Saturday, March 14, 2009

Last Day, First Day

I've decided to change employers again, so I'm going to have yet another first day next Monday.

I may be insane for doing this in these unsettled economic times, but fear drove me. My previous employer has been hit hard by the gyrations in the market place. When things appeared to be spiraling down last November I thought I should at least try to be the first one out on the street if the company crated. The one stable alternative that was available took a long time to decide, but an offer finally came through and I gave my notice.

This isn't the first time I've gone through this. I've had two careers: one as a mechanical engineer and another as a software engineer. The first one was pretty stable. I remained with one company for fourteen years before leaping onto a small start-up that wrote client/server accounting software for PCs using C++. That began a series of hops between four small companies, roughly one per year. Each one seemed like a good fit, but they suffered from the common problem of being unable to keep revenue flowing in.

After the fourth one laid me off I found a larger haven that knew how to make payroll twice a month. Unfortunately, it was an older manufacturing firm whose COBOL staff thought relational databases were a new thing. I was a lone Java EE freak in a sea of COBOL and FOCUS. I was allowed to think my own thoughts for three years, developing applications for a client who insisted on using the Internet and XML, but finally I decided that I needed to seek out more of my own kind. I found a nest of Java EE developers at another larger firm that was making money hand over fist. I thought that would be my last stop: they suited me fiscally and technically. There were a lot of wonderful people that I grew very fond of.

Unfortunately, that's the company I left yesterday afternoon.

I've had a lot of first days now. I remember my first day of work at my first job out of college pretty well. I was a December graduate, so I was the lone addition to the staff when I showed up at the small firm that manufactured steam turbines. They weren't ready for me. I was told to sit in a borrowed cube and given several 6" thick design manuals to read. This went on for a couple of days before somebody had mercy and gave me something a bit more meaty to do.

That company managed to survive the Great Depression, but a more modern recession and a savage industry consolidation forced them to reduce staff in several waves. I was young and naive - I worked until 5 PM the November day I was called into the chief engineer's office to be told that I was being let go. My wife and I had spent the fall searching for a house to buy. The plan was to meet the realtor that night to see one that had my wife very excited indeed. I had to go home and tell her that the house purchase would have to be postponed. I was scared to death, because the economy was very bad, but someone referred me to a Navy research lab down the road. Someone had mercy on me that day, because they agreed to hire me.

On my first day, I was escorted from human resources to join the department's pot luck Christmas party. I had neither food nor conversation to contribute; I knew no one in the room; I was excluded from every clique and work discussion. It was one awkward lunch.

I had my very worst first day ever when I stopped being an engineer and joined that company that wrote accounting software. I said "My God, what have I done?" when I returned home that night. It was a difficult situation. I only lasted ten months before I was able to find a less dramatic company closer to home.

All those first days have bookend last days. Yesterday I thought about all the work friendships I've acquired and lost in that time. There are so many people that I've liked and admired at each company I've joined. When I was working there I greatly enjoyed my interactions with them and looked forward to seeing them each day. Every departure brought a measure of sadness and promises to stay in touch that were rarely kept. I still miss some of them terribly.

The group that I left yesterday was especially hard to separate myself from. I've made no secret of my disagreements with some technical directions that management has taken. There are those in that very large organization that I'm glad to leave behind.

But the ones who were closest to me are very hard to walk away from.

Now I'm facing the coming first day with feelings of trepidation. Will they like me? Will I like them? Will the work be good? Will I be able to maintain balance between work and family? Will four years pass by as quickly as the previous four did? Will I be able to stay this time? Will this be my last first day?

Monday morning will tell.

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