Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Single Best Thing For My Career

In 2004 I was working at nelnet - for one of the best bosses I've ever had. I was the lone developer working on NextGen projects, our customers were happy, I was paid well, & I had plenty of vacation - things were good. Truthfully, I felt like I was on top of the world. However, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. I'd seen a bit of 'how things could be' by reading Refactoring & Extreme Programming Explained. I was 24 years old, and I felt like my current situation wasn't going to allow me to grow much. I'm convinced that if I were older I wouldn't have changed a thing, but I was young, and I dove into the deep-end of consulting.

Like I mentioned, I'd seen a bit of the light before I made the jump. I had read a few good books, I was using Test Driven Development (TDD) and Continuous Integration at work, and I'd seen the (successful) results of my efforts. Before I joined the NextGen team I was working with a larger group of developers, and at one point we were in the middle of delivering a huge release. While everyone else was working weekends I was either not in the office or I was at my desk reading about poker theory. My component of the release worked, 100% of the time. My tests prevented regressions even as the release evolved. Through the many month ordeal, I never once had an issue. I had seen the benefits of TDD, there was no turning back, and I wanted to mature my skills even further.

I joined ThoughtWorks in early 2005. From the moment I walked into the office I felt like I was drinking from a fire-hose. What's firefox? Better than IE, okay then. What's DI? Inject the dependencies so you can use mocks or stubs in the tests, got it. Ruby on Rails, PostgreSQL, I'm on it. Then there's all the other things that aren't technology related, but are still worth knowing: international travel, frequent flyer programs, points credit cards, car rentals, etc etc. In my first year with ThoughtWorks I grew more as a person than I had in the previous 3 years combined.

Obviously, it's not all roses. In my orientation class I remember everyone admitting that they were going to put in 2 years for the experience and get out - I had the same plan. The guy with the most experience made it 6 months, two other guys made it a year, and I stayed for 3. The constant travel can wear on you, but it's worth doing it for as long as you possibly can.

There's three reasons that consulting was like steroids for my career:
  • diversity of experience
  • building my network
  • focus on my craft
Each project of my consulting career was very different: C# in the Travel Industry, VB.net in Insurance, Ruby (& DSLs) in Credit Cards, Ruby on Rails (RoR) in VoIP, RoR in Auctions, RoR in Advertising. Projects often used different operating systems (ms, linux, apple) and databases (mysql, postgres, oracle, sql server). Naturally, I couldn't become an expert in everything I touched, but the exposure gave me views into each world. Additionally, I was able to meet experts from each of those worlds. When I joined ThoughtWorks I was a C# developer carrying a Dell, when I walked out I was carrying a MacBook Air and I was best known in the Ruby space - consulting completely changed the trajectory of my career path.

As I mentioned, I often got the opportunity to meet with various experts. I don't know Oracle well, but if I have a problem, I know I can email Pramod. Even though he never worked there, I met Stu Halloway while working for ThoughtWorks. Stu introduced me to Rich Hickey, which is pretty nice, since I spend the majority of my time working with Clojure these days. I met Martin Fowler and eventually wrote a book with him. My network gets me invited to conferences, allows me to co-organize speakerconf, and when I joined DRW, I brought 13 friends with me. If you believe that "your network determines your net-worth", then the majority of my net-worth is due to what I built while I was consulting.

At speakerconf 2011 I noted that everyone involved in the Software Craftsmanship movement was either a consultant or had very recently left consulting. The question of why this was the case was sent to the twitterverse. Brian Guthrie's response rang very true (it was something along the lines of): as a consultant, our craft is the only thing we own. Consultants hone their craft endlessly. I'm convinced that's the reason that consultants are almost always ahead of the technology curve. As a consultant, to invest in your business is to invest in yourself. If you work for a consultancy you'll not only have the time to focus on your craft, you'll also likely be surrounded by a group of people who have been doing the same - and are happy to show you what they've learned.

These days, I'm no longer at ThoughtWorks. In the end, I couldn't deal with the travel or the business model. However, that doesn't change the fact that it was the single best thing that has ever happened to my career. I would highly recommend consulting to everyone who is truly serious about maturing their software development skills.

note: Not all consultancies seem to require as much travel, Relevance, for example, requires very little travel - from what I hear. I also hear that it's an amazing place to work. It would be near the top of my list if I were to get back into consulting.
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