Two Iterations as a Responsible Adult 07-08-2011

For six weeks now, or two full development iterations (go Agile!), I have worked as a Software Engineer at Opower, a clean-tech startup and all-around stellar place. I would venture to guess (perhaps haphazardly) that I am the youngest person in the company, not counting interns, who clearly do not count, and would further assert that I am in a great environment to develop as an engineer and, really, as a person. The engineering team, in particular, is filled with some amazingly talented and incredibly helpful folk and, as cliche as it may sound, I am at times in awe of the people that I work with on a daily basis. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it is my first real "gig" in the field, but I feel quite excited about being a part of what I perceive to be a truly impressive team. Furthermore, I feel immense respect for what we are doing: saving the environment, one kilowatt hour at a time. Given the general climate of software engineering in Northern Virginia and the DC Metro area at large (defense contractors, sub-defense contractors, and sub-sub-defense contractors galore), it feels a bit like an oasis at times. I stroll into a wonderfully relaxed work environment, am given the responsibility, accountability and resources to get some real work done, interact with people genuinely excited about what we are doing and, ultimately, write code (hooray!) that goes live lickety-split. Oh: and I get to eat bananas, Oreos and gluten-free chips to my heart's content, pet the office dogs (that's not a euphemism, but a real thing) and ride scooters. If it sounds like I am gushing, I assure that you I am not a shill; I'm just a kid who enjoys what he does.


Scratch that: I'm an adult who enjoys what he does. After graduating from college a few months back, I had the realization that I was stepping foot into the section of life where I was utterly responsible for myself. Moving out into my own place, paying my own bills and being financially independent, fretting about medical benefits, life insurance and other crazy things, ultimately becoming my own safety net. Life is fundamentally easier in college (if you are a college student with parents who foot the entire bill and who only has to focus on academics, which I was and which many are not) because it is a sort of transitionary period where you are given the freedom to branch out as your own person while having full and total responsibility withheld from you for just a little while longer. Then you leave and you go forth out into the world and explore and discover and grow even more, but now you have the added weight of "adult life" chained to your ankle as the proverbial ball and you must continuously struggle to maintain your freedom-seeking puerility and humanistic enchantment. You fight your hardest to not become jaded and cynical and to never let the part of your self that loves existence wither away. That's where I'm essentially at right now. (Note that in this paragraph, each use of the second-person "you" was a stand-in for the first-person "I". Subjective experience and all that.)

Throughout the past six weeks, I have been attempting to maintain balance (which is not something that I am, under most circumstances, very concerned with, mind you) between work and everything else. I am trying to become acclimated and productive at Opower, in addition to the ongoing tug-of-war with the forty hour work week: my dedication to my work pushes and pulls with a life philosophy that tends toward extreme individual freedom. Though I am completely aware that these are in no way mutually exclusive, it is an adjustment that I must make. Additionally, I am not one who enjoys staying indoors in one stationary location for long periods of time; I like to get out and hug trees and touch flower petals and bask in sunlight and make erroneous guesses as to the species of local flora and fauna, plus I have a tendency to get sort of, let's say, jumpily anxious, when I am behind glass for too long (fortunately, my window has a pretty killer view at the moment). Obviously, working inside an office for eight hours per day is a constraint that must be accounted for in this regard. Sure, I'd love to go aimlessly stagger around the world for huge chunks of time on end or wander around learning and listening and speaking about anything of intellectual or philosophic interest, but at this particular moment those ambitions are on hold.

And the sheer fact of the matter is that I do have interests outside of work. I have a sizable backlog of reading that I am constantly gliding through (though, happily, at a losing rate due to the continued push of new books onto the stack), I have my own projects that I wish to work on (which has presented a true struggle thus far: maintaining focus toward my individual work outside of Opower), and, above all else, there are people that I sincerely desire to spend time with. Fortunately for my "sanity" and for my happiness, I have been able to devote myself to these latter pursuits with great energy. Actually, when there is some person that you truly care for, it seems pretty easy to drop anything else and throw yourself into her; it requires no secondary thought, asks for no precaution, needs only the will.

But balances of ideals, desires and time are problems faced by people in all stages of life. Returning back to this idea of the transition into responsibility, I must remark that the continued thwarts on my attempts to find housing suitable to my needs have been most perplexing. The original plan was to move into my own place by August, now it is seemingly by September without any idea of whether or not that soft deadline will be met. The original plan was to move into a plush highrise blocks away from Opower's Arlington office before I realized that a) I did not want to work in order to sustain living in a place that would allow me to get to work faster, b) I did not want to live in a building ergonomically and economically designed to pack and stack people like sardines and c) I only wanted to live happily and extravagance is wholly unnecessary, perhaps even detrimental, to this goal. So I am finding that I must harmonize my desire to live close to the City with my desire to live in a relaxed atmosphere, to balance my hope to live minimalistically with my innate pickiness about almost every quality to be examined in a domicile.

It is a possibility that my reluctance to accept any of the plethora of apartments and condos that I have analyzed is tied to a deep hesitance to completely take responsibility for self, but if that is so then it must be sub-conscious because I do not feel those sentiments on the surface. It is also possible that my past materialism is at war with my present revolt against that instance of Self, just as it is possible that I am simply a person who has little ability to compromise on where I am going to live. Psycho-analysis is intriguing but the simplest truth is often the best, and a simple truth of this matter is that I am endeavoring to find a place which meets the complex amalgam of properties that I want to be met. And it is also a simple truth that this is a byproduct of the transition that I find myself passing through: past and current desires collide with perceived current and future needs. In short, my inability to move into a place of my own, for whatever mixture of reasons, is a microcosm of the current state that I find myself in: looking forward with a combination of slight bewilderment and wondrous optimism while trying to attain/maintain internal and external harmony in the present.

Truly, this is the log cabin versus the (sub)urban condo: the quintessential battle of our time. I think I'm leaning toward the former.


Yet, whatever confusion I may feel or whichever directions my life progresses in, it would be negligent to not return to the fact that I am immensely enjoying the work that I do, regardless of the chaos of the greater circumstances which surround it. Engineering at Opower takes itself seriously while embracing a sense of creativity and whimsy, thanks in large part to semi-annual Innovation Days and a refusal to tie itself to a rigid, inflexible technology stack. And, perhaps best of all for a new engineer, I have been tossed right into the fire. In the short time that I've been here, I have written code in Java, Scala and Ruby (and debugged JavaScript), written unit, integration, regression, web and other tests (yes, we are Test Driven thank you very much), touched code across several projects in a multi-million line code base, worked on, resolved and closed tickets ranging from new features to user stories to bug fixes, been trusted to essentially learn a new language on the fly, taken part on both sides of some intense code reviews (which is a new concept to me that I found awesome, by the way) and on and on. At Opower, the interviewing process is rigorous and, subsequently, those who get through are trusted to be able to get up to speed and contribute right away to a quick-moving team.

And that is what gets my blood pumping when it comes to sitting down and being productive: being consistently tossed out of my comfort zone and forcing myself to grow and develop. I hate boredom; I outright reject most things that bore me or that lack some compelling element. Sitting around in a cubicle writing code that may or may not see the light of day in a few months and reporting to seven different managers about each perceived success or flaw, event or non-event? No thank you. Perhaps the fact that I just saw Fight Club for the first time is clouding my judgment, but it seems that a non-trivial portion of engineering jobs are laid out along those lines. The idea of the monolithic corporation in which I am just Name- And Face-less Employee Number #26,347 seems like essential death; as such, choosing such a path would be effective suicide. Sure, the steady income, the reduced responsibility, the large enough crowd to blur yourself in and stay put for decades, and the self-sustaining job security make for an easier life, I suppose. But if I wanted ease at the expense of excitement, if I wanted a life where I ceased to pursue anything of (subjective, personal) meaning or value, then I would not have joined Opower, nor would I continue to do most things that I do.

So, thankfully, my work is providing me with unique challenges every day and it is aimed toward a goal that I feel quite passionately about. I wake up in the morning and go off to write software that will help people save a little bit more energy with each new dawn. How incredible is that? If Opower were creating The Next Big Web 2.0 Mobile Social Picture-Sharing Group-Chatting Application, I would not be interested. If Opower were helping governments to spy on its citizens or helping militaries to find new and innovative ways to destroy and maim, I would be disgusted. If Opower were developing click-compelling new methodologies to shove advertising down the collective throat of the masses, I would light my hair on fire, dance my way through a storm of razorblades and then bathe in sulfuric acid*. But we are not: we are empowering individuals to make smart, effective choices about their energy usage. When I think about that, I wear a smile of deep inner joy.

Responsible Adulthood

This appreciation for what I do, combined with the excitement of other totally blissful things happening in my life, more than outweigh the trials, tribulations and growing pains of the progression into full adulthood. I'm finding the wonder in each passing moment and experiencing my own joys crystallize and etch their selves into my memories. These are Fun and Fulfilling Times, indeed. But is that "Responsible Adult" label sticking? Does it matter? Does it mean anything? No, I have not yet found a residence to call my own and no I am not yet completely financially independent. Yes, I am appalled by my current three-plus hours of commute time spent daily (which is made ironic by the fact that I work at an environmental organization). Yes, I do still have a great deal more growing to do as an engineer and as a person. But these things excite me! If journeys and learning do not excite you, why even bother? I desperately want to seek out all that can be experienced in this world. I am, and I will.

So, let's just postulate that I am two iterations into a career as a software engineer and some twenty-two years into life as a Person. One thing I can say with certainty is that I'm enjoying the ride at the moment. Permanence is false, and I do not have the foggiest notion what tomorrow, three months from now or five years from now will bring. But I will certainly find out, won't I?

Two iterations, and a third starts tomorrow. Let's explore!

NB. I understand that advertising helps to keep much of what we love about the Internet free, but I simply am not the slightest bit interested in working on the stuff. I'd rather do the aforementioned fire-razorblade-sulfuric acid love triangle than take part. That's the pure substance of my objection. Also, I must remark that if I came across as petulant, entitled or whiny at any point in my monologue, then it was wholly unintended.