Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Sunday, December 31st, 2023

The long goodbye

In 2008 and 2009, I was one of the many starry-eyed computer science graduates Microsoft hired through the front door at the very moment the company used the back door to send longtime workers packing. Coming into the industry at a time of historic layoffs had me counting my blessings. It also taught me to look over my shoulder, as if that weren’t part of basic training for a level 59 Softie anyways.

Eventually I left the stodgy corporate world for an Internet startup, against the advice of everyone around me. This job was too good to be true: somehow getting paid to productize a mapping hobby that I had kept low-key until then. I was surrounded by bright, empathetic colleagues willing to tolerate my eccentric hobby, and they were even willing to fly me around the country to meet likeminded eccentrics.

I was going to be a company man for this company. But a startup is a gamble, and I am not a gambling man. After my first day and a two-hour train ride home, I drafted up a goodbye letter like one I had just written to my colleagues at Apple, addressing it to my new colleagues at Mapbox. I kept it in my back pocket just in case. Over the next seven years, I reread and revised that letter periodically, fine-tuning the dad jokes inside it as I flirted with the idea of leaving for something newer and shinier. If I had thought to put my letter under version control, as any self-respecting software engineer would do with their code, I wonder if I would see reflections of the company’s various mid-life crises or just the chipper naïveté that got me through them.

In January, I saw the unmistakable sign that what came around would finally come around. Just before I put on a brave face for my exit interview, I dashed off that letter to as many colleagues as I could. Of course, after seven years, most of the intended recipients had already left the company or vice versa. The new folks that came through the front door in 2023 will only know the narrative of the surplus workers that every tech company gorged on during the pandemic and had to let go of when the irrational exuberance subsided. They’ll see the other side of that equation eventually. Hopefully their time on unemployment will be brief like mine was, and hopefully there won’t be another pandemic to pin the blame on.

The best thing Mapbox did for me was to indulge my mapping hobby. It’s the closest thing to professional development I’ve ever gotten from an employer. Once, a business trip to headquarters even gave me some personal closure. I was ready to say goodbye to the company from day one, but not to my hobby. My new employer has nothing to do with maps, but they similarly bring me down to their headquarters in Austin on a regular basis. It’s a stone’s throw from the University of Texas map library. If the hobby doesn’t take me somewhere, it sure knows how to find me.

Short-term memory

  1. The long goodbye


    I was going to be a company man for this company.

  2. Another map for another history


    My steady diet of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? on PBS during the ’90s prepared me well a hobby and career in mapmaking.

  3. The copyeditors’ consensus


    For three years, English Wikipedia editors passionately debated whether to prominently spell Vietnamese names with Vietnamese diacritics.

  4. Cover to cover


    I keep getting more deeply involved in the monumental task of completing OpenStreetMap because, paradoxically, it’s unfinishable. Even a pandemic, for all its horrors, presented an opportunity to make a difference through mapping.

  5. The main course


    Who am I to comment on the terrible things that keep happening in this country? Me, I’m just someone who’s lived a sampler platter of a life.

The name’s Minh Nguyễn. I’m a San José–based software developer, free content and open data enthusiast, and ardent defender of diacritics everywhere. Since March 2002, Minh’s Notes has been home to my occasional insights and frequent attempts at humor.