There’s a phrase that is usually uttered during momentous occasions or times of big change, like shacking up, the purchase of a first home, a pregnancy, or a death. The exact words vary but it goes like this:
“You’ll be surprised at what people say.”
“All I can say is, people will surprise you.”
This was certainly true of our wedding, for example. I was surprised by distant acquaintances who sent sweet notes of congratulation, and at an immediate family member who asked if he “would have to look at any gay people dancing together” at our reception.
I did not expect the old adage would also be true for leaving tech, but it is.
All I can say is, people will surprise you.
Leaving tech has social consequences. It’s logical that it would and thus shouldn’t be surprising, but it surprised me. Funny that.
Before quitting, my thinking went like this: “Leaving tech and trying to change a 20-year career habit only affects my husband and me. I’m pretty sure nobody else cares.”
I’m a mind your own business (MYOB) type. On a day to day basis, I simply don’t think about what most other people are doing. I don’t care who marries whom or who is gluten free or not. I only care if people are OK. If they are not OK, if they are suffering, then I think about them a great deal and do what I can to help, whether that’s making chicken stock or donating to Doctors Without Borders. (In all seriousness, who are these people (Kim Davis) who have so much time to worry about what other people are doing? Don’t they have meals to prepare and eight hours of sleep to get?)
What do the social consequences of table flipping look like? I’m told they are similar to those that unemployed and recently retired people experience. There are exceptions, but in general…
1. People disappear.
This includes aggressive, overly persistent recruiters as well as former colleagues who “would love to work with you again,” hope you’ll tell them “about the next thing you work on” and, when you announced you were leaving your job on Facebook, asked if you were “out raising a round” and if they “could get in on the ground floor.”
Their disappearance is of no consequence because they were not friends. They are people for whom you had a certain utility and, since that utility is gone, have no interest in you. When you realize this you will think things like “Hallelujah!” and feel relieved, light and free.
You may, however, miss the ego stroking and flattery that these interactions provided. However disingenuous, such attention made you feel wanted, adored and important on your darker days. Recognize this and let it go. POOF! PFFT! Ahhhh.
2. Remaining tech women shun you.
This overlaps with #1 somewhat but is distinct. Unlike creepy recruiters, you considered at least some of these women friends, or good acquaintances, people with whom you let down your guard. You know they know. They’ve gone through everything you have. They’ve considered leaving and still do, all the time (at least according to their Facebook and Twitter posts).
But now that you’ve left, they don’t want to hear it. You’re no longer on the same side but the other side. You are a disgrace to the cause. The Women In Tech need bodies out there fighting and you’re just throwing in the towel? (It’s not as if you didn’t agonize over this when you were deciding whether or not to leave, but then you went and actually did it, and that’s different.)
It feels a lot like when you leave a religion or a church. The similarities are striking. Some tech women almost seem afraid to be near you, as if you could taint them or tempt them away.
It’s hard to accept that suffering through tech was your common ground, but of course it was. Your shared struggle drove you together and, now that your employer sponsored suffering has ended, you don’t have that in common. Much of your conversations took the form of what linguists call “problem talk” and now you don’t have those problems.
As I said, there are exceptions. A few tech women will keep in touch and be honest about their fears and feelings, saying “I’m miserable and desperate to leave, but I feel like if I quit now I’ll never go back, and then how will I make money?” Be as supportive as you can and honest about what that part has been like for you. Maybe the two of you can become a tech consulting dynamic duo.
3. Conversations get awkward.
This overlaps with #2 somewhat but is distinct.
During the course of your tech career, your social circle may have become almost entirely made up of other tech people. This is especially likely in places like the Bay Area, in which a bunch of similar people are packed into the same place for job reasons.
Many tech people work 60-80+ hours/week and thus don’t have time for anything besides eating and sleeping. They only know their coworkers. Many are also single (who has time time to date?!). There is nothing but work. No hobbies, no family. This works out nicely when you’re also working constantly, and can often be solved by playing a board game which requires you to talk about that instead of work and the Nothing Else you’ve got going on.
After you table flip, some people will have absolutely no idea what to say to you. They may assume (falsely) that you no longer wish to hear about their job, or about the technical details of what they’re working on, and thus say nothing. They may have no idea what else to talk to you about: Do you read books? Do you cook? Do they know this? Ask questions to prompt discussion.
This will make you realize, much to your chagrin, just how much you talked about your jobs and bitched about work, and talked about releases and bugs. The extent of this is reflected in the very language you speak, which is a shared vocabulary with words like “sev,” “sprints,” “burn down,” and “IRC.” (Other people don’t say these words.)
Your tech identity runs deeper and encompasses more than you thought. This realization can cause mental anguish and shame, and may make you feel as if you are stranded on an ice floe, directionless. Who are you, anyway?
4. People tell you you’re crazy.
Outright, to your face and/or to friends you have in common. They will wonder aloud, “What does she even do all day? What is she going to do for the rest of her life? That’s it?” You’re asking the same questions of yourself, of course, and don’t have any answers either. I just shrug, smile and say “It is crazy. And really, really scary.”
I think this ultimately makes me seem crazier, though. Maybe stop at the shrug part.
5. Non-techies will carry the day.
Your non-tech friends, who have observed your participation in a culture that hurt you for far too long, will rise to the occasion and prove absolutely incandescent. They will do this without smugness even though they were right. They will recommend helpful books and include you in things out in the big wide world, things like Litquake and Permaculture Convergences and kayaking.
When it comes to leaving tech, people will surprise you. But you’ll surprise yourself even more.