In the waning hours of HighEdWeb 2010, I slumped into a seat in the hotel bar, trying to remember the license plate of the freight truck of adoration that had hit me. Here I was with the top prize for a talk that just 72 hours seemed heading for disaster. I was just numb. I was just biding my time until it was time to fly home.
At some point Lori Packer* wandered by. Lori was the track chair and had selected my proposal which had become this talk which had become a red stapler and a Best Of Conference trophy. We got to talking about what it all meant. Somewhere in there, I said that I’d been unhappy at work for quite a while, that I was starting to ask whether I should stay in higher ed. Lori retorted that there were many good things about being in higher ed.
I responded, “I love higher ed. And I love the web. But I don’t like my job.”
And, at that moment, I realized what I’d just said was Truth. Not “true,” because it was, but Truth, as in a revelation of honesty.
The University of Washington has been good to me the last 9 1/2 years. And yet, I’ve been unhappy. I couldn’t move up. I was top of the food chain in my unit, and because my unit valued the web, I was paid well compared to other web people on campus. And yet, I’m top of the food chain. There’s no rung on the ladder above the one I’m on.
When I did interview for other web positions on campus, I was either passed over for cheaper alternatives, or I was given offers at a massive pay cut (and still a full-time job). And all these moves would have been lateral. We have an excellent person running the web for the university right now, but she’s probably going to die in the saddle, so moving into that role is out of the question.
As well, I have a problem with political capital. I have a lot of it. Heaps of it. But it’s like the sickles and galleons of Harry Potter — meaningful in the wizarding world but utterly worthless in this world. I can’t spend the capital; I lack the power to transform it into the changes I’ve desired.
At one point last year I told my boss that for all the good things everyone thinks I’ve done, I feel like I’ve dragged the school 50 feet in 9 years, and everyone else is 500 or 5000 feet further along. I’ve been long promised that change would come, this will be the year that Everything Will Change, but the change never comes, thanks to the resistance to change that is endemic to this entire university.
It is time to go. I’m leaving higher ed.
Starting January 31, I will be moving to a technology business management startup called Apptio. They need someone who can help their brilliant Java programmers make their web applications look and feel brilliant. And I will get my first raise of any sort in 5 years.
I would love to stay in higher ed, but I’m doubly a victim of geography — I love Seattle, and Seattle is very, very lacking in institutions of higher education. If I were in the Northeast, I could just latch on to another college down the street, but in Seattle you don’t have a lot of choices. As for uprooting and going somewhere else, I just bought a house in 2010, and I’ve got a daughter in school she loves and a wife who finally has a job she doesn’t hate. On the other side, the metro Seattle high tech community right now is stronger than it’s ever been. Between this and the draconian cuts coming to UW, this is a great time to leave.
But I won’t be completely free of the higher ed community and UW just yet. I’m still teaching web development in the spring, and I’m still planning on defending my Best Of Conference title at HighEdWeb 2011. I’m not going to be scarce with the higher ed web community; I’m in a new role, but I’ll always be a fellow traveler.
I stood on stage in October talking about why why higher ed is the best gig in the Web. And I still believe that it’s true, and I’m sorry I can’t continue in higher ed. There are some great people doing incredible work at schools and colleges all over the country. And they’re doing it despite many things — money, time, an organization that values them at the level they should. Higher ed web people achieve more with duct tape and bailing wire than for-profit web people achieve with actual funding.
But in that litany of mine that’s been echoed around the web since I said it that Tuesday morning in Cincinnati, I left out one thing. Love higher ed. Love the web. Love people. And love yourself, too. Do work that makes you happy and pays you what you’re worth (not necessarily with money). If you feel that way in a higher ed job, then you’re awesome, and I really hope you’re making the world a better place every day. But if you’re miserable in your job right now, then find something else. You deserve better than long hours, low pay, and zero respect. If they don’t love you, find someone who will.
I realized that in a small way my job was like an abusive relationship — I should get out, but this life was all I’ve known. The Truth was that I did deserve better, and my loyalties should lie with my God, my family, and myself, not with a job.
And given I spent a quarter of my life at UW and a third of my life in higher ed when you count my years at Colorado, I doubt I’ll ever be free of it. No one ever really leaves the University of Washington; they just take sabbaticals at for-profit companies.
* – Do not hold Lori responsible for any of this. She just happened to be there at the right time. If she comes out for the M’s-Phils series this summer, I’ll buy the game tickets.