Sunday, January 04, 2009

Looking Back

Around this time of year, I suppose it is trendy to look back at the previous year. I'm not much of a trend bucker, so here we go.

2008 didn't really feel like anything special as I was going through it, but in hindsight I guess I did have a number of firsts, some accomplished goals, ups and downs of course, and overall I would call it an above-average year.

I started off the year at a pretty low point. I was absolutely miserable at my job, and the outlook for things to improve wasn't good. So for the first time in my career, I went to my boss to explain that I wasn't happy, and I did so without a backup plan or specific goal in mind. With former bosses, I have gone in with numbers proving I was doing the same work as 3 other contractors combined, and that I therefore needed a pay rise (which I got). With a different former boss, I had another job opportunity that I was willing to take if my requirements were not met, which they mostly were. But this time was different. For one, my then-current boss is a friend and former coworker. I also didn't even know what to ask for. Money would not have made the problems go away, and this is notable because I firmly believe that money can buy lots of frustration. So for about an hour I laid out how miserable I was, and asked for his help. He came back with a solution that solved my immediate problem for the most part, but ultimately I still wasn't happy at my job. This meeting would prove to be more significant than I realized as it was cited when I lost my job later in the year.

2008 was the first time I was really exposed to SolidWorks. I had seen some sales demos in 2007, but had not actually sat down in front of it until I took my first class in mid-January. I did three classes every other week, with the SolidWorks conference mixed in the middle, and then a fourth class about a month later. Fortunately I'm a fast learner, and once I get past the parts I don't like, SolidWorks is pretty easy to learn. SolidWorks has some certification tests, something we had discussed at SDRC but never actually implemented, so I quickly passed those tests. Frankly, any competent CAD modeler with only a tiny amount of familiarization with SolidWorks could have passed the Associate test, and not too much more SW experience is required to pass the Professional test. So I mostly passed them on the strength of my I-DEAS skills, but whatever, a certificate is a certificate.

This was a year of firsts for conferences, too. It was the first time I attended SolidWorks World (no reason to do so before), and it was the first time in about 5 years that I did not attend PLM World. PLM World has been tough to justify for I-DEAS users for several years, and frankly the primary reason I even attended the last couple was to see if they would do any more Top Gun competitions. They did not. Our decision to move forward with SolidWorks pretty much killed any lingering small reasons to attend PLM. But, I suppose this turned out to be a good thing because SolidWorks World is a fantastic conference. It was an invigorating and inspiring experience. I can only imagine that ICCON in its heyday was like this on a smaller scale. Where PLM had maybe a half day of useful content for me (out of a full week), SWW had more than I could handle. I spent the rest of the year leaning on my boss to plan on sending several people to the next conference, because there was just no way I could attend everything useful by myself. Incidentally, it's looking like 2009 will be the first year I don't attend any CAD conference at all, barring a new job that uses NX and is willing to send a new guy to a conference.

I returned home from the SolidWorks conference highly inspired to do some macro work in I-DEAS. I wound up creating a whole suite of programs that I'm very proud of, and wish I had created sooner. These weren't the first macros I had ever made, but were definitely the most complicated and really did a good job of addressing weaknesses in both I-DEAS itself, and also our older work practices.

If not technically a first, then still a really big deal, I paid off my car in February. I said for a long time that buying the Saabaru (this was when GM was doing the massive discounts) was one of the best financial moves I ever made, and I'm sticking to that story. The GM discounts were so severe that it completely erased how badly upside down I was on my previous car, and for the first time in probably ever, I wound up with a car that was worth more than I owed. Going through our debts in order of interest rate, it was finally time to pay off my car (we had paid off Teri's car in late 2007). As I write this, it has been nearly a year since I had a car payment. This has been a fairly significant mindset shift for me. Whenever I laid out our budget plans, I always included a car payment for me. Because, let's face it, I'm always going to have one. Well, I've finally broken myself out of that mold, and broken myself of the habit of trading in cars that are worth less than I owe. When I finally sold the Saabaru later in the year, it would possess the record for being the longest I owned a car (a smidge over 3 years), and probably was also the first time I sold a car that I still really liked. The sacrifices we make to improve our financial situation. The money from the sale of the car paid off my last credit card.

And then in what is absolutely a first, and hopefully a never again, I bought a car significantly older than the one it replaced. The jury is still out regarding whether this was a good financial move overall. If nothing else, every time I get behind the wheel, it's a reminder to remain vigilant on our path to financial success, and a motivator to bring in more money so I can buy a better car. And every time the check engine light comes on, it's a reminder that I have a pile of cash sitting in savings that sure could buy a much better car. But, discipline, discipline.

There were four major expenses that happened this year, and in hindsight these expenses cost me my car. We got a new computer, we put in a kitchen island, we put tires on both cars, and went on an expensive vacation. The computer was borderline necessary, and if I can get my ass in gear with iPhone development, will have been worthwhile purchase. My laptop is now three years old, and cannot run the iPhone developer tools (although the regular Mac development stuff runs just fine). However, the prime motivating factor for buying the computer was that Teri bought a Harry Potter game that couldn't run on the older laptops. Sure, it would have been easier just to return the game, but frankly I didn't need too much motivation to buy a new computer. The kitchen island was mostly to get the wife off my back, but we'd been without it for 5 years, I think we could have gone on longer. We probably could have gone longer before replacing the tires, and if I had realized I was going to sell my car I would not have bothered, but oh well. That's the second time I've put new tires on a car and then got rid of it a couple months later. And then we took the vacation. Add up all of these things that could have been used to pay off the credit card instead, and the amount is basically the same as the difference between the sale of my old car and purchase of the current one.

The vacation was a first in a couple of different ways. For one, it was pretty much the first real vacation for just Teri and I, not including our honeymoon. We've taken vacations before, certainly, but most of our trips have been either with or to family, or piggy-backing on business trips. We planned this ourselves, and paid for everything ourselves. It was also the first time either of us had taken a cruise. The cruise was worth doing at some point, but I'm not sure this was the right time for it. We had come so far with our efforts to pay debts off, we really should have put off the trip for another year or two.

Shortly before the vacation, we had our first meeting with a financial advisor. Although most of our debt payoff success is due to my own sense of money management (of course, our debt failures are due to same), I reached a point where I had literally 4 or 5 different directions I could go, and could not decide which one to choose. Work hard on the mortgage and ignore retirement investing? Work hard on Teri's student loan and ignore building up savings? Not enough money or patience, too many goals to accomplish. So we found a professional. We were semi taking his advice (1/3 toward mortgage, 1/3 toward student loan, 1/3 into savings) before I lost my job, but right now the entire plan is on hold. I'm not entirely certain meeting with him was worthwhile, but after I lose a few more pounds he should be able to help us get significantly cheaper insurance, so that's something. I don't know what kinds of certifications and training are required in order to become a financial advisor, but I totally could do it. It's one possible direction to go in my future, at any rate.

Speaking of work, the most significant event of the year was the loss of my job. My boss told me that ever since our meeting at the beginning of the year, he had seen the misery on my face. What he didn't say, though I'm sure entered into the equation, is that I was one of the highest paid people in the department, and what better way to cut costs? As I type this, getting laid off was a stroke of good fortune. I had already been interviewing for other jobs, and was likely to quit anyway. This way I get severance. Now, if I still haven't found a job this time next year, or if I wind up accepting a significant pay cut, or have to spend a lot of time on the road, or... or... or... then I may not look back on this moment so fondly. Short term, I no longer have to worry about the petty bullshit that was part of daily life at my job, I no longer have to care about people I didn't like or who didn't like me, and I'm still getting paid for the privilege. Sure, the next job will have its own petty bullshit and people I won't like, but the grass is always greener, right?

So I spent December unemployed. We acquired a Wii and a Wii Fit, and I've been pretty good about getting in some exercise each day. I'm about half way through an iPhone development book. I've been blogging more. While I won't claim to be squeezing every possible moment of productivity out of each day - far from it - I am actually accomplishing some things around the house and helping out with the cooking. The last time I lost my job, I basically sat on the couch for six weeks, so I'm at least doing better than that. December is a bad time of year to look for a job, so I really didn't try a whole lot. I'll hit it harder here in January.

Thus concludes 2008. Here's hoping that 2009 will be better.

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