2011 Review: Personal life

posted by Jeff | Saturday, December 31, 2011, 5:42 PM | comments: 0

This has become a bit of a ritual for me, to summarize my year. When I look back, it seems every year has been dramatic and full of intense changes. I think there's a part of me that really wants a nice, uneventful and boring year. This was not that year.

Home is where the... whatever

Another year, and another move. I wrote quite a bit about our motivation to do it back in August, the two primary reasons being proximity to friends and family, as well as the tiresome burden of the house I couldn't sell. With the job market in my field substantially better, and only moderate attachment to Microsoft, it was the right thing to do. Sure, I've questioned it almost continuously since we decided to do it, but it was right.

The financial implications of the move panned out immediately. The plan was always that I could take as much as a $20k pay cut and still be cash flow neutral, but I didn't have to take that much of a cut. For the first time in my life, I'm actually able to start working toward financial goals that aren't simply paying off credit cards. Now that I have a little person relying on me, and a grown up person relying on me to give her the freedom to raise the little person, that financial responsibility has never been more critical. That I didn't have to finance a huge loss on my house even gives us a foundation to build on.

The geography advantages won't really be obvious until spring, unfortunately. Winter in Cleveland is kind of a lateral move. But once it starts to warm up and we have a proper spring, and can do some easy driving trips, particularly to our favorite amusement parks, that will be a bit of a homecoming.

The social transition has been harder than I thought. I'm very happy to see all of our friends back in Cleveland on a regular basis, but greatly miss our Seattle circles. I didn't expect it would be that hard. The worst part is not regularly seeing my brother-in-law and his family, as it was really fantastic to have someone going through parenthood just slightly ahead of us, with Simon's cousins so close. Every day I struggle with that.

On the positive side, it is nice to have space that is really ours. We've enjoyed redecorating our house, and it really feels new again. The exterior will need some work in the spring, but generally speaking, it's a new and wonderful space to us, where we can paint and put holes in the walls and do whatever.

The year in career

Work was interesting, to say the least. At the beginning of the year, I was convinced that switching to a program manager role at Microsoft would be better for me in the long run. That change, I reasoned, would allow me to have greater impact in less time, and that would be more satisfying to me. That this situation was true actually led me to a realization about the company, which I'll get to in a minute.

I started the year by interviewing for a PM job in the game studio org. It was a mix of roles leading a development team that builds various testing tools for the studios. For a process nerd like me, it was a bit of a dream job, particularly since it was in the game industry without making games. Unfortunately, I came in second place behind a guy who was already a PM, but was otherwise an equal. I can't blame the hiring manager for making that choice, but it was really disappointing.

A few months later, I stumbled into another PM gig that would be part of the cloud services team, building parts of what they're now calling "Data Explorer." It was a bit of a struggle for me, because there was so much emphasis on stuff that didn't matter, and very little on actually building stuff quickly. As much as I tried to steer the team toward that, I was directed toward making documents so I could call meetings with dozens of people costing thousands of dollars. It was culturally as foreign as can be. In the long term, I could have been "successful" at that in the HR sense, but at the expense of my soul. That nothing has shipped speaks volumes about my struggle to fit in there.

So that realization that came with the desire to switch to a PM role was that Microsoft tends to hire people because of their qualifications, then puts them in a job that is at least one notch below that. For example, I knew a CTO type who was hired as a senior SDE. Despite my lead experience, I was hired one notch below, as an individual contributor. As I looked around at people also new to the company, this was a consistent pattern for everyone except college hires (which obviously start at the bottom).

That realization in turn made me realize how poor Microsoft is for best utilizing its talent. The company is filled with talented people, but you have to follow their rigid career development structure to get anywhere. I think that's a huge failure, because the best people that I've ever worked with tend to not fit into neat little categories. Heck, I'm not purely a developer any more than I'm purely a PM (or any other variation on those roles). I think if the company ever made an effort to understand this, they would see that it isn't necessary to have an army of PM's for features (I'm looking at you, Bing), or a mess of developers to solve some arbitrary problem with documents about how to solve a problem.

Those deficiencies aside, I still very much believe in the company, and it will always be a part of me. I'd go back to it (well, in the remote worker sense) if they had the right job. However, there wasn't a clear enough path compelling enough to stay when the notion of moving came up.

Part of the reason to move back was that the job market was better, and maybe having Microsoft on the resume had a lot to do with that. In any case, the company that offered me a job before we moved turned out to be a total joke, a possibility I was prepared for. They were only interested in making sure you were there specific hours and dutifully saying yes to everything. So when I tried to innovate and offer solutions that would have improved their business, it was clear that it wasn't going to work out.

It only took two weeks to get other offers, and there has been no shortage of opportunities. I'm honestly still trying to figure it out, and take advantage of the best opportunity for me in the long run. I'm fortunate to work in an industry that, 2008 to 2010 aside, is very much an employee's market.

So many adventures!

When I look back at all of the adventures we had this year, it's hard to believe! The previous year was robust as well, and this year turned out to be similarly interesting.

Right at the top of the year, we had what ended up being one of our best vacations yet. We spent a week in Orlando, and Simon was excellent most of the time. We stayed at Universal Orlando, because the on-site hotels and City Walk made it easy to do touristy theme park stuff and retreat to our room when Simon needed a break. His chubby butt couldn't walk yet either, but he enjoyed himself. My BFF Kara met up with us and we got to spend a day with her, after a very long time of not seeing her. We really had a good time.

Simon took us to his first rock concert, Caspar Babypants. This whole year was dominated by Babypants music, as it's pretty much the best kid music ever. It was neat to see Simon respond at the show, and he still has instant smiles every time we play the music.

There were a lot of great little lunch trips where Simon and Diana came to meet me at work, and we'd walk around the Microsoft campus and visit people. People visited Simon for his first birthday (my friend Teresa made the best cake ever), and he regularly was a source for gathering with people.

We had an off-site event at work just as I was leaving the group, which ended up being the most epic party I had in Seattle. Aside from drinking too much, barfing, and retiring to my room for an hour, it was a really outstanding time. Shortly thereafter, I went to Mix in Vegas, for the first time on the other side, as a company employee. That was a good time as well.

Diana and I had our first Simon-free overnight, as we got on a ferry to Whidbey Island and enjoyed alone time (thanks to my dear bro and sister-in-law). It was kind of cold and gray, but the time at the B&B and around Langley was really great. We actually found some really great pizza, a rarity in Washington.

There were zoo visits in Seattle and in Tacoma, and our first trip to an indoor water park and hotel. Simon just soaked it all up and had a good time. We went to countless playgrounds around our neighborhood. Simon's grandparents made visits to us. For Jeff Putz week, we got out for quality date time, while Diana got highlighted.

We made a trip back to Cleveland, where we realized that, beyond all expectations, the city could be home to us again. We raised a ton of money at Cedar Point for GKTW.

When we made the commitment to move, we turned into hypertourists. It started with a trip to Idaho to visit Silverwood, which turned out to be somewhat disappointing, but we did it. We did a Segway tour around Seattle, went up in the Space Needle, made two trips up to Mt. Rainier, went to the science museum and a Mariners game... we covered a lot of ground!

Once back in Cleveland, we became zoo members, and squeezed in a couple of visits to Cedar Point. We ended the year with a trip to North Carolina to see Diana's parents and had an outstanding time (car accident aside).

Our parenthood groove

Generally speaking, we were able to really keep our challenges in check, and Simon has been a total joy. It has been fun to watch him go from this giggling blob on his back to a little person who runs around and says a few words. When I think about his state a year ago, it's almost hard to believe he's the same human.

Like any parents, the thing we worry most about is his development, and though he did get behind, he seems to be catching up now. I don't think we obsess about it, but we offer healthy concern. We definitely followed a pattern for awhile of doing too much for him, which contributed to his slow move toward walking. The hardest lesson to learn is to just let him fail and flail a bit.

I hope that I haven't done a disservice to him by moving, because our Snoqualmie neighborhood was so perfect for a kid his age. So much walking space, and playgrounds every other block. He definitely has some room to walk around here (none of the walks ending at Finaghty's), but (good) playgrounds require a short car ride.

We're starting to enter the world of discipline, which is less fun, but I think we're getting a handle on it. He knows when he has exhibited behavior that's not acceptable, and even appears to show regret.

The greatest thing about being Simon's parents is that he brings so much love to our little family. For all of the things that don't really matter, Simon brings us back to reality and perspective.

Media discoveries

The year in music was interesting. There was very little in the way of new music from "old reliable" artists. I bought a lot of single songs this year. I enjoyed new albums from Mutemath, Schuyler Fisk, 311 and the Beastie Boys, but most of what I bought this year was new to me. The Black Keys, Manchester Orchestra, Matt & Kim, Vampire Weekend and The Naked and Famous all provided a soundtrack to life that was pretty far removed from previous years.

And I have to mention Caspar Babypants again, for the awesomesauce that he is. The former Presidents frontman writes even better kids music. The album Sing Along! is a joy to listen to. Songs like "Helicopter" and "Sun Go" are fun, and "Baby Cloud" is outright brilliant for a kids song.

Meanwhile, this was the year we cut the cord. When we moved back to Cleveland, we did not get cable or satellite TV. We took inventory, and 95% of what we watched was on network TV. So I plugged in an antenna to my DVR and TV, and that's what we watch. We filled in missed stuff during the move with Hulu, and frankly, we haven't missed cable. Good thing, too, because Time Warner makes Comcast look awesome by comparison. Just getting Internet service turned on was a fiasco.

And broadcast TV actually produced some winners this year. We don't watch that much, but we got roped into some great new shows. Once Upon A Time is crack-like in nature. Pan Am, Happy Endings and New Girl add to the fun. If it weren't for these shows, we'd be down to the three or four shows left from previous seasons. I suppose that's OK, because TV is a bit of a time suck.

The great car accident of Christmas Eve

This is still a work in progress, and fresh on my mind, but I suppose it's important enough to mention here. The short term problem is that it scares me to think about what might have happened, or what could happen every time one of us gets in a car. Diana had a minor fender-bender earlier in the year, and for some reason that didn't really concern me as much. I guess it's because it never happened to me before. What a mess. I'm glad we all came out relatively unhurt.

The new attitude toward money

I think 2011 will be the year that I redefined my view of what wealth means. For my entire life, I approached it as having as much money as possible, or more precisely, making as much as possible. At some point, I decided this was not correct. Being wealthy means having the financial freedom to not be at risk or forced to do things you don't like, and that's achieved not by making more, but having fewer expenses. You do that by borrowing less and saving for things up front. Think about it... if you had a mortgage that was a couple hundred bucks because you saved and put a ton of money down, would you be particularly concerned about losing your job? Probably not.

It took much of 2010 and most of 2011 to go from the depths of credit card debt to significant savings, and without having to earmark that cash for selling my house at a loss, we're moving in a fairly positive direction. The goal is to hit an arbitrary amount in three to five years and put that amount down on a place where we can raise Simon and be comfortable. It's contingent on selling my house at that point, but I'm going to assume at least some pick up in the housing market by then, at least regionally. That, and a few more years of payments will at the very least get me to a neutral release from the dreaded negative equity problem.

This bag of bones

I can't honestly say that no change is good change, but maybe I could say that I'm no worse off despite my summer love of Strongbow at Finaghty's. After the volleyball coaching fiasco just before the year started, I was denied getting the kind of exercise that I enjoy. Fortunately, when Simon started to walk, so did I (to Finaghty's). This was the year of much walking. I walked a lot on the Microsoft campus, I walked around our Snoqualmie neighborhood, around various zoos. It's not the kind of hardcore exercise I need more of, but I suppose it helped fend off other problems.

Like eating too much. I learned to stress eat again in the move transition. I had it under control pretty quickly, but I was up almost ten pounds very quickly, before reversing it all. Whew! Moving back to Cleveland also provides me a great deal of motivation to get my shit together, because the average weight here has to be 50 pounds higher than Seattle. For some reason, being surrounded by attractive people is less motivating than being surrounded by fat people.

Moving back meant we could find affordable tennis, and I was strongly considering joining the club before we went west. Now, I can, and have, so hopefully that's going to help me with being active. I learned this year that my lipid panel numbers were actually mostly in the normal range, but I could get them to awesome pretty easily if I moved around a little.

I still have urges to get more stuff pierced, but I have this annoying idea that it might not meet the approval of some. I hate that, and I'm not sure what to do with it. I have a better feel for what I'd like my first tattoo to be, but I feel like I need to get my body into better shape first, so it deserves to be enhanced.

But am I happy?

Last year I realized that the differences in weather actually left me feeling much better off. It's no secret that a lack of sun brings me down. It's totally chemical. Seattle let me down a little this year, because summer took forever to arrive. June was so crappy, and July wasn't much better. To be fair, that's unusual, but it was still annoying. The upside is that fall held off too, so September, our last month in town, was amazing.

I think the fact that my job change in April did not meet my expectations definitely had me down a little, but when you come home every day to an amazing family situation, it's nearly impossible to not be all smiles. Hanging out with Simon and Diana, walking around the neighborhood, having wrestle-tickle fights, etc... that's what it's all about. I've never been happier in my family and relationship situations.

The location will be a little trickier, at least until spring. Coming home to mountain views day after day never got old, and put a smile on my face every day. I will absolutely miss that. Cleveland sucks by comparison. But come spring, we'll be able to do the kinds of things we always enjoyed, particularly going to amusement parks. The differences won't force me into a downward spiral of despair, but winter could be tough.

Being happy in all aspects of life can be tough, but in the last four or five years, I've identified the things that I don't like, and changed them. Starting in 2007, I decided to stop allowing life to simply happen to me. I've figured out the relationship part, the value of parenthood, where money fits, that location really matters, and the career part is definitely a work in progress. What makes me happiest is understanding that this is an ongoing process that will continue until my dying day. It's OK to have goals, but only if you're enjoying the moment.


And that leads me to the next year. I can't predict what will happen. I have some ideas about what I'd like to happen, but I simply don't know. If you told me how 2011 would go down, I'd tell you that you were crazy. I just look forward to more adventures, more good times with my family, and hopefully, a glowing retrospective a year from now.


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