I would rank 2013 as probably one of the worst years of my 44 trips around the sun.
First, I got laid off as my job as a web designer from the Follett Higher Education Group. They are the largest operator of college and university bookstores in North America, with some 1400 locations.
A confluence of events like gross mismanagement, being very slow to adjust to a new digital world of e-Readers and textbook rental, an outdated website lacking in-demand features, rising competitors like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Chegg, and a lag from the Great Recession led to mass layoffs, and I was a part of it. While the job was full of headaches and no clear career path or upward mobility, I loved the team I worked on and made some lifelong friends after 7 years of service.
A few months later, I was hired as a web designer at the Illinois College of Optometry, which was the worst work experience I had ever had in my life. I enjoyed working fast food for 4 years at Fuddruckers during high school and college better than that place.
The pay and benefits were great, it was my manager and one coworker that made for a horrible experience.
It started off great, I did really well in my interview, and I got hired. Then it went downhill very quickly.
The previous designer had left, and they wanted a major redesign of their website, and that was my primary job.
He was what we call a “design unicorn”, a rare beast who is good at everything; he could design, AND do the front and backend programming, including knowledge of Drupal and WordPress. They were very huge shoes to fill
I certainly knew graphic design, and I could do HTML and CSS coding… but that’s where it ended.
I didn’t lie on my resume or in the interview. They knew exactly what they were getting.
In the interview, they asked me how quickly could I learn WordPress since they were moving the website over from Drupal a Content Management System (CMS) to WordPress, another CMS.
I had plenty of friends who were using it as their blog, they said it was easy, and I said, sure, I could learn it. I’m pretty tech-savvy, and most of my HTML and CSS knowledge was self-taught.
I had no idea that they wanted me to get under the hood and start messing with the code like PHP and the database. I was way out of my league.
Up for the challenge, I rolled up my sleeves, got on to what was then Lynda.com (now Linked in Learning) and did a crash course on both Drupal and WordPress.
The previous designer left close to no documentation on how to do pick up where he left off. Many designers and IT folks have their own method to their madness. I’ll describe it as the junk drawer in someone’s kitchen, you know exactly where everything is in it, but when a stranger goes in there to look for something, they have no idea. That’s how I felt.
At the time, I was also enrolled in the master’s program at DePaul University in Human Computer Interaction, which sounds like you are trying to talk to C-3P0, but it’s actually User Interface and Experience design. I was eager to start trying out all the new things I was learning in class like competitive analysis, user research, user interviews, card sorting for information architecture, wireframing, user testing.
It was clear my manager Jenni didn’t know much about the design process, or design thinking, and she did not like anything I was trying to do. I think I scared and overloaded her with all these new ways of doing things that the previous designer never did. She wanted me to skip steps like going straight from wireframes to producing the website, without doing any high fidelity mock-ups. She told me I was doing TOO MUCH research.. Which she actually later apologized for.
She was also frustrated about my lack of back-end programming knowledge. When I told her I could learn WordPress, she clearly thought I meant the back-end. I couldn’t do it, so I suggested we hire a contractor I worked with at Follett who was excellent at it.
I also had to find a new cloud server to host the website, since it was a huge website that was on Dreamhost, they couldn’t really handle the capacity or did they offer robust customer service.
I was also clashing with the content manager/copywriter Erin. I was obviously stepping on her toes when I started suggesting content strategy and doing the card sorting exercise to determine the information architecture/taxonomy/navigation for the website. She thought since she worked there for a few years and did all the content on the website, she knew exactly what the information architecture should be.
The icing on the cake was they wanted me to be the overall project manager. It’s extremely rare to be a project manager AND being an active member of the team making the project at the same time. When I told Jenni I had too much on my plate, she put Erin in charge of the project.
I’m not going to lie, I was very resentful that Erin was now pretty much my boss, and I hated working with her.
When I told them how long it was going to take since I was the only person doing all the work, which would probably after the New Year, Jenni got upset again. She wanted it in December. We actually had arguments where we were raising our voices, something I had rarely done in a workplace.
I started looking for other jobs, and I got an interview and flew down to Atlanta to interview for IBM interactive, all in secret.
I have a suspicion they found out, because the next week I was called into the office, and they told me I was fired.
I was devastated. I had never been fired in my life. And after being laid off in the Spring from Follett and getting fired the week of Thanksgiving, my self-esteem was crushed.
I thought I was a bad designer. I thought the world was conspiring against me. I thought I was a failure who couldn’t keep a job. I thought I was the in the wrong. I thought “maybe I am difficult to work with”. I started questioning every thought and every decision I ever made as a designer.
I stewed in anger for months. I had written several draft emails to Jenni and and and and and and thought about sending it to Jenni’s boss, but I ended up deleting them. I thought they would never hear me out. And what were they going to do, hire me back to work in that toxic environment?
More bad events followed..my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, I had to move home because I was running out of money, and I had to help my dad out with taking care of my mom, and I stopped working.
Then I had to drop out of the masters program because of my lack of money, and they had a mandatory stats class that I was failing. You needed a B to pass to earn your degree.
Fast-forward to 2020 and it’s coronavirus pandemic times. I was working at a school bus company (a part-time job with no benefits that I hated), and I knew I needed to make a change since I was furloughed, bored, and I was missing being a designer, solving problems and being a critical thinker, so I enrolled in Bloc’s tech boot camp to learn UI/UX design.
I also phoned up an old friend and colleague Andrea that I had worked with at a 14-month contract job after the optometry school. She’s also a life coach.
She asked me what was holding me back in life, and I told her my whole sad story, and how about my layoff and then the firing pretty much wrecked me.
She told me “Fred, you are just going to have to let that go. That’s in the past, and that chapter of your life is over and it’s time to start a new one”
I rejected what Andrea had said to me. But then as the days went on, everything she said was right. I was letting my past define who I was, and it was preventing from moving forward.
Bad things happen to everyone. Who I was in 2013 is not who I am in 2020.
I have lived, I have grown, I have gone through a lot..including losing my mother to a massive stroke in 2016.
Was getting fired a failure..maybe, but why can’t you learn from your failures and mistakes? Who is perfect in life? Who gets everything right on the first try? Almost no one.
Think of artists, designers, architects, songwriters, even scientists. They make hypotheses, they test the hypothesis, sometimes their hypothesis is wrong when they have to revise it. So they learn from what didn’t go right, and they go back, revise the hypothesis and test again. Then they do it over and over and over till they do it right.
Don’t be me. Don’t be a prisoner of your past. Everyone makes mistakes, and plenty of people get fired for so many reasons. It’s totally ok to look back and see where things went wrong, but you can’t move forward to fix anything or take corrective action if you stay stuck on what went wrong. Use that energy to learn from your mistakes and focus on how you can be a better you in the future.
ABOUT JEFF ALTMAN, THE BIG GAME HUNTER
Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a career and leadership coach who worked as a recruiter for more than 40 years. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 1500 episodes and his newest show, “No BS Coaching Advice.” He is a member of The Forbes Coaches Council. “No BS JobSearch Advice Radio” was recently named a Top 10 podcast for job search. JobSearchTV.com was also recently named a Top 10 YouTube channel for job search.
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