Working on my own

2022-04-27

Three months ago I quit my job to do some independent research & coding. Here are some things I've learned along the way.

Community is extremely important.

I didn't realize this at the time, but the community that a job provides is a very valuable part of the employment experience. It's very nice to run into and exchange pleasantries with dozens of people throughout the week. Having lunchtime conversations on all sorts of topics with other smart and driven people is great! It's extremely important to be able to tell other people what you've been working on and hear what other people are working on, to collectively celebrate the good moments and lament the frustrating ones. All these subtle and small interactions might not be too important individually — I wouldn't really care if I had to miss a work time lunch to go to a dentist appointment — but altogether they form something extremely important: a community. I've always had this sort of community readily accessible to me, either in the form of preschool, high school, college, or work. Now for the first time I've taken a step back and can see how important it is to my understanding of myself as an individual. Sure, within any organization there are problems: bureaucracy, biases, and the occasional jerk, but it's too easy to see only these things within a community setting and take for granted how nice it is to have a supportive and interesting community to be a part of.

Going for walks in the middle of the day is fantastic and has always been an option.

Now that I'm not employed, I treat myself to a mid-day walk or run more frequently. It's great to get out in the middle of the day and see the sun and a bit of nature. I used to be worried about people sending me messages while I was away or judging me for not working enough, but now I realize how dumb that was given the circumstances. I am happier and more productive if I'm taking regular walks and my employer benefits from that. So long as the work permits, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a half-hour or even hour long break to enjoy life. At my previous job I could have done this literally every day and had a great time! My own social anxieties were the only thing stopping me from taking in the sunshine and being a better employee for it.

I am more productive working alone, but not infinitely so.

While working in a group on a legacy code base I would often imagine how much more productive I could be if all the code was written by me and I didn't have to deal with all the cruft left by developers from times of yore. I recalled weekends or evenings when, coding alone, I would produce way more code or features than I was able to extract during the workday.

It's true that I am able to output more while working alone on a code base that I have written myself. Refactors are easier and I introduce fewer bugs because I understand the entire scope of the code that I'm editing. But this isn't a silver bullet. I am not 100 times more productive. Long-form, iterative work requires me to work sustainably and carefully so I don't become discouraged and burn out. It's not the same as sprinting for 4 hours some evening. So yes, I'm more productive in a controlled and isolated environment, but maybe something like 2 to four times as productive: surely significant, but not as life-changing as I may have thought prior to trying it out. These benefits from working alone might not be worth the losses: community and collaboration for instance.

Vacations and fewer hours have a large impact on my work output.

Now this one might seem obvious, but there's been a lot of talk about how programmers working more hour don't necessarily accomplish more. This seems right in some situations: programming for 12 hours a day might not get you further than programming 8 or even 6 hours a day. But there is a very clear boundary, at least for me, where fewer hours results in less output. I definitely find that working 6 hours results in more getting done than working 3.

The same goes for taking vacation. Taking a week every few months to recharge might get people on a more productive and happier path when they come back from this vacation, but it's also a big disruption. This is pretty well-known, but experiencing it first-hand has given me a greater empathy for employers who are very stingy with vacation time: they know the full cost of another week of vacation.

So there are some things that I've learned from working on my own! Will I continue to work independently? I'm not sure. I'm planning on attending the Recurse Center starting in June, which I think will provide a lovely community, however temporary.

Until next time,
Charles