Chapters can be difficult to end.
Have you ever read a book that had you hanging on the edge, wishing the riveting story would continue to unfold, but knowing the reality that it would come to an end? It’s bittersweet.
Sometimes, we want a particular chapter to keep going. We get engrossed in the story and forget that stories need breaks. We become so enthralled with what’s happening that we forget to actually consider where the story is going.
It happens in books all the time, and it happens in life too.
For the last 10 years of my life, I have spent countless hours learning how to become a better developer. What started as a way to make extra money for an engagement ring turned into the ride of a lifetime. I never dreamed I would one day go from building websites one at a time to building software that powers millions of websites at the same time.
It’s been an astounding transformation that I am deeply grateful for and humbled to be a part of. Jesus has been especially gracious and kind.
But after much reflection on where I’ve been and where I believe things are going, it’s time to write the conclusion of the chapter called Thomas the Developer.
These are difficult words to write. Even more difficult to say. It is never easy to look at yourself in the mirror and realize you no longer hold the identity that defined you for much of your life.
Funny thing – it didn’t happen overnight. There was no particular moment in time that I can point to and say “Aha! That’s it!”
It was a gradual change out of necessity. Awesome Motive is a special company, filled with extraordinarily smart and talented people. When Syed and I merged together back in 2014, there were a handful of us – maybe 5? 6? 7 people at most? Today, I’ve lost count.
When you have just a handful of good people, you tend to wear many hats. I was developer of all 3 of our products at the time, the primary support agent, and wrote much of the documentation for the products. To my chagrin, I even did some videos as well!
And I liked developing. It was a fun challenge to work on complex problems and find simple solutions to them. I also liked presenting about those things, sharing my knowledge with others so they could learn not to make the same mistakes I had made.
But as our company grew, my role began to change. Thomas the Developer was no longer as useful of a service to the products I had built or advised. We hired people much smarter and more talented than me, which was both exciting and terrifying at the same time.
About a year ago, we met up for an executive retreat to discuss how we needed to evolve as a company so that we could continue to grow and mature. We were not giving enough attention to areas ripe with potential, because the type of attention needed was that of a dedicated kind.
And so at the end of the retreat, we had renewed afresh our company’s mission, vision and values, and I found myself the GM/President/CEO of a particular product division, OptinMonster. We settled on President.
In my pride, I would love to write here today and tell you that I crushed it from day one. The reality was it nearly crushed me.
The first 6 months of that position were the most difficult I have ever faced in my working career. We were embarking on OptinMonster 5.0, a brand new campaign builder experience. Admittedly, the project was not on track, and I found myself caught between developing for this project and feeling the pressure to lead the rest of the team too.
I failed often, and sometimes spectacularly. My communication was not good, and I even tried to compensate my insecurity by trying to do other people’s jobs to make myself feel better.
(Pro tip: it never works. Just admit you don’t know everything and humbly ask for help.)
I couldn’t sleep well at night because I was too busy trying to know what I didn’t know. And when we launched 5.0 with a business model change, we weren’t fully prepared.
I had people question my leadership. I unintentionally made people cry. I had to have tough conversations and make the difficult decision to let good people go.
“What does it even look like to lead well in this position?”, I thought to myself many times over.
I scrambled to figure out what to do. For the first time in my work life, I was having a real identity crisis. I was no longer Thomas the Developer, since I did not write any significant code to 5.0, but I certainly was not Thomas the Leader, as I did not even know what a true leader looked like.
But be it ever so dim, there was a shimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and it came in the most unexpected place at the most unexpected moment.
I don’t remember the specific day. It was sometime early in Q4 of 2018. We had settled on a pricing strategy and value proposition for OptinMonster, and all of the big issues from the 5.0 launch had been tackled.
As with any other day, conversations were fast and furious in our company Slack. I was catching up on conversations between meetings, and something caught my attention.
A product update was in the works, and someone had asked for some feedback on a particular piece of the update. While the update in general was well received, this particular piece garnered a lot of discussion.
The discussion happened to be around a specific core value we had set at that executive retreat earlier in the year. It was a healthy debate, but one response was especially interesting. It was to the effect: “…It just doesn’t match up to our values. It’s not who we are…”
And in that moment, the shimmer of light became visible to me. It was in that moment that I knew we were doing something right. I knew that although I had made many errors, we had turned a corner as a team.
The team was thinking in terms of who we are and what we value, and that created a tiny spark. I knew at that very moment that all I needed to do was find some fuel and ignite the spark into a flame.
What was the fuel, you may ask?
Leadership is a funny thing. It takes you to the highest of highs and leaves you in the lowest of lows. You set vision, you communicate it, you work hard to align people around it.
But at the end of the day, sometimes the fuel is you getting out of the way.
I couldn’t be more proud of the OptinMonster team specifically, and Awesome Motive generally, than I am today. I am honored and humbled to be a partner in it all.
WPForms is an exceptional product. Jared and the team are as passionate about forms as I’ve ever seen. OptinMonster has released amazing feature after feature with incredible consistency. MonsterInsights has built a reliable hybrid system to deliver extremely valuable insights at scale. Our PR and content teams are second to none, and our customer support teams are world class.
Overall, our company has consistently released a mind-blowing amount of exceptional work, even more so when you consider our size relative to the popularity of the products.
I’ve made 3 code commits to OptinMonster in 2019. One to change out a coupon code, one to forward a webhook to another URL and one to change some wording. Hardly the travails of what I would consider to be indicative of Thomas the Developer.
So today, I am acknowledging that the chapter of Thomas the Developer is coming to a close. I am still alive and well, and while my ultimate identity is tied to Christ – who never changes – my work identity is now different.
I would like to say it is now Thomas the Leader, but I believe the journey to that destination has scarcely begun.
For now, I’ll go with Thomas the Learner, Thomas the Listener, Thomas the Grateful, Thomas the Stubbornly Persistent, or some mix of it all.