Does It Spark Joy?

February 17, 2020 · 7 mins read
Photo by korpa on Unsplash

tl;dr This week, I’m resigning from Netflix to return to being a software engineer. I’ll announce where I’m moving to next month.

I remember the day vividly.

My skip (manager’s manager) sent us a last minute calendar invite, vaguely titled “Org Updates”. I was surprised, but also wasn’t. I was getting used to changes in a rapidly growing organization. It didn’t take a lot to figure out what was going on.

I looked at the invite list, and mentally calculated the delta between the org chart and the people invited. A couple of people I knew weren’t on it—most notably, my manager.

My manager was someone I looked up to. I still do. They were always honest with me, and gave me opportunities to stretch skills I didn’t know I had. They were the rare breed of manager who was able to align your personal growth with the goals of the company. I became a tech lead for the first time with their help. The news of their departure caught me by surprise, and I cried at work when I heard it. It’s difficult to find a manager that “gets it”, and I had just lost mine.

My skip and the VP Eng later pulled me aside for a chat. “Lauren, I know this news is hard for you. Your manager helped get this org get started, and …[other things that aren’t relevant to the story]. I know we’ve had a couple of conversations about leadership and management recently. I think you’re ready to be the engineering manager of this team.”

It was true—I was very curious about management. I pestered other managers to tell me everything they knew about leadership, and to tell me stories about what the job was like. I spoke to anyone who would spare me a minute. I eagerly read all the articles and blog posts, and put recommended books on my reading list. I had even volunteered to help my manager with hiring and to put together a take home exercise. But I was just doing research. I hadn’t planned on being a manager at this very early point of my career, which had really just started. At that point, I was about 5 years into working professionally as a software engineer after 2 years working on a failed startup.

To be honest, I don’t remember what exactly my skip and their manager said that day. I was trying to process my emotions from the days’ news, so I wasn’t listening to most of what they said. I couldn’t. Even though they tried to tell me that I was ready, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t think I could do it.

I ended up taking the job a couple of days later. I realized it was a Type 2 decision, so there was no point agonizing over making a perfect decision. One guiding principle that has shaped my career is: do things that scare you. Fears tend to disguise opportunities for personal growth. Switching roles to be a manager was completely uncharted territory for me. I was terrified, but whatever happened, I knew I would be learning and growing. I also had a backup plan: I could go back to being an engineer if I didn’t let my skills atrophy too much.

Does it spark joy?

When I took the job, I promised myself two things:

  1. I would always do my best for the company—no matter how difficult it got, how many hard conversations I’d have to have, how many people I needed to hire, and no matter how insurmountable the challenge seemed—I told myself I’d stick it out and always put in 100%.
  2. I would reevaluate every year whether it was still my dream role. If it wasn’t, I had to go back and not be stuck in a job that I didn’t love.

Early last year, I told my new manager what I just told you. Their response was classic. They asked me in return, “what brings you ultimate joy?”. I left our 1:1 feeling deeply introspective, but with more questions than I had answers. I thought I was going to get actionable advice. Instead, I felt like I had gone up the mountain to see the oracle, and returned with a riddle.

I lay in bed that night unable to sleep. I was thinking about that question and reflecting on my past year. Life as a manager had been difficult, lonely, rewarding, and everything in between. What I liked about management was the same thing that got me interested in it in the first place—it’s all about the people. I loved fully owning the composition of my team, coaching my team into wild success at Netflix, and creating an environment where they can thrive. I certainly had lots of satisfaction from doing these things and I know they were very impactful. But did it bring me joy?

My thoughts went back further. My programming career had started from a pivotal point—my stepdad handing me a CD-R containing a pirated copy of Macromedia Fireworks when I was about 13. Don’t worry, I got Photoshop a little bit after, and paid for it too :) Armed with an internet connection and infinite curiosity, I came across a local community of web and graphic designers hanging out on a web-based forum. This was the early 2000s, when forums built with phpBB were all the rage. I hung out with them on IRC and we said silly internet things to each other like “roflcopter”. We thought we were the shit, but it was just weird.

I loved it.

Through trial and error, view source, endless tutorials, and a ton of patience, I absorbed everything I could about design and web development. My grades suffered, but I learned more than I ever did in class. I had never been so intrinsically motivated 😂. Later, I worked freelance and earned some pocket money designing websites for schools and small local businesses. I have fond memories of abusing lens flares; writing unintelligible JavaScript; creating horrible Flash animations; using HTML <table>s, sliced images and spacer.gif for layouts.

Because I neglected school so much, I had a difficult time after high school. I grew up in Singapore, a country obsessed with academic credentials. I didn’t do well enough to go anywhere. As a last resort, I applied to an art and design polytechnic on special consideration. My time spent learning Photoshop and web design as a young teenager helped me put together a portfolio. I still remember feeling so shocked that I managed to trick them into accepting me.

I realized that what I miss most is being a maker. It’s hard to describe what being a maker is, but I can describe what it feels like. It’s that feeling you get when you turn a blank canvas or empty document into something. Whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, code, it all still feels like magic. If you’re as fortunate as I am, you might know this feeling too. It’s powerful stuff. When I was working as an engineer, going into work everyday made me giddy with excitement. It didn’t feel like work. I’m getting paid to do my hobby! As a manager, I still made things in my spare time, but it wasn’t quite the same.

The riddle-like advice I had gotten was spot on. Only I could answer this question for myself. And now I had my answer.

What’s next

This week, I’m resigning from Netflix to return to being a software engineer. I’ll announce where I’m moving to next month. Leaving somewhere you’ve worked for 4 years is scary, but you know my opinions on fear.

After 2 challenging and rewarding years as an engineering manager, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that you can be both an individual contributor and a leader. Some of the most effective ICs I’ve worked with do this incredibly well and know that you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. I’ve distilled a few of these things down into personal engineering leadership principles that I plan to evolve and bring along with me into my next adventure. I’ll write about this topic more in a future blog post.

I’m excited that I’ve found an opportunity that aligns with my personal growth goals, and humbled that I’ll get to explore this with an incredible group of kind, smart, and thoughtful human beings. I’ll share more details next month on Twitter.

I leave you with these questions from @millie’s wonderful slide deck on what to do with your life:

  • If you find it hard to wake up excited about going to work in the mornings, ask yourself why
  • If working at your current company is not aligned with your long-term goals or values, consider making a move
  • If you’ve never thought about where you’d like to be in three years, sit down and think about it

Keep doing things that scare you.

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Written by Lauren Tan who lives and works in the Bay Area building useful things. You should follow her on Twitter