Story 6

Reinventing my job is part of my job

Hi, I’m Răzvan, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I’m a creative person who enjoys building software, and I happily do this for a living. I also have a proclivity for music production and even hit the stage once in a while.


I’ve been crafting digital products for more than ten years, and I’m here to tell you a story about how I understood I need to find ways to make my work more enjoyable. I discovered how to make it happen after plenty of trial-and-error.

Long-time relationships come with big stakes

I’ve been working on Pixelgrade products for more than seven years now, and since I’m still here, it’s certainly a sign that I genuinely enjoy what I’m doing. I’m the second employee, so I guess this says something in itself.

Doing things that I like and filling my soul with satisfaction while keeping up the pace and trying to be as efficient as possible is not a simple task. It does not just happen. There were quite a few turning points during my career that shaped who I am today and helped me understand what I need and how to get it.

I joined this team in 2012 while I was in my second year as an undergraduate at the Faculty of Computer Science in Iași, Romania. I didn’t have any plans or expectations the first time I met Vlad and George, the co-founders, and we’ve quickly agreed to shake hands and work together. It helped that I wasn’t committing on any of my side projects. The simple fact that I was going to work on ideas that would most certainly see the light and bring value to real people excited me.

The first years were pretty intense. Most of us had vast amounts of resources waiting to be consumed in building stuff for the web. We enjoyed working together, learning from each other, and playing around with all sorts of concepts. We began to tap into our potential, and every day of work came with a lot of sense of accomplishment. Time spent at the office felt valuable for all of us, and almost every day, we would lose track of what was happening around and leave the building only after sunset.

This is the enthusiasm that also helped us decide to work exclusively on our products and find a way to make this strategy sustainable in the long haul. And yet again, things appropriately aligned for us, and with positive feedback from customers around the world, and cash coming in, our energy tanks stayed full.

But after a few months, even though things seemed to be going just fine, my enthusiasm started to drop, along with my mood and efficiency. I tried to pinpoint the problem but didn’t quite manage to figure out what was happening and why this internal hussle kept my mind busy. 

After some poorly managed conflicts with one of the colleagues I worked with, I decided to move forward. I started to look for work that would feed my soul somewhere else. I concluded that it’s better to let everything go and leave.

New beginnings bring new (unimagined) endeavors

I decided to put all my hopes in the hands of a big corporation, where I thought I would learn, grow, acquire new skills and know-how, you name it. I was looking for the same enthusiasm I had found in the first year at Pixelgrade because I genuinely missed it. 

It was nothing like that. The new reality hit me.

There were many instances where I felt like my input was irrelevant, like anyone could do my job, and also times when I felt that what I was doing was useless and meaningless. Still, I had to do it simply because someone was paying big money for it. Not quite a scenario to pump my motivation and eagerness to exceed my limits.

For the most part, that workplace seemed built to feed someone’s ego with money and status rather than his soul through purposeful work that draws a positive impact. During this timeframe, I discovered what I hated the most and influenced my mojo in the first place: repetitive work. Even though I met friendly people there, I felt quite alienated and decided the big corporation wasn’t the right place to be. Not for me, at least. 

The most important thing I’ve internalized from this experience is that the tools I use don’t matter that much to me. I care way more about the products I’m working on and about the purpose they serve. I also need to feel that I’m the right person for the job, that my experience and skills are put to good use, and are essential in nudging the product in the right direction. 

Relearning the basics

I knew a place where I felt that way. I reached out to George and Vlad and discussed the possibility of me coming back. We were on the same page, and in a couple of months, we were working together again.

Another thing I’ve made peace with after my short time spent in the corporate world was that people in our field of work tend to change jobs frequently. Some are unhappy with the place they work at, while others aim to increase their revenue. However, it seems that the vast majority of people change playgrounds because they get bored. And when I realized that I might also become a victim of apathy from time to time, I decided to take a closer look at this phenomenon.

The truth is that there will always be something that you don’t like about your job. And let’s face it! Software developers have had, in many ways, the luxury of running away from these things by switching the project they’re working on or simply changing their job when things get too messy. There is a point in time where every one of us understands that these things that we may not like are an essential part of our job, and the best approach we can embrace is to deal with them in ways that we are satisfied with.  

Developers tend to get easily distracted and attracted by new technologies and become eager to play with them. And I don’t mean testing whatever functionality or fooling around with these new tools for a couple of hours. We aim to use them on real products, and we want to use them now, which is rarely a good idea.

Wanting to make use of a new tool to improve your workflow or simplify your job is by no means a thing to blame. Also, trying new ones and working with cutting-edge technologies are the means through which we have learned almost everything we know today. At the same time, there are many occasions where we act like children wanting to play with a new toy. Or even worse, we express this attitude because we saw another kid having fun, and it seemed like a cool thing to do.

I also find myself frequently craving for a blank slate where I can test my new toys and further develop my skills. But at the workplace, these kinds of things don’t come for granted. There is rarely a new project with no technical debt, and were choosing the tools used is done based strictly on personal preference. I spend most of my time, either creating features on already established products or fixing bugs on some of our older ones. And that may sound daunting for some.

For instance, I had a brief experience using React, a very popular technology at the time, while working on a prototype for an in-house product at Pixelgrade aimed at helping designers and developers work better together. Even though it was the right tool for the job and I really enjoyed using it, I never doubled down on it and didn’t insist on using it in any of our products when there was no real need.

Keeping my wheels spinning

Thankfully, that’s not an encompassing picture of what I do at Pixelgrade, and there are a few ways in which I keep my enthusiasm up and running.

One is by keeping myself updated as much as I can with what’s new in the frontend field, and whenever I have the opportunity, I try out any new technology that seems interesting to me. The main goal is to learn something new and understand that technology so that, in the future, I will know if and how it can be useful for our team or me.

Another way I keep my internal mojo up is by turning a boring task into a challenging one. I am a person that always enjoys embracing a challenge. That’s why, whenever there’s something I should be doing but can’t get started, I try to twist it in a way that would spark my interest. There are times when I make things too complicated and eventually realize it may not have been the best idea, but it gets the job done.

There are a couple of things that I do quite often that fit the description above. One example is that I usually force myself not to use JavaScript for something that I feel can be accomplished with CSS only, and the other one would be that sometimes I do not allow myself to use a gateway that feels too handy.

Another approach to filling my batteries is doing things that I wouldn’t necessarily consider to be part of my repertoire. This includes writing, proof-reading someone else’s article, designing, tutoring, testing, or even doing customer support work. On the one hand, this gets me out of my comfort zone and helps me grow in other areas, and on the other one, it gets my mind off some tasks that may have been draining me of my creative energy. 

Other times, my energy tanks are empty, and everything I try has little to no impact. People call this a burnout and trying to fight it will take me nowhere. The best thing to do is to have an actual break. Some people may do well with a few days-off while some may need a longer holiday. 

For me, learning new skills or exercising the ones I already have helps a lot—things like snowboarding, playing tennis, or making music boost my energy levels from time to time. Knowing when to take a break is a skill that I haven’t mastered yet, but I try my best to identify the moments when putting things on pause is the right move.

All in all, keeping one’s wheels spinning is a skill that we all can work on. Even if it’s some sort of technological hedonism or a trick you play on your brain, you have to incorporate it in a day-to-day routine to deliver some of your best work. I am grateful for being on the right route. In the end, everything is work-in-progress, right?

Best regards,
Răzvan

Contributors of this story: Răzvan Onofrei wrote this gem, Oana Filip edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, George Mihăilă took the photo.

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