So I’ve been coding for over 20 years now – starting professionally in 2002 with NAVAIR. I had actually done quite a few side projects before then – mostly website stuff with the LAMP stack. I could probably also count the coding I did while I was working on my bachelor’s degree.
My current role is a support role that requires software development experience. My role is not a “traditional” product development role (at least not in the way you might imagine how software development works). Between lots of support tasking, the team I work most closely with does our best to follow light-weight process, tools, and standards that allow us to more effectively communicate and coordinate activities. I manage tasking through an Atlassian Jira based system that is integrated with Confluence (wiki) and Bitbucket (source code management). Our team meets routinely to discuss status, progress, and plans for the path ahead. While I would like to say that we follow a particular software development methodology, it’s better to just say that we are continually looking at what we are doing, what’s working, what’s not, and figuring out how to do better (with the backdrop of limited time and resources, and unpredictable tasking).
My work environment has served me well because I had the opportunity to work with many different kinds of projects, people, team structures, workflows, and other aspects of engineering. That’s not to say these were all great experiences or I always observed something to live up to. Often, I was providing support to a project because some aspect of that project simply was not working well. But I did have a lot of opportunity to learn over a broad area of engineering in the DoD, which fed into my knowledge and experience with complex distributed systems. I even got a Masters in System Engineering along this journey. While working on my masters degree, I never needed to look very far for real-world projects that could be leveraged in my academic studies. I was very open and unashamed about the fact that I was often getting “double credit” for working on projects that simultaneously benefited my career and my academic progress. I was open about this with my teachers, my boss, and everyone I worked with at school and work. If I could kill two birds with one stone, I would.
I’m very excited to take on new challenges in the coming years, but I’d like to find a way to reduce the overall number of things I need to focus on and be able to plan out my tasking several weeks or months in advance. I’d like to do this while building experience and knowledge “in-depth” (not managing a barrage of unrelated and unpredictable tasking). As a personal strategy, I would like to bring my career full-circle and re-focus on software development at its core – designing, building (the fun part), testing, and deploying (the rewarding part). This is probably not possible in my current role. So I have to accept a certain level of chaos or find something else to do.
My plan has been to wait until July 2022 before I contemplated the most “extreme” change – switching jobs (which isn’t that extreme, but switching jobs always comes with a price). Perhaps, I can work something out with the company I currently work for, but I leave open the possibility that I may need to find a new company to find myself in a new role. If it comes down to that, my job search will be complicated by some personal constraints that I have – mostly that I am not willing to move away from Fort Collins, Colorado at this time in my life. I have an 11-year old son and commitment to not move him away from his life in Fort Collins. I have other family in the area as well. Luckily for me, we live in a time where the employment of remote software developers is becoming more commonplace.
The July 2022 mark is somewhat arbitrary, but sets a line “in the sand” and will be 20 years since I was hired by NAVAIR and became a professional engineer in the defense industry. My reasoning on this date is that I would like to be able to say with no uncertainty that I was an engineer in the defense industry for 20 years. I feel that it is likely, but not certain, that my next role will not be in the defense industry. Why is this? Well, the idea of “doing something different” has some intrigue, but I mostly feel that I’m in a unique position to be in this industry working from home in the first place. Most “defense jobs”, including mine, require a security clearance for access to classified facilities and information. It logically follows that if you have this clearance, then it makes sense to have regular access to these facilities to support your job. This was fine when I was expected to travel to DoD bases and facilities all the time before covid, and I was “willing” to travel.
However, I’ve also learned that I really like not traveling for work. It’s not the actual travel that gives me any anxiety. I enjoy being in another city or military base, learning new things, meeting new people, and contributing to important defense projects. However, I can barely stand the nightmare of corporate processes and archaic “services” that we’re required to use. I know that if I have to travel anywhere, I’m losing time that I don’t have for the actual travel, plus an enormous amount of time dealing with inefficient travel processes and tools. I assume this is a necessary evil that’s across the board for any big company – especially one that is also subjected to the government’s additional oversight and constraints.
Over the years, travel itself has become easier in ways some ways. I love having a smart phone with GPS and a map app that tells me how to get anywhere from where I’m at and re-adjusts the path and timeline in realtime. That’s a lot better than trying to figure things out on a paper map and dealing with the inevitable travel obstacles in a typical work trip. But I still don’t like to travel for work unless I can drive and find a decent hotel. Otherwise, I do feel it’s generally better to meet face to face when it’s practical and I know that some tasks can only be performed “on site”. I am very concerned that the bad old days of lots of unneeded travel is right around the corner for me again.
Despite some of my gripes, the DoD range community has been an important and enriching part of my life for the last 20 years. I will always encourage other engineers to consider a career in the defense industry and point them in the best direction I can. In defense engineering you have incredible opportunities that you simply can not find anywhere else, and you contribute to one of the most important things that I can imagine – national defense. I will try to find a way to stay in this industry, but it’s hard to imagine I will always have that opportunity moving forward, given my goals to focus on a smaller number of projects, focus on software engineering, and keep travel to a minimum (limiting routine access to facilities that I might be required to visit).
Many of my decisions in the last eleven years (since my son was born) have been driven by a desire for stability for my family life, and we have been very fortunate. Now I have the benefit of experience, I have a stronger and more valuable skillset than I started out with, and I have many opportunities and potential paths ahead of me. My plans are still influenced with a desire for some stability, but I understand there are no guarantees in life, and we always live with some risk. As I reach this arbitrary 20 year mark in the defense industry, I am very excited about the next 20 years. I may continue to contribute to DoD projects, possibly staying in the role I am in now, or I dive into a completely different industry. I’ll be thinking a lot in the coming months about where I want to be 20 years from now, and how I think I can get there. However I get there, I have no doubt that it will be an exciting adventure.