Right before my junior year of high school, I hit a very lucky break and got the opportunity to work at a datacenter part-time during school. Considering that I worked a horrendous tutoring job at the time, this was the opportunity of a lifetime for me.
As soon as I started this job, I immediately loved the work. I latched onto networking and sysadmin work in a way that I had never latched onto any schoolwork in my life. Work provided me constant challenges that I could bash my head against and eventually overcome. When I conquered one challenge, the next was sitting there, waiting for me to run it over.
Additionally, I received praise like I had never before in my life. In school I was a high performer, but I was rarely top of my class. Even when I was, it never felt gratifying. Grades have never been a motivating factor for me. They’ve always felt secondary to the main goal - learning the content. At work however, I got to work on hard problems, and when I solved them, the people around me were impressed and praised me for my work.
This praise was not as simple as “great job.” Most frequently it was along the lines of “great job - aren’t you 16??” At the beginning, this praise was strictly a positive influence on me, but as I grew, it haunted me. What if I could no longer achieve that level of praise? What if as I grew older, I lost my “wonder kid magic”?
As I grew, the happiness I got from that praise turned to anxiety. Instead of seeking to do the best job for the company and our clients, I sought to gain the maximum amount of praise possible. Instead of admitting where I had doubts about my solutions, I glossed over my doubts and presented my work as flawless.
Perhaps one of my best examples was when I was working on installing kernel bypass routing software on one of our routers. I worked on installing this software all morning and never got it working 100% right. Before I went to lunch, though, I told my boss we were all good and that I hadn’t caused any issues. I came back from lunch to my boss asking “Hey Peyton, any idea why half our sites went down an hour ago?” I had glossed over issues before this, but this is one of the only times it actually bit me in the ass.
I was anxious not only about my performance but also about getting older! So much of my praise at the time was contextualized as “I can’t believe you did X as a Y year old!” My greatest fear was that one day I would wake up and no longer be that wonder child. I feared growing older and just being some random dude, indistinguishable from the millions of other engineers out there.
As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that fear of age was unfounded. The older I get, the more I realize that being good at what I do is enough. I don’t need to be some special kid; I just need to be good at what I do and to love what I do.
I’ve also realized that sweeping my sketchy implementation details under the rug actually makes me worse at my job! These details compound, and before long, the collective burden of small issues becomes unbearable. Building solid systems that stand the test of time is ultimately more fulfilling, even if I have to admit that I don’t always know what to do.
Some of these realizations came after working on CockroachDB this summer. When working on an open-source codebase, there is nowhere to hide. All of my work was open to the public, and as such, it was scrutinized thoroughly. I frequently thought to myself “eh this isn’t the cleanest way to do things but it’ll work.” Literally every time I thought that, the “clean way” was brought up in code review.
Additionally, the RFC process forced me to think out every detail of how my solution would work before implementing it. This was an extremely rewarding experience as instead of sweeping details under the rug as I might’ve done before, I got the opportunity to receive feedback on all the minutiae of my design from people far more knowledgeable than me.
I look forward to many more years of building robust systems and being honest as I build them.
2022-05-25 00:00 +0000