Departure from Ada

Saturday June 27th will be my last day at Ada Developers Academy.

If I had my druthers it would not be, and the same is true of Ada leadership. So why am I leaving?

The short version is, the position I came back to after traveling was a temporary role to experiment with some new course formats. Run the pilots, look at the results in June, decide whether or not to move forward. But Ada has a lot going on right now! A global pandemic has forced our entire program online, the accompanying recession has made it difficult to secure revenue for new projects, there’s a couple of big and sorely needed internal projects in flight. As a result, the board and executive leadership are tapping the breaks on anything that’s not the core classroom, regardless of whether the pilots were successful. Frankly, I can’t say I blame them.

It does put me in something of a crummy situation though.

I’ve formatted the long version as a Q+A – that’s just how it popped out. Hopefully it gives you just the right amount of context.

What have you been working on at Ada since you got back from your travels?

When I left last August, I had finally (finally!!!) brought the instructional team to full headcount. That was the first time this had happened since 2017, and I count it among my greatest accomplishments. Hiring teachers is hard!

But a full roster meant there was no hole for me to fill when I returned. So before I left on my travels, I sat down with the ED and did some brainstorming. That’s where the idea of piloting pre-application workshops for URM candidates and a continuing ed program for alums came from – both are programs Ada has had its eye on for several years, but never had the resources to pursue. I drafted a project plan, handed it off to the new DoE, and caught a flight to Tokyo. Those two pilot programs are what I’ve been working on since February.

This was always intended as a temporary role – we would run the experiment, evaluate the results, and determine whether to throw more money at it. My hope was that it would turn into something permanent, but I knew and accepted the risk before I left.

Were the pilots successful?

We don’t have full results yet – final decisions on admissions don’t go out until next week, and the data structures course I’ve been running for alums is still in progress (last class is on Saturday).

That said, the preliminary results look promising. The pre-application workshops appear to have made a positive impact, and feedback on the alum course has generally been quite positive.

So what happened? Why are you leaving?

Two reasons: funding and timing.

The initial funding model for the cont ed course was to charge tuition. Unfortunately Ada is not accredited, which means that charging tuition for a course is not, strictly speaking, legal. The process of becoming accredited is exceptionally time-intensive and expensive – Ada would basically have to hire someone full-time just to manage the paperwork. Thank goodness we hired a real Director of Education to figure all this out, instead of trying it and getting shut down by the state.

The typical workaround is to partner with a local college and piggyback off their accreditation – this is what organizations like Year Up do. But we don’t have such a relationship yet, and building one would take time and administrative attention, both of which are in short supply.

If this was a normal year, it’s possible Ada would have been able to fund the program anyway as a service to the community. We had been talking to a few corporate sponsors about picking up the tab. Unfortunately, this year has has been anything but normal, and asking companies for new big donations in the middle of the biggest recession in modern history is a non-starter.

Of course, a global recession is not the only problem we face. This year has felt like one crisis after another, and Ada’s funding and administrative attention has been stretched thin. Plus we’ve got some fairly big projects in the works already. Events that are more important than a continuing ed pilot include:

  • COVID-19 has meant we’ve had to figure out how to pull the whole classroom experience online. Plus working from home sucks, especially if you have kids who aren’t in school.
  • The murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests of the past few weeks have made social justice and D&I training feel like a more important / timely / on-brand investment than technical curriculum
  • One of our directors was out all spring, so the Director of Education was managing two teams
  • Ada is moving to a new space this summer
  • Ada is finally spinning out from our nonprofit incubator TSNE over the next year, a much-needed but expensive and time-consuming change

In short, the timing is plain awful.

I do intend to stay connected to Ada. Things didn’t go my way this time, but that’s the thing about working for a non-profit (and being an ally in general): it’s not about you. I do believe that leadership has made the right call for the org and the community, and ultimately that’s what matters.

Besides, Ada has treated me pretty well through it all. The new DoE was up-front from week one that the story was not as rosy as we had hoped, and as early as April I was fairly certain that I would be looking for work come summer. There’s been plenty of runway to figure something out, and plenty of time to process what’s going on.

I’ll be volunteering as a tutor starting with the next cohort in September, and will keep an eye out for other opportunities to contribute.

Are you worried about landing on the job market in the middle of a recession?

Worried yes, but not freaking out. I’ve got some contract work lined up for the summer, and my skills are high-value enough that I’m not worried about finding something more permanent for the fall. I have a strong network, including a legion of former students who I would love to work with. If the search takes a while, I have enough savings to coast for a good chunk of time. I am, frankly, a whole lot better off than many people who have been impacted by COVID-19, and for that I am grateful.

How are you holding up emotionally?

Something I’ve been working on for the past few years, with mixed success, is a better sense of equanimity. I can get pretty invested in things, and stepping back and letting what happens happen is really hard.

There’s certainly been negative emotions to feel this spring. There’s the fear of landing on the job market in the middle of a recession, the hurt of being let down by the organization I’ve worked so hard for, the deep angst of pouring my heart and soul into something and having it fail for reasons entirely beyond my control.

I feel like Dan from 2015 or even mid-2019 would have channeled all those negative emotions, the fear and the hurt and the angst, into anger. Probably of the self-righteous variety. It’s just such an easy emotion! Burning bridges is so cathartic! And there are still occasional days when I feel like that, where all I can do to avoid saying something I’ll regret is turn off my computer, lace up my running shoes and take it out on the pavement. But I think I’ve done a much better job of sitting with the disappointment and not feeling the need to turn it into something else. And of not hollering at my boss for something she can’t control.

I also think that having a long break right before all this and coming into it with a delightfully low stress level has been key. If I had been dropped into this scenario with the mind space I had in August 2019, I can’t imagine it would have gone well.

You talked about work this summer – care to elaborate?

Yeah! I’ve got a gig teaching CS 121 (Intro to Programming) for the summer quarter up at Shoreline Community College. The head of the CS program there used to manage the instructional team at Ada, and is in fact the person who hired me and promoted me to lead instructor. They were short an instructor, I knew it would be wise to pick up some hours either way… perfect match.

The pay isn’t great, but it will cover my expenses for the summer and give me a bit of runway to look for something more lucrative. Plus I like teaching – I did it for free before I came to Ada, so on some level them covering my rent is gravy. Just… don’t tell SCC that.

So what’s next? More teaching? Back to engineering? Something else?

The quarter goes through the middle of August, then I’m hiking the Wonderland Trail the first two weeks of September, so mid-September is my target for finding a “real job”.

While I’ve enjoyed teaching at Ada tremendously, I think I’ll probably be heading back to industry, at least for a while. Here’s why:

  • I’m excited to dust off my engineering skills and work on some hard technical problems
  • I’ve learned a ton about full-stack web development while teaching at Ada, and am ready to put it into practice
  • I’ve learned a lot about leadership and what it means to be impactful within an organization, and I want to see how it applies in an engineering setting
  • I am unlikely to find a teaching gig that pays nearly as well as Ada did, which means I’ll make 2-3x as much in industry as I would as a teacher
  • Working as a teacher has never felt sustainable – I have a tendency to take on too much and the deadlines and consequences for failure feel incredibly real. That for me has been a recipe for burnout. I suspect I will have a much healthier work-life balance in industry.
  • It’s much easier to engineer full- or almost-full-time and moonlight as a teacher than the other way around

My ideal role would be as senior engineer at a small, diverse, financially stable company based in Seattle building a product that makes the world a better place with incentive alignments that encourage it not to be evil. I am open to compromise on most of those points. If your team is hiring and it sounds like we would be a good match, drop me a line at the contact link above!

Any regrets about taking all that time off to travel or taking a big risk with your career?

Not one.

2 thoughts on “Departure from Ada

  1. kaimanacat

    Dan!!!! I’m so sad you left Ada 😦 You were a great instructor and a big part of why I’m so successful as an Engineer. When you’re ready to get back into industry and if you’re interested in Highspot as a possibility let me know and I’ll throw recruiting at you. Currently I think dev ops has an opening but things are always shifting and changing and I bet more roles possibly opening next qtr. Any company would be lucky to have you .


  2. Pingback: Wonderland Preparations – Dan Roberts

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