Mediocrity in a Post-College Life
Hey there. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about what’s been going on in my life. Not my projects or events or whatever, but me: Shawn D. Maybe that’s because I’ve become more closed off these past few months. Maybe that’s because, frankly, not much of interest has happened since I finished college nearly one year ago. And that’s the problem.
It didn’t start out that way. After I graduated from college, I worked on nothing but my own projects for a couple of months and I loved it. I loved doing my own thing. I loved the feeling of having new frontiers and things to learn. I loved doing cool stuff and having a high impact on my community. I loved… just being placed in the conditions to rock and roll – to succeed, and to reach what I’m capable of, realize my boundaries, and push them further into the unknown.
In those couple of months, I led my CTF team in organizing IrisCTF 2023, our debut event where we had over 1k registered teams join us for 48 hours of learning, hacking, and fun. We had overwhelmingly positive feedback and we succeeded as a team. I’ve never been prouder of us for having pulled it together to achieve and accomplish something great.
I worked on a prototype of Badger, a really cool project that allowed me to indulge in my new electronics hobby and learn circuits, PCB design, EDA, and more. This is a project that I’d still like to revisit and flesh out into a full-on product. The prototype streamlined the entire event for over 300 participants.
I organized, created, and hosted a prototype of “Hack the Planet!”. This was a really cool project that got me into model railroading. I enjoyed setting up model cities with actually functional electrical infrastructure as well as real targets to hack. This was a project that I revisited recently and that I hope to keep alive for years to come.
With each of these projects being great hits, my 2023 was off to a great start. My post-college life was off to a great start.
After Badger and “Hack the Planet!” were over, I decided to seriously look for a full-time job. I had my fun, and now it’s time to pay the bills and secure my future. I sent out about 10 applications per week and would usually hear back from a quarter of them, most of which landed in interviews. I was getting past rounds of behavioral and technical interviews. I began to get offers, but I kept them open so that I could continue to scan the market to realize my worth and pick whichever company valued me the highest.
Then, I made a mistake.
UC Merced IT Network
I received an email from my former team at UC Merced IT Network; I was previously a student employee there and had left months ago due to gross mismanagement. The email was simple: would I be down for one project? One project.
I would get paid for one project, finish it quickly, and then move on to a full-time employer at one of the offers I had open. This would give me time to more completely scan the market to gauge my worth while still making money and paying rent in the meanwhile.
I bit. I met with my old boss, and he explained the project to me. It was simple. I solved the wireless localization problem in my head during the meeting, and I solved the math later that same day. I could implement it in Python in 3 weeks within the specifications I had laid out given the limitations and conditions I was described. I would come on as a contractor under the title of “Security Consultant”.
The project was dangled in front of me like a carrot and I held on for a few more weeks. By the time I got the formal paperwork, it was not at all what I had expected: the title was “Network Engineer II,” and the position was full-time. He told me that it was just a paper formality and that I could just complete the project and then leave when I was done. A full-time “Network Engineer II” position was only “in name” to get my foot in the door.
I went through paperwork and formalities. A few of my offers had closed but I had no problem with that, as I was still getting new offers from my later interviews. I got to work on my project at IT Network for a few weeks. Then, it happened: I was given another project. And another one. And it kept piling.
And suddenly, the original purpose for which I had even agreed to sign the paper was taken away from me. It was reprioritized. It sunk to the bottom. Something I could have easily accomplished in a few weeks of dedicated work was now something I could not work on.
This took place over the span of multiple weeks. I was naive and believed that if I started a job, I had to finish it. So I persisted, even after all my open offers had withdrawn and filled their positions with other people… people who could have been me. I persisted because I believed that if I worked through those projects, then I could finally finish the one project I came back to do. I reasoned that it wasn’t difficult for me to land offers when I had freshly graduated, so it wouldn’t be difficult for me later. I persisted under a foolish belief that I would eventually be able to dig my way to the one project I was brought on for.
Just this passing week, I had learned that this project was never going to be done. There had been decisions and discussions at a management level that had pulled this project out from underneath me, and I was not made aware of them until I had social engineered an answer out from my boss who seemingly tried to backtrack once he had realized the cat was out of the bag.
I’ve been working here for 9 months. 9. Months. This project was dangled in front of me for months. I was just learning about this now.
I think back to what my cousin – who works as a cloud software developer in Silicon Valley – said to me when I explained to her that I was only sticking around because I felt an obligation to finish the project I came on to do: “You don’t owe your employer anything.”
I had endured 9 months of my boss trying to gaslight me, deceive me, and manipulate me. He’s the worst kind of sociopath: the kind that doesn’t even know it. Our team has no strategy, no procedures, no method to the madness. We might as well spin a wheel to make decisions.
When I’d learned the truth about what had happened to my project this passing week, I was appalled. This had been used to manipulate me away from my other offers so that they could utilize my talent for other ends beyond what had been initially agreed; it is true that I’m the only person on the team with the skills to do what I’ve done for the team. I was actively lied to and deceived into continuing to do a job that didn’t respect me as a person. I was manipulated.
I was driven by my belief that I had to finish any job I started. I understand now that although I may hold that true for a workplace worthy of me – a workplace that respects me – this is not it. On my current team, I do not owe my employer anything.
I guess it really goes to show how you don’t quit your job; you quit your manager.
The Wrong Job
I’ve had plenty of people, especially people who work at IT, tell me that I’m at the wrong job. I’m not put in an environment where I can succeed. I’m not put in an environment that challenges me. I’m not put under competent management that can enable, equip, and empower my work to have a meaningful impact on anyone’s life. Every day I work here is a day that I’m not out in the world solving new challenges with high impact on real lives.
I’m at the wrong workplace. I have the wrong job. So many people have told me in one form or another: “What are you doing here? You belong in Silicon Valley. You’re wasting your talent here.” One of my coworkers, who worked at Cisco for 18 years, told me about how he met plenty of young and bright people like me who were engineering the future when he worked in Silicon Valley.
That opened my eyes. The work I do makes his job – and all of our jobs – easier, but he wasn’t concerned about what I could do for him; he, unlike our boss, wanted to see what I can do for the world. My coworker truly wanted to see my success rather than just emptily saying it.
I’m glad that I’m young and have plenty of time ahead of me, and I’m glad that my cousin and plenty of my coworkers have knocked some sense into me. I’m at the wrong job. I’m wasting my talent here. I belong somewhere where I can do actual, real, high-impact good on others’ lives, and this place just ain’t it.
For the past 9 months, I did something wrong: I accepted mediocrity. I accepted a dull and unchallenging life where my cognitive function feels like it’s declining with every passing day. I accepted boredom, something I truly loathe. I accepted a lifestyle where the most impactful decision I make every day was what to eat for lunch. I accepted a life where I’m so mentally drained at the end of the day that all I want to do when I get home is turn my brain off and sleaze my life away.
I accepted mediocrity. It wasn’t a conscious, active acceptance. It wasn’t a direct acceptance. It was something that creeped into my life when I didn’t stand my ground.
It slowly threw me into a depression, and that’s where I’m at right now. Like a boiling frog, I didn’t realize how low my life had become until I was already a powerless, brain-dead 8-5 desk jockey. My motivation and drive had diminished and I was a shell of the fireball I used to be. I truly had nothing exciting going on, and that was going to be the rest of my life.
And that stops now.
I’ve drafted my 2 weeks’ notice. I’m once again sending out job applications and doing interviews. I’m trying to find companies whose values actually align with mine, who will actually be able to intellectually challenge me and nurture my growth. I’ve heard about a lateral position in IT opening up on another team, which I might look into since I’ve worked alongside that team before and management there was able to let me succeed.
I’m looking for someone I lost nearly one year ago: I’m looking for the version of me that’s ready to take on the world, kick ass, and take names. I’m pulling myself out of this depression, leaving this upside-down team, finding a new team that intellectually stimulates and challenges me, and finding a new manager who actually cares about my success and growth, regardless of whether it be for the company or for the world.
So look out, world, I’m back out there. And as always,
Note: although this post was originally scheduled to publish on Thursday, I kept it hidden for a few days as frankly, it was difficult to come to the decision to post.