My team at TTM was awesome, but due to acquisitions and reasons we are disbanding/disbanded. By October I’ll be out of a job, but will always be grateful for our team.
In the Beginning
Sometimes you find a job where everything feels right. For me, that has been the last four and a half years at Think Through Math.
In the talks I’ve given, and to the people I’ve spoken with, I’ve always sung praises of my team and my job. Every day I’d go to work with a sense of purpose, knowing our product was making a tangible and measurable difference with students across the country. The individuals that made up the TTM Product Team are the most brilliant I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Most importantly our skills were better together.
But time waits for no man.
Think Through Math is now known by a different name under a different company. Skipping all details, we got acquired in fall 2016, had most of our employees let go, and those of us who were retained will be let go in October.
Sadly, my tenure will never reach five years.
This is not an article to discuss what happened, or to be a “woe is me” story. Those of us who were retained were treated well and incentivized to stay so I cannot complain. This article is to celebrate and share some of the traits that made our former team so incredible together. Purpose
One key principle of our team was that we were a group of teachers; we taught in classrooms, created articles or screencasts, tutored, or mentored. Our product is an augmentative tool for teaching math to students, so this kept us aligned with the goals of the company — to teach others. This helped instill a sense of ownership over the product since we were all invested in the end result — our students improving their math knowledge and learning abilities.
We would keep this principle alive team-wide with “lunch and learns”, hosting meetups at our office, and sponsoring conferences thrown by members of the team. If one of us spoke at a conference, the company would pay any expenses the speaker may incur.
Our leadership would encourage us to continually improve our skills and further our knowledge. We were budgeted funds to acquire books, attend conferences, and allocated 10% of our work week to learn something new. We were taught to consider conference attendance as on-the-clock time, since we were continuing our education, and our time-off was reserved for actual time-off or sick days. When we wanted to learn a new skill that someone else on the team had, we would restructure project schedules and teams as best as possible to allow the individual to pair with the expert in that area.
I felt valuable to both the team and company, and I valued everyone else more than I can describe. Everyone had such talent, but our empathy and understanding likely helped the most. If one of us was having an off day/week, or just had issues at home, the team was there to help get us into a better headspace and back on our feet. We’d pick up the slack in work when needed, and help bring the person back up to speed once they’d recovered.
I had a few minor emergencies around the births of my children, and my wife had a particularly rough pregnancy with our second. In order to watch my oldest during the day while my wife was miserable, I wound up working very wonky hours. I apologized to our leadership as I explained the situation, and was told not to worry about it. Management shifted me onto tasks that could be picked off without keeping an entire project in my head, and the team was more than helpful in keeping me up to speed on things.
They put people first. That meant the world to my family and to myself. It not only made things easier on my wife, but also ensured I wouldn’t lose my job for working outside of normalcy.
I feel like I could, and want, to write a few articles on characteristics of great leaders. I’ve had opportunities to work for both great and awful bosses thus far in my career, and I feel that no matter how well I will never be able to express how great the leadership of our team was at TTM.
The leaders of a team set the tone for environment and culture of a team. As mentioned, ours put people first. They helped the members of the team grow as individuals, and cared for them like the humans they were. They fostered the culture that reminded us we should never feel guilty for having to tend to ourselves or our family, there is life outside of work and we were encouraged to enjoy it. They reinforced the idea that we should trust one another to be accountable for our own work and not feel the need to micromanage.
Needing to take a few hours off work to run to an appointment, get your car fixed, or pick your kids up was never frowned upon, or even remotely questioned. I was overly cautious with taking time away from my desk (remote employee) for a while and my CTO just patiently reminded me every time that I didn’t need to ask him to take time away for things — just tell whoever I’m working with that I’ll be away for a bit so they knew what to expect and that was good enough.
Our leaders, the CTO and VP of Product Development, were a powerful duo. They were not governed by fear, but rather by compassion and empathy. They helped keep the mood and culture on the team very positive. We celebrated our wins, collectively owned failure, and constantly reflected on how we could improve. They were also very good at managing interactions with the rest of the company. Hours of needless work were prevented by properly investigating requests or complaints to determine if they actually required developer intervention — only then involving us.
I’m certainly leaving things out, and will never be able to properly express my thanks to them, but I’m positive they both know how important they were to me.
Teamwork and Camaraderie
Through the sense of ownership, passion for learning and teaching, positive culture, our team was very close. Including each other at pool parties, group meals both in and out of work, support at community events, board games, weddings, and more helped us bond closely. Coworkers are an extended family — you spend 40hrs a week with them, so having some kind of cohesion is important. We still all chat via Slack and sporadically meet up for lunch during the week. Many from our team even work with each other again at another company.
As remote developer number one on our team, I was admittedly a bit nervous at how well I’d bond with a team that was otherwise co-located in Pittsburgh. This concern was very quickly dismissed between daily standup meetings via video conferencing giving me face time with the team, and every visit turning into a mini reunion. Living about 2hrs away meant that I was fortunate enough to be able to visit monthly without much effort, and each time was filled with hugs, a group lunch, and a ton of laughs.
Having a team that was on board with helping out the remote employee, and those that worked from home that day, by communicating frequently over HipChat/Slack aided in my inclusion dramatically. It also helped our coworkers who moved to cities far away adapt to their new-found remote lifestyle. A little bit of friendship, compassion, and empathy can go a long way and cannot be understated.
While the job itself was fantastic, I’ll miss our team the most.
I’ve come a long way since I first started at TTM. I started off unfamiliar with how to properly operate or hack on a product with millions of users and a huge amount of traffic. Let alone this was only the second codebase I’d worked on of comparable size. They helped make me a better developer, a better learner, a better mentor, and a better person. This job and team have helped me grow in so many professional and personal ways, and I’m ever grateful for that.
I loved my job, I truly did. I’d wake up every morning excited to be doing something positive with people I respected, admired, and cared for. I had purpose, I had challenges, and I had friendship. While most of our team has disbanded, I’m glad the friendship remains.
Our team was also there for me through most of my biggest moments in my adult life. When I was just shy of 26yrs old, less than a month after I started at TTM, my first daughter was born. My CTO and coworkers were some of the first to offer parenting tips (and the first I’d go to for help). They were there to assure me I’m not screwing things up. A while later my family bought our first home, and then eventually had our second daughter. My team watched my daughters grow up (our family and pets frequented our standup meetings), and I’ve seen a number of their kids and families grow as well.
After having worked with such an incredible team for so long, I find myself questioning if I have already passed my “glory days”. It’s certainly the best job I’ve had to date, but I am hopeful for a new adventure to come.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed yet, but I have until October to sort it all out. I guess I’m ultimately looking for somewhere I can help make a difference, lead or mentor, learn, and solve interesting challenges with brilliant minds.