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React-ing to Change

TL;DR: Exactly one year ago today, I was laid off. The consequences were and still are painful. But I can’t deny that I’ve grown in ways I couldn’t imagine a year ago.

Image credit: Maarten van den Heuvel

Exactly one year ago today, I was laid off. At the time I was working for Say Media, a small media company that was acquired by Maven, “a relatively unknown start-up run by two notorious media fuck boys.”

I was caught in the first round of layoffs related to the merger. Over the next year, I watched successive rounds of layoffs and departures reduce the Portland office to a single employee. The schadenfreude of watching the company that ditched me falling to pieces would have been more enjoyable if I hadn’t remained unemployed for the following four months.

Taking that long to find a job was a bit awkward, seeing as how I wrote a book called “How to Find a Better Job in the Tech Industry.” Though to be fair to myself, one of the first points in the book is to avoid quitting your job before you have a new one lined up.

During that time we drained our savings, cashed out my retirement fund, borrowed money from family, and came within weeks of being forced to move back in with my parents because we couldn’t afford rent.

I applied to over 100 jobs. Less than half of them even replied to my application. A quarter sent an automated rejection email within a week. About 10 rejected me after a phone screen. Another 10 made initial contact only to ghost me, not even sending an automated rejection email. I had 10 interviews which advanced to various stages of interest before going nowhere.

This experience forced me to examine how I was presenting myself. Up to this point in my career, I’d always marketed myself as a CSS specialist. I’ve never particularly enjoyed programming. Every previous foray into JavaScript development went pretty badly. My best career experiences were always when pairing with a programmer and working together to tackle the UI. I was proud to be a CSS-only developer.

However, what I had been insulated from at my last job was the dramatic rise of React and the way it completely changed the frontend industry. Three years before, when I was looking for work, CSS skills were in high demand. I was able to use a recruiter to land a CSS-only gig within a few weeks of starting my job hunt.

This time around, every conversation I had went something like “You’re a front-end developer? That’s great! Do you know React? …Oh, you just do CSS? Okay, we’ll keep your resume on file. Do you know any React devs?”

It was clear something needed to change, and about a month into my unemployment, I pivoted hard to become a JavaScript developer. I took over 20 online training courses aimed at beefing up my neglected JS skills to become a React developer. (If you’re curious, I can highly recommend Codecademy, Wes Bos, and Tania Rascia.) I completed dozens of tutorials and code challenges. I converted several side projects to React. I went all in.

I even changed the way I was talking about myself. Instead of “Hi, I’m Scott, and I’m a CSS specialist,” I started saying “Hi, I’m Scott, and I’m a front-end architect.” I never exaggerated my JS and React development experience. I did emphasize the fact that I’ve been working in the front-end development world for 20 years. I argued that what a company would gain with me was not deep technical knowledge, but hard-earned experience. I might be new to React, but I’m an old hand at solving technical challenges, interpreting client requests, juggling priorities, and managing schedules.

All that is true, but I’ve also never felt more imposter syndrome in my life. I bombed a couple of technical interviews where what they wanted was a dev with five years of advanced React knowledge. One technical director sneered at me and said: “I don’t know what we’d do with you here.” He walked out two minutes later, leaving the recruiter who’d begged me to apply to awkwardly escort me out.

In the end, of course, I did find a job. Cloud Four was hiring for a front-end developer. I applied, and finally found a company that understood the value of my range of experiences. I had a great talk with the engineering manager and a senior developer about the rapidly changing nature of front-end work. We agreed about the value of knowing how to approach technical challenges and work effectively with a team. When they offered me a position, I was delighted to accept it.

Today I’m in the process of wrapping up the project I’ve been working on since I started back in January. It required me to quickly get up to speed, and represented several firsts for me:

  • learn GraphQL & Apollo
  • learn Vue (ironically, not React!)
  • learn Nuxt
  • learn Heroku
  • my first project taking the lead dev role, where I was responsible for defining the tech stack and hosting
  • my first time leading infrastructure/DevOps work like CI, testing, lint configs, PR and commit templates, and defining best practices for anything beyond “writing CSS”
  • my first time building a site with a headless CMS, where all the content comes from a third-party API.

Going from “the CSS guy who doesn’t touch JS” to doing all this was wild. Every question that needed answering about tech came to me and I had to figure it out. I didn’t get everything right. There were some painful stumbles and bits I’d do differently, but overall, I’m incredibly pleased with how far I’ve come in the year since I was laid off.

I’ve debated writing this post for weeks now. I’m worried it will come off as self-congratulatory and braggy. But this last year was a struggle. I came within a hair’s breadth of complete financial ruin. We’re still paying off the debts from my unemployment. And once I got the job, I have not gone a single week without a moment of utter panic that I don’t know what I’m doing and am going to fuck up in some irredeemable way.

When I put “Front End Architect” on my resume, it was, frankly, a bit of an aspirational statement. That’s difficult to admit publicly. But I believe that as a white guy with some privilege it’s important for me to be honest in ways that maybe other devs can’t about learning. About admitting the things that I don’t know or struggle with.

At the same time, I want to give myself permission to admit that I’ve succeeded. The project I led is live. The client is happy. My manager is happy. My team is happy. And while I still struggle with my imposter syndrome, I enjoy the work I do and the challenges it brings.

I can’t bring myself to say “I’m glad I was laid off.” The consequences were and still are painful. But I can’t deny that I’ve grown in ways I couldn’t imagine a year ago.

Here’s to another (less painful, hopefully) year of growth.