How my first employer screwed me
In my early career, I tended to develop loyalty toward my company. I think this was a taught behavior from our society. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that loyalty almost never extends back to the employee. I believe we should be open and talk about these situations, as they are all too common. No names are included here.
My first corporate gig was straight out of college, literally 2 weeks after graduation in 2009. I accepted a position with a large defense contractor in their new graduate rotation program. I was told my job would be in Baltimore, but upon my arrival, I was informed that my job would actually be down in Annapolis, 45min-1.5hrs away. I didn’t think much of it and worked hard for the Annapolis office for 10 months, even playing a key research role in closing a $10+mil contract.
Eventually, I was able to find a rotation to a job in Baltimore. After a few short rotations, I landed a software development gig on a RADAR project. I did a lot of good work here over the first year, improving our UML->C++ code generator (it was 2011 after all…), improving intercomponent communication, improving CI tooling (try using ClearCase from a linux machine…), and plenty of other implementations and optimizations. I was finding that I was quite good at general software development and learning new things.
I was performing well at the job, so well that I was absconded away to debug the SAR (Synthetic Aperture RADAR) implementation. Working on the algorithm implementation was prestigious and attracted the attention of the program manager (it was a large project, 200+ people). For six months, I sat in a small grey room that took 9 forms of identification to get in and set up the system (ID fob, guard looking at picture of you and you, ID fob & keypad to get in area, keypad to get in room, alarm disarm keypad, keypad to turn on RADAR, 3 different log in credentials for 3 computers). I worked diligently tackling bug after bug on this RADAR. I fully debugged the custom SIMD Fourier transform algorithm written by a coworker (turns out the bug was in the OS…). Eventually I got to fly in a test flight above Baltimore and take pictures with the RADAR that I had poured my sweat and tears into.
That’s when things took a turn. The program ended and I had saved the SAR system (not to mention great work on the RADAR’s controller system). I waited patiently while the government decided whether we would win the contract. Finally, one day I walked into the office and everyone was drinking champagne and revelling. I asked what had happened… Northrop had won the contract to build the RADAR hardware, but had lost the contract to build the software. I was taken aback by the news. Wait… we lost? Why are y’all celebrating? The program manager told me that they had never wanted to win the software contract, but the government required them to submit both hardware and software proposals. “So all of my hard work over the past 18 months has been to check a box?”
I felt deceived and taken advantage of. I was upset. I found another role at the company doing computer vision research that sounded interesting. I wanted away from this program and it’s manager. I put in for a transfer. It was denied. I asked my Software Engineering VP why and he said my program manager was blocking it. I went to the program manager. The program was over and we lost. Why are you blocking my transfer? He said he needed me to execute on his next project and that I should take it easy for six months. I was appalled. Not only did he mislead and use me, he now wanted to do it again to make him look good. I went back to my VP and asked if there’s anything he could do. The best he could do was approve me working overtime.
At the time, I had (have) a large wound in my soul that told me I’m not good enough unless I made others happy. That wound was taken advantage of by my bosses to make them look good and get them raises. But, I also have an intense hatred of being used and seen as a tool. So I immediately knew I had to find a new job in a new industry. Defense contracting was clearly toxic and couldn’t be trusted. I left a few months later for my next gig to do web development.
Overall, I learned not to put my trust into corporations and management. They are not incentivized to look out for my best interests. I still enjoy doing hard work to build big systems, but this experience taught me that I also want that work to matter to someone, not be used to check a box and be thrown away.