Careering forward

For most of my working life I've never had problems finding a new job. After drifting into computers in my mid-20s there's almost always been a vacancy waiting when I've needed one and, more often than not, usually a few to choose between. As a 'techie' the main concern has been to keep my skills up to date and ensure I'm not working in in a stagnating or declining technology, which can be tricky as these are often very well paid. On a few occasions I've taken big pay cuts to move into new types of work, notably switching from mainframes to Apple Macs and later from Macs to iPhones, but every time I've made up the loss (and usually ended up much better off) within a few years.

Things started to change after I'd spent a decade living in an alternative lifestyle community at Findhorn in northern Scotland. Although I'd kept working, either remotely or for local companies, the absence of well-known firms left a conspicuous gap in the 'career history' section of my CV. On top of this I was by now well into my 50s and the IT industry is notoriously intolerant of older programmers - with some justification as it's easy to get stuck in your ways in the face of rapid change. Eventually I fell back on my strategy of taking a lower-paid role to compensate for my lack of current or relevant experience and ended up with a job in Kent, not my intended location but I needed to move out of Findhorn and beggars can't be choosers.

A year later I took another pay cut to move into iPhone programming, something I could see would be in much higher demand (and more interesting) than working with Macs. This also had the benefit of letting me move to the West Country (specifically Wiltshire) which was the region I could see myself settling in to long term. Moving to Bradford on Avon put me in easy commuting distance to Bristol, a city with a growing IT industry which would provide some alternatives should I want (or need) to move to another company at some point.

And so all was well, over the next three years I picked up iOS programming techniques and, through persistence & circumstance, brought my salary level up to & beyond the level I'd reached when I was following a more conventional career path. With (relative) stability & wealth I took out a mortgage and began to see Bradford as 'my town' rather than just another stop along the way.

Then, out of the blue (more or less) the company decided to pull out of the mobile computing business and I found myself given notice of redundancy. At first I was blasé about it, updating my CV and waiting for the offers to pour in, but as the weeks turned into months and applications into rejections my confidence started to sag. I had a pretty good estimation of my abilities from my workmates so I started to look for other reasons - could it be that I was just too old in the eyes of potential employers? Having negotiated the labyrinth of Universal Credit it was clear that my social security entitlement wouldn't come close to covering my mortgage payments and although I had a good amount of savings they wouldn't last forever.

After nearly six months I finally found another job, again by taking a big drop in pay. This was with a very small company (I was employee #5) who turned out to be exactly what I needed - once I'd established that I was good at the job my salary bounced up again and I was given a huge amount of freedom, so long as the work was done well everything else was up to me. The programming was appreciably more difficult than at my previous job but I rose to the challenges and my professional self-confidence blossomed.

Sadly one of the disadvantages of a small company is that it's less resilient to 'fluctuations in the marketplace'. After two and a half years I found myself once again going through the redundancy process and pushing a newly-polished CV out to all the IT recruitment websites. After my previous experience in the coding cattle market I was more than a little apprehensive.

However this time around things weren't quite as bad. After two months of failed applications I found myself with two offers - a 6-month role in Bath or a more permanent position in Bristol. The latter would involve a much longer commute, something I'd gotten out of the habit of after mostly working from home over the past few years, but it would involve audio & music apps and did have the ongoing stability that I'd been sorely missing of late. I signed up and started looking at the price of rail season tickets to Bristol.

Shortly after starting work there I began to have my doubts. In my line of business contracts are fairly standard and I'd gotten out of the habit of reading through all the sub-clauses before signing, assuming that any major deviations from the norm would be clearly spelled out beforehand. The first indication that this wasn't the case came when I discovered that the working week was 40 hours rather than the almost universal 37.5 (or less) - I'd not worked a 40-hour week since the 1980s! The 'flexible' working turned out to be considerably less flexible than I'd expected and the stated reasons - mostly that people would be available for client calls - were clearly spurious as such calls were inevitably arranged well in advance.

The next break with convention came with holiday entitlement. Our online system for booking leave was 'reviewed' and suddenly everyone had hardly any days remaining. The explanation was that the holiday figure we'd been quoted was inclusive of Bank Holidays, essentially reducing our allocation by eight days and at odds with every job description I'd ever seen before. At this point I decided to go through my contract with a fine tooth comb and discovered the final indignity, although employees had to give one month's notice to terminate their contract the company only had to give a week. Although all of these unusual conditions were spelled out in the contract I felt that I'd been taken advantage of, especially as they were all at variance with conventional practice in the IT industry. I brought my CV up to date and began to apply for other jobs, confiding only in my immediate workmates that I'd started looking around.

To be honest there were other reasons to look for a new job. There had been problems with several of the clients and the workload was starting to dry up, particularly noticeable as we now had three more programmers working for the company. A lot of the blame had been placed on our business manager who had been taken on and then let go three months later but it seemed to me that there was a deeper problem at work - despite the appearance of delegation & distributed authority the boss kept an overly tight rein on things and could change or revoke decisions at a moment's notice. Combined with the (to my eyes) lack of trust and reciprocality in the terms & conditions it gave the feeling that we were disposable drones rather than valued members of the company, not the sort of working environment that I wanted to be part of.

However while updating my CV I found myself considering the positive aspects of my time with the company. The comparatively rapid take-up of new projects had given me the opportunity to design underlying code structures to provide shared functionality across tasks & projects, simplifying the programming work and speeding up the development process. Working with a small group of programmers gave great opportunities to discuss coding styles & practices, helping me to reexamine my usual approach and find new & better ways of tackling problems. And working with two junior programmers gave a real boost to my teaching skills, supervising their work, mentoring them through coding issues and, when the opportunity arose, setting training exercises to lead them into new techniques & technologies. I'd taught folk dance for thirty years, at many different levels, and it was good to discover that a lot of the skills I'd developed there were transferrable to other areas.

Perhaps it was a side effect of my longer experience in the industry but in contrast to the optimism of my workmates I felt sure that things were coming to a head in the company. I was being fairly surreptitious about my job hunting but regularly popping out of the office to receive phone calls seemed pretty obvious to me, the fact that nobody had questioned or commented on it seemed to imply that either it was obvious and nobody was surprised by it or that things were so bad that people didn't even notice. The boss had become very curt and, at times, quite insulting in his responses which at the time made me more determined to leave but in hindsight might just have been the financial pressures of the situation getting to him.

Finally the decision to leave was taken out of my hands. After spending all morning in our small annexe office the boss summoned the four of us (two others were on holiday) to an unscheduled 'Team Meeting' on Friday afternoon - never a good sign. Sure enough the news was as I expected - things were not going well and some of us were going to be made redundant, we were told to file away our current work after which we'd each have a one to one meeting with the boss to learn our individual fates.

I was first in and, sure enough, I was going to be let go. My immediate impulse was to tell the boss that I was already looking for another job and go through the reasons for my dissatisfaction but it struck me that apart from giving me the chance to vent some anger it wouldn't really achieve anything. He was clearly in the middle of crisis management and didn't appear to be receptive to honest (let alone critical) feedback, on top of which I'd probably need a job reference from him and didn't want to provoke any 'problems' with my final pay packet. So I was polite & understanding, accepting my misfortune with good grace and agreeing with the logic that made me the prime candidate for redundancy. I was told I didn't need to come in to work through my notice period - I suspect this was down to fear of vindictive sabotage rather than gracious benevolence - so I cleared the few remaining items from my desk, said goodbye to my workmates and walked out of the office, never to return.

The adrenaline rush of such a sudden change carried me halfway to the train station before I dropped back into normal thinking. After emailing the two junior programmers I'd been responsible for to learn their fates (one had kept his job, the other was going) and promise belated final assessments I sat back and realised that I was feeling rather good. The future had suddenly veered into the unknown but I'd been planning to change course anyway, this had really done nothing more than speed the process along. I was better prepared than for either of my previous redundancies - the mortgage wasn't hanging over me any more thanks to a deal with my sister and I had a comfortable savings balance in place, not to mention that my experience of being Lead iOS Developer for a year had boosted my confidence hugely. Yes, I was another year older but I'd already had several positive responses to my job applications and new vacancies were popping up every week. If I was still searching in three months time, then I could start getting despondent.

In a wildly unexpected coincidence (or confirmation of the benevolent omniscience of the Universe, take your pick) I met the sax player from my band on the train home. It was nice to get some immediate sympathy for my plight but it also gave me the chance to talk through my thoughts & feelings and get some perspective on my situation with another person to provide some reality checking. It was tempting to be socially polite and say that everything was fine but on reflection it mostly was.

Once home I emailed all the agents who were handling my job applications to say I was now immediately available, although I'd be out of the country for the second half of next week on a previously arranged holiday break. And then I had a nice, relaxing weekend, noticing the thoughts popping up about (what had been) ongoing work issues and letting them slowly drift away.

Monday brought a flurry of agent calls & emails but nothing concrete or definite until one phone call relating to a job in Bristol. Apparently the company were keen to see me before I went on holiday and could I make an interview for the next day? I clearly had lots of spare time so I said yes and was amused to find that the office was just a few doors down the street from my previous job. Come the day I gussied myself up in suit & shiny shoes (but no tie - something I've become strangely cranky about) and set off on the familiar route to 'work'.

The interview went well after a few wobbles at the start - the agent had given me the wrong address & failed to tell me I was expected to bring along samples of my work but we sorted these out and had a pleasant but still professionally probing conversation. The questions asked at an IT interview (and possibly at all interviews) can reveal as much as the candidate's answers and these were ticking all the right boxes for me - neither slipping into abstract vagueness or focussing on unnecessary detail & coding trivia. I found myself confidently answering & expanding my answers into (mostly) related areas, talking from within my experience & expertise rather than trying to guess what I thought they were expecting to hear. Perhaps it was the sudden scheduling of the interview or the prospect of going on holiday the next day, perhaps the feeling that there were several other prospects waiting so this wasn't critical - for whatever reason(s) I was calm & relaxed and approached the interview as a friendly meeting to determine if we could find a mutually beneficial arrangement rather than something I needed to 'win'.

On the way home I called the agent to give my feedback, the usual procedure in my business. I said it had gone pretty well and I was definitely still interested.

About an hour later the agent's boss rang me - the company were so impressed that they wanted to offer me the job there and then! They were willing to pay the top end of their quoted salary range and were happy for me to start on a date that suited me (although sooner was better). If I could make a decision by the end of the day it would help them as they could then cancel the other interviews but this wasn't a 'take it or leave it' deadline, if I wanted more time to think that was fine - although if they did hold more interviews I ran the risk of them finding someone better. But the general tone was that the job was mine to have if I wanted it.

My first impulse was to postpone making a decision until I got back from my holiday and to see what other prospects emerged in the meantime. You never just take the first option, right? But I remembered a piece of advice I'd been following about eating out - when a list of specials is being read out and you hear something that sounds good you should order that and not even listen to the others, once there's a choice to be made our minds will obsess about making the 'right' pick and put us into an analytic rather than appreciative state, constantly reviewing our choice in case it was the 'wrong' one. Clearly taking a job was a much more important decision but then again maybe it wasn't? The new role sounded interesting, the people I'd met were friendly & professional, the conditions were good, the pay more than I was expecting, the commute was familiar - what else was I holding out for? You never really know what a job will be like until you've been there for a while but this would be true of any of them. I'd made a fairly extensive check of this gift horse's dentistry, did I need another one to compare it against?

Some quick calls & emails revealed that none of my other applications were likely to lead to interviews (let alone offers) in the immediate future. The one post that I was particularly interested in - it was based in Bath which would mean a much shorter (& maybe even cyclable) commute - had started giving vague & evasive responses and the agent confessed that it was unlikely to resolve into a concrete offer anytime soon. A couple of phone calls with friends and a tea & cake chat with another gave me time to talk & think things through and although the viewpoints differed there was a general consensus of response - the job sounded fine, why not just take it?

So why the hesitation? I was wary of accepting the first offer I received but this wasn't a snap or impulse decision, I'd gone through the details and they met or exceeded all of my expectations. Another, better job might be right around the corner but that's always the case, and from my working experience the odds against it were pretty high. It had come too quickly & easily - now that was interesting. As a general rule I'm fine with happy accidents, serendipity and not fighting against the current but for some reason I needed this to be a fraught & difficult choice to make. This was a grown-up, serious decision and to go with the simple, obvious solution somehow seemed frivolous or childish, revealing to the world that despite my outward veneer of maturity I was in reality faking it as an adult. Which was certainly true on one level but I've (slowly) learned over the years that what I think of as 'me' is actually just a very small part of my being and my subconscious / greater self / gestalt consciousness / facet of the divine (take your pick) is actually pretty good at steering me on my path, despite how it may appear at the time. If I had to face a smooth, easy lifestyle transition then I'd just need to grit my teeth and accept it despite the terrifying prospect of having nothing to overcome.

And so I did. I rang the agent to say yes, went off on my German holiday, and returned happy & refreshed to complete the HR paperwork. I decided to take two weeks off between jobs and was rewarded with sunny skies & lazy days, gigs with the band, and trips to meet up with family & friends. Good times.

Is there a conclusion to be drawn from this little adventure? It's easy to slip into New Age platitudes about changing your mindset to change your reality but for me the lessons run a little deeper and are more firmly grounded - some of those being:

July 2019