Alex Watt

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What I Learned About Work in 2021

2021 was a big year for me! The biggest change was getting married in May, but I also started a new job as a senior engineer at Shopify in March and got promoted to staff in the fall. As I was reflecting I realized I’ve learned a lot about work and thought I’d share some of the lessons.

I learned that changing jobs is sometimes the right move. I spent the first three years of my career at a startup. I joined as one of the first engineers and couldn’t imagine leaving. When I left, I wondered if I’d regret it. I learned that no matter how much you love a job, when you’ve given it your best, you can move on to a new opportunity with no regret.

I learned that pair programming is awesome. In software development, pair programming is when two people program together. I didn’t do this very often at my last job. I learned something from every single pairing session in 2021, and would like to do more of it in 2022. Pairing is a great hack for learning things you couldn’t easily learn any other way (“you don’t know what you don’t know”).

I learned that I need time to decompress after work. I work from home and I’ve found that I often need a sort of commute routine to disconnect before I can be fully present at home. I almost feel like I have a headache if I try to stop work abruptly and switch to talking to my wife. Some things that seem to work for me: Playing piano, taking a short nap, making dinner by myself, or reading. Usually all it takes is 10-15 minutes.

I learned to share work before it’s done. I used to be timid about sharing work in progress - like scratch code or a rough draft document. I’m not saying I never shared it, but there were times I thought I should wait until my work was “good enough” to share. Now I view not sharing work early as a risk.

I learned to embrace my limits better. One reason I sometimes felt my work was not “good enough” to share was that I thought it should be better. That often led me to working longer hours. Now instead of feeling that my work is coming short, I accept it. It may not be perfect, but it’s good for what it is and the circumstances I had. To get better results, I look for ways besides putting in more time. Some of those ways are getting feedback from others, especially my manager, and investing in myself by constantly learning - reading, trying new things, etc.

I learned that I don’t need to be extremely accessible. I used to keep Slack on my phone. I’d frequently respond to messages outside of normal working hours. When I started my new job, I was encouraged in onboarding to uninstall it. Work communication happens on my MacBook. I use my Slack status to let people know what to expect, e.g.:

Intentionally disconnecting allows me to deliver more complete attention to my work when I am working. I’m still accessible via PagerDuty, but if it’s not an incident, it can wait.

Overall I think I finished 2021 with better work habits than I started with, and I’m excited to see what I learn in the year ahead!

If you enjoyed reading this, I hope you’ll follow me on Twitter where I share what I’m learning about building software.

Posted on 03 Jan 2022.