It is late August 2008, and I have just turned in my two (and a half) week notice to my manager at Sandhills Publishing.  As I typed out my notice, I was convinced one of two things would happen; either my manager would make a counteroffer, or they would call me within a few months saying they made a major mistake letting me go.  It turns out, neither of those happened.  

I was about to eat a piece of humble pie.

My Big Ego

I was 27 at the time I put in my notice.  Like any 27 years old who has experienced a little bit of success, my ego was a bit on the large size.  But that didn't all happen overnight.  I joined Sandhills Publishing in late March 2004, fresh out of college.  Sandhills was a perfect place to start my career, as they were making an effort to migrate from VBScript/Classic ASP to .NET.  The migration was still in its infancy when I joined.  .NET 1.1 had just come out, and we were all learning the ins and outs together.

One of my personality quirks is I tend to barrel ahead without fully understanding all the risks or pitfalls.  While it has gotten better with experience (and age!), this can be a good thing in the right situation.  I volunteered for some of the tougher conversions, which gave me a lot of great experience.  That quirk got me in over my head.  I'd take on something thinking it would be a small two-week task and have it consuming six months of my life.

If you are not familiar with Sandhills Publishing, a very simplified explanation is they are the Craigslist for heavy machinery (trucks, tractors, planes, cranes, etc.).  When I joined, they offered both print and web options.  Because I had no trouble volunteering for the difficult conversions from ASP to ASP.NET, I became the original author for the main listings web applications.  These were the apps that allowed people to search machinery listings and view the details.  At the time, those apps each got something over a million hits a day.  On top of that, I wrote an upload application that allowed dealers to upload listing images that would quickly spit out web-optimized versions without the need for a backend system running Photoshop.  Keep in mind; this was in the 2005/2006 timeframe when a lot of that technology was still new.

Being the original author and key maintainer on business-critical applications made me think I was an essential part of their operation.  My thought process at the time was, "these applications are how the company makes a lot of its revenue; without me, the apps fail.  They are screwed if I leave."  

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how foolish I was to think that way.  I was a software engineer who didn't really understand the big picture.  I never talked to any customers.  I didn't talk to any salespeople.  I was given a task by the product owners, and I was expected to finish it.  

Some Humble Pie

When I first joined Sandhills Publishing, all the software developers and DBAs sat in the same area.  The company opted for an open floor plan with columns upon columns of desks.  Like any other company, re-organizations are a fact of life.  For whatever reason, the decision was made to move half the team to another building on the campus and have the other half move closer to the product managers in the current building.  My manager went with the group of people to the other building while I stayed in the current building but moved closer to the product managers.

When I turned in my notice, I had visions of my manager come sprinting down from the other building screaming, "WE CAN'T LOSE YOU!"  But that never happened.  In fact, I never really got an acknowledgment of my notice.  We didn't talk face to face until a day before my last day.  It was very cordial, where he wished me luck and was sure I'd find success wherever I ended up.

That was unexpected, but my ego wouldn't let me off the hook.  I was sure a few days after I left; they will be blowing up my phone.  But that didn't happen either—no phone calls.  No emails.  It was almost as if I quit a job and they had moved on.  The only person who didn't really move on was me.

It turns out they have a lot of developers just as smart and smarter than I was.  They understood my code and were able to proceed on without calling me.  Sandhills Publishing is still in business.  The walls didn't come crashing down after I left.

I wasn't as mission-critical as I thought.

Lessons Learned

I should have seen this coming.  I worked at Sandhills Publishing for four and a half years.  During that time, there was the usual churn.  New people were added to the team, and people left.  Only once was someone asked to stay.  Everyone else got a going-away lunch or some drinks at the sports bar across the street.  And the same happened to me.   A going-away lunch at the Original Valentino's and some drinks with a few people at the bar across the street.

I suspect if I was working for a small company or a start-up, at least a token effort would have been made to keep me.  But I was working for a fairly large company that had been around since the 1970s.  I'm just one person who had worked there for a short time frame.  I wasn't a manager or a director or anything like that.  Outside of my team, no one knew who I was.  I was a small fish in their big pond.  They hired a lot of smart people.  The company was fine before I got there, and it was fine after I left.

I would be remiss that I am fortunate I work in an industry where, for the most part, leaders realize that when a person leaves, the team's capacity to do work will drop until that position is backfilled.  I know that isn't the case in other industries.  When a teacher is out and a substitute cannot be found, classrooms are split up, or someone from the administration has to teach for the day.  At Sandhills, did people on my old team struggle after I left?  Maybe.  I wasn't there.  If they did, they eventually adapted and overcame.  And outside of the initial shock from a few folks, almost everyone else on the team had the attitude of "good luck at your new company."

It was a bitter pill to swallow, knowing I wasn't as important as I thought I was.  But it was a good lesson for me to learn.  That lesson helped me in future situations when I worked at West and ES&S (they really weren't the right fit for me).  I didn't have this sense of obligation to stay, that if I left those companies would go out of business, and 100s or 1000s of people would lose their job.  Because of that lesson, I realized I wasn't doing anyone any favors staying there if I was miserable.  I could find a better situation I could thrive in rather than struggle in.

It turns out I'm not Mission Critical

Back in September 2008, I left Sandhills Publishing with a big ego that thought they would be screwed without me. I couldn't have been more wrong.