitly.
- Another close friend, coming from a background that involves backbreaking physical labour, located in Ohio. He works harder and is more loyal than anyone I've ever met. I will hard vouch that he will be one of the greatest employees you've ever seen if he is given the chance - any junior role will do.
- A talented engineer in New Zealand who reached out through the blog, who is facing what seems to me like an extremely clear-cut case of transphobia in the job market.
(Edit: The first has found a job outside of the blog, and the second has found a job through this blog.)
And lastly, I'm going to get fucking jacked next year, as I tell myself every year. Have good break, and instead of wishing you luck for 2024, which is what total dorks rely on, I'm going to wish you the courage to put your skin in the game for the things that you want. See you next year!