January 1, 2024new-year
I feel like each year is defined by a couple big events that set the tone for the rest of the year, and this year’s big event was on January 20th, when Google laid off 12,000 people.
I was not “directly affected”, but I know many people who were. I was not under any false pretenses about my business relationship with Google, but the layoffs made it clear that the company values the opinions of billionaire shareholders and following the big tech herd than it cares about its employees.
After the initial layoffs in January, Google has continued “quiet layoffs” that contribute to a constant paranoia: am I next? This feeling really set the tone for the rest of 2023, which I believe was the whole point of the layoffs. Many of my decisions and general attitude came from this feeling of uncertainty and helplessness, which was… not great for my mental health.
I don’t even disagree with the argument that Google has too many employees. A system is what it incentivizes, and for most of my time at Google, the only thing the company incentivized was growth without a real goal or plan. This isn’t unique to Google, as big tech in general has a more more more approach to capitalism.
But if you had asked me back in 2017 what I would do if I was suddenly in charge of Google, I would have said that we should freeze hiring, stop launching new features, and instead base all internal incentives on improving the quality of existing products.
January 2023: Google at night
I know that’s Monday morning quarterbacking, and there are a million reasons why I shouldn’t be in charge of Google. But the reason this bothers me so much is because nobody in a position of power has been held accountable for the system of incentives they created. Jokes about taking full responsibility aside, it would have gone a really long way if a decision maker stood up and said “I was the one who advocated for growth, and that was a mistake, and as a result I’m stepping down so somebody else can set the new direction”.
That didn’t happen. Instead, the only people affected by the mismanagement from the people at the top have been the people at the bottom. I’m so tired of reading emails from billionaires explaining that “macroeconomic headwinds” are forcing them to destroy the mental health of an entire industry, from the employees they unceremoniously fire over email, to the students struggling to find roles after they graduate. This is a choice, being made by humans. I am very aware of how privileged a problem this is to complain about, but the arbitrariness of it all has been extremely frustrating, and more than a little nerve-wracking this past year.
In last year’s new year post, I mentioned that I was thinking about switching teams within Google. That wasn’t an idle idea: two weeks after the new year, I was on the verge of moving to a very cool team.
When you think of Google employees, you probably imagine a bunch of software engineers writing code. And Google certainly has a ton of software engineers. But Google also employs many other roles: bus drivers, cafeteria workers, recruiters, administrative business partners, etc. The team I was moving to helped “non technical” Google employees learn how to code and land software engineering roles within the company. This is as close to a dream job I’m going to find at Google, so I was pretty excited about it.
Then the layoffs happened. (I told you they set the tone for the rest of the year.)
That put my transfer on hold, and I had to plead with management to let it go through. Four months later they agreed, and I started on Google Developer Academy in April. The work was rewarding albeit hectic, and it felt like the culmination of all the “20%” stuff I had done in previous years. I met a lot of really interesting people, and it felt good to be doing something that helped other folks navigate the big tech industry.
May 2023: lil bee
But the layoffs continued to cast a shadow. Working on an internal mobility team when there wasn’t any internal mobility felt like working against Google instead of working with it. Towards the end of the year we were hoping to make a pivot but still maintain the human side of our work, but in the end the team was dissolved, and I was moved to an internal machine learning education team.
That brings me to my next major theme of 2023: machine learning pervading the tech industry. Over the past couple years, tech companies have become obsessed with large language models like ChatGPT. Pretty much every big tech company is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build their own LLMs and launch new ML features and products.
I have, to put it mildly, some very mixed feelings about this. On one hand, the development of LLMs is genuinely fascinating, especially the questions it raises about how language works. I believe that information wants to be free, and I have to admit that tools like ChatGPT can make certain tasks much easier. But from the education side of things, I also believe that companies that are leaning into improving “worker productivity” with ML are in for a bit of a shock when they realize newer employees don’t really understand the systems they’re building. (Although I also recognize that previous generations could have said the same thing about modern languages, frameworks, and tools, not to mention Wikipedia and Stack Overflow.)
On the other hand, this is all built on stolen work (including content stolen from Happy Coding), and it raises a ton of ethical questions around misinformation, the value of human labor and creativity, the integrity of the internet, and how it’s an especially horrifying time to be a young girl. And despite big tech’s promises of democratizing data, the inevitable enshittification (my favorite new word of 2023) of these platforms will serve only to extract wealth from the masses, and move it into billionaire shareholder accounts.
I’m also bothered by something that I’m not sure how to put into words: who exactly is consenting to all of this? Should I have to give my consent for a multibillion dollar company to train its model on content I create in my spare time? Should workers have to consent for their employers to replace them with ML? I’m not afraid that ML is going to take my job from me, but I am afraid that some middle manager will think ML can take my job from me. I understand that technology is a driver of cultural change, but it feels wrong to me that these decisions are being made by a shockingly small number of the very privileged elite, who aren’t spending any time asking whether this is good for people as a whole.
August 2023: Sculpture in front of Google’s newest building on campus
Right now, the whole subject feels pretty Emperor’s New Clothes-y to me, as giant tech companies declare that machine learning is the future, and a weird technological FOMO prevents anyone from going against that narrative.
Google as a company is betting that machine learning will unlock the next money printer, now that Google search quality is getting worse. Nobody has suggested the alternative of actually improving Google search quality instead.
So now Google has gone from years of incentivizing growth, where every individual inside the company needed to show evidence that they helped grow the company - even if it didn’t make any sense for their role - to incentivizing ML, where every individual inside the company must show evidence that they’re working on “something ML related” - even if it doesn’t make any sense for their role.
And from the company’s perspective, maybe that’s the right play. If everyone works towards some theoretical ML-driven future, and if just 1% of them stumble upon the next money printer, then the company as a whole comes out on top. But what happens to the vast majority, the 99% who obeyed the top-down edicts and worked on ML that ends up going nowhere? Will there be yet another round of layoffs, or will the tech industry start holding its “leaders” accountable?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I think they’ll be a big part of my 2024.
On a happier note, I bought a house and moved to Oregon!
The process was long and stressful, because the house hunt began just as Google restricted remote work and tried to force everyone to return to the office. I spent most of 2023 searching for a home in Oregon, without knowing whether I’d be fired when I moved. More of that leftover stress caused by the layoffs.
But after months of uncertainty and pleading with the company, I was finally officially approved to work remotely, and in August I moved to Eugene, Oregon!
June 2023: Welcome to Eugene, Oregon
I love it here. I love my 100-year-old grandma house, even though many weekends in 2024 will involve fighting the invasive bamboo in the backyard. And I love this weird little Pacific Northwest artsy hippy town. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Eugene and Oregon in 2024.
I also continued teaching at Millersville in 2023. Previously, my classes were mostly asynchronous, meaning I recorded videos ahead of time, and students watched them on their own instead of attending class. But in 2023 my classes were fully synchronous, which meant I got a ton of practice giving more typical lectures. This was still over Zoom, but it felt like the logical next step towards teaching in person, so I’m glad I took it.
I taught a class on technical interviewing during the fall semester. I was pretty excited about this, because I figured this was a great way to help students from my hometown find their paths into big tech. But it was a brand new class, so I needed to create new content (written tutorials, presentations, lectures, assignments, class discussions, projects, etc) for it. I had planned to move in early summer, and then spend the rest of summer preparing all of that class material. Instead, I spent my entire summer making random trips up to Eugene for house hunting, and I didn’t move until the end of August- during the first week of class!
That meant I spent my fall semester working full time, writing brand new material for a class I hadn’t taught before, giving lectures three times a week, grading, unpacking, and spending every waking moment obsessing over the big tech job market and being paranoid for myself, my coworkers, and my students. For months at a time, I didn’t have a single day where I didn’t have too much to do, or where I wasn’t thinking about the perils of big tech. I don’t want to complain, but it became pretty obvious that this was too much for my mental health.
I’m taking the spring 2024 semester off from teaching. Only having one fulltime job for a change will be a very welcome relief. I’m planning on using that time to think more about what teaching looks like for me going forward.
I’ve said before that I want to be Daniel Shiffman when I grow up, and that’s only partially a joke. I love how he combines teaching, creativity, and building new things to form a community that feels joyous and authentic. My main goal with both Happy Coding and teaching is to work towards my own version of that. I imagine teaching a class or two each semester, using that as motivation to create new content, releasing that content as written tutorials and YouTube videos, and building a community around folks following along.
And logistically, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. This year, I published 54 new articles on Happy Coding. To put that in perspective, if I physically printed them out, they’d take up roughly 200 pages. All but nine of those articles were for school. So I think the model of “teach a class, create new content, and post it online” works.
November 2023: Welcome to the Pacific Northwest
But I admit that something is missing. As much as I want to believe if I build it, they will come, and as much as I hate the tech industry’s obsession with shallow engagement metrics, if I’m being honest with myself I recognize that I can’t just keep putting stuff out there and hoping for the best.
I’m not really on social media anymore, so I haven’t done a great job of sharing the articles and projects I post on Happy Coding anywhere else. I did try sharing my technical interviewing lessons on LinkedIn, but LinkedIn’s feed of non-stop obnoxious ML clickbait was pretty soul-crushing. I also tried sharing on Mastodon, but that felt like yelling into the void. I’m a member of a few Discord servers, but I don’t want to spam my stuff there. I admit this is probably a me thing, and that I need to spend more time on building the Happy Coding community. I’m very open to suggestions!
I spent most of 2023 working, teaching, and moving, which included a bunch of weekend trips between California and Eugene. I also spent a weekend helping my friend move from California to Colorado. White-knuckling a giant U-Haul truck with shoddy steering through the mountains on a 20-hour overnight trip was type two fun for sure, but I’m really glad I did it.
At the end of the year, I also made a trip back to the east coast. It was nice to catch up with everyone and show my partner around my hometown, but I’m feeling pretty drained from all the socializing (not to mention eating nothing but pizza and french fries for the past three weeks).
I didn’t do much in terms of personal projects this year, other than these few:
That’s not nothing, but it’s much less than I’ve done in previous years. I also didn’t write any blog posts in 2023, other than last year’s new year post! I’m definitely hoping to spend more time on my own stuff in 2024.
That brings us to this year. I’m not into new year resolutions, but I do like to think about my goals and plans for the year.
July 2023: Passing through Utah at dawn
My main goal in 2024 is to get a better understanding of what it would look like to teach in person. Eugene has at least two colleges, and a bunch of community education programs. (I’m personally planning on taking a bee keeping class this year!) I want to figure out whether it’s feasible for me to teach here, and what I’d need to do to make that happen.
As part of that, I also want to figure out what I’m doing at Google. I’m starting on a new team (tomorrow!), and although I don’t love how it happened, it is a chance to try something different. I have very mixed feelings about ML and how it intersects with ethics and capitalism, but I’m hoping that the fuzzy space of “teaching ML inside Google” has some interesting corners. I don’t know if that will spill out into my personal stuff, or how permanent it is. But I’m going to give it a chance, while also staying open to other possibilities. I also wouldn’t be shocked if I get laid off- working on internal education does not feel very safe right now. So maybe all of this will be moot in a month! 🥲
I mentioned above that I’d like to spend more time on “just for fun” projects and blog posts, and I’d like to get better at working towards building the Happy Coding community. I’ve also been daydreaming about leaning more into the art side of things. The idea of selling my stuff at the weekly art fair in Eugene is pretty exciting.
June 2023: one more bee, as a treat
But the meta-goal encompassing all of the above is to figure out how it all fits together. Should I do something like go down to 80% time at Google and teach more in person? Or should I lean more into teaching virtually and spend more time on production quality? Should I try to get a job with a mission I believe in? Or should I just work at Google by day, collect my paycheck, and then do little art stuff on the side? Some combination of all of the above?
Aside from all of that, I’m also really looking forward to spending some time on my house. I barely had time to unpack since moving in August, so it’ll be nice to do some nesting, tame the garden, make this place feel like home, and meet some friends here.
Last year, I said that one of my main goals was to be more intentional about connecting with other humans. I’ll give myself half credit for that one: I did a lot more human-ing in 2023 than in previous years, but I also didn’t reach out to people as much as I should have.
With that in mind, I’d love to hear from you. How was your 2023? What are you looking forward to in 2024?