It's a strange thing to grow up being told how smart you are, learn how smart you aren't, and to come into one of the most competitive, difficult times of large scale Internet building there is out there. First off, you learn real fast how to do the job, and then you learn slower what the job is. Who your people are. Who learns what fastest, what people will sit down and drill down on and get good at. Who's going to rewrite firmware for fun? Who'll be the next hotshot network engineer? Who's going to rewrite fleet automation for tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of servers? Beyond who's smart enough: who's got your back, and will help you learn how to be a better human?
I learned fast, and then I learned somewhat slower, that I'm not an engineer. I'm what I've always been: someone who learns fast how to hum along, but will never know certain things to the bones. I don't have the focus for code: I am never going to understand pressure or electrical engineering. Not unless my back is to the wall again.
Put back up against the wall in the middle of the night, and I'm the one who stays awake, answers the phone, and makes sure to keep immaculate notes. I'm the one who takes a step back, stares real hard at the dynamics of a situation, and makes a recommendation.
But that doesn't mean I'm going to be a high level manager someday, like others of my cadre during those first few years at the NOC have gone on to be. I'm a bit too abrupt and easily riled. Allowed that remove to step back, stop, think, I pick a direction, the smoothest road, and note the risks.
That, too, is a skillset.
Sometime after I'd migrated West but before I left the data center business, I came to the crux of it, the crossroads. I was spending half to three quarters of my time writing feverishly, documenting the what, why, when, and where of the data centers, their building, their maintaining, their decommissioning - and training new folks. And I was spending the rest of my time elbow to elbow with network engineers. If I wasn't revising configuration files, I was visiting the bullpit at headquarters and stealing a finger or three of whiskey.
But the method shows there too. I was learning faster who was who and who they reported to, and what the connections were, than I was the method. It was a good time: it was making connections for the team, smoothing out process issues just by having the proper chat here, the word dropped in an ear there.
At the time, it was unintentional. I wasn't thinking about being one of maybe two to three people from the NOC out East, the big one, from that team. I didn't know we had a reputation for being closemouthed, tribal, avoidant of talking about more than business.
Given the choice between Headquarters and engineering, and the Bay and writing, I chose the known path, the smooth path, the one that let me keep having those kinds of conversations, and leapt.
I must have interviewed a dozen places when I came to Portland, most of them for engineering roles that wanted a certain amount of code. Near the end, I was interviewing for a job that sounded an awful lot like NOC work at a remove. Alert for broken system comes in, my team would catch it, and address it.
The conversation I had was not about alerting coming in or addressing it. I ended up in a half hour long argument with the hiring manager about thinking broader, about preventing the fires before they're set, about building stronger connections between NOC and upper layers of infrastructure management. In retrospect, the poor guy was interviewing for something much lower level than I was talking about, and I would have been getting in the way of oncall NOC doing that kind of work.
Other interviews for the same position had been great: I had no idea why the manager was being a jackass. I still think he could have handled the interview better. But, to his credit, he came out of the interview and talked to my eventual manager about a role doing roughly what I'd been arguing about on the phone.
It was a great job, doing what I eventually realized was project, or program, management, work. But in between the company's frequent happy hours and regular drops in stock value, I also realized that it was too far from what I wanted: the title of program manager, the promise of the lights of the Internet, and the ability to make a difference.
A few too many close calls with amorous management later, I looked around at my options. There was always Google - who always takes too damn long with their interviews, and looked to be doing so this time. Facebook was not attractive. My previous employer was not attractive. A host of others had corporate cultures equally toxic to the hell I was currently trying to exit - or were stuck in the 1980s and 1990s. So it was that I met a genial, sharp-eyed mover and shaker for drinks somewhere on the East Coast, and got fabulously drunk while talking about change management over some very fine cocktails.
One hangover and a remedy of dim sum later, the deal was made. My best option, the one that was exciting and promising, rather than a slog of an interview, or a concerning morass of culture, was on the East Coast. I interviewed. I got a job offer. I accepted. I took a deep breath, looked around, and leapt again, from one coast to the other. Same red pickup truck, now packed with two cats, a buddy, and as much stuff as would fit in the cab.
The Internet was calling, and a girl never forgets her first love.