Michael’s Handy Guide to Leaving Your First Job

Those of you who know me will be aware that, at the end of last year, I left the first job I got after I graduated.  I had been in that job almost exactly 6 ½ years and leaving it was more difficult than I imagined it would be.  But the people who are in the strongest position to provide a sounding board on your reasoning are often your colleagues, though they’re often the last people with whom you really want to bring the topic up.  I’ve written down some of my experiences in the hopes that it might aid some people.

First things first, know why you want to leave.  Write it down, make it more than a vague idea in your head.  They might seem like really strong reasons until you write it down.  They might even be fixable within your current company; so while I’m not attempting to necessarily talk you out of leaving, if you’re already happy except for one or two things, maybe leaving isn’t a great idea.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, know why you stayed as long as you did.  Maybe you don’t know how to answer that question – I certainly didn’t.  It was my first job since I graduated university and everything I knew about the working conditions of the industry were from that job or what Some Guy On The Internet said.  Although I can give you my reasons, now that I’m on the other side and have had that thrown into stark reality for me.

  • I liked that what I was doing was being, for the most part, used for good.  We made two-way radios, the network equipment for them and software to support their maintenance.  We made good radios; good enough to be used by emergency services the world over.  They, by and large, were not sold to military organisations and usually were used to make the world a little bit better.  These radios were even used by the emergency organisations who helped deal with the major earthquake in our city in February 2011.  Our products were helping products.
  • It was technically challenging with a wider variety than one would normally expect from a single company.  During my stay at the company I worked on hardware drivers, embedded software, fake embedded environment targeting desktop linux, distributed build automation software, desktop application in .NET right through to the whole vertical of a modern Web Application (SQL, .NET, HTML + Javascript).  And in the couple of months leading up to my departure I was working at almost all of those layers simultaneously, trying to integrate them.  There are not many companies, I would wager, in the whole world where that variety is possible.
  • Great people – my immediate team in particular.  There were some exceptions to that, but I don’t want to go into them here, particularly as this is the thing that is least under your control and there will be people you don’t get on with most places you go.

So now you have it in your head that you do want to leave and know why, it’s time to start looking for new work.  Knowing what you desire in a company will help you look.  Maybe you’re lucky enough to already have heard about a job through the grapevine – that’s probably your best option in terms of interviews.  You get to casually talk to the person who mentioned it without feeling like you’re going to scare them off offering you the job.  I know this is technically true of more traditional interviews, but the mindset is certainly different.  The most interesting jobs are found that way, too, usually.

Whatever you think you know, your interview skills probably suck.  Or are only good for a different time in your career, where maybe you cared more about a job in the right industry rather than the right job for you in particular.  Take any interview you can get, to begin with.  I had applied for a job at a company I liked, but maybe the job wouldn’t be so interesting.  I went along to that interview and gave the best interview I’ve given in my life (including the one which eventually landed me the job I’m at now).  I didn’t end up working for that company, but that confidence boost really helped.

Again, I want to stress you want to know what you want in a company.  Don’t settle for “We do Agile”, how do they do Agile.  Do they do any of the XP processes?  Exactly what did they mean by the different technologies they use?  How long have they been doing it?  Do the words they are using mean the same thing as you think they do?  Are they willing to give you a bit of a tour of the application or working environment?  Are you able to sit down with them to do some coding?  What god-awful enterprise software will you have to use on a daily basis?  Are they willing to shell out an extra $50 for a nice keyboard?  You know how during normal conversations where the phrase “what is this, an interrogation?” gets uttered as a defense… well interviews are an interrogation.

So presuming you’ve now landed the job of your dreams, be aware that the notice period of your old job will be more difficult than you realise.  On the day I handed in my resignation, I totally ran out of emotional energy.  Telling people that you’re leaving and having that look in their eye that they’re feeling a little bit abandoned is kind of like telling a puppy off.  It’s best for everyone if you do it, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult.  So at the end of the day when someone with whom I would normally be happy to have a laugh with said with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek “what a dick”, I had no response.  Thankfully she was able to read the situation and possibly cottoned on to the fact that I’d spent the last wee while just trying not to cry.

And as was also said to me: “There is no good time to leave, so don’t feel guilty about it”.

My semi-last day was pretty bad.  It wasn’t my last day per se, but I left at the end of the year, so some people finished up for the year earlier than my last day.  I hadn’t considered that as a possibility and so I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye to some of those people yet.  I took a couple of quiet walks on that day in an attempt to hold it together enough to continue getting the jobs I wanted done before I left.  I certainly stretched the definition of holding it together.

So you’re starting the new job.  All going well, you’ll get your hand held for the first week or so and you’ll start working and getting stuff done.

But for me, all did not go well.  My first week was awful.  I felt like I was having a week-long anxiety attack and nearly couldn’t bring myself to actually go to work on the Friday.  Everything had changed – the amount of traffic I needed to wade through just to turn up in the mornings, what I could have for lunch, the people, the work, the process, the god-awful enterprise software, the operating system version and even the keyboard.  I had picked up a fairly easy-looking task to do that week, but I had somehow expanded the scope of the story to make future work easier.  In a normal situation, I would have said this was a good thing to do, but one’s first week on the job is not a normal situation.  I had taken a job with a fairly large pay increase to spend a week doing what should have been a relatively small piece of work.  Just get something reasonable done and get it checked in.  Make it feel like you’re actually contributing, rather than some fraud who can’t tie his own shoe laces.  That extra work is paying off now, but it wasn’t a fair trade-off, when my emotional well-being is considered as part of the equation.

So really, what I wanted to say was that actually, leaving your first job is going to be much harder than imagined, but in part, it is worth it for the learning experience alone.  After throwing myself out of the situation where I was surrounded by the people who taught me the ABCs (or maybe the S.O.L.I.D’s) of software development I was suddenly able to see more clearly some of the intrinsic features of their code, and the features of the environment in which I worked which I find either different or missing in the new one.  Also, don’t change every other major feature in your life at the same time, or you won’t have the energy to produce even a simple blog post and will dither on it for roughly a month longer than it really deserves.