I remember every detail from the day I was fired from my first post-college job. My manager pulled me into a meeting with the engineering director at the end of the day: “We have some tough news for you. We are letting you go. From the start, it wasn’t a good cultural fit. It’s not that you aren’t a good programmer. It’s just that this is not the right place for you. I’m sorry.”
In 30 seconds, all of my fears of failure and not being good enough to be a software engineer in Silicon Valley had come rushing back. And all of the work I had done in the past 7 months, the unfinished projects, the users I had connected with, the friendships with my colleagues - it all seemed wasted.
I wasn’t allowed to go back into the office and I fought tears as I was escorted out of the building. I sat in the parking lot for a long time and considered going somewhere else, doing something easier, working for a bigger company where there would be less pressure.
I remember working on my résumé that night and thinking that it was going to kill my chances of finding a new job if potential employers found out that I had been fired. Like many people who find themselves in my position, I mentally decided to answer the question of why I was only there for 7 months, if it arose, by saying that I had quit, or maybe that I had been consulting. Or the decidedly more ambiguous “I left.”
Two days later, I was in a garage with three exceptional people working at a new company on a problem I really believed needed solving. It was a company I had my eye on for a while. There, I was given the tools, the access to programming mentorship that I needed, and the inspiration to excel at my job from the top. I had managers that gave me the freedom to be creative, but also the boundaries to be successful. Our company was eventually acquired and it turned out that being fired was by far the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
It wasn’t until I had to fire my first person that I understood how success in your job is an indicator light that you’re on the right path, and not the other way around. People don’t succeed long term at their job because they’re just so good at what they do that nothing else matters. If they’re at the right company, they have the right managers, or they love what they’re doing, they’ll succeed no matter how good they were when they started. Success at anything feeds on itself and delivers continuous fruits.
I remember that day I fired my first employee clearly as well. I took the employee out for a walk with termination documents and a severance check, as well as a page of prepared notes on why I were letting the employee go. I explained to that person that it wasn’t a good fit from the start and that their performance wasn’t where we wanted, but that it had nothing to do with their capabilities as an engineer. It just wasn’t working.
Everything I told that engineer was true exactly as stated. I knew deep inside that everything the manager who fired me told me was true as well, despite my feeling at the time that I had done nothing wrong. In my first job, I worked on an ASP.NET site when I really wanted to work with open source programming languages and frameworks. In my first job, I was given rigid tasks to complete, and the many things that I came up with on my own rarely made it into production. In my first job, I worked for a game company when at the time I was interested in communication tools. Looking back, the only reason I didn’t leave on my own was that I didn’t have the self-awareness or courage to take my future into my own hands. So my job performance did the speaking for me.
Many software teams are really small, especially at startups. It’s crazy to think that every new employee is going to fit in with a small team when there is nowhere to hide like in a big company. A lack of passion for a company’s mission or product, even at a level that the employee is unable to verbalize or recognize, will show up in all sorts of ways. When you’re in a job that you’re not a good fit for, you’ll start feeling things like “nobody listens to me,” or you’ll notice that your manager doesn’t seem to appreciate your work or your work ethic. Sometimes your manager seems to be acting weird around you. Sometimes your manager asks you to change your attitude, and you do change, but it’s like they can’t see it. Those feelings are not necessarily real in the sense that your superiors are intentionally not listening to you or not appreciating your work or being weird. I believe that’s your mind signaling to you and interpreting situations with a lens for your wellbeing, basically telling you that you would be better off somewhere else. And indeed, you will be.
We’ve let go of half a dozen employees and kept only as many, and in every case where we let someone go, that person has gone on to work on things that they are more passionate about and where they have excelled and been happier at. When you let go of someone that’s not fitting in, the remaining team benefits from increased cohesiveness and self-worth. Having been on both sides of the equation now, I really believe that small companies do not fire people enough and that startup employees do not leave often enough. No interviewing process is good enough to completely understand a prospective employee’s deep inner passion for your company’s mission alongside evaluating their actual skills. It’s too easy to fake either one of those.
In hindsight, I wish the first company I worked for had fired me at the first sign of a lack of fit many months before. Sometimes you can detect a cultural mismatch within the first two months, sometimes in the first two weeks, and perhaps even on the first real day of work. It can be so easy to justify keeping the wrong employee on staff that a decision to fire an employee can drag on unresolved for months or years. However, both the employee and the company would almost always be better off if the separation happened immediately.