I was laid off from my job on January 2. It did come as a bit of a shock, and for the first time in my life, I've been really struggling to figure out who I am and what I'm looking for.
As a way to keep pushing myself forward and holding myself accountable, I'm going to start publicly documenting this process as a way to process my thoughts out loud, keep my friends and network aware of my activities, and start some conversations that'll help me take my next step forward.
"What are you looking for?"
If I could summarize the past month in a single question, that would be it.
In the 58 conversations I've had in the past month with friends, recruiters, industry peers, networking events, partners, and job interviewers, I've been asked that question literally every single time.
And 58 times later, I think I'm starting to get closer to an answer.
Here's what I'm looking for:
- A team of kind, smart, and hard-working people
- A mission that the team rallies around which helps improve as many lives as possible
- A leadership role to help drive an engineering team towards fulfilling that mission
- Doing all of this while continuing to experiment with LLMs and other AI technologies
- Connecting with as many people as possible to explore the impact of AI on who we are as humans
- Something that includes medical benefits to support my family
It doesn't matter much to me what the title is. Some roles I've applied and begun interviewing for include "Director of Engineering," "Software Architect," "AI/ML Lead," and "Founding Engineer".
If you know of any opportunities that you think would fit a nerdy kid who has a big heart and enjoys exploring practical applications of artificial intelligence, please send them my way!
Activities I've done
Here's a list of the activities I've pursued between January 2 (the day I got laid off) and February 3 (today):
- Friends: 11
- Recruiters: 11
- Industry Peers: 19
- Networking Events: 6
- Interviews: 8
- Partner Chats: 3
- Total: 58
Here are my loose definitions for these categories:
- Friends: People I have a deeper relationship with and whose primary interest isn't necessarily in discussing the job search.
- Recruiters: People who have a vested interest in pairing me up with a job. These could become friends at some point, but my primary purpose in engaging with them was to talk shop.
- Industry Peers: People who work in the industry and want to make a connection to expand each other's networks. Again, these folks could become friends at some point.
- Networking Events: Events geared towards either making connections or learning something new with a bunch of other people.
- Interviews: Discussions with people who have a possible role that I can fill.
- Partner Chats: I do still have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, so these are discussions with those I am working on building a business with.
As you can see so far, most of my time has been with folks in the industry, making connections, trying to explore what opportunties are out there.
I'm hoping that I start to see more growth in the "interviews" column by this time next month. 😅
Things I've learned
Alright, so back in the day, I used to do these blog posts where I'd accumulate a bunch of random thoughts over a period of time and then list them out in bullets. I'm gonna do something similar here, so here are some things I've learned in the past month:
👨🎨 Personal growth insights
Safe spaces rule.
Every classroom in my daughter's school has had a "safe space", an area of the room that kids can go to when they're overwhelmed or stressed out. It gives them a place to calm down and process their emotions.
My daughter recreated one in her room. Beneath her lofted bed, she's created this fortress of solitude. It consists of a beanbag chair, a little lamp, some stuffed animals, a sound machine, books, crafts, and affirmations scotch taped to blanket walls.
When I took my first virtual therapy call, I did it from that safe space.
Our house isn't big enough for me to build a room with one, but once I get employment again, I'll begin finding a way to add one on. It's important to have a space you can retreat to where you feel safe.
Anxiety is an asset.
There's a reason we feel anxiety: it helps us stay safe from threats.
But when you're abundantly safe in nearly every sense of the word, anxiety itself becomes a threat.
I've been dealing with runaway anxiety issues for decades now, which is a big part of the reason I don't feel comfortable spinning up my own business at the moment. The last time I did that ended with a similar series of rolling anxiety attacks.
But as a professional software architect, anxiety is actually pretty useful. Being able to envision possible threats against the system allows you to create mitigations that will keep it safe and efficient.
Of course, you gotta be careful to not let your applied anxiety run away from you. Easier said than done.
"It'll all work out. Even if it doesn't, it all works out."
My lifelong pal Cody's mom is a paragon of confidence and chillness.
I went for a walk with Cody a week into being laid off, and we got to talking about her parents.
She shared that her mom often says that quote, which is what gives her that confidence.
I need more of that in my life.
Gravity Falls is an amazing television show.
You all should look it up on Disney+ and burn through it in a weekend.
It's one of those shows that slowly builds to a gigantic payoff at the end.
The finale hit me with all the feelings.
Plus, it's a good show to bond over with your seven year old daughter.
Journaling really helps with perspective.
I've journaled every day since getting laid off. Reading back through them, I'm seeing patterns into what activities contribute to good days versus bad days.
Good days include some sort of vigorous workout, a conversation or two with a good pal, and tons of encouraging self talk.
Bad days include skipping the workout and sitting by yourself with your horrible, negative self talk.
Journaling is proof that life still goes on even if I don't have a job.
It's also proof that I'm at least taking some advantage of not having the responsibility of a job. (Not nearly enough, though.)
What helps my depression is a clear vision.
I've realized this month that it's when I've taken the path of least resistance when I've ended up the most miserable.
When I was a senior in high school and needed to decide what to do with my life, I picked a school (the U of M) and a degree (computer engineering) that were convenient because of proximity and my interest in computers.
My first semester of college was a complete shock.
For the first time in my academic career, I hated school.
The classes absolutely drained me. My "intensive precalculus" class sounded about as fun as you'd imagine. I mean, yeah, there are some people out there who enjoy math, but it's a rare breed who would say that they derive pleasure from "intense math."
My calculus-based physics class was a kick in the teeth. I've always been told I'm smart, but memorizing and deploying specific formulas on demand was not my strong suit. It made me feel dumb.
It felt like I was there because I had to be there, not because I wanted to be there.
And how ludicrous is that? I spent $12,000 per semester out of some perceived obligation to do so.
When I failed miserably out of engineering school, I sat down in Coffman Memorial Union and scrolled through the class directory, looking for something that looked interesting to me.
I ended up landing on a class called Broadcast Television Production, which gave me so much energy.
It required me to become a journalism major, so I switched over to that.
That path led me to an internship at WCCO, which was one of the most enjoyable professional experiences in my life. I mean, I got to hang out with hard working creatives that perfectly blended their surly dispositions with a passion for making engaging videos.
Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, I feel like I no longer am obliged to follow any specific path. The only thing holding me in place is myself.
For the past six months, I've felt like I've been stuck in this fog of uncertainty and depression. I've felt useless, a drain on myself and those around me.
This fog has led me down some dark paths where I've said some really nasty things to myself, kicking myself for being a loser, a failure, an idiot.
But really, my problem was that I just lost sight of who I am and what I want to be.
So while I'm still squinting to see my way through the fog, I'm using some of my other senses instead.
I'm using my ears to listen to my friends and network who are serving as voices to pull me out.
I'm using my nose to sniff out opportunities and make new friends.
And perhaps the most important of all: I'm using my heart to decide what will make me feel fulfilled and useful.
All of that stuff is helping me form the vision for what the next few years of my life looks like.
The two resources I have to offer those who may be in a similar situation would be my pal Kurt Schmidt who is currently in the final stages of a book that helps you formulate your 10 year vision, and my idol Arnold Schwarzenegger's new book Be Useful.
I cannot recommend the audiobook version of his book enough. Hearing Arnold say things like "rest is for babies, and relaxation is for retired people" hits so much better with his accent.
The messages shared in children's programming are important to hear as adults too.
I've been hanging with my kids a lot this month, and my son is super into Paw Patrol and Blue's Clues.
In the "Big City Adventure" musical movie, you follow Josh (yeah, there's been several new "Steve" characters since the show debuted in my childhood) as he tries to achieve his dream of performing on Broadway.
Are the songs simple and annoyingly catchy? Definitely. But you know what? Sometimes, it's important for us, as adults, to believe that "happiness is magic" and "you can do anything that you wanna do."
Paw Patrol is another one of those shows where, as an adult, it's easy to complain about their reductive storylines and fantastical premises.
But on the other hand, I have a vivid memory of discussing the Green Ranger's transformation into the White Ranger on the bus as a first grader.
These stories serve as lessons for teamwork, cooperation, sharing, and the importance of spreading joy and helping those in need.
These are traits that come easier to some than others, but they're crucial if we want to have a thriving society that lifts all of us up as humans.
Plus, sometimes, it's just fun to get invested in silly, simple characters and storylines.
So while I'm still gonna watch RuPaul's Drag Race or FUBAR when the kids go to bed, don't sleep on the shows that your kids are into. If you can drop your "I'm too good for this" mentality, you might just remember how simple life can be if you reduce it to its basic concepts.
How does one build confidence without cultivating hubris?
Is it just staying humble?
Asking for a friend.
...okay, I'm asking for myself.
Brain pathways are forged through the tall grass.
My therapist gave me this analogy as a way to help me visualize how to deal with changing your perspectives.
When a pathway is stomped through the tall grass, it's easy to walk down it.
But sometimes, those pathways no longer serve us. We still choose to walk down them, though, because it's easy.
If you want to forge newer and more helpful pathways, you gotta do the hard work of stamping out new pathways.
Eventually, if you keep doing the work, you'll discover that the old pathways become overgrown, and the one you stamped out for yourself is now the easy path.
I think this metaphor works for so many areas of our lives, like getting into shape or improving our own self talk.
If I'm so smart, why can't I beat depression?
I wrote that question in my journal, and I think it's because depression might not be something you beat. It's something you experience when you have achieved so much and aren't confident in what's next.
You "beat" depression by choosing to take a step towards your vision every single day.
You "beat" depression by spending less time with your brain and more time with your heart.
You "beat" depression by engaging in creative pursuits that make you happy. Just you. Nobody else.
👨💼 Professional insights
AI is so much fun to experiment with!
One of the goals I set for myself this winter was to clean out the crawlspace we have under our steps.
As any homeowner knows, it's easy to accumulate stuff over the years. The item that left the biggest footprint? Several totes filled with baby clothes.
It doesn't seem like we're on the path toward baby number 3 at all, so we figured it was a good opportunity to purge it all.
I ended up donating 12 boxes of clothes.
While I carefully placed each item into one of those boxes, I dutifully tallied each one so I could calculate the fair market value in order to write the donation off on my taxes.
Now, this is something I've done for years. I find some spreadsheet on the internet that helps calculate it, then I manually add the items to the sheet to end up with the value.
This time, I decided to try to use AI to help me figure this out.
I live streamed the whole process, which you can check out here.
I learned two things during this experiment: first, OCR tools aren't that great at reading tally marks (but honestly, they did better than I expected). Second, while we're still a fair ways away from being able to hand off tasks like these to AI bots, it's impressive how far GPT-4 was able to get from my basic prompting.
Can AI really take away the "soul sucking" parts of our jobs?
There are a lot of mechanical tasks that our brains are wired to be good at: counting, pattern recognition, and so forth.
These tasks are often the crappiest parts of our jobs, right? It's the monotonous, soul-sucking parts of our work. And we even call it soul sucking because it often feels like stuff that gets in the way from pursuing better, more fulfilling things.
So what does that leave us with? If the soul sucking parts of our jobs are automated away, what does it mean then for us to be human?
Maybe the future here isn't that AI will kill us all. Maybe it will force us, for the first time in the existence of our species, to truly deal with what it means to value a human life.
It will free us up to pursue creative pursuits. To keep digging deeper on our humanity. To ask new questions about what that actually means, and then allow us to pursue it together with machines helping us do some of that hard work for us.
Maybe something I can look into is figuring out how to use AI to help us understand our brains better. Like, can AI help us figure out the chemical imbalances that lead to severe depression? And if it can, can it help us synthesize treatments to keep our brains in perfect balance all the time? And if it can, does that prevent us from being human, or does it make us more human?
"Happiness is to write code that does great things for other people."
Before getting laid off, I bought tickets to Code Freeze at the University of Minnesota. The annual event focused this year on artificial intelligence, so it would've been foolish not to go.
I am so glad I did.
The event kicked off with a keynote from Andreas Sjöström, a long time industry leader, who shared a story of a paper he wrote when he was young.
His teacher asked him to define happiness, and he came up with "happiness is to write code that does great things for other people."
Really, when he said that, it felt like someone suddenly turned the focus knob from "blurry" to "sharp."
Writing software is challenging work filled with constant struggle, but once you get things working right, it's magical.
We, as engineers, often lose sight of that magic because we get so invested in discovering the secrets to the magic.
Sometimes, it's nice to just sit back and appreciate the opportunity and privilege we have to deliver technology that brings not only joy to others, but empowers them to go forth and do great things.
"An architect's crystal ball is being connected to others."
The other networking event I attended that brought so much joy is the AppliedAI meetup.
This month's meeting featured Jim Wilt, a distinguished software architect, as he discussed AI's role in an organization's architecture strategy.
The thing that struck me at this particular event was how dang smart everyone there was. All forms of intelligence were explored. Some folks were really keyed into the emotional side of intelligence, while others were approaching things from an analytical lens.
All of us were working together to gain some insights into how we can better use these amazing tools we've been given.
That spirit was wrapped up in a story Jim was saying about the importance of collaboration.
In isolation, you're only as smart as yourself. When connected to others, you are able to make deeper and more accurate insights into what might work for your own situation or problem.
The key takeaway? "An architect's crystal ball is being connected to others."
If we're going to answer the tough ethical and societal problems that surround these new AI tools, the only way we'll figure it out is together.
What's next for me
Certainly, my next month will involve more meetings, more interviews, and more digging into this vision.
I commit that by this time next month, I'll be back with a more clear vision of what I want my life to be. That way, when one of you wonderful people asks me "what are you looking for," I can provide a hyper-focused answer.
As always, a huge thanks to those who have reached out and offered their support. Like I said above, being connected to others is really what makes all the difference.
If you would like to help, here's how:
- If you know of a full time (32-40 hr/week) job opportunity where I can help architect a complex software system, explore how AI can fit into an organization, or lead a team of nerds towards building an awesome product, please send it my way.
- If you have insights or articles that speak to how AI might force us to define our humanity, please send those my way.
Until next month, stay in touch!