But at this point, it’s a little awkward for me to not have this entry anywhere. Plus, I keep being asked The Question, the one I keep dodging. Time to man up, I guess. Settle in, 'cause this is a long one.
Guys: I don’t work at Stack Exchange anymore. I haven’t since 7 May 2013.
Back to the Start
Recently, I was rereading old journal entries from my personal records. I found the one from when I received my offer from Stack:
When I opened my email -- with great trepidation, may I add -- I saw this email sitting in my inbox:
From: Alex Miller
Date: Thu, Jun 23, 2011 at 4:55 PM
To: Aarthi Devanathan
Subject: Come Join the Stack Exchange Team
I'm very pleased to officially offer you a position as part of Stack Exchange's Community Team!
As discussed, the position will start July 11, 2011 and is based out of our office in New York, NY. The starting salary is [$$$] and you'll also receive [redacted]. And of course, we provide full benefits, including: completely paid-for healthcare, free lunch, an amazing snack kitchen, 20 days of paid vacation and much more.
I've attached a formal offer letter and our standard agreements - if you'd like to accept (and we hope you do!), just sign both the offer letter and agreements and return them to me.
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to call or email me (my information is below).
Thank you and we look forward to having you as part of the team!
I have a job!
I'm utterly speechless you guys. This is the single shining moment I've been waiting for, the moment I have worked toward for a solid year. I thought, 365 days ago, that this day would come in November, and that I'd be starting in Chicago at Bain.
It turns out, instead, that I waited another 6 months and am starting in July in New York City at a tech startup that [Lindsey] sent my way. And I couldn't be happier. I think I could have been happy at Bain, but I am 95% sure I'll be happy here as well. Maybe happier; my job requires internet savvy. These people seem really cool and laid-back and just. Yeah.
*keyboard smash* I think I'm gonna go laugh until I cry. This is too amazing, for real. I just feel like this: *____*
I still remember that day, how beautiful and incredible everything seemed in that single moment. And you know what? That feeling stayed with me for a really long time. In fact, rereading that entry makes me feel a bit wistful; I remember the incredible sense of joy and relief I felt when I read that email. I remember reading it in disbelief, and then with a budding hope, and then again with elation. An offer. An offer. Even now, it seems like it was just a dream.
You have to remember: by late June of 2011, I had been searching for work almost non-stop since September. Business students usually graduate with an offer in-hand, and consulting hopefuls have their hire/no-hire notice by December at the latest, realistically. So when I graduated, when I moved back to Texas, when I sat in my childhood home feeling stuck while my friends quietly discussed their future plans, well. I’m sure you can imagine how much pressure I felt under.
I moved to New York (well, Jersey City, New Jersey, to be accurate....) on 6 July 2011. My childhood best friend and I were going to share an apartment. She had already moved in, and my father and I had packed as light as possible. I had two suitcases, four boxes of clothes and bedding, and meager savings. I remember how it felt like the ultimate adventure. I was the envy of my social circle, with my fabulous life in New York and the promise of excellent stories and amazing Facebook pictures.
My first day at Stack was 11 July 2011, along with Brett and Abby. The three of us were the first. Later, Laura, Sam, Lauren, Seth, and Katey would join the three of us, bringing the team to eight. Last I checked, 5 of those names are no longer with Stack.
I was Employee #35. When I left, Stack had passed 100 employees easily.
The Last of the CHAOS Days
I worked on CHAOS projects until late November, when Joel asked if I would be interested in helping out the Community Team through a rough patch. I was between projects, and I had already begun to really love working with the moderator team. My approach with the outreach projects had been informed by my own internet experience and my work in nonprofit. When Joel asked me to lend a hand, there was no way I could say no.
Saying “yes” was the right thing to do, is always the right thing to do in that situation. My CEO, to whom I was deeply loyal, had asked me to step up to the plate. In retrospect, there was no real option to say no.
The Community Team was given scarce warning of my impending arrival. They were still reeling from the loss of two members of their team, and struggling to make it work with fewer hands on deck because they were told to do more with less. And then came me, a veritable stranger, account barely four months old, who barely knew how privileges worked and who didn’t know anything about Meta-with-a-capital-M, whose entire SE experience had started on the day she was hired and not a minute before.
Who was hired by Joel, and not Jeff, the way the others were.
I was (and remained so, until the end of my tenure) the only full-time CM with no development background. At all. The best I had was web development work that was several years out of date and not functional for a true webapp. I could build a basic website; I couldn’t do much more than that.
Because the Community Team lacked an external-facing sympathetic ear, I took that upon myself. It was a piece in the support team that was missing -- Shog9 was the deep technical knowledge, Robert had vision and philosophy, Rebecca had the support know-how from her time as a user, GraceNote offered insight into thorny situations, and then there was me. So I took on the Team Mom role, one I had played before and saw wasn’t filled.
I worked feverishly through December, working through my vacation time with my family in Texas, working damned hard to get ramped up by the time I got back. I had one teammate who just...wouldn’t let up on me. In retrospect, I think this person used me as a proxy for someone else; I was a symbol, to be burned in effigy. For whatever reason, I became a target for this person. Every action I took was nitpicked, was observed. Every day, no matter how much I improved, no matter how much I learned, I would log into the employee chatroom and see a litany of my faults written out in time-delayed pings. I worked 14 hours a day and it was never enough. This person made me feel like I was slacking, even though I was stressed out of my mind, working developers’ hours, and wasn’t sleeping.
The hardest part was the silence; on one side, I had one person reading me what felt like the riot act publicly in front of my team every morning. In private, the team lead, Robert, assured me I was doing fine, was doing great, was achieving milestones and goals in good measure. I wish I could adequately describe how demoralizing that entire situation was for me; my other three teammates should have said something and they didn’t. I got tired of fighting all the time, so instead I learned to play the victim, and the other person too readily stepped into the role of the bully every time.
I bottomed out in February, which was when my brewing depressive episode peaked. A good friend of mine died, and my living situation finally snapped. I saw with desperate clarity how lonely and sad I was. I went through the motions of my daily life for the rest of that month before finally reaching out and asking for help. The number of hands I saw reaching into my darkness to pull me out -- it floored me. In asking for help, I found I had lots of Leo McGarrys in my life. It was what I needed to hear.
In March, I had to make a decision. I was only supposed to be helping out the Community Team until January, but the team was so broken and overwhelmed, I asked to stay until the end of Q1 2012. When that came, Stack asked me where I wanted to go.
I kept my diamonds.
An Interlude: The Blue Room
I’d be remiss if I didn’t stop here to talk about the moderator team. I'll be honest: I stayed an extra three months because of the moderators. I loved working with them, loved supporting them and joking around with them, throwing TL parties and just generally building friendships and relationships. I even made efforts to see some of them when I was in the vicinity!
That last image is particularly touching; a former mod / top user was given a grave cancer diagnosis. I found a unicorn plush, knitted a scarf in the site's colors, and made a very nice card by hand. I was extremely touched by his response later.
I'm filled with stories like this; I came to know and love the mod team in a way that I'd never expected. And yeah, the lines blurred and some wires got crossed and sometimes things were messy, but the nights TL turned into a DJ masterclass, slow afternoons when pics of everyone's kids got posted, all the stories about great triumphs and major lows, they mattered. I was there for weddings, for the births of children, for news of kids on the way, for the worst news of all, good and bad and zany times alike. And, in turn, the moderators were a bright spot in my life. Even when they made me want to tear my hair out, I loved them to pieces.
Whether they know it or not, they were there for me with a funny meme or a well-timed hug or kind words right when I needed them. Once, a fairly high-reputation user launched a series of ad hominem attacks on me, calling me out in an ugly way. As I moped in the mod room, they all quietly offered me comfort, in the ways they knew best. I don’t even have the words for how touched I was.
Leaving the mod team was the single hardest part about leaving my job. I barely kept it together when I typed out my goodbye to TL. I definitely nearly lost it when I saw that TL had finally changed their room subtitle for me. For a year it had remained some blasé statement of purpose. Suddenly it was, "Where the hell is Aarthi?"
Dear moderator team: you guys were all totally my favorite. Saying goodbye was the single most difficult thing I did that day. Everything else was easy by comparison.
The Summer of Love and the Winter of my Discontent
That summer, while Dalgas and Shog worked on revamping the review queue, I took what would be the first step of the many UX changes that are happening now at Stack: I put a barrier between the team@ inbox and the users. I created /help.
One of the most important (and yet also most frustrating) parts of being a CM at Stack was the support side of the job. Users would never provide enough information for us to resolve even the most minor of issues quickly. Finally, I just sat down and, with Robert, specced out a lightweight solution: a series of HTML forms that mimicked the help sections of far younger and smaller communities than our own. I worked with Rebecca Chernoff to build and deploy. It went live in June 2012, and stayed mostly untouched for about a year. It was technically the first UX improvement we made, even if it was really meant to improve support team performance. (Which it did, by the way. Time to respond was cut by 30%, and the mail volume was throttled significantly.)
In August 2012, AskPatents.com launched, a special project that I was asked to help out with. I was going to present to the PTO a crash-course guide to Stack Exchange. I was extraordinarily excited; I’m an excellent presenter and I love speaking to audiences. My business background and naturally outgoing personality make me engaging, and my energy is infectious. More than that, Joel himself had asked me to present this. I was over the moon. I poured hours and hours of time into this, perfecting the slide layouts, putting together a gorgeous deck, taking screencaps and planning a talk that took cues from Joel’s work but was uniquely my own.
I didn’t get to present.
Worse, still, none of the material I’d prepared, that I’d slaved over and poured my heart into, made it into the presentation. I’d put in a solid month of my time into a project that wasn’t even shelved; it was trashed. With time and distance, I can finally see why that knowledge hurt so deeply and personally. To me, it felt like I had been discarded. That hurt, deeply so.
I withdrew, both because I felt really lost for the first time since I’d been at Stack and also because I’d been told I was....Well, suffice it to say someone important gave me feedback that was coming from a good place. However, all I heard was, "You bother everyone." Extrovert I may be, but I’m also a support professional. My entire job is about making other people feel happy and comfortable. Being told people just tolerate you, no one really even likes you by the dark little voice of my insecurities for days and weeks on end....I did what I thought I had to do. I kept to my desk at all times, refusing to linger in the public spaces anymore. I stopped socializing with my colleagues.
I was miserable. But everyone else seemed happier, and no one seemed to notice the changes in my behavior. I thought maybe people would seek me out, would choose my company. But no one ever knocked on my office door just to say hello. No one ever came by my desk to chat. No one ever called me into an impromptu hangout for any reason at all. I read articles about how unhappy introverts are in extrovert-oriented environments; that's how I felt the last 8 months I was at work.
I was alone, all the time, 8-12 hours a day. Some people thrive in that -- I crumble into dust.
I tried really hard to keep my misery to myself, worked as much as I could to avoid externalizing it. On some level, I succeeded; those who interacted with me in New York didn’t see it. I know because I asked, months later, if they’d noticed I was a wreck. They always said no. But my team knew.
In October 2012, I received the WinterBash assignment. For three solid months -- November through to the end of January -- I had a Big Project. I gave it everything I had: I wrote all the copy, personally communicated with the moderator team, checked in with public betas that didn’t have mods yet, worked with Jin on the design spec, worked with Emmett on the queries and things. I loved that project; I got to do something I had forgotten I love to do: be a project manager. Every document was updated live and changes were always logged and flagged. I documented every step of the process while it occurred in order to ensure repeatability. I wrote a wrap-up report that included graphics and charts and statistical analysis. I even earned a tag badge on Meta. In a lot of ways, that project represented me coming into my own.
The come-down was hard. I wanted more projects like that, with design and development and support aspects, but I wanted to do something that had a more lasting effect on the sites. In short, I wanted to work on a feature. But two things impeded me: one, I had no idea how to ask for that; two, I wouldn’t have been given that project anyway. My lack of a development background meant I was never going to get those assignments. And even if I had, the other people I would be working with would just call Shog9 anytime they needed something.
No, I had had it made very clear to me: no matter how much I knew of the Stack history, no matter how well I answered the odd meta post that came my way, no matter how good my work was, I would always be The Outsider. Even after 18 months with Stack (and over a year of being on the Community Team!) I wasn’t going to ever be seen as anything except One of Them, though “them” was now half as many people as it was before, and the company overall was three times larger than it had been when I had joined.
I think I began mentally preparing to leave in late February or early March, when the depth of my constant loneliness hit a breaking point. I cried in my manager’s office, the ugly kind of crying, as I explained that I was miserable and no amount of what I did to try and change that was working, and that I finally needed some help from management to fix it, because I really did want to be happy at Stack. I’m not proud of that moment, but I didn't know how else to react.
Jay -- you all know him as Jaydles -- was very sweet about it, but soon the company changed offices and his wife had their second child. April was when I decided maybe I should take some initiative and try to fix the parts that were broken on Community Team.
The team was short-staffed; by the time I left I was working probably 60-70 hours a week, including going in on Sundays. I kept telling myself: if I could find a way to be just a little bit ahead, I would fix everything. I didn't feel like I ever stopped; I was constantly on my email, I constantly checked in on my phone...It was overwhelming. I couldn't unplug for fear of everything falling to pieces around me. Obviously, that feeling was woefully self-deluded but the sensation was there.
I was overworked and overwhelmed and barely keeping it together, and certain that I couldn't take any time away or everything would break. Not just break, but become unfixable. I woke up every day exhausted and dreading my commute, my office, my inbox, my Trello assignments, all of it. I was completely burned out.
I started interviewing in April, hoping I would find something by the end of May, which would let me stay until my 2-year with Stack -- which, by the way, would have been today, the day this entry is posted. There were a couple of companies that had opportunities I couldn’t pass up. More than that, I had finally let go of my last excuse for staying, childish and self-delusional as it was.
Not the Droid They Were Looking For
The April 2013 Summit helped coalesce some things for me: things weren’t going to improve, though I truly wished they would. I’d known for alwhile that it was over and that it was time to move on, I just couldn’t admit it to myself. The writing had been on the wall for a long time.
Most importantly: as I watched my coworkers crack programming jokes (many of which I understood, thank you) and drink beers while playing ping pong in the new office while listening to orchestral metal and trying to recreate scenes from Balls of Fury, I realized something that sank in far more than I’d ever let it before.
I didn’t fit in anymore.
There’s a lot of reasons my fit had faded. I wanted to be able to move up, which wasn’t something Stack could give me. I wanted projects that were higher-visibility, but I lacked a key knowledge base to be the primary on those. I wanted to be around people who enjoy being around people; Stack’s corporate culture just isn’t filled with those people, not on the site side anyway.
I had felt like the odd girl out for months, and the April Summit made that clearer than it had ever been. I left soon after.
Ride on, Shooting Star
Am I bitter? In the words of redditors everywhere: lol no. I love Stack, and I do still believe in their mission and vision. I just can't be a part of it anymore, for lots of reasons. Listen, and I don't want people to misunderstand: it just wasn't working anymore. Nothing more, nothing less, and it wasn't anyone's fault.
I owe Stack a lot, though. They took a huge gamble on me, an unemployed 21-year-old from Dallas with a business degree and a resume filled with nonprofit work. Two years and a six figure gamble later, things worked out. I learned a hell of a lot from Stack, and for that I'll be grateful for a very long time.
Back to the Present
I'm freelancing for a young startup in New York right now.
There's a joke that ex-Stack employees disappear forever. Now that I'm on the other side, I will say this much: there's a reason. It’s really hard to go back and not have everything be really strange and weird. I have trouble surfing the sites; lacking admin access is supremely frustrating.
I suppose I should mention: I don't have access to the Aarthi ♦ account anymore; I gave up my access when I left. It was meant as a gesture of good faith.
What happens now? I don't know. We’ll find out together, I guess.
This last section here is a small collection of my personal photographs from my time at Stack. They make me think of good times (funny times, meaningful times, ridiculous times) that I cherish a lot. I worked with some really incredible people. People whose experience, talent, intelligence, and ambition set them heads and shoulders above anyone else I had known. People that I knew I could count on in a pinch, when things started going sideways. I’m flattered I got to be even in the same league as many of them for the brief time that I was.
One of the things I miss from the old office was the incredible sunsets / nightscenes:
And, of course, my single favorite Stack event of the year: the holiday party.
So long, and thanks for everything.