Lise is a free elf! (or: I lost my job)

Wool socks and a sign that says 'Next Great Adventure'. Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Here we are, six months into 2020, and hooboy, it sure has been a century. It feels irresponsible to start any personal blog post without an acknowledgement of COVID-19, the increasing fascism of the U.S. government, and racial injustice.

So before we launch into the latest episode of The Adventures of Lise: Transtemporal Gadfly in the Year 2020, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that there’s a whole big world out there that has nothing to do with my personal struggles.

(In case you have any doubt where I stand on current events: Black lives matter. And since it’s also Pride month: Black queer lives matter, and Black trans lives matter. If you have opinions contrary to that, you are welcome to keep them to yourselves and/or fuck right off. If you want to clutch your pearls about me expressing that opinion on a public post where an employer might see it, you are also welcome to get lost — I don’t want to work for a company that would judge me for fighting injustice).

… okay, ready to go on?

The big bad news: job loss

On May 12th, I was laid off, along with most of my team. It was very abrupt, very surprising — and yet inevitable, in retrospect.

It was made clear to me by many people that this decision had nothing to do with my performance, and everything to do with company financials. As far as I know, my manager had nothing to do with the decision — it was all made at a higher level based on I-don’t-know-what criteria.

My immediate reaction was… ambivalence. You see, I had already been looking for a job, on and off, for the past six months. I had been at this company ten years and I felt like I was stagnating. I had a few promising interviews in late 2019, but nothing panned out. So at first I was like, hooray, an opportunity to do something new?

But as the weeks have gone on, I’m definitely found a trove of… sadness? Nostalgia? about the loss. Even though I was ready to leave this company, it’s hard to put the work of ten years behind you in a day. I think of all the people I probably will never see again — my amazing manager and team members! — and the places I’m unlikely to return to (like the Savers of Framingham, or the Cochituate Brook Rail Trail). Sometimes I even think nostalgically about sitting at a certain traffic light on Speen Street.

Plus, we had all been working from home for two months due to the pandemic, which made being suddenly cut off particularly traumatic. I had (and still have!) a bunch of my personal belongings at the office. Going into an empty office to reclaim those tomorrow is going to feel exceptionally weird.

The good news is that we are not being left without resources. I have access to severance, outplacement funds, benefits continuation, etc, which means that for a few months, I won’t have to worry about paychecks or health insurance and I can focus on finding a new job. The economic situation is dire, of course, but I honestly feel like I’m in a better place than I was with my job loss in 2009.

In the final account… I’d rather be one of the people let go than one of the people remaining.

What kind of work do you do, anyway?

I’m in front-end web development, meaning I work primarily with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (and adjacent technologies). My title before I was laid off was “senior front-end developer.” I have ten years of experience working on websites for a major tech publisher, plus additional freelance and personal experience. I’m happy to forward my resume if you think you have something that I’d like.

What am I looking for next? One word: values

First thing to know about me: I am fundamentally pessimistic about employment. I am always aware that you can be let go from any job, at any time, for any reason; there is no such thing as job security. You are only valuable to the company so long as you make it money. Capitalism gonna capitalize.

But I’m less capable these days of being blasé about that. Watching the news, I hate seeing incompetent executives — who are usually old white dudes — steer their companies towards disaster in the search of 100% year-over-year growth. (Patreon, I’m looking at you). I hate to watch billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates do nothing* when they have the power to stop a pandemic in its tracks without even sacrificing 1% of their wealth.

*(or “very little, and only on their strict terms”)

I don’t want my next job to feel like I’m just a replaceable cog in a machine of death. I don’t agree with the corporate philosophy that “if you’re not growing, you’re failing.” I think more things matter than the bottom line.

Thus it’s important that my next position be at a values-driven institution.

Maybe that’s a non-profit, or a university. Maybe that’s a company that has a mission statement that it takes seriously, and which is is alignment with my values.

At the end of the day, I need to feel like I am more than just a machine for spitting out front-end code, or some kind of modern-day Morlock.

That may lead you to ask…

“…what are your values, anyway, Lise?”

You probably get a good sense of it from reading this whole post, but to list a few words and phrases that come to mind:

Intellectual curiosity.

Generosity.

Honesty.

Fairness. Accuracy. Equality and equity. Social justice.

Compassion. Treating people as ends, not means.

Putting people’s lives above property.

The power of stories.

… and probably more. Developing one’s values, after all, is the work of a lifetime.

What else is important to me in my next job?

Unlike the previous consideration, the points below are all negotiable — I’m willing to do work that’s less in alignment with my interests if I can do it remotely; I’m willing to go into an office some of the time if I can solve interesting problems. I’m also willing to be flexible on pay and benefits if I can do work I love.

I want to work remotely.

I live in rural Massachusetts, and I am 50 miles from the nearest big city (Boston). Let me just say, I do not want to work in Boston. I’m not even sure I want to commute to Worcester, some 30 miles away.

Since I had been doing my job remotely for two months, and working remote regularly before that, I see no reason why I need to go into an office.

Generally I feel that the managerial attitude that wants to see “butts in chairs” is the same attitude that values the appearance of productivity over actual results, and I will take a hard pass on that attitude.

I want to solve problems.

All my performance reviews at my last job said the same thing: “Lise is a tenacious problem solver.” I’m happiest when I can be fully immersed in Making Something Work.

And when I succeed in solving a problem? Man, there’s nothing like that rush. It’s true for writing and it’s true for web development — although when I come up with a different way to use aspect-ratio CSS cropping, the audience to whom I can brag is considerably smaller 😉

Arguably, all technical work is problem solving, so this doesn’t really narrow it down, does it? So let me further qualify: I’d like to solve interesting and important problems.

First, the interesting. I’d like to get better at writing novel algorithms. So much of web development is trodding the same ground over and over again; it’s hard to find opportunities to come up with a new approach from scratch rather than just copying and pasting a solution someone else has figured out. (Even if that someone else is “past you”).

“Essential Copying and Pasting from Stack Overflow: Cutting corners to meet arbitrary management deadlines.” It’s a joke, but like any good joke… there’s a kernel of truth to it.

Second, the important part. This is a value judgment, and I’m pretty flexible about this. For example, maybe entertainment isn’t “important” in some people’s eyes, but would you have done as well over the past pandemic months without books, movies, or RPGs?

Basically I don’t want to be working in an industry that takes away from people’s lives. I don’t want to be doing web development for ICE, or trying to sell people expensive products they don’t need, or working on a gambling site.

I want to work with modern(ish) technology.

I’d gotten kind of bored with technology stack at my old company, which had over a decade of momentum in the form of legacy code. We were still using JQuery and a bunch of other increasingly-obsolete technologies. It got to the point where every time I needed to update one of our tools, I went to the product’s website and was told “[Product] is deprecated!”

Also, I was starting to get complacent, and forgetting how to do simple things like “change a class name on a DOM element” without using JQuery.

I’d like my next job to be different in that regard.

Vanilla JS, thanks to ES6, is pretty great again, so I look forward to doing more with that. I’m definitely much stronger than I used to be in this regard, but every day I still learn something new. (Maybe I will start a blog series of “what I learned about Javascript today?” But that could just be an ADHD fantasy).

As my former manager and teammates would attest, I love burning cruft to the ground and starting over new, so I’m your gal if you want to rip out an obsolete product and replace it with something new. Like, say, ripping out JQuery.

(I seriously don’t hate JQuery, I promise. It was very good to me at a time when vanilla JS was not — when you had to write a helper function just to select a DOM element by class name. It was my gateway into JS, and I wouldn’t be the programmer I am now without it. But now that Javascript and modern browsers are catching up, it’s much less necessary than it used to be).

JavaScript frameworks are a Thing now, and I’d like the opportunity to work with one of those, if only to develop that skillset. (I’m pessimistic that any of these will stand the test of time — same as JQuery — but right now they are the Hotness). I have a slight preference towards React, because I’ve done some coursework with it, but I don’t know enough about the strengths and limitations of Angular, Vue, etc to have strong preferences yet.

I want a salary and title in line with my skills and experience.

I have at least 11 years of professional front-end web development experience. I have many more years of personal web dev experience — arguably, ever since I picked up The HTML Quickstart Guide in 1996 and started building my first website.

(I still have that book, mostly for nostalgia purposes. Occasionally I get a chuckle looking at its discussion of image maps, or the flyout of web-safe colors).

Without talking numbers, I was underpaid at my last job, so I am hoping to double my current salary, to bring me in line with folks doing similar work.

Likewise, I was a senior front-end developer at my last job, so I’m looking for a more senior position now. I’ve reached the point in my career where I have more web development Opinions than Questions, and I enjoy teaching and mentorship, so I am hoping that points me towards a Lead Front-End Developer position.

But no matter where I am, I believe in leading from the seat I’m in.

What don’t I want?

I’ve alluded to some of these already, but let me be explicit about what I don’t want.

I don’t want to relocate.

I’m 40 years old and I have a husband, a mortgage, and three cats. I am not interested in moving to Podunk, Idaho for a three-month contract as a full-stack developer on WordPress sites.

Relatedly…

I’m not looking for contract work.

This may change if my severance period draws near and I become desperate, but for now, I am solely interested in full-time work.

In my last stint of unemployment in 2009, I found the primary benefit of contract work to be the professional experience it provided — otherwise, it disqualified me from unemployment and kept me from working full-time on my job search. I have no dearth of professional experience now, so the benefits are minimal.

I’m not a full-stack or back-end developer, or a designer.

I can sometimes play a full-stack developer — I can Google an API and muddle my way through a back-end language, and I’ve been known to modify a Java class or two.

But I am rubbish at knowing what looks good on websites. Some of that is teachable, but there’s an artistic element to web design that still eludes me. It’s important work, but not work I can do.

The middle ground I’m not sure about is UX (user experience; also known as UI, user interface). Some jobs consider this to be part of design, and some consider it to be front-end development. Generally, the more code-based the position is, the better I am at it. While I can tell you, for example, that Clear User Inputs Are A Good Thing — and implement them — if you want me to create a comp in Invision or Adobe XD, that is beyond my skills.

As I say on my LinkedIn profile, “I’m experienced at turning a designer’s vision and a back-end developer’s data structures into a functional, usable website, using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript,” so at the end of the day that’s what I’m looking to do more of.

I don’t want to work in Boston.

Or Cambridge, or Somerville. If it’s a remote job with a few days a month in the office, I can handle that, but making that commute on a regular basis will just crush me.

I will not take your timed, automated code test.

I have a whole rant about this, Forthcoming, Maybe, but let me just say: there are a host of reasons I hate these tests, delivered by third-party sites such as Triplebyte, Codility, or Testdome. But fundamentally it boils down to: these tests are discriminatory and non-inclusive, and don’t tell you anything about my strengths and limitations as a programmer.

I refuse to be assessed using them. Even if I did well on them — which I generally do not, because who can design an O(N) algorithm in 30 minutes with secret unit tests and alarms going off at regular intervals? — a company that uses them is probably not a company I want to work for. It suggests you don’t know what it takes to be a good coder and that you probably have an engineering team full of privileged white boys.

I will happily spend my entire weekend working on a take-home, untimed coding challenge for a company I like. (Heck, it’s what I spent last weekend doing). But I will not do a 2.5 hour automated, timed test for a company I just met, because it tells me everything I need to know about their values.

And that is: nothing good.

Relatedly — since the field of tech recruitment is a whole minefield of “what not to do,” whiteboard coding is also awful (though I wouldn’t turn down an interview that involved it), as is asking candidates riddles and brain teasers. My ability to solve the Monty Hall problem — or my, yanno, having heard it once already — tells you nothing about my ability to code, either.

If you feel the need to ask me to prove my coding skills — which is a fraught assumption, but let’s not get into that right now — please have your coding test be something like what I would actually be doing in that job.

I don’t want to work at your old boys’ club

Diversity in programming is really important to me — especially now, and especially given all the work STEM does to keep women, POC, and other marginalized sorts out of the field.

So if your company doesn’t have women and POC in engineering and in leadership positions — if your company signature doesn’t include your pronouns along with your title — give me a miss.

I will not be evil.

Like I said above, I’m uninterested in working anywhere near the carceral system. I’m uninterested in working for Facebook, Amazon, Google — even if I could pass their impossible coding tests, which I can’t. Finance and healthcare are also iffy for me — depends a lot on what corner of it they work in. I’m wary of VC-funded companies and I’m wary of family-owned companies, for similar reasons.

But mostly…

I don’t want to end up in a shitty job

Not that my last job was shitty — far from it. I have worked at shitty jobs, however, and let me tell you — they are a vortex.

Bad jobs suck you in, distort your worldview, and kill your hopes and dreams. Just getting through the day takes so much emotional labor that you have no energy left to look for better work.

(Heck, even good jobs have a kind of inertia. Hence: staying at my last job for ten years, which is generally a maladaptive strategy in this field).

I have been in the position of being forced to stay at a bad job for the money, and I never, ever want to be there again. I’m old enough that I’m starting to think about legacy (and not just legacy code!), and ultimately, I want my work to be a reflection of who I am.

In closing

… I just realized my title is a Harry Potter reference. We’re all aware J.K. Rowling is a transphobe, right?

But as Daniel Radcliffe — aka the actor who played Harry Potter in the movie adaptations said — in a statement for the Trevor Project, “if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred.”

So allow me this mental image of me walking away from my old life, clutching a sock.

Author: Lise

Hi, I'm Lise Fracalossi, a web developer and writer. I live in Central Massachusetts with my husband, three Maine coon cats, and a collection of ridiculous hats.

2 thoughts on “Lise is a free elf! (or: I lost my job)”

    1. I knew you would know which one I meant 😉

      And hey, the upside is I’ll never again have to navigate Christmas traffic around the Natick Mall/Shopper’s World.

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