Whew! 2021! What a year. Stuff happened!!! And some things, too!!!
As I wrote recently, I have a pretty strong recency bias when I try to write these articles. When I started writing this year's review, I thought it was going to be pretty negative. I'm not feeling super great right now — dealing with a bit of burnout, feeling tired of The Hustle ™️ that permeates software development, and quite honestly not sure what I'm doing with my career. But we'll get to that.
As I look back at the rest of 2021, I realize...it wasn't too bad. It was actually pretty good!
I accomplished my goals
At the beginning of 2021, I set 4 goals for myself. I managed to hit all 4 of them, I think!
(1) Writing more frequently and (2) lowering my personal bar for creating content.
I destroyed these goals! Crushed them. I wrote 22 articles on this site in 2021, and 3 others on the Artsy Engineering blog. This is by far the most I've ever written in a year. I don't know if I've gotten over 12 before.
I was able to write so much because I got comfortable writing smaller, less complete articles. In the past I've held back articles that didn't feel like they had a solid point or complete story; this year, I started a practice of keeping track of "things I'm thinking about this week" in my journal. I fell off that practice multiple times, but I also picked it up again multiple times. Those journal entries turned into many of the articles here.
But I also wrote a lot of complete articles! I wrote an entire series on maximizing small blocks of time! It wasn't just lowering the bar; I generally felt fired up about writing this year.
(3) Running and cycling regularly.
I made a comment last year that I doubted I'd match my mileage from 2020 in 2021, but I was wrong! Mostly.
In 2020 I buried myself in being active. I figured I'd take a small step back in 2021 when the world opened up and I was able to do other things. Instead I doubled down on being active.— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) December 31, 2021
My Strava self-promotion/I mean my Strava unwrapped, in charts:
I increased my total mileage by 600 miles! I focused more on the bike in 2021 than the run, and that mostly explains the jump in mileage. I hit nearly 3000 miles on my bike — a distance I honestly never expected I'd ever hit. I'm very proud of these numbers, and more important than the numbers is the fact that a daily workout is just part of my life right now. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I take one rest day per week, and that one day without a workout I'm thinking the entire time "oh I could just sneak in a bike ride, it'd be no big deal."
But hey I'm getting lots of experience with burnout and I'm pretty sure taking a rest day a week is a good practice, as much as it hurts.
(4) Eating better.
This one is a little more on the fence, but I'm counting it as a win. I think I'm eating better. I eat fewer junky snacks. I've never been a salad person and during the holidays I got really excited about a salad my wife made, and I've now made that salad for myself almost every day for the last month or two. I tried a few gimmicks to help me make better choices, and they didn't really work, but overall I feel like I'm taking in better food than I have in the past.
I still eat fast food a couple times a week, though. I love it too much. Food is such an emotional experience for me, and I know that's not a great thing, but I'm not willing to give that up right now.
I made some podcasts
Artsy Engineering Radio
Early in 2021, we announced that we'd be making an Artsy engineering podcast. I was personally feeling extremely inspired by my friend Ash leaving Artsy, and wanting to fill all the gaps he left and then some. Throughout the year, we've gotten more people involved in making episodes, with the goal of Artsy Engineering Radio being a way for people at Artsy to contribute to the developer community with little effort. We've definitely done that — check out our episodes, there is so much good stuff in there, and so many wonderful voices.
My personal favorite episodes to make:
- A discussion with Ash about scaling your impact — and another with Orta Therox
- A conversation with Justin Bennett about humanizing the workplace
- An interview with Laura Bhayani about making large changes
- A recap of our first "season"/year of the show
How Devs Work/The Developer Experience
I wrote a little more about my intentions with How Devs Workhttps://t.co/wtMZws4OAj— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) September 3, 2021
One of the things I really loved about Artsy Engineering Radio was the editing & production. A few months into that project, we chose to outsource that work, since I was the only one interested in it, and that wasn't sustainable.
But I wanted to scratch that itch again, and I couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted to make a podcast about the different ways in which developers get things done. I decided this winter's project would be a podcast — initially I've called it "How Devs Work" but "The Developer Experience" is a much better name and I just need to figure out how to use that without conflicting with an existing podcast.
I've recorded 5 guests so far — with 3 more to go — and then I get to cut them all up and stitch them all back into a narrative about how all of us, even the people we think are really good at it, are constantly trying to figure out how to keep our sh🤬t together and manage our work.
I wrote a ton
Like...a ton. I mentioned above how my 25 articles this year were more than double my previous record. Here are some of my personal favorites from the year:
- I had a weird holiday season to begin 2021 where I was extremely motivated and productive around the house. I wrote about how a kitchen faucet replacement was similar to working with legacy code.
- I wrote what I think is a very good article on something I've been calling "code distance" — when you have two files that are very related to each other, but they live very far away from each other in the file system.
- I wrote an entire series on maximizing productivity in small blocks of time! I'd wanted to write a series for a while; this is the first one I was able to complete without losing steam.
- Over on the Artsy Engineering blog, I wrote about how to actually make small pull requests. It's a thing we talk about doing, but it's not often we're taught how to do it.
- Most articles I write don't get a lot of readers. I have basically one popular article — it's about variables in Cypress tests and it gets hundreds of times more views than anything else. This year I wrote another article with a surprising number of page-views — this time on syntax highlighting in diffs. These weird one-off technical articles are successful, I guess. If I were chasing page-views, I would do something with this information.
I also wrote some threads on Twitter that I think were neat.
Here's one about how I automated a summer chores list for my kids with Trello:
I just spent some time building a summer chores board for the family and WOW the automation you can set up in trello now is pretty great.— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) June 12, 2021
And another about how helpful it is to keep track of when you fall into recurring emotional patterns:
For the last few days I've been feeling distracted, uneasy, and any time I'd think about doing something "productive" I would say "nah I just want to lay down" and I'd lay and doomscroll.— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) October 5, 2021
Tonight I recognized it - my body was overwhelmed by large, nebulous tasks again.
One other last bit of content I'm proud of this year — it's not writing, but I'm going to file it here anyway. I had to demo a very boring feature at work, so I made a ridiculous video about my kids as robots creating NFTs. If you're looking for someone to make dumb videos all day every day, please hire me.
I spoke in person again!
And I'm not going to lie, it was weird.
I got a chance to give my "Getting Unstuck" talk at That Conference, which was back in hybrid form after skipping 2020. It was much smaller than the typical That Conference — obviously, since there's still a pandemic. COVID numbers were looking promising for the event, and I was so excited to start speaking in person again, since presenting virtually is basically awful.
It was strange to be around a lot of people indoors. It was strange to see so many friends in-person! It was also strange to not feel as excited about speaking as I have in the past.
I'm not sure about this part of my future. I think I'm going to continue letting it sit until I feel an urgency to get back at it.
I think I also presented once or twice virtually in 2021 — I'm actually not sure. The disinterest I have in tracking my speaking events is further evidence to myself that this isn't something I should do right now.
I got passionate about programming computers
This is kind of a weird one for me. The past few years I've been feeling like I want to spend less time going deep on building things, so that I could focus on more knowledge-sharing types of tasks. But in 2021, I reversed course. I'm still trying to figure this out.
In April of 2021, I switched product teams at Artsy (to the Partner Experience team, focused on the experience of our gallery and fair partners). This isn't really an unusual thing — I usually change teams every 6 to 9 months, as my learning stagnates.
But I switched to what is objectively the best product team at Artsy (sorry friends), and I have loved it. As Anna Carey put it, I love everyone at Artsy, but this team is made up of people who would be my closest friends if we lived near each other. I'm over 9 months into this team, and still feeling inspired my teammates every day, and not having any feelings about wanting to change teams. This is unusual for me — the stability and comfort.
For much of the past 9 months, I got to know and pair closely with Anna — an incredible young engineer with a ridiculously bright future. This was a rare situation where I was extremely interested in mentoring and she was also very interested in being mentored — and quite honestly, mentoring me in many ways. She's since moved to another team, but this relationship was one of my absolute highlights of 2021.
The two of us got really into some infrastructural and architectural refactoring on Artsy's CMS project. I continue to be interested in this work, and have advocated for our team to elevate this kind of work to our OKRs, so that I can work on it without feeling like I'm off in the weeds not helping the team.
At some point in the fall (October?), as a team we agreed to set that kind of work aside to focus on a product release. This kind of crushed me for a while, and I think I'm only now recovering. I was really excited to find interest in that kind of work; and terribly disappointed when asked to not do it anymore. For now I'm back to doing this work, which is great — but I definitely had some feelings that I discussed many times with my therapist.
Outside of Artsy, I also found some passion in building. I got excited about RedwoodJS in the early part of the year, and started building an app for tracking my workouts. Unfortunately I've lost some steam on this project, and I'm not sure when I'll pick it back up again. 🤷 That's what it's like to be one of my side projects, I guess.
I made some art!
The isolation of 2020 gave me time to explore watercolor painting. In 2021, as things started to open up, I got too busy with other things and lost touch with painting. For the first half of 2021, I didn't make much art.
But in the summer, when an Artsy remote retreat encouraged me to "engage with art" for an afternoon, I got the chance to explore some techniques I'd been thinking about:
My assignment for the afternoon was to "engage with art," so I became a street artist? pic.twitter.com/wYch33Tzns— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) August 17, 2021
I love spray-painted stencil art on sidewalks...to get to do it for an afternoon as a work assignment was incredible.
This got me feeling inspired about art again. I painted a little bit more in the second half of the year, including this painting inspired by a photo I took while riding bikes with my wife in the summer:
Finished! A very slightly late Christmas gift for tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/dUPFTIE4g0— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) December 26, 2021
I haven't been practicing art every day, but I think I'm pretty consistently practicing at least once a week right now. That's certainly not artist levels, but it's exciting to find the interest, time, and dedication to this gratifying practice.
I exercised a ton
As mentioned in the "goals" section, I didn't run as much in 2021, but I rode my bike a ton more. I did well at some races — I almost podiumed in June, and in August I podiumed twice in one week. I continue to enjoy running and biking significantly more than swimming.
On one bike ride, I caught a picture of a deer leaping across the road!
Exercise is a daily practice for me. I'll keep this up in 2022. I don't need to make it a goal; it's just going to keep happening.
I saw almost all of my coworkers
In July, after 19 months of not having seen a coworker in person, my friend Jon Allured and I arranged to hang out in the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin for a day, as the only two members of the Artsy Flyover office. We ate food, drank beers, and saw art together.
In September, my wife found out she'd be doing a race in Spain! She'd qualified for it in 2019, but it finally happened in 2021. We had a very short time to plan a trip to Europe — my first visit there!
It was amazing. We spent about a week in Spain:
Buenas noches desde España 👋 pic.twitter.com/es16UstICv— Steven Hicks (@pepopowitz) October 28, 2021
And after Spain, I bounced over to Berlin, to work from the Artsy office for about a week!
The trip was amazing. I put my hand on every old building, having never touched anything like it before. And getting to see coworkers was surreal. My friends Sarah, Matt, Christian, and Kaja were amazing hosts.
Things got more surreal when I got stuck in London on the way home, and my friend and coworker Pavlos commuted across the city of London to hang out with me for two hours. Who does that??? One of the best human beings on the planet, that's who.
While in Europe, I found out I would be heading to New York in December for an Artsy holiday party, too! I'd seen literally one coworker in the span of 23 months; suddenly I'd see almost all of them, from the US and Europe, in one month. I met so many people in person finally, and almost all of them were as tall as I expected them to be.
I burned out again. And again.
Which brings me back to the beginning. I thought this was going to be a really rough recap of the year. It's not! As far as 2021s go, mine was pretty solid, and I don't have a lot to complain about.
So why do I feel like this? Why am I so down on the last year? I mean yeah, it was a global pandemic still, but there's more to it.
2020 was an epic crash-and-burn-and-rise-like-the-phoenix type of year — for a lot of us. 2021 for me was more like watching a kid play a racing game in the arcade — bumping up against burnout on the sides, steering themselves off the edge just long enough to get a bit of momentum, steering back into the burnout again. Momentum...burnout. Momentum...burnout. Momentum...burnout. There was no moment in 2021 that felt as drastically bad or severe as in 2020...the lows, while more muted, felt more frequent.
And I'm catching myself at one of those lows right now. I had figured out in my head where I was going with my career...now I'm suddenly less certain. It's winter in Wisconsin...I'm low on Vitamin D. I had to put away the work I was enjoying...I'm just now getting back to it. I had planned to speak at multiple events this January...but I found I (a) didn't feel safe, and (b) didn't really want to. Many things have contributed to my feeling down — but I have a bright hope that it's just the bad part of the cycle right now.
And to be perfectly honest, it's been getting better now for a week or two. I advocated to do more of the deep technical work I'd been finding interesting; I've been feeling really connected to my family and my closest teammates; and most importantly...
I'm learning how important it is to protect my down time
I kind of buried the lede, I think, but this is really it for me. There's this culture of Hustle ™️ in tech. If you want to advance your career, you have to Hustle. Blog, speak, build courses, contribute to free-as-in-your-soul Open Source, build a side project. You can advance your career without doing these things, but at a snail's pace. I've been pursuing The Hustle ™️ too, and now...I'm tired of it. More than tired, actually — I'd say it gives me anxiety now to think about how I could/should be Hustling. That's not a very fun place to be.
You know what is fun for me? Riding my bike. Running. Ugh, even swimming. And good grief, even lifting weights, somehow!!
And painting. And drawing. And spending time with my wife and kids.
And sometimes still writing. And recording my How Devs Work podcast project.
That's where I'm happiest right now, and that's where I'm going to focus. My therapist has helped me recognize this year that my body basically runs on shame and guilt — always doing the things I think I should be doing, that I think someone else is expecting me to do. That's exhausting, and honestly, it's not very much fun.
So that's my goal for this year. I want to stay focused on the things I enjoy. Maybe those things will contribute to my career...maybe they won't. But it will certainly contribute to my happiness. And the second something becomes not fun for me, I'm kicking it to the curb.