You get to keep the neural connections

Today we live in a golden age of AI-assisted image generation
Going the extra mile only to be unrewarded by your company feels like a personal slight and a waste of your time. It is not.

Fuck this, I've had enough, and I can do better

When I was a younger developer at one of my first legitimate jobs - the first where my title contained the word 'engineer', we would often stay late working on complex bugs and projects that the greater team and organization didn't appreciate or even know about.

We'd handle LAMP stack development for one team on tight deadlines and work with the operations team to tackle tricky bugs at the intersection of development and deployment automation circa Puppet becoming a big thing, because nobody else wanted to touch it.

Even though our humble three person team didn't have the most impressive sounding title, when there was a greenfield project that was critical to the company, we spearheaded the efforts to pull the complex Docker build system out of thin air because nobody else was familiar enough with web technologies to make it happen.

We also handled development of the frontend for this project, all while fielding our usual support requests from multiple teams and getting, what felt like, a minimum of respect. We had the keen and likely accurate sense that most other non-technical teams in the company looked at us as code monkeys or website janitors at best.

One late evening, in a fit of frustration, I expressed as much to my senior teammate - since he and I were the only ones still around at that hour and working through issues trying to make this Hail Mary a reality.

(Spoiler alert: we did a great job on the project and delivered it on time somehow, as everyone agreed, but ultimately it was a flop and the company shelved it right before being acquired).

Shelving my first big project

This teammate happened to be a more seasoned and insanely talented developer and designer, by the name of Kyle McGuire. He turned to me and said, "You get to keep the neural connections", gesturing at his temple.

You get to keep the neural connections

How true would I find his words to be - time and time again?

Fuck this, I've had enough, and I can do better

Not so many months later, I found myself sitting across from another abnormally talented developer, Tony Stuck, who was at that time the lead of one of the development teams at Cloudflare. Tony held my resume, was friendly but studious and carefully read it. Then he asked me, to my immense delight and relief, several technical questions that actually got at whether or not I had relevant experience:

  • "If you got a report of a web application being slow or buggy, in as much detail as possible, what would you do from the front to back to debug what was wrong?"
  • "If you were building a new application we were going to host, list everything you would do in order to secure it"

These two questions were enough to keep us occupied for about forty minutes, because I outlined in excrutiating detail, from the frontend to the backend, everything that I had learned how to do in my previous job, and in my personal side projects, and in my reading on the side in my free time. I loved Tony's questions because, if you had never really done any development before, you couldn't bullshit them, neither were they brain teaser computer science trivia horseshit.

This person really wanted to understand if I had spent a significant amount of time doing development in a professional context. He was ultimately satisified with my answers, I was hired at Cloudflare as an engineer back when the entire engineering org was still 100 people, and I spent the next three years absorbing everything I could, doing frontend, backend and CLI development, building reproducible cloud environments with Infrastructure as Code, teaching courses on distributed logging and monitoring, writing the first Cloudflare workers in front of and, building new features into critical legacy and high-scale systems, being mentored and, eventually, mentoring.

I did on-call rotations and carried a pager in addition to doing very long days at the office. I spent more than one weekend expanding my skillset and hacking on side projects because I wanted to be better. I ultimately even developed autoimmune disease - not only because of the way I was working but due to events in my personal life that were occurring at the same time. I did get a significant raise halfway through my tenure after asking for it, but ultimately I came to feel underappreciated and underpaid.

Oh, also here, a project that I had worked on for about a year and half that was considered extremely critical at inception was shelved by a new executive in a meeeting I wasn't in. They didn't bother telling me about it, so I found out after visiting the product manager I'd been working with it on for over a year and a half to give him the latest status update.

Shelving a distributed system

Fuck this, I've had enough, and I can do better

At some point, for various reasons, I felt that it was time to go to a better opportunity, where I could learn more, make more money and have more freedom around where and when I worked.

When I got to this third job, it wasn't exactly what I had expected, and many folks who got hired around the same time as I did struggled in the beginning.

I also struggled in the beginning and I was surprised at how intense a fully remote job could be. Yet everything I needed to do there, with some glaring exceptions that showed up on my first performance review, had some connection to the loops of intensive focus, learning, stress, achievement and ultimate success that I had gone through time and time again at Cloudflare in many projects and in many cross-team interactions.

When I started there, only the two Principal engineers who had written our most complex minter of distributed systems from multi-layer blueprints were capable of working with its various codebases and performing and debugging deployments for customers successfully.

I threw myself completely into learning this beast, documenting it, shadowing them on deployments, pairing with them, taking the small shitty jobs to fix broken things as an excuse to get closer to it. When I left after three and a half years of working with this project, which was a bread and butter sales item for the company, I was one of the only engineers who was capable of working with its many codebases. The two original Principals had long since gone. I held the record for number of successful solo deployments.

I lost count of the number of evenings I pushed late into the night (or, as I got older and wiser, returned after a long break for dinner and family time) to continue debugging and pushing forward deployments. I wrote extra tooling and automations to improve things. I worked in Go, Bash, in AWS, using Docker, Packer, Kubernetes, RDS, Lambda, Python, Terraform, and Lua where needed. I once pulled off 6 deployments solo, in one week, because I was the only engineer left who knew how to do this and they were still selling frequently. I acquired 4 AWS certifications while working here in order to expand my knowledge of my primary environment of operations.

When I got done with a long day of working in GitHub for work, I took a break, spent time with my family, and when I had spare time on the weekends I transitioned to working in GitHub on my own side projects to further my skills. I used the company's excellent learning benefit to hire a programming mentor, who assigned me additional programming challenges and projects on top of my work and what I was doing on the side. Tip, John Arundel is top-notch, if you're looking for a professional programming mentor or Golang teacher.

The company did a good deal of hand-wringing around my paternity leave, which had been scheduled way in advance, because we were unable to sufficiently staff up folks who had the chops and the pain tolerance to work with this system.

I produced hours of video content for peers and spent countless hours pairing with new hires and folks leveled far above me trying to get them up to speed and conversant with the same system. We were never successful in our efforts to give this absolute beast of a machine that itself produced distributed, paramterizable architectures, the love and care that it needed.

I wrote a small book's worth of documentation in Notion, plus runbooks with screenshots, and tools, and diagnostic CLIs to try to lower the burden for newcomers and the long-term team members who remained unable to do deployments.

Praise, shoutouts, words of thanks, effusive respect on Zoom calls and promotions were plentiful, but a meaningful raise remained elusive. Poetically, I learned on my last week that the company had decided to stop selling this product to customers, which you might have thought felt perfectly Sisyphean.

Putting the Ref Arch down

While I didn't love seeing this imperfect beast that I'd spent almost 4 years of my life trying to tame get put down right in front of me, I don't even resent working this hard or the time I spent on evenings and weekends researching and practicing, because I love what I do and I love to make things. I love to practice my craft and I love to learn new things. And you get to keep the neural connections.

Fuck this, I've had enough, and I can do better

I'm at a new place now and I'm happy with my title and the work I am doing. I enjoy my teammates they seem to appreciate the experience and the skills I bring to the table.

Because I'm a staff developer now in addition to my content production responsibilities, I can, to some degree, float around and find major issues that are plaguing other teams, from a client lacking in a modern development and packaging solution, to a site that needs serious diagnosis and backend fixes to speed it up, and the work I do feels meaningful, important and deeply appreciated.

And it's honestly not very difficult for me to do. Because you get to keep the neural connections.

Your experience comes with you

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I help investors, founders, CEOs, CTOs and other developers navigate the latest AI developments and the rapidly evolving landscape of tooling and capabilities.