I’ve known what I was going to do since 1980. That was the first time I got my hands on a personal computer and I knew at that moment that this was what I wanted to do. This was what I was meant to do. I was going to find a way to spend my career working on a computer! Now, in 2023, that sounds far less revolutionary than it did in 1980. Now, probably, more than half of people work with or on computers. That was certainly not the case back when I was introduced to computing. At that moment, it was like a lightbulb went on and I knew what I was going to do. And I did.
Many years later I recall talking to my kids as they were around that same age and I asked them, excited, “So, what are you going to do? You got it figured out?” And I was surprised that they didn’t. I checked back around 18 and then again in the first couple years of college and in both cases, they did not have a clear notion, as I had, of what they were going to do for the rest of their lives.
And I was confused. How could they not know? How could they not have had the same epiphany that I had that provided a clear path, a clarity about what they would do with themselves in the world?
It was only years later (because I’m slow and dumb sometimes) to realize that it was not they who were the outliers, it was me. It was not, in fact, normal to know at 16 what it is you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing.
But, it’s true. I knew then and my certainty in what I would do never wavered.
In High School, there was a class that taught writing programs. The original version used punch cards and it was nearly impossible to get into, it was so popular. But, it was also clear the teacher really didn’t know much more than the students and that was worrisome. I had a friend in the class and they were writing programs to print out a flag. I could immediately understand what was going on in the program and it wasn’t all that interesting. It was basic. Which is a software joke, because it was all done in BASIC, the original language for home computers. It stood for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. Nerd Humor!
In the second year of high school, the computer class was selling off a couple of computers they had because they were going to replace them with Apple computers. They were selling off a Commodore PET. It was beautiful. It looked like something from 2001 a Space Odyssey. After some adventures, I managed to buy it and spent all my free time learning how to program at home, mostly from magazines and a few books I could find. So, yeah, my career started at 16, in roughly 1981.
In college (and again, these were the Before Times), there were no Computer Science departments, and there was no degree in Software Engineering. There was Electrical Engineering and a few classes in software, in languages like FORTRAN and Pascal. And I ate them all up with gusto! I would unofficially claim a minor in Software, but really I just took all the computer and software-related classes I could.
Eventually, I took my Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and never used it again!
I spent the next ten years working to become a good software engineer. I was a solid B+/A- Software Engineer. My main challenges were probably that I didn’t (and still don’t) like repetitive work. I wanted to keep learning new and different things, so I found that every 2-3 years I wanted to move around a bit and try new things and learn new things and my career allowed me to do that.
Around 2000 or so, I was presented with the opportunity to move into management and I did that and had a great time (for the most part) managing teams. When I didn’t, it almost never had to do with the people or the projects, it was the BS that comes from the company, usually messing with things they didn’t understand.
I always said that my job satisfaction depended on three things: the People, the Projects, and whether I made a difference in what I did. I was very lucky that in most of my jobs, those criteria were satisfied.
As we all recall, the Pandemic hit back around March 2020. At that time I was working with a very nice company, working with a very good team and I was being given plenty to do and I had my boss’ trust. It was good. But when the Pandemic hit, everything went remote. My entire team was working from home and for a first-level manager, at least for me, everything got probably 25-40% harder. It’s much tougher to do my job when everything is being done over a Zoom call. It’s tougher for teams to stay in sync when Slack becomes the defacto mode of communication. Folks were just less available and communication became harder over test messages. Everything was just harder.
That was when the idea started to occur to me, just a little at first, but louder with time and repetition: I’ve done all this before. I was dancing the same dance. The partners were different, the tune was different, and the style of dance might change, but it was still largely the same. Year after year.
I prided myself throughout my career on continuing to grow as a manager and become better. But after a while, the curve flattens and those increases become harder. If I was 95% of the manager I was capable of, getting to 96% was tough and 98% was really tough. Meantime, the job was harder and my job satisfaction was plummeting. I’d danced this dance, I’d done these steps. It all felt so very, very familiar.
I sat on all this for about four months. During that time we established that at least financially, retiring was an option. Yes, our income would drop, but the trade-off is always time versus money. You can have plenty of one, but typically by trading the other.
This was the thought process that took me over the finish line: I could work another ten years and I could pile up money and we would not lack money or things. But, there was a non-zero chance that at the end of that ten years, I might not be in a position, at least physically, to enjoy my retirement and do the things that I wanted to do. My neuropathy persists and only gets worse as the years pass. Today, I get 7500 good steps in a day, and I have to be conscious of choosing where I spend them. Ten years from then, it seems unlikely that I will have the same physical ability to enjoy the retirement that I have now. And, would I rather work those ten years and risk regretting what I gave up, a decade of enjoying retirement? Or would I rather try that decade of enjoying my retirement and doing what I chose with my time and accept the risk that our money might be tight now or down the road and make adjustments then?
In the end, I decided the risk was worth it.
I declared my Independence on July 4th, 2020. That was my last day of being paid to work in the career of my choosing. A career I had and have loved for thirty years. I figure I trained for it from 16 to 22. I started getting paid for it in September 1989. I made $24,000 in my first year and it was amazing! I had a goal soon after of making $40k by the time I was 40. I made that goal about five years later, which was deeply confusing to me because what could my next goal be?
My career was wonderful. I worked with so many great people. I was fortunate to work for some great bosses (and mentors) and some challenging bosses from whom I still managed to learn a lot, even if it was things like how to get a micromanaging boss to get off your back! I did well financially, so no complaints on that front. There was a time I regretted not climbing the corporate ladder further, but with time I realized that wasn’t interesting to me. I enjoyed working with teams more closely than I did having to deal with all the politics involved in moving up into roles like Director and further up the ladder.
So, I retired. And, of course, many friends ask how it’s going and my usual answer is: “it’s f*cking awesome! And, everyone should do it as soon as they reasonably can.” I understand that’s my answer and it works for me. I also understand that unless you have plenty to be busy with or, in my case, plenty of projects and things to learn, retirement may not be for you! But, it was for me.
I wonder if I’ll need to find something to make money at, even if it’s just to fund my other projects. I’ve no clue what I would do as there are not a lot of part-time opportunities for a software engineering manager and that’s really all I’m qualified for now. I’ve thought about volunteering. I think I would enjoy something where I got to help kids with STEAM-related material or maybe tutoring. We’ll see. But, for today, I’m retired. And it’s pretty great.
(Note: All images (aside from the PET computer) were generated by MidJourney. I love how in the first image, MidJourney has only the vaguest notion of how many fingers a human hand should have.)