Working for free and what it taught me

Published on 2013-7-4

All the way back in November I got fed up with the enterprise consulting lark and because of that enterprise consulting lark I realised I had enough money to get by for a year without working quite easily.

Because I was so fed up, I decided I wanted to do something a bit different and because I like to meet new people and see new things, I offered up my time for free providing my expenses were covered and I could therefore stretch a bit further.

In that time I worked for a number of companies across the globe, heading as far east as Israel and heading as far west as Hawaii (primarily for the surfing), and had my plans not been altered by finding a start-up I believe in I would have probably ended up doing some work in Hong Kong and Australia too.

That's all very well and good, but what did I learn (or get reminded of)? Hippy stuff coming up.

Experience in Tool/Language X is a stupid thing to ask for

In all but one of my little engagements, I was handed some work to do where I'd had pretty much zero engagement with the technology involved. The hardest of these was probably OMeta which I blogged about - I had less than two weeks on site and I was asked to write a new feature for a product in it. No problem - hands up "I'm feeling stupid, please help me with this" - two days later I was flying thanks to the help of my colleagues.

I feel pretty confident in saying that if you give any motivated/experienced software developer a challenge in something they have never used before, then they'll get on that stuff and make it happen providing they have some similar experience and you have an in-house knowledge pool for them to draw on.

Take the bullshit away and let me get on with the job

Turning up to help @ayende do RavenDB was brilliant, here is the list of crap, have fun. I set about that list like a maniac and got crap done fast. How? No meetings, no politics, no pressure. Even outside of work, Ayende had provided me with a car, apartment, GPS, fuel card etc so I didn't have to think about anything else other than what I needed/wanted to do. This was done on the basis that if I wasn't sure how to do a task I'd stick my hand up and go "Ahaahahaa" (which happened more than once).

The enterprise world is so screwed in that regard, those weeks which were pretty much just 40 hour long meetings were 40 hours of wasted time.

Failure setting us back? No - just keep rolling forward!

I managed to roll a car over while I was in the Outer Hebrides, it was one of those "everything happened at the same time to make this accident happen" occurences, and it looked something like this!

Whoops! Beyond the initial flailing around and shock, once I'd gotten a lift back to civilisation with a passerby, I hung out with a cup of coffee and called the car hire company with the news that I'd completely destroyed their vehicle.

Two hours later we'd got it dragged up the hill, made sure no sheep were going to escape and I was back in Stornoway asking the immortal question:

Can I have a another car please?

This I received, and I got on with my holiday. Because I was wearing my seatbelt, because I'd paid for the extra insurance, because I was going slowly due to the adverse conditions the important stuff had been taken care of, the damage was limited and rather than stress over something I couldn't change I just moved on.

The same happened in Israel when I broke the car that Oren let me use, "no problem, we can solve this problem by lending you my own one", let's not let things get in the way of having a good time folks. This attitude is what makes people like that able to get on and and do, because there is no fear of failure - just a focus on what to do next.

Be one with the framework/team/system

I'm not the biggest fan of ASP.NET MVC, I'm not the biggest fan of Rails (as you can see on Twitter no doubt!), I don't really like Backbone or Angular or any JS frameworks for that matter, I prefer to do my development vanilla for a plethora of good reasons.

A lot of teams don't feel that way, and as an external body I don't have a say in this matter, *"Oh you're using RequireJS? BULLSHEEEEEEEEEEIT"*. It turns out if you leave your opinions at the door and just get on with crap, do things in a way that's idiomatic for that environment and keep asking "What's the best way to do this", then you can get stuff done quick.

You'll still run into those edge cases that you get with frameworks (If you go vanilla, you don't have edge cases, you just have features), but these can be glossed over if you have control over the feature-set and then you will deliver. Start-up in a week? NO PROBLEM SIR.

As a bonus, bitching about all the crazy decisions made in that framework is fun on Twitter so it's nice to get the opportunity to do so...

I don't need any of that crap

I lived out of a suitcase for this time and had to ruthlessly discard things that took up needless space. I had a trial run for the first few weeks where I tried to lug my Moka pot and coffee grinder around with me but sadly had to replace that with the spare laptop for doing .NET work.

What did I end up with after a few iterations of discard and re-pack?

So successful has this activity been, that even though I've now been in my new job in London for two months and I'm still living out of this suitcase in managed apartments, hostels and friends' sofas not worrying about it too much. The important thing is to find a launderette that'll do all your clothes for a modest fee!

Okay, it's hardly a complete stripping down of "material goods", and I'm still lugging around several thousand pounds worth of Apple gear, but it's nice to know that I can pack up and quit what I'm doing anytime I like and just skip country like that, with no baggage (literally).

Money isn't important

I was offered pay for a number of roles while I was doing this, and turned it all down because I felt it would sully what I was trying to do. Also - I felt it would muck up the balance where the people I was working for really wanted me to be happy because it was all they were giving me.

Money to employers is an easy way to motivate employees and has been proven not to work, take it out of the equation and they have to work a lot harder - worth thinking about.

Happiness is so freakin' important

So I've said in this Tekpub video that I helped make, I didn't realise how miserable I was until I went and did this. Spending half a year in a state of bliss would be hard to describe to the person that was slaving away in the enterprise a year ago.

Seriously though, the enterprise world was killing me, and for what? Filling my bank account with money that I didn't need (I don't have any dependents). It didn't feel like that at the time of course but I'm so much happier with less because I'm doing more with it

If your job isn't something you look forward to each day, OMG CHANGE IT and don't mope about how you can't change it because OMG YOU CAN. (Footnote: It's unlikely you'll be able to change the culture of a company that's gone bad if you can't simply fire all the dead weight, and you'll just get frustrated trying so don't bother).

I'm responsible for my own happiness

I know what I want now, and I know when I know what I want and I'm not afraid to say it. In a way, I'm now a dangerous person to hire because unless your environment is one I enjoy I'm not going to stick around for longer than a few months, no matter what the reward is. The same goes for my personal relationships with other people and personal life in general, being happy is too important to compromise for other things and I'm responsible for making that happen.

Quitting and doing this has showed me that there are people out there that are happy, and has given me the motivation to find out how I can do that and make a living at the same time.

People are generally okay

To all the people who stopped their car to see if I was okay when I'd crashed mine, to the lady who gave me a lift to the nearest town and gave me money for a bacon sandwich, to the multitude of people who offered me lifts when I was walking around in Hawaii or got me home from the bar, to everybody who gave me directions when they saw me ambling through the greek countryside, to the Israeli security who called her colleagues over to have a good laugh after asking why I had the Azerbaijan visa stamp in my passport, to the parents of the boss I'd never met who let a stranger stay at their house for 2 weeks, to everybody who has offered me money to do interesting things, to the people that I let down but didn't moan about it and to all those people that I've been drinking with over the past year - it has been a laugh and nobody has tried to do me over. You're all okay.

2020 © Rob Ashton. ALL Rights Reserved.