2018 Retrospective

Posted on December 31, 2018 by John Duhamel

Year in review

The year is finally coming to a close, and I wanted to reflect a little about my past year, the highs and lows, and also talk a little about my plans for next year. 2018 definitely wasn’t a bad year, but I struggle to call it a good year either. Mostly, it was a stangnant year; thoroughly OK.

Looking back

Before starting, I think it’s worthwhile to do a brief retrospective of the past few years, as it’s relevant to what I’m planning.

In 2016, I worked at a tiny startup called Long Game. It was a fintech startup that offered something called Prize Linked Savings. As the first engineer, I basically built the product from scratch. We eventually grew to 10 employees, with a 5 person engineering team, but throughout I was the lead engineer.

In some regards, Long Game was my best job so far. I learned ten times more in that single year than in all my other jobs combined. I loved the sense of freedom in terms of what I built and how I did my work. Beyond coding, I learned about other aspects of starting a company such as hiring, budgeting, and fundraising.

However, due to slow user growth, I eventually became disallusioned with the product and vision. I decided to interview elsewhere, and ultimately moved because I realized I could earn 2x my startup salary at a more established company.

I interviewed and received an offer from one of the “big 4” tech giants. I don’t want to say which one because I don’t want my blog to read like a resume, but I’m sure you can figure it out if you’re really curious. I initially turned the offer down, thinking of myself as a “startup person”. Instead, I moved to a slightly later (but still very early) stage fintech startup. However, the aforemention company was persistent in sending follow-ups every couple months. Eventually, I got an email that stated outright that my offer was valid for up to a year from when I received it, and I could choose to accept at anytime. I got to thinking, that meant I could take the rest of the year off to travel and come home to a very cushy and respectable job. I called the recruiter, and after some matching was placed on Machine Learning team based here in the Bay Area with a starting date in January 2018.

I spent a few months chilling out and getting ready and then took off for Europe in August. Europe was amazing and it totally changed me. I was completely solo, which pushed me out of my comfort zone. I met tons of awesome people, was exposed to new cultures, and went places I otherwise never would. Most importantly, I developed a love for new experiences. On New Years Eve in 2018 I was drunk out of my mind in Berlin with a backpack full of fireworks. It was the best way I could imagine to cap off 2017. What a crazy year it had been! Full of highs and lows.

Two days later I flew home, spent a week recuperating, and then hopped in my car for the long commute down 101 for my first day of work. I was a little confused, existentially, on my first day. I remember I wore all black clothes and had a rasta bracelet I’d bought in Jerusalem. My mind was still very much in travel mode. After spending the morning watching onboarding presentations, I met my new boss for lunch. He seemed nice; very humble and gentile. I was shown my cubicle, and then spent the afternoon going through our system and talking about what I’d be working on.

My team is divided between engineers and researchers. Most of the engineers are recent college grads, and the researchers primarily have PHDs and are middle-aged. I work primarily in Java, with a bit of C++ sprinkled in from time to time.

There are good and bad aspects of working at a large company. The people I work with are very smart and have pedigrees that you don’t find often at startups. The pay and benefits are noticably better than at any of the startups I’ve worked for. Lastly, the code you write on is used by millions of people, which feels sort of amazing after working at startups.

The bad parts primarily relate to beurocracy. Goals are set by my boss’s boss’s boss. Even then, sometimes I think that his boss is the one setting goals. The result is that our work feels somewhat robotic. Our projects are broken into small pieces and assigned to engineers in two week sprints. Finishing our sprint tasks on time is prioritized over doing things well, so people often opt for simpler, risk-averse solutions to problems they face.

Outside of work, I had a pretty good year. We got tons of snow in Tahoe and I hit a few cliffs that I’d been eyeing for years. I also went to Burning Man, which was so awesome! To cap it off, I spent Christmas with my family in Japan.

Bring on 2019!

Comparing all my experiences, I can’t help but miss the freedom to be creative and try new things. I miss being able to learn just for the sake of learning something new. So, I’ve decided to take it upon myself to recapture that in 2019.

I’ve booked a one-way flight to Paris in March. I’m going to ski the Alps! My plan is to get an AirBNB near Chamonix and spend a couple months ski bumming around some of the resorts there. My ultimate goal is to ski from the peak of Mont Blanc. Once the snow melts, there’s quite a few places I want to check out. I really want to visit the Pyramids in Egypt, go to Petra, and see the Himalayas. I’m not sure exactly where my travels will take me, but I can’t wait!

With regard to employment, it’s definitely a little scary to give up the stability and benefits of having a full-time job. I’m planning to continue working, in some capacity, as a contractor. I’ve been fortunate to work in Silicon Valley for nearly 10 years now, and I’m confident I’ll be able to find companies to work with. I’m also going to spend part of my time working for myself. I want to re-kindle my love of programming and the best way to do this, in my experience, is working on personal projects. Who knows, maybe inspiration will strike and I’ll become the CEO of my own startup.

I really feel that otherwise I won’t be able to do the things that I really want in life. Call me foolish, a hopeless Sagitarius. However, someday I may write a “Life in review” post, and I want to say that I did it all; I saw the whole world, experienced every culture, conquered the impossible. If I stick to the safe and known, I just won’t get those opportunities.

I’m excited beyond words for 2019. I want this to be the year that I truely discover myself. Until later…