The Burden: On my new life as an engineer / by Nate Westheimer

My first 500 error page

We, like any community, are subject to the occasional cliche. In the tech world, one that's always been prevalent is that of the recluse, socially inept, programmer. The frazzled stare, the bloodshot eyes, the occasional stammer before their mind runs off into another world - a world of haunting bugs and the eternal quest for elegance and speed and the victory of achieving both.

I have to tell you, I didn't really understand where this stereotype came from until recently. Now, as a full-time engineer at Picturelife, I feel like I live it.

No two ways about it: In my transformation from "founding business and product guy" to fulltime founding engineer there are specific ways in which my life has changed and I've become a different person. I may have even become a worse friend. Here's how:

Late for everything

As a business guy, I was pretty good at being on time to meetings -- with new colleagues or long-time friends. If something was 20 minutes away, I'd stop working on whatever I was doing 25 minutes before I needed to be there knowing I could just pick up whatever I was doing when I returned.

Now, as a developer, I'm late for everything, and sometimes I bail on meetings/events altogether, with almost no warning to the other party. When this happens, it's usually because of one of these reasons:

  1. Shit's crashing/scaling/launching/slow and I need to fix/scale/tweak/deploy it. As an engineer, your finger is much more on the pulse of the NOW of your company. If something's going down, I have a bigger obligation to fix the code/server/whatever than to be at our meeting on time.
  2. I'm knee deep in a problem. Sometimes when you're working on a big problem, you can spend hours or days just loading enough relevant information into your brain so that you can actually work on the problem. It's as if your brain is a computer and in order to start processing data you load everything into RAM first. Sometimes you've worked so hard to get information into your head that you're scared to just leave it and head off to a meeting only to come back and have to spend hours or days getting back to the same place you were before. And so you bail.

Endless Priority 1 Work

As a business guy, and even at the height of my involvement in the NY Tech Meetup (i.e. running it fully) and managing a team of 12 engineers in Israel, I could regularly get to Inbox Zero.

I had more on my plate back then, but if you emailed me, you got a reply. If you were a good friend of mine, you even got a reply in minutes or hours.

Today, my inbox is a mess and I regularly permanently blow off emails from people I think of as really good friends.

What's happened?

As an founder + engineer I feel like I have endless work now, without breaks. Before, as a product guy, I could load my engineering team up with tasks and todos, but once I reached their limit for throughput (and mine for a backlog) I could back off and focus on other things. My work was cyclical. I had time to focus on things that weren't my main occupation.

Today, that dynamic is gone. If I can dream it, I can do it, and often I'm exactly the person who needs to do it. That means there is never a time when my time isn't best spend writing more code, debugging for a user, or optimizing our stack. Our dreams for Picturelife are about 15% fulfilled, and so there's always something to code or do.

Because one thing occupies highest priority and doing email is never at the top, I end up blowing people off more than I'd like. It's turned me into a worse friend, but, it's the closeness to the product you can only achieve if you actually write code and do the work. It's what I dreamt up when I decided to learn to code, and so I've accepted that this is the way it "must be" while I'm holding this position at this stage of my company's life.

Higher stakes hand-raising

I've always been one to raise my hand -- to volunteer to get something done. It's the path that led me to lead the NY Tech Meetup, and its something I've done since I was very young.

Now, I'm often the only engineer in a group (or in my family), and so when I raise my hand now it's to build out software, not just organize a BarCamp or edit a newsletter.

While I've had a transference of skills from soft to hard, my hand-raising has gotten me into higher stakes commitments. It's one thing to volunteer to organize a meeting, but a whole other thing to volunteer to build a web platform for a group.

With more powerful super powers, I have to be more careful about showing them off.