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New job, yay!

I started a new job last week. I’m excited about it! I also want to issue this reminder: as has always been the case, my posts here represent my own feelings and opinions and not those of any employer, past, present, or future.

First, the truly excellent news: I’ve joined Coiled Computing, a startup (the company is 1 year old as of February) that offers, if I can try to sum it up in a phrase, a platform for distributed data science.

The company was founded by the creator of Dask, a library that allows scaling/parallelization of the Python data stack: your NumPy array or pandas dataframe won’t fit in memory? That’s where Dask comes in, using very nearly the same syntax. Dask is open source and free for anyone to use, and having spent part of the last week learning it, myself, I have to say: it’s pretty dang neat!

While Dask will remain open source and free to use, Coiled’s deal is that we offer managed Dask on the cloud (GCP, AWS, and Azure), simplifying things for companies and individuals who don’t want to do all their own DevOps for distributed data science processing. There’s a free tier, so if that sounds like a thing you want to try out, but you don’t have any budget allocated, I mean… go wild (but not too wild 😉).

As for what I’ll be doing at Coiled: To start, I will be wearing a few hats, including customer support, quality assurance, and (soon, but not just yet) software development, including integration testing. I may or may not also be contributing to the docs—I’m taking notes as I go through them, anyway. Obviously, that many different roles won’t be sustainable forever, so after a while I’ll specialize. We’ll see what I like best and am best at, as well as what the company most needs at that point.

Between you and me, I have a little bit of a worry that, for instance, QA and automated testing is going to be where I want to focus, but customer support will be where they need me the most and/or what I’m best at, which will make for an imperfect situation. But, to reassure myself and potentially any coworker who might see this, I hurry to add: even if that ends up being the case, I can think of multiple people who have kept several hats on, long-term. I’m sure I’ll find opportunities to contribute in ways I find satisfying.

So that’s all fantastic, and I’m genuinely super excited about it! A full-time job in the Python data ecosystem! I’m overjoyed.

I also have to acknowledge, though, that I’m currently going through a lot, and despite how much I want! to start! contributing! right! away!, I’m not really at my best, as I start this new endeavor. My focus isn’t as good as it needs to be, and at only a week in, I already feel like I’m behind where I “should” be. (My manager does not seem concerned, but I still worry.) I’ll talk more in a minute about how the job change timing happened—no, surprisingly, I did not actually set out to start a new branch of my career during a pandemic, effectively throwing away 2+ years’ worth of effort in my last job—but also, we lost our most sociable pet bird, who had (to be maybe too honest) been getting me through the pandemic, on the day before my job was supposed to start, and I’ve been an absolute mess since then. Just. Absolutely destroyed. And then, in the same week, the highest court in my country downgraded the amount of human I am considered to be, so… it’s been a lot.

On one hand, the fact that I’ve learned anything at all this week is pretty good. If I was looking at any other person in this situation, accomplishing the same amount, I’d be impressed with them. But—I’m coming from academia, so this surprises nobody—I’m an anxious perfectionist who holds themself to very high standards. And—probably also to nobody’s surprise, given the ongoing pandemic, the loss I’ve just undergone, and the near-burnout I’m still nursing from my last position—I cannot possibly meet my own standards for myself, right now. Outside of work, I mostly just sleep, read romance novels, and watch TV I’m too embarrassed to name, even for the limited posterity represented by a blog post. I’ve found us a meal delivery service that doesn’t throw something I’m allergic to into every dish, so I am at least eating healthy food. At work, I can fake “chipper” during meetings OK, and I’ve picked up some pretty good tricks while shadowing coworkers on support calls; but when left to my own devices, I have trouble concentrating. I’m spending some of my time reading docs and working through tutorials, as one does in a new position. I am learning(!), but it’s so slow. “I know I just read a paragraph and ran some code, but I don’t know what it said or did, so I have to do it over”: that kind of slow.

I’m certain it will get better as I work through my grief and my near-burnout. It looks like we’ll be under pandemic conditions for a while, still, so I don’t know when/if I will be back at my very best. But even at less than my best, I tend to be a really good employee, far better than I’ve been this last week. I just … the timing is rough. My boss and grand-boss are both being really patient and kind, though, so while I am worried about the impression I’m making, I am not worried that I’ll lose the job. I’ll get it together well before I’m in danger, there.

Now I’m going to switch tracks, a bit, and talk about leaving my last job. Generally, in professional circles, we all agree not to say bad things about previous employers. However, given that they broke not only the law but also their own commitments (referred to as “the 5 Cs” or “the 5 [Employer Name] Commitments to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”), I am not feeling the pressure to smooth things over that I usually would. Frankly, when an organization deliberately mistreats disabled and feminized employees, they do not deserve to be protected by professional norms.

So. Although I technically resigned, I felt very much under duress about it and continue to carry a lot of anger and sadness. And guilt, because my leaving made several students’ and coworkers’ lives harder. And relief, too, because I was not treated well in that position, in ways that I didn’t even fully internalize until I went to work for a company who treats me like a human. And, again, while I want to talk about what happened, I do not want to detract from my excitement about my new position. As upset as I was/am about being forced out of the college, in a lot of ways, this also feels like one of those “a door shuts and a window opens” kinds of things. I strongly suspect I will end up looking back on this with gratitude that it happened.

Anyway, a given: I did not want to leave when I did. One does not accept a tenure-track position with the intention of leaving in two years. Even more, teaching is one of those things that gets easier over time: you have more material prepped, more explanations thought through, more experience recognizing the pieces that trip new folks up. You get a chance to work through and clean up mistakes (e.g. eight assignments and four projects, all consisting of multiple files that had to be hand-graded, for 60+ students during a 14-week semester—that was a mistake I’d have remedied, the next time I taught that course), and you gradually end up with fewer “new to you” courses to design in between semesters, so you start being able to actually take breaks during the months of the year you aren’t paid to work. To put it bluntly, everyone agrees the first two years are hell, and it starts getting easier after the third year or so. So this was pretty bad timing.

It’s all made worse because, on top of the standard “first two years experience,” I had burned through all of my reserves trying to build the Data Analytics program and support our students through an incredibly difficult time. Like every faculty member and teacher in 2020, I moved my courses online with only a week’s notice, and did not get any kind of spring break to recharge or catch up on grading. (I mean, I’m a realist with a borked immune system, so I saw the writing on the wall before March 13, 2020, when we closed our buildings. But not very much before.) Like every faculty member and front-line academic staff person, everywhere, I ended up supporting a whole bunch of young adults who were facing enormous hurdles, from financial insecurity to mental health issues to illness and grief, adding a whole set of responsibilities that I didn’t have the training for on top of my already more than full-time job. (To be fair, yes, I taught at a community college; all of those hurdles were already there for a number of my students before the pandemic, but in smaller, more manageable numbers. And our support staff were less overwhelmed and could take over sooner.) Like many academic institutions, my employer also didn’t see fit to let any other job duties slide, in acknowledgment of the enormous added workload, so faculty found ourselves doing absolutely pointless paperwork at 2am, sometimes, for no good reason.

Unfortunately, the college also decided in early 2021 that bringing everyone back to campus would be a higher priority than their commitments to equity, their responsibilities to the community, or their legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Provost told the faculty last spring that HR would accommodate those of us who couldn’t safely return to campus, and HR seems to have consistently refused everyone who applied for accommodations, throughout the spring and summer and into the fall. (I do not know of anyone who received an accommodation, but I know of multiple people, including me, who applied, with more than sufficient documentation, and were denied.) The college also still does not mandate vaccination, even after full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, which puts not only their students and employees at risk, but the whole community they purport to serve.

Here’s the real kicker, though: every Data Analytics course is taught remotely, and my parent department, Computer Information Technology, always has online and remote options, as well. I taught a wide enough variety of courses (more than maybe anyone else in the department) that I could have taught at a distance forever, even if I remained the lowest-seniority member of the faculty. So when I say that I was “pushed out” by HR’s refusal to provide an accommodation, I mean that. It would have cost the college nothing to accommodate me, but instead, like so many other academics, I found myself in the situation of weighing my life and long-term health against my need for an income.

I’m lucky to have been able to choose my health; my heart aches and my temple throbs to think about all of the people who could not make that decision. Academia in general and my former employer, specifically, are responsible for so much unnecessary suffering and more than a few deaths.

I’ve been asked if I would consider coming back—not by administrators, obviously, who could have stepped in and stopped this, but by faculty and staff colleagues—and my answer has been consistent: I have a personal guideline that I do not leave a job in fewer than three years, except in case of emergency, so it’ll be at least that long before I’m looking again, and the college would have to be able to 1) appoint me as a distance-only employee and 2) grant me the correct rank at (re)appointment, with credit for the years I’ve already served. (This has gotten long, so I’ve glossed over the reason my job search actually started before the accommodation was denied: a man in my department came in with two masters degrees, and they were both counted toward his initial rank; I also came in with two masters degrees, and they were not counted toward my rank. When I realized the discrepancy and reported it to HR, they refused to take action to correct it, giving me inconsistent reasoning and questionable information when I pressed.)

But I do love and believe I could grow to be quite good at remote and online teaching (my remote courses were already higher-quality than my in-person courses had been); I enjoy working with community college students; I like doing my part to build up a practical curriculum that will get my students hired; I am good at committee work (I know, right?!); and I’m interested in building up more knowledge around CS and data pedagogy.

So that door is not exactly closed—unless my having written this well-deserved critique results in their closing the door on me, which it might—but it’s not one I can possibly walk through quickly enough to help the students in the pipeline right now, or to save Data Analytics if it succumbs to no longer having a dedicated faculty member trying to keep it afloat, despite some seemingly insurmountable organizational hurdles. Just to clarify: I’m not calling my former department head “not dedicated”; I’m pointing out that she and the others left holding this particular bag have other priorities. She’s the only faculty member in her own department. The CIT Coordinator is extremely busy. The other Data Analytics faculty, one of whom is a 1-year hire, both seem to be focusing on cybersecurity instead of data analytics. So it does not feel out of line to say that the program may be in some danger. But if it survives these challenges, and if the stars align correctly, sure, it’s technically possible that I might come back.

But this window that I’ve gone through, in the meantime? It seems really, really good. So. I’m not going to spend a lot of energy holding open that door, you know?

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