Monday, January 5, 2009

A Farewell Letter

My grandfather's generation was at a time when there was a promise made between employee and employer, when the employee would promise the years of his life from graduation to retirement to that single employer, and the employer would, in return, promise a stable job and guaranteed benefits - even through retirement. Those days are long gone. Today, people hop from job to job with a "grass is greener" mentality because they have to get what they can get when they can get it. There is no security that an employee can keep his job or his benefits, and no security that an employer's workers will stay. The bond is broken. To that point, I found myself in late September of 2006, crafting a "farewell" letter to my fellow coworkers. Below is that farewell letter, and I share it here with you now because I have recently had a resurgence of the same feelings I had when I originally wrote it. While I do not have immediate plans to quit my current job, I can regretfully say that the hopes I had for this job have not been fulfilled. I welcome any and all comments from anyone who can relate to the thoughts in my email below:

From: Ward, David
Sent: Thursday, September 28, 2006 4:29 PM
Subject: farewell

I have worked for quite a few companies, and, as is customary when a person leaves, have decided to write a "farewell" letter. At first I didn't want to - equating it in my mind to the cheesy, rubber-stamp one or two liners that appear in high school yearbooks. Ah... but I won't let you get off that easy. Oh no, this will not be one of those "it's been great workin' with you guys, I've learned a lot, and I wish you all the best in your professional endeavors" letters. I want to make you think, but not of me or what we worked on together - that would be egotistical on my part and frankly, does not matter. Instead, I want you to reflect upon yourself and your actions, to stand back and take a third-person view of your contribution to yourself, your family, and your society. Is this too much for a "farewell" letter? Is it unprofessional? If these are your opinions, then read no further. You might be too hardwired into the machine...

Excellent; you've decided to carry on. First, let's get one thing out of the way. As you read this letter you might ask yourself, "Who does he think he is to give me advice?" You're on the right track. I want you to be critical. I want you to question everything people try to tell you. As Mary Schmich wrote in her article, "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young" -

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth. (1)

Truth be told, I don't have any right to tell you what you should or should not do, or try to define what is right and wrong. In fact, I am not even trying to give you any advice, since doing so, as you will read, would be hypocritical of me. I am merely trying to share with you the thoughts that have been heavy on my mind. And who am I, anyway? Am I trying to portray myself as an example for anyone to follow? Please don't. These thoughts I describe as heavy are so because they have built up without me bringing them to personal fruition, and in that lays one of my life's deepest regrets. Sure, everyone has regrets, of things they should have done and should not have done. Most are superficial, like regretting to buy a stock when it was low, or wishing you didn't drink so much at that party last night. Others are more real, like regretting a way you hurt someone you love. Just take a minute and try to define personal maturity. I propose that a person is not truly mature without real regret. How can one consider himself mature without wisdom (wisdom in my mind being knowledge through experience)? In this case, experiencing the pain that is caused from a regretful act? Regret is a powerful teacher.

So what am I regretting in this letter? What do I think is so important as to deem it worthy of sharing with you on my last day of employment? It is, simply but potently, this: not yet finding a way to make my profession benefit society. Think about it - what do we do as software engineers? In the small, our actions are inherently insignificant; we send electrical charges across wires and magnetically "etch" little zeros and ones on spinning metal platters. In the large, our actions are more palpable; we are in the profession of creating tools that help businesses make (or should I say "get") money. I am not pointing a finger at any specific company, as it is what I have done for many companies over the course of my entire career thus far. The capitalist in you might argue that this is not wrong, as it plays an important role in keeping the wheels of modern business turning. Closer to home, you might also argue that it is not wrong to benefit financially from your professional endeavors, to enjoy the fruits of you labor. What I am personally struggling with, and am sharing with you without trying to point blame, is that I do not believe anything I have done with my career has helped anyone other than myself, my employers, or my clients. Not in a way that matters anyway. How about you? As each monotonous day drags on, don't you ever question what you are doing? Is any of it really as important is it is made out to be? Code that component. Fix that bug. Test that functionality. We're not seeing the forest for the trees. Years go by and I ask myself if I have accomplished anything of importance, anything that will have a positive, lasting effect on society. I find myself falling woefully short.

Outside of work I am, along with my exceedingly supportive and patient wife, raising a family. We try to instill in our children good values, tolerance, compassion and honesty. Yes, that task is very important, but a sobering fact is that I spend a great deal more time with my coworkers (and even more time in front of a computer screen) than with my own family. If such an imbalance is going to exist, one that is difficult to overcome in our job-oriented society, than I want to make the best of it. I want to do something with it beyond line items from a project plan. I am reminded of the opening paragraph from Octavio Paz's book, "The Labyrinth of Solitude" -

All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall - that of our consciousness - between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflections: as he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question. (2)

I don't want to forget myself "in games or work" - especially in work. Think about the last time you went to a gathering of people you did not know, like at a party. Between men at least, within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone, the question that is almost always asked - as if to define us - is, "What do you do?" Now ask yourself that. What do you do? Does it define you? With a rebellious tone I'd love to shout out that "No, it doesn't define me!" Then I think about whom I am writing this letter to: my coworkers. Sadly, yes, what I do at work does define me, at least to them (you).

So, what am I going to do now? I have resigned from my current employer and contract position, and have accepted an offer from another company which requires me and my family to move to a new city. Obviously, neither of these things by themselves changes anything I have lamented about for several paragraphs. I'll still be in software development, sitting in front of a computer screen for much of the day. Why? Three reasons, the first two being embarrassingly selfish and hypocritical, yet honest. The third will hopefully (albeit only partially) reconcile the first two:

  1. Software engineering is the only thing I know how to do that will allow me to keep my family at the standard of living we are accustomed to. Writing those words just made me sick to my stomach. It is a comfortable weakness I regret being attached to.
  2. I enjoy the creative process involved in my work, which I believe my new employer can foster more than any employer I've ever had before. Okay, it's not wrong to enjoy an aspect of your work, but that in and of itself does not constitute a meaningful career - not to myself and definitely not as any kind of contribution to society.
  3. I will be able to - actually expected to - work on various open source projects of my own choosing. I might even be able to head up my own projects. It is in this way that there is a faint hope to use my professional skills to create things that are helpful to others. Sure, many things I work on at my new job will be usable by businesses whose aim is profit, but they will not be the focus of my intent. Rather, I hope social organizations like non-profits, philanthropies, charities, churches, and the like will benefit.

That last faint hope is not enough, though. Not nearly enough. I cannot rationalize away the decision I have made, for I am still succumbing to that "comfort zone" that I scorn. Even if my aforementioned hope comes to fruition, I probably won't know if it ever occurred. As I sit comfortably in front of my computer screen, twice a month nice paychecks being direct-deposited into my bank account, I stay irresponsible and fat, in a socio-economic sense. I am haunted by an excerpt from "The Motorcycle Diaries" by Che Guevara, describing a visit he had with an old dying woman:

It is there, in the final moments, for people whose farthest horizon has always been tomorrow, that one comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over. In those dying eyes there is a submissive appeal for forgiveness and also, often, a desperate plea for consolation which is lost to the void, just as their body will soon be lost in the magnitude of the mystery surrounding us. How long this present order, based on an absurd idea of caste, will last is not within my means to answer, but it's time that those who govern spent less time publicizing their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful works. (3)

Is it actually possible to participate in "socially useful works" as part of one's job? Of course it is, but it seems very difficult to attain in our profession, as it is not the primary goal of the profession. What else can be done? One can donate time, which I have done, although it has proven increasingly difficult to find among work, commuting and family. One can donate money, which I also have done, although doing so feels too detached and aloof from the actual effort. Should I radically throw my current life as I know it away to join a grass-roots organization in an attempt to become socially responsible (uprooting my family in the process)? Seems rash.

So there you have it. I have elaborated - at length - the problem and the regret. There seems to be no easy answer, just a lot of questions. Again, the intent of this letter was not to tell you how to live, as obviously I have not yet figured that out myself. I merely wanted you to think about what you do, and hopefully put some serious thought into the questions I have laid out.

Oh yeah... It's been great workin' with you guys, I've learned a lot, and I wish you all the best in your professional endeavors.

Legal Disclaimer:

Please be advised that the comments of this letter reflect solely my opinion, do not reflect the opinion of past, present or future employers or clients, and are not intended to malign any past, present or future employers or clients.


(1) Schmich, Mary. (1997). "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young" Chicago Tribune.

(2) Paz, Octavio. (1961). "The Labyrinth of Solitude" Grove Press, Inc.

(3) Guevara de la Serna, Ernesto "Che". (1951-1952). "The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey" Ocean Press, 2003.