Sunset flight - sabbatical

I started working at $FAANG_COMPANY (henceforth referred to as $COMPANY) on Monday January 16, 2017, and stopped working at $COMPANY on Friday June 24, 2022. I was paid (well) to further the business interests of $COMPANY for one thousand, nine hundred, and eighty-five days, excluding most weekends. Thus was my first full time job.

I would tell you what my job title was, but it doesn’t really matter, and anyway I worry it might mislead you about what I actually did because job titles are weird. I ran and analyzed data from experiments, did some data engineering, trained a regression model or two, trained a deep learning model or two, and built a lot of automated inference and decision-making workflows that combined model outputs and business rules. Yes I did “machine learning” “in production”. I was halfway between a scientist and a developer and I liked it.

It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a lot of privilege in being able to quit a job not because you’re going to a different one, but because you’re just not happy doing it anymore.

  • Financial. I have enough money saved to support myself through a period of unemployment without getting anxious about meeting my basic needs. Multiple unlikely catastrophes would have to happen for me to be in a bad place.
  • Legal. Getting my work visa to move to the US and start my job at $COMPANY was not a smooth process, but it got done. Getting my permanent residency was far more turbulent, but despite the odds it also got done. I’m lucky to have a more stable life in this country without having to carry the work visa holder’s constant anxiety about losing or leaving a job. For those unfamiliar with that anxiety, it sucks and it warps the way you think.1
  • Social/mental. Leaving a job is a scary thing to do. I’ve had the support of some who reassured me that I wasn’t crazy, others who reassured me that I would be able to find gainful employment again, and even others who quit jobs before me and did not immediately die or combust into flames.

You do a job for a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

Intrinsic motivations include:

  • You enjoy the ideas you’re working on, the specific problems you’re trying to solve, the product you’re trying to make better.
  • You enjoy the technical aspects of the work.
  • You value the impact of the work.

Extrinsic motivations include:

  • Compensation (salary + benefits + retirement savings + other).
  • Job stability.
  • You don’t want to leave a great manager.
  • You don’t want to leave a great team.

Different people have different intrinsic/extrinsic portfolios. Some have an intrinsic heavy ~90%/~10% mix (I’ll stereotype here, but: artists? people who work in used bookstores?), some have a ~50%/~50% mix (tough to find stereotypical examples for this), and some have an extrinsic heavy ~10%/~90% mix (people in finance, a lot of people in tech, and me at $COMPANY towards the end).

That’s the main reason I had to leave; I was running out of intrinsic motivation. For a while I was able to lean on the enjoyment of the technical aspects of the work, but they were tangential at best to my job description. I was stealing fulfillment from a role that wasn’t designed to give it to me, and my team was starting to move in the opposite direction. Not good.

I already lacked a good answer to the question “did my work delight anyone or make anyone’s life significantly better?”2 Losing the enjoyment of the craft itself made my decision easier. Going forward, I cannot not have a good answer to that question no matter what other conditions are met.

So I am taking a sabbatical. I don’t know how long it will last, and I don’t have a solid plan for it yet.

I want to travel (check), write more (check), read more (check), spend more time with people whose company I love (check, and in progress), return to and start personal projects so I can remember what it’s like to code for fun (not yet started), and explore the widest possible range of ideas for what I’m going to do for money next (not yet started).

Can I find a role defined around the technical work I enjoy? Can I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (interviewing in tech) again? Will I even go back to tech? Will I move? Will I work remotely?

All open questions.

  1. For an excellent writeup on what the US work visa and immigration process looks like, do read 18 Years A Transient – My Journey Through the American Immigration System as a Computer Engineer – Software the Hard way↩︎

  2. Thankfully I’m pretty sure my work didn’t make anyone’s life worse. A fate not trivial to avoid in tech. ↩︎