For the past 4.5 years I was a consultant and software developer at ThoughtWorks in Hamburg. It’s fair to say that there has never been a period in my life where I’ve learned so much about my profession, myself, society and my fellow human beings. My time at ThoughtWorks was a wild and exciting ride and an incredible experience.
Still, I felt it was time to move on.
You bet he was!
Being a consultant is a unique chance to learn a lot in a short time. Even more so when you’re surrounded by passionate and incredibly talented people as it’s the case at ThoughtWorks. You see different projects, work with clients who want to stir things up, and get the opportunity to hone your technology and people skills in a way you don’t see elsewhere.
It was a huge privilege to work alongside so many talented people, not few of them writing books, publishing blogs and giving talks that change the software industry at large. I had so much to learn from my fellow colleagues, sometimes about technology-related things, more often about the ways people interact and how I could become a better pairing partner, team member and consultant. It amazes me how much I learned about communication, architecture, programming, influencing, empathy, coaching, mentoring, leadership, issues in society, reflection, feedback, respect and not taking yourself too seriously.
For all of these experiences, for all the people that were there for me as friends, coaches, sponsors, sponsees, and colleagues, I’m grateful beyond belief.
Schietwetter on Hamburg’s Elbstrand
Being a consultant, however, comes with a flipside. The most obvious one is the flexibility that you need to bring to the table. As a consultant, you work with clients on their challenges. That often means being onsite, playing by their rules, listening to where their pain points are. There’s nothing wrong with that and if you’re joining a consultancy, that’s exactly what you sign up for. However, this flexibility around work location and topics you’re working on can take its toll. Personally, I was very lucky as most of my projects were located in Hamburg and didn’t require that I’d travel much - being a father, travel can become really tricky.
What really got me after a while was probably a combination of multiple things.
Uncertainty around my future (what would I do in half a year to come once my current engagement comes to an end?) often felt like a pending threat to me as travel was always a likely option for the next project. That would have meant shifting my family’s routine massively and put a lot of burden on my partner.
Frequent rotation of projects and roles means that you have the privilege to get to know a lot of people - colleagues as well as clients. Being a social and rather outgoing person, I usually got along well with most of them and was happy to get to know new people. I had to learn fast that every new relationship had an expiry date. With me or them leaving the project, chances reduced (sometimes drastically) that you’d meet again in a meaningful way. Relationships tended to remain shallow, real friendships remained few.
My commute was a bigger driver. We lived on the fringe of Hamburg. Public transportation is solid and we had a station close to our home. However, every single day I’d spend 2 hours on the train. That’s 10 hours a week of sitting on the train. I know, for a lot of metropolitan areas that’s common. Eventually I was fed up with the time spent commuting.
Cost of living is another big topic. Paying rent for the rest of my life doesn’t sound like a smart idea. Owning a home in Hamburg (even on the outskirts), however, was prohibitively expensive for us.
All of these were minor annoyances compared to the final straw: burning out.
ThoughtWorks is a place full of drive. People are ambitious and they know their shit. Having so many smart people around often gives you a feeling of not contributing enough. Imposter syndrome hits you, even if you know rationally that you don’t need to worry and that you’re getting a wrong perception by focusing on the collective highlights of hundreds of colleagues. In a system that rewards you for being engaged, driven and showing impact, I tend to strive. My journey at ThoughtWorks was quite successful (so I’d say) and I got great feedback over the years. In 2018 I discovered that this could kick-off a dangerous spiral of trying to over-achieve. At ThoughtWorks we are trying to be very mindful of that and have support structures in place that help people reflect on their situation to avoid running into dangerous situations. As I stepped into an internal, singular role in 2018, I lacked these routine support structures, however. This allowed me to grind myself down without having a team noticing. Luckily, I had a colleague coaching me during this time and she helped me recognizing my situation and hitting the brakes.
After weeks and months of being stressed, grumpy, short-tempered, depressed and sleeping badly, I realized that it was time for a radical change. After long reflections with my family we ended up leaving the urban life behind, quitting our jobs and moving back to the countryside, where me and my partner grew up. I’m fortunate to have a strong social network in the place where I grew up. Family and lots of friends I know from my teenage years are still there or came back after venturing out - and I’m happy that I’ve never lost touch. Cost of living is a different dimension, so is being close to nature and still having all the infrastructure I need for my daily life.
I’m so stoked that I was able to find a job that accommodates this change of scenery. Starting on Monday, I’m going to work remotely for Stack Overflow, a company that has always been part of my professional life. Working remotely always seemed intriguing to me ever since I’ve read Remote: Office Not Required and I’m grateful that I get a chance to experience this first-hand.
I’m aware that this lifestyle change is drastic and might come with certain drawbacks. I will miss people, I will miss the wide range of opportunities of a beautiful city like Hamburg, I will have to adapt to another lifestyle. However, I’m more than happy to have more time for my family, my friends and myself and a more calm lifestyle while being able to work on something exciting and meaningful.
Wish me luck!