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Flipping the switch
Realising that it's on you now
Remember when you first moved out of your parent’s place and realised — truly realised — that you live alone now?
I remember. It wasn’t immediately after moving out. The realisation lagged behind reality. You know, like the shadow of a cartoon character hit by a cannon ball: it stretches, and stretches, and streches and then — snap! — it hits you. I live alone now.
It wasn’t in a moment of solitude either. I wasn’t lying in bed staring at the ceiling. No, I stood in front of the fridge, putting back the carton of milk I had just used, with only the tiniest bit of milk left in it. “Well, there’s still something in it, so…” I thought to myself to justify not putting a new carton in before — snap — it hit me. Wait, I’m the next guy, the one who will take out the carton of milk and within a split-second notice that it’s far too light and get pissed off at the previous milk drinker for not putting a new carton in the fridge.
Same thing happened with the dishwasher, after pulling clean dishes out one by one instead of unloading the whole thing. Snap. Or after taking the trash out that was filled to the brim while inexplicably hoping that someone else is going to take it out. Snap.
As a software engineer I’ve had a few of these moments: no, no one else is going to fix this bug properly. There is no other person that’s going to clean up the tech debt you just introduced. No secret team plans to write tests that you don’t think you can add now. No, it’s on you. If you don’t do it, it won’t get done.
It doesn’t hit you when you jump from project to project, or when you only work on greenfield projects. It hits you when you work on something for years and own it, truly own it, with no one else responsible for it.
It’s a harsh lesson, but I found it so valuable to my own work that in the past few years I encouraged others — colleagues and friends — to embrace this perspective. I call it “flipping the switch”, going from “someone’s surely watching and keeping an eye on this” to “I own this now and have to take care of this”.
Flipping the switch has a paradoxical effect. The responsibility hits you in a way that makes you want to sit down, but then, slowly and quietly, something else starts to grow. A sense of ownership. What I built, what I fixed, what I debugged, what I wrestled to the ground and then got to work — I did that and no one else.
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