Time to enjoy and time to reflect

It’s been four months since I wrapped up all of the projects I was leading as part of my Analytics Engineering role on the Internal Tools team at GitHub and went on maternity leave. With the exception of posting a photo on Slack a few days after my daughter was born, I spent the first two months of leave completely disconnected from anything and everything work related. It was great. I took Slack, PagerDuty, and my work email off of my phone. I signed out of all of my work apps and accounts, including Twitter. I literally didn’t even think about what was going on back in the office. My baby girl! All I did was stare at this beautiful little face and concentrate on making sure both of us were as healthy as possible after all of the excitement that is birth.

The last two months I’ve been slowly ramping back up: checking in on Slack every once in a while, reading the GitHub blog for new feature releases, and scrolling through our internal team news every few days to keep up with what’s going on. Yet as a whole, I haven’t done any work in four months… and four months is a long time to reflect on what I do and why I do it.

The main result of all of that time to think has been the decision to leave my engineering role. When I start working again in two weeks, I’ll be coming back from maternity leave straight to the support team I left a year ago. And I’m so excited.

Excited? About Support?? Really???

In order for any of this to make sense, I first want to clarify what I mean when I say “support”. Some of you know of or have interacted with GitHub Support, so this will be more familiar to you, but just in case… Support at GitHub is not, “Is your computer plugged in?”, nor is it a minimum wage call center. Support at GitHub is part of a community of professionals revolutionizing the Customer Service industry and changing what people think of when they hear the words “customer support”.

In this revitalized world of Support, it’s not about satisfaction, it’s about Super Fans. It’s about connecting with the people that use our products and treating them like human beings instead of customer #4872. It’s emotionally charged work, requiring patience, empathy, and stellar communication skills. It’s about recognizing that support has a huge impact on the bottom line of the business, both in acquisition and retention. It’s a challenging job, and companies that recognize its importance (like GitHub does) compensate accordingly.

With that preface, it becomes more reasonable why someone like me could actually miss working in a support role at a company that cares about Super Fans. I miss genuinely helping people. I miss connecting first-hand with the ones we’re building for. I miss working on a team of some of the most passionate, empathetic, and caring people I’ve ever met.

Not a “step backwards”

Even with everything I just spelled out, I’ve still had more than a few reactions from both coworkers and friends along the lines of, “Oh, engineering was too hard?” or “Was that move your choice?”… to which I emphatically answer “no” and “yes”, respectively.

Part of this is because not everyone understands the important and challenging nature of support that I mentioned before. Another part of this is because there are a fair amount of people that only view support at a tech company as a “foot in the door” to an engineering position. And while I did end up moving from Support to Engineering, I moved from our technical support team to an analytics engineering position on another team that was originally within the Support Org called “Support Tools Engineering”. My intention in moving to that role was two-fold:

  • It was a great career move and pay raise at a time that my family really needed it.
  • I have a unique background in data from my industrial/manufacturing engineering days that was especially suited for a support analytics engineering role.

I was excited about being able to provide insights to the rest of the support team that could help everyone be more effective and increase the already awesome reputation of the org. However for a multitude of reasons, the original team that I joined went through a lot of different transformations. The team moved out of the Support Org to the Engineering Org, and then folded into a newly formed (and much broader) Internal Tools engineering team. While my short-term focus remained on support data and analytics, the long-term goals shifted drastically to include stakeholders from across the company on a variety of different teams. That’s not a bad thing, it just wasn’t what I had expected when I left front-line support a year ago.

The team built out really well in the end, and they’re continuing to do pretty great work for a huge cross-section of the company. I’m glad that I gave it a try, and it was amazing to be on the ground floor of the formation of a new team and see how that’s done. Everyone on the team was great to work with both professionally and personally. I learned a ton every day, and pushed myself further in my career than I’ve ever had to do in such a short amount of time. Overall it was an experience that I’m really thankful for, but the truth is that there were aspects of engineering that I just didn’t enjoy.

Apples and oranges

Engineering work is intense and almost competitive in nature. It takes incredible focus for long periods of time. If you’re curious about what I mean, tap someone on the shoulder while they’re neck-deep in code and see what their reaction is and how long they have to stare at the screen to figure out what they were thinking before you interrupted. (Don’t actually do that, it’s terribly mean.) There were times that I got so caught up in finishing something I was working on that I was late to pick up my son from school. There were other times that I stopped what I was doing to pick him up, and then ran home to finish, shushing him away when he interrupted my train of thought.

That’s not who I naturally am, and it’s not who I want to be. I don’t think everyone operates the same way; I’m 100% confident that there are engineers that can juggle that intense focus with other life responsibilities, but because of my personality and the way my brain works, that’s just what happened when I was fully focused on one piece of code. I got to be really good at engineering, but the prolonged periods of intensity it required made me lose sight of other important things in my life.

On the other hand, the work of support is completely different: incredibly demanding of empathy, to the point of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to see eye-to-eye; full of constant context switching; fast-paced; at times totally repetitive and at other times completely full of never-before-seen challenges. In other words, it’s exactly like parenting two kids under the age of three. 😅

While that type of work might be incredibly draining for someone with a brain built for long periods of intense focus, it comes naturally to me and to many others in the support field. To sum up…

Support isn’t less challenging than engineering. It’s a different kind of challenge.

There are great engineers that would make terrible support folks. There are great support people (even technical ones) that wouldn’t be good engineers. There are people that can be good at either, but will feel drained after one of them and recharged after the other. That’s me in the middle. So while I could have stayed in engineering and done just fine, I feel that where I can contribute the most to the company and to my personal fulfillment is back on the front-line.

I was good at engineering, but I have a “Support Heart”.

It took a lot of introspection while on leave to come to terms with the fact that being good at engineering wasn’t reason enough to do it the rest of my life, despite the fact that the general tech ecosystem would disagree and call this a step backwards. I love the work of Support, and I love the person that I am when my day is filled with helping other people. It makes me the best version of myself both on and off the clock. And to me, that’s far more important than anyone else’s ideas of what my career path was supposed to look like.