oh, puppet

December 18th, 2012  |  Published in this mortal coil

This post comes in two parts. This is one part, and I will get back to it in a second. The other part was written on October 21, the Sunday evening before I started my newish job at Puppet Labs, and if you’ve been reading this blog for the last several months, it would have done a lot to lend context to this post, which I wrote on September 27th as I was waiting around to see if I’d get an offer from Puppet, knowing that I was done with my last job but not sure what my next would be. Both parts were a little tricky to commit to, because I don’t like blogging about work that much. That’s funny, considering how much of my time and energy it takes, but there are a number of reasons for my reserve in that regard. I’d like to claim “professionalism” and “discretion,” but also there’s “superstition” and “paranoia,” because (as detailed below) I worked somewhere that just couldn’t stop laying people off for, like, years.

So:

Today was not my most favorite day at work. I feel behind on one thing I’m working on because it has (reasonably, and by design) involved learning stuff so I can learn stuff so I can learn some more stuff. Another thing I’m working on reminded me that I am just starting out on this job, and that I’ve got plenty to learn. It’s good that I like to learn new things, because I hate not knowing the answer, and that’s an uncomfortable way to be if you don’t like to learn new things.

My move from online editorial to technical work had some moments of difficulty, but I got over it and after 18 months was moving through that environment with a level of grace and competence that allowed me to feel like I’d earned the title “technical lead” (even as I was working under the title “acting CTO,” and cultivating some feelings of ambivalence about that). This job feels more challenging.

Last job, being a jack of all trades offered more immediate payoffs in terms of being a useful engine. With this job I’ve found things to do using what I came through the door with, but boy there are hills to climb. So right now all this learning I’m doing feels more like someone’s investment in me, and that brings a certain pressure.

But what a great place to be under that kind of pressure! There are lots of bright people working really hard to solve interesting problems. Puppet technical writers aren’t buried in a corner, away from the developers, which means that as I prepare to do more with the toolsmith part of my job, I’m getting exposed to software development in a way I never have before. And even on a day that isn’t awesome, like today, there’s something new to learn or practice, even if it’s just “wipe your own git bottom more effectively.” Moreover, people there are very generous with their knowledge. There’s a lot of it, and sometimes it’s delivered very quickly in large packages you don’t so much receive as hope not to be crushed under, but it’s generously delivered all the same. I don’t get that creepy “don’t want to tell you because information is currency” vibe at Puppet. I get a “you need to know this because everyone wants everything to be better” vibe. There’s a lot to live up to, both in terms of skill and culture.

I remember a feeling of genuine optimism when I wrote the second part of this, which we are nearly to, tempered with uncertainty as I wondered what sorts of challenges there would be and what would constitute a bad day vs. a good one or a terrible or great one. The shape of things is more clear now: I’ve been through a few mildly bad days, I don’t think I’ve had a terrible one yet, and I’ve had lots of good ones and a great one here or there. I’ve been new at something enough times that I can look forward to not being new at this without being too hard on myself in the mean time.

And that brings us to …

Part the Second

I’m not sure why I never got around to publishing this next bit as its own entry. I think it probably involved not wanting to believe I actually had the job until they’d issued me a stapler or told me how to get on the secure company Wi-Fi. They never did issue me a stapler, and I figured out the password to the secure company Wi-Fi on my own because I know what Keychain Access is and how to use it. And some of it was a measure of superstition, not wanting to risk my good luck. Some of it was that I was — am — fairly bursting with pride, and I don’t know that I trusted myself to not sound like I was bragging. Looking back over it this evening I vaguely remember excising some bits of it but I decided not to try to put them back or cut any more out because I’d rather just have it up and done with as a record of this particular moment in my life. I think it may not seem completely coherent because of that, but I still think it’s mostly true.

October 21, 2012 — I am starting a new job this week, as a technical writer and toolsmith at Puppet Labs. That new job comes with a couple of milestones.

First, the one that affects me and the family the very most, this marks the first job I’ve had since August of 2000 that has required me to work outside of my house. I recently sat down and tried to tally my total time spent working in traditional offices since September of 2000, and couldn’t come up with more than about ten hours, total. That included two four-hour sessions mostly spent sitting around an office waiting to meet people as part of a courtesy visit. Were I to just count time spent working, I think I’d be down closer to two or three hours. I’ve spent more time working out of hotel rooms and press areas than I have in a regular office.

The question of when, exactly, I’d have to trade in my bunny slippers has come up over the years, but I survived a lot of layoffs and an acquisition, so I never had to take a traditional office job. I probably would have started going into an office for QuinStreet, but nobody in my workgroup lived in the area so there was no real point. As I prepared to leave QuinStreet I was open to leaving my home office, but nothing in Portland sparked my interest before I came across a good opportunity with Social Media Today that allowed for remote work.

WaH

The first few years I was working from home it seemed like an incredible luxury. A lot of how nice working at home is, though, is dependent on a few variables: Employer culture, boss temperament and timezones all factored in. Especially, I think, timezones. Everything goes a lot more smoothly when nine, noon and five all mean the same things to everybody, even when your boss and employer are pretty good about remote workers. It goes a lot more smoothly, too, if you pick up some habits people who haven’t been full-time telecommuters never seem to imagine are necessary:

For instance, I mentioned “trading in my bunny slippers,” but that was a figure of speech. I wore slippers to work and often worked in pajama bottoms my first year at home, but after a while I learned it was important to get into uniform each day. Otherwise, I started feeling like I was always working and that there was no real difference between being on the clock and off the clock.

There are some people issues, too. When others can’t see you sitting there working, they seem to create proxies for visual observation, like how quickly you pick up the phone or whether you answer an IM right away, which creates a mindset about signifying “availability” that begins to feel oppressive after you come back from making coffee downstairs, or just using the bathroom, and see two caller i.d. entries, an “are you there?” IM and two aborted Skype calls in the space of five minutes, all so you can learn when you call back that your coworker was “just checking in.”

During the big downturn years of 2001–2002, when all the people on my team were let go in ones or twos, that “always working” feeling got worse. I was holding down a website that was supposed to be active 24/7, so I had to do some kind of work seven days a week. Two thirds of the people in the company I worked for went away over the course of a year, and there were similar stories coming out of all the places an online editorial type could imagine going after losing a job. That made the prospect of putting together a bunch of freelance stuff seem dicey, because there were a lot of executive and managing editors wandering around out there who’d suddenly found themselves in reduced circumstances. So I just held on as tight as I could, quit at one point to go back to school after my workload was doubled—but got a freelance gig from the same company that paid a steady amount each month—and ended up coming back on the clock after Ben was born.

Over the next eight years, it got worse and it got better. Sometimes management would seem to get a little paranoid about just what was going on with the remote workers, so the random “just saying hello” phone calls would ramp up, or the odd “Hey, you there?” IMs would increase in frequency. Other times, maybe even more disconcertingly, contact would just drop out and I’d go for weeks at a time without hearing from anybody at work. After an acquisition, one manager told me that he was happy to have people working at home as long as the work they were doing didn’t matter too much.

I know there are people out there who are better than me at setting the kind of boundaries and expectations you need to be a remote worker who doesn’t feel significantly hassled by other people trying to reassure themselves you’re not a very clever Ruby script, or perhaps a group of performance artists who have constructed an identity for beer money. I never picked up that trick, though, which made any daily routine I tried to adopt fairly fragile. I think I was successful enough. I mean, I survived layoffs left and right and my evaluations were always good. But there were some things that never became comfortable about the whole situation.

So, here on the other side of the past twelve years, I’m ready to be in an office for a while. It’s been pretty good for my family to have me working from home, and this will be a big change that will make some things harder than they were, but I’m looking forward to having a new rhythm to pick up and it’ll be nice to not be just some voice on a speakerphone in a conference room full of people I can’t see.

Fortunately, Puppet Labs offers some flexibility in scheduling and that will help with the adjustment. Also, we live within a half mile of the Lents Max stop, and Puppet is within a few blocks of Union Station, so my light rail commute will take about 45 minutes door to door. Considering what a ridiculous slog 205 and 84 can be, that’s a pretty decent trip time no matter what Google Maps claims. Finally, we live five blocks off the Springwater Corridor, so I have the option of an hour-long bike commute with very little travel over normal city streets except for the last mile or so at the end.

WWWWork

Another milestone: I’m marking the end of 12 years spent working in online media. I spent over 10 years as an editor or writer with internet.com/JupiterMedia/WebMediaBrands and QuinStreet, then the past 18 months at Social Media Today as its technical lead.

If I had to pick a word for the mood working in online editorial, first as an editor then as someone whose job it was to support an editorial mission, I suppose it would be “autumnal.” A lot of change happening in online publishing isn’t merely about the end of certain business models, but the end of a way of thinking about writing and its place in the world of “content.”

Most people I worked for on the editorial side had a print background, and it informed what they were doing online. Sometimes those of us who had come to the Web from print confused migrating to online publishing with actually understanding what it meant to publish online. There’s a lot of narrative focus on the travails of print-based editorial operations trying to make the move online, but not so much on the travails of online editorial operations that thought their work was done because they didn’t have to buy ink and paper anymore.

But the way things are published isn’t the only thing that has changed: The way people solve problems and learn things has changed, and the sort of deference people used to show to an authority who’d managed to write a book (or get published in a magazine) is in short supply. Many who came to the Web from print thought the prestige and authority that came with working for a print institution would somehow transfer. For a few years it was relatively easy to nurture that belief, and then the mood changed as people began to connect and engage. As annoying as early bloggers’ lengthy blogrolls and in-group shout-outs were, you can look back and see them as the Web establishing itself as a social medium. Once those conventions had been established, that assumed authority began to collapse. You still see signs of the process in the form of, for instance, a Salon film critic’s periodic meltdown over the cheek of readers who’d question her authority; or out-of-touch tech columnists who cite a stint at DEC in the ’80s as a good reason to listen to them now. Getting a paycheck to say something doesn’t mean what it used to.

When I moved from covering Linux (which I knew plenty about) to enterprise networking (which I had an understanding of but no practical experience in) I used to spend time thinking about that changed mood and what we could hope to do about it. It wasn’t hard to figure out, just searching around, that self-documenting, technically inclined bloggers — not gadget bloggers like Gizmodo and certainly not John Dvorak types — were doing a lot to erode demand for the product I was supposed to be putting out. They’d have a problem, they’d solve it, they’d write up their solution, and they’d do it as an afterthought, for free, and in a dialect appropriate to their audience — the audience I was hoping to get. I had some success (as measured in terms of consistent traffic and links from relevant authorities) from hiring people who were technical workers first, writers second. They weren’t doing what a self-documenting technical blogger would do (solving a problem, writing it up), but they were coming pretty close: They were thinking back to a set of problems they’d solved recently and writing on that theme. My calls with writers often began with, “so … what interesting problems have you solved lately?” My job involved asking that question and remembering that most of what I had going for me was a title, control of the editorial budget, and access to the site’s analytics. Most of our successes came from making sure those writers helped me set the direction, because they knew more than I did.

At the same time, I had a budget that ranged over the years from $2,000 to $5,000 a month and I didn’t want to pay anyone under $300 or $400 for their work, so it was just me vs. the Web, with me getting to publish something a few times a week. One of my last projects as an editor involved talking to actual network managers and technicians about what I could do to make my site more relevant to them, and they all said I needed something like Stack Exchange, only for networking. They wanted the person doling out 1,000-word/$300 chunks of information that might or might not be relevant to their needs out of the way so they could connect with each other and get their problems solved. They certainly didn’t want “overviews,” “summaries,” “introductions” or “quick guides.”

So, I ended the 2000s in an online publishing division that was unceremoniously sold off to a marketing company, and some of my last conversations inside that company involved talking to people who thought articles longer than 300 words were hopeless extravagances.

During all that, though, I taught myself to program—first to automate little things like cleaning up crummy HTML and later to automate analytics reporting for a network of websites—and I wanted to do more of that kind of thing, so the past 18 months have been spent in a different role, still loosely in “online publishing.” I went from being an editor managing a bullpen of freelancers, trying to get a decent product in front of an audience increasingly getting its needs met by self-documenting tech bloggers, to a technical lead working for a company that had gotten into content marketing before most people knew to call it that.

In that role I didn’t have any real day-to-day input into how the editorial—excuse me, “curatorial”—team there conducted itself. The business made sense to me as an evolutionary step in the models funding online content, but it was also very far removed from what I was up to when I was a small-town reporter working for a biweekly newspaper, or when I wrote a book, or when I was an editor running my freelancers. I had a lot of opinions, though, and in the past month—especially after I briefly found myself in a leadership role—I was surprised at how strong some of those opinions were, and how much that kind of business could have ended up being a home for me even though it was pretty alien to where I’d started, waxing bits of paper pulled from a CompuGraphic developer.

As strong as those opinions were, though, twelve years seemed like a while to me. The novelty of working on the Web was long gone, I didn’t want to go back into Web editorial in its manifestation as “old-school technology magazines, but online,” and I’ve learned that Web development as its own profession isn’t quite my thing, either. So, I flipped the LinkedIn switch that says “hello, recruiters,” and started listening to their pitches, even though most seemed to be finding me because they were searching for Rails talent (and what I’ve got could probably better be described as Rails knowledge).

It was in that spirit of hearing what was out there that I spoke to one recruiter who noticed when she mentioned Web developer jobs that I sounded tentative and prickly, but that when she mentioned writing, I lit up. I spoke to a few more recruiters, backed out of a few technical interviews, and began to wonder if perhaps I was trying to be too special a snowflake to be employable. Chatting with my friend Ed, I said what I really wanted was some sort of job where I could write plain old words, but also write Ruby, and that I didn’t see much hope for anything like that turning up.

So I really lit up when I had coffee with Nigel Kersten—the CTO at Puppet Labs—and he mentioned that he had a job for a writer who could also build tools used to get that writing moved around the business. One great (but slightly tiring) day of interviews later, I knew where I wanted to be next, and I get to start there tomorrow.

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