10 min read

The American Dream

by Daniel Nagy @danimal_channel
Tired looking wolf working on a laptop covered in stickers, beer bottles and prescription drugs on his desk, digital art

This is the story of how I got to where I am today. This story is about work, my journey into computer science, and my mental health. While intentionally dramatic at times, I promise this is not a sob story, and I'm not looking for sympathy. I just want to share my story.

Early Life#

I grew up in a small city in Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. It was a somewhat traditional Midwestern place. The adults were predominantly white, Christian, and registered Republicans. The boys played football. The girls were cheerleaders. The city was full of good, honest, and hardworking people, but they were in their own little bubble. Most young adults didn't venture very far after graduating high school.

My siblings and I had a rough start in life. We were raised by a single mom who was an alcoholic. We were poor, and my siblings and I were neglected. We were separated around the ages of 11 and 12, after our mom went to jail for her third DUI. My childhood made me angry and resentful. Despite my self-destructive behavior, the teachers and parents in the community saw potential in me. I am fortunate and grateful for their support.

I got my first job at the age of 9 bussing tables in the bar my mom worked at. Nobody asked me or told me to do it. I just started doing it one day, and people would give me tips. They must have thought I was cute or felt sorry for me. I did lots of odd jobs for money when I was a kid. Things like yard work and interior car detailing. I got my first real job at the age of 12 washing dishes at a pizza place. It wasn't real in the legal sense, but it was real in the sense that I had a schedule and was expected to show up for work.

High School#

My high school didn't offer any programming classes. It had some computer classes, but they were for programs like Final Cut Pro. I took as many computer classes as I could. Not because I was interested in programs like Final Cut Pro, but because I wanted access to a computer. These were some of the few classes that I looked forward to.

My high school used Mac OS X Server. This allowed all the computers to talk to each other over the network. One day, I discovered a program that gave me remote access to any computer on the network. Naturally, I had to use this to take control of the teacher's computer while they were teaching. The teacher's screen would be projected onto a much larger screen in front of the class, so all the students could see. I would occasionally move their mouse or minimize a window while they were teaching. I was gaslighting them, and it would get a good laugh from the class. The school eventually caught on, and the program was blocked by the system administrator, who happened to be my foster parent.

My shenanigans didn't stop there, and as the school started cracking down on programs and blocking more websites, I started looking for ways around their firewall. I came up with a somewhat brilliant idea: what if I inconspicuously booted my operating system from an external hard drive? So I did. I took an iPod Classic (the one with the click wheel) and installed a bootable Mac OS X image on it. I could then plug my iPod into the school's computer and boot from it, and voila, no more programs or sites blocked.

I was unhappy with this workaround, though. I began looking for a way to get admin access inside the school's network. This turned out to be way too easy. I was able to boot one of the Macs into recovery mode and change the password for the root user. I then created a separate admin account for myself. I never told anyone I did this. I didn't do anything malicious with the admin account because I was afraid that I might face serious consequences if I did. Instead, I quietly used it to install programs and to get on Facebook and Twitter.

My junior year of high school I received an iPhone 3Gs as a birthday present. I became obsessed with jailbreaking and modifying the operating system. I remember how satisfying it was to replace that boring black background with a picture of a model in a bikini (after all, I was 16). I would spend hours bricking and unbricking my phone. It was a game to me, and it was addicting. Little did I know, but this was my first exposure to "programming."

College#

As high school was coming to an end, I started having really bad anxiety about what I was going to do after I graduated. Let's be honest, the minimum wage is not a livable wage. Unlike most of my friends, I didn't have the luxury of living with my parents after high school. I decided the best thing for me to do was to take out student loans and go to college. I had no idea what I wanted to major in, though. It wasn't really something that I thought about. However, at freshman orientation, I decided to major in computer science. I told myself I made this decision because taking general electives was a waste of time, and I needed to get a degree that would guarantee income. In hindsight, though, I think I subconsciously made this decision because I desperately wanted to learn more about programming.

I struggled a lot my freshman year. I was thrown right into the deep end with C++. I remember my professor had a very thick Indian accent, and I had a really hard time understanding what they said. I was from small-town Ohio where everyone had a similar vernacular. I didn't have exposure to foreign accents. I also had poor studying habits. High school was too easy for me. I naively assumed college would be easy too. Furthermore, I had no emotional intelligence, and I had a lot of problems with drinking and mental health. I was worried that I would fail, that I would need to drop out or switch majors.

However, I had a strong desire to learn programming, and finally, during my sophomore year, something clicked. I felt like I had "caught up" to my peers who I assumed had more programming experience than me. I began to enjoy my CS classes, and while I still struggled at times, I no longer felt inadequate or that I couldn't do it. My distractions outside the classroom continued, though. I was working 20-30 hours a week, and my problems with drinking continued. Juggling everything was incredibly difficult. You've probably heard the saying, "Good grades, social life, enough sleep: choose two." Well, some of us work part time jobs on top of that.

By the end of my sophomore year, I released my first open source project on GitHub called iCarrier. It was a homage to my origins in jailbreaking. I desperately wanted to create my own iOS tweak but I lacked the knowledge to do it. After 2 years of studying computer science, I had finally gained enough knowledge to create my own iOS tweak. I created iCarrier and submitted it to the Cydia store. Unfortunately, my package was rejected from the Cydia store because a similar package already existed. I used my tweak for a while, and it was fun to show it off to my friends.

Internship#

Partway through my junior year, I decided to see if I could get a job at the university that was related to computer science. I thought they must need IT people or something, right? I ended up landing a paid internship with the university doing web development. I remember leaving the interview thinking I blew it. Despite my lack of confidence, I got the job.

I actually had no experience doing web development. My classes pretty much involved writing console applications, usually in C++. Web development was a brand new world to me, but one that I quickly fell in love with. It was at this job that I created my second and most popular open-source project to date, md-data-table. I did not anticipate how much attention that project would get.

At first, the attention I was getting was exciting and motivated me to invest time in the project. I started getting cold calls from tech recruiters and startups wanting to talk to me. I took the bait and started contracting with a startup in Los Angeles. As a contractor, I was their first employee. If I remember correctly, they weren't even incorporated yet.

California#

Working for an early-stage startup was great. Eventually, they offered me a full-time position at their office in Santa Monica. I was really excited because I desperately wanted to get out of Ohio. After I graduated, I packed everything I owned in my car and drove from Ohio to California, never looking back.

Meanwhile, my project was still getting a lot of attention, and it was overwhelming. The issues kept piling up. The quality of the issues was poor. Most of the time, it was just people asking for support. Occasionally, I would get people complaining and demanding features or fixes. There was no open source playbook at that time, and I had no experience managing a project like that. Now that I was working full time, I didn't have a lot of time to devote to it. I lost all interest and just decided to ignore it. That was the end of that project.

After about a year working on-site for this startup, I was becoming increasingly worried about money. I was getting paid very little, and even though I was renting a room in a 3-bedroom condo, I wasn't able to put away any savings. Relative cost of living was a new concept to me. To put it in perspective, in Athens you could get a beer at a bar for $1. In Los Angeles, that same beer would be $6. I made more money at my job in Athens than I did at this startup.

New Job#

I decided to enter the job market to see if I could get a job making more money. In what felt like no time at all, I had a job offer. I remember going to two job interviews. The first interview was for another startup in Santa Monica. I felt like my first interview with them went ok. Looking back, it is now obvious that I did not have the experience they were looking for. Despite my lack of experience, I believe they were still interested, but before they could get back to me, I had already accepted another offer.

My second interview was for an advertising agency also located in Santa Monica. I got this interview through a recruiter. I remember I showed up for the interview and spoke informally with a guy for about 5 minutes and then I went to lunch with some of the other employees. That was the entire interview. I received an offer later that day. I was just looking for a pay increase ASAP, so I accepted the offer.

I worked at that advertising agency for a little over a year. The technology wasn't great, and most of the software was outdated. But they had me bouncing around on many different projects, and I was constantly learning something new. The thing I liked most about that job, though, was the company culture. I became friends with a lot of my coworkers, and we would often hang out after work. In hindsight, those relationships are what I enjoyed and miss the most.

Old Job?#

One day I got an email from one of the founders of the startup I left. They offered me my job back with a pay increase after raising a friends and family round. I was intrigued because my only real reason for leaving that job was money. The advertising agency matched their offer, but I didn't really like the technology I was working with at the agency. I thought it was beneath my talents, and I wanted to work on more interesting things.

I accepted the offer and went back to the startup. When I returned, the headcount of the company must have been 7 or 8, including the 2 founders. At first, things were exciting. We were a small engineering team, and we were quickly building new features. We were getting our first clients, and money was starting to flow through the product. We were working hard, but we also went to parties, tech conferences, nice bars, and fancy restaurants.

The company raised its series A and started to expand. We outgrew our incubator, and the company sub-leased office space from Showtime on a backlot in West Hollywood. I got an apartment in Hollywood to be closer to the office, and for the first time in my adult life, I had my own place. The company continued to increase headcount, and I was starting to make friends with people at work. Working on a backlot was crazy. You would occasionally run into celebrities. My favorite story is the time I shared an elevator with Mila Kunis.

The Pandemic#

Everything was great, but then the news started reporting about a deadly virus that was spreading around the world. The next week, panic ensued. Everyone stopped going to the office. The shelves in the grocery stores were stripped bare. Many people started moving out of Los Angeles. Like an idiot, though, I continued to pay the pre-pandemic market rate for my Hollywood apartment. Hollywood was never a great place to live, but with all the restaurants and nightlife closed, it became a horrible place to live. Tents lined the sidewalks with empty apartment buildings in the background.

It was a strange and anxious time, but we all continued working remotely from home. The company luckily raised its series B right before shit hit the fan, and had money in the bank to weather the storm. The company eventually got rid of its office in West Hollywood and became fully remote.

I was miserable living in Hollywood at this time. For way too long, I just put up with it, hoping things would return to normal. I had no idea how long that would take. I was also very annoyed with how much I was spending on rent to live in a place that had turned into hell. It felt like I was just throwing money away each month. I knew I couldn't afford to buy in Los Angeles, so I started thinking about where else I might want to live. I visited a couple of places, but I realized that if I wanted to get out now, I would have to make a decision and go with it. For no real reason at all, I decided to move to Austin, TX.

On All Hallows' Day, 2021, I boarded a flight from LAX to AUS. I moved to Austin, not knowing anyone who lived there. The company had employees that lived in Austin, but I had never met them. I continued to work remotely for the company from Austin. The company had changed pretty dramatically, though, and I felt isolated and alone.

Loosing Confidence#

An engineering leadership circle had formed, and it was clear that I was not a part of it. I had become the frontend guy at a company that did not value frontend, or at least it felt that way. It felt like the consensus was that the frontend was disposable. I started to believe this myself, and so I started to believe that I was not important. I had asked many times to get more exposure on the backend. Finally, I was given an opportunity to implement some complex business logic. However, despite doing a great job, it was back to the frontend for me. It was too late; I was the de facto frontend guy, and that was where they wanted me.

I never felt like the work I did was appreciated or recognized. I did not know it at the time, but it had become a very toxic place for me to work. One time out of the blue, I got asked, "Which component library should we use?". So I did an honest evaluation, on top of all the other work I was already doing. I then had a meeting with the leadership team to tell them which one I picked, I guess, but instead I told them that we should build our own components. I got a very judgmental reaction from everyone on the call. That was the wrong answer. It was obvious that they did not want to invest engineering resources on the frontend.

It was around this same time that I was "quiet hired" as the tech lead on a new team that was going to be primarily frontend-focused. There was no promotion or conversation regarding expectations, just more responsibilities. The team was not properly staffed and was set up for failure from the start. I take partial responsibility for the things that went sideways, but I feel like I was thrown under the bus for things that were out of my control.

What little confidence I had remaining was eroding by the day. My only human interaction was on Zoom calls. These people were not my friends. My anxiety was reaching new highs, and I was starting to have panic attacks. I felt like I was drifting through time and space with no real purpose. I knew I couldn't stay at this job much longer. I also knew that I could not get a mortgage if I were unemployed. I had been watching the housing market since I moved to Austin, and I was waiting for prices to come down, but I couldn't hold out much longer.

The House#

Feeling like time was not on my side, I began looking to buy a house. Soon after I started my search, my brother messaged me out of the blue, and told me that our mom was in hospice care and was living with our sister. I had no relationship with my mom at this point. It was another thing that I couldn't really deal with.

I rush into buying a house. I end up buying a bigger house than I planned while also maxing out my budget. I take a week off from work to move. The day after I moved, I finally got the courage to call my sister to talk to my mom. By now, my mom is unable to speak, though. I didn't know it was that serious. My sister puts me on speakerphone, and I say a few words to my mom before my sister takes back the phone. The next day, my sister messaged me letting me know our mom had died.

When I received that message, it sent a shockwave through my body. I started crying uncontrollably. I didn't understand what I was feeling. I resented my parents. Did I regret pushing my brother, my sister, and my mom out of my life? Was I afraid of death? There I was, sitting all alone in a big, empty house. Ever since I was a kid, all I wanted was a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I didn't think it was attainable. I was wrong; it was attainable. It just cost me everything. I broke mentally.

End of the Road#

My employer gave me another week of paid vacation on top of the week I requested. I then started using my sick days to avoid returning to work. My sick days were running out, and they told me I wouldn't be able to take any more time off unless I went on medical leave. So I saw a doctor who prescribed me antidepressants and recommended medical leave. I got 4 weeks of medical leave.

After 4 weeks I returned to work. I had now missed a total of 7 weeks of work. I was still pretty mentally unstable. I wasn't having much luck with medication. I got a moderate case of serotonin syndrome from the first SSRI I was prescribed. I was hoping they would be accommodating, but after a few days, I was given a PIP. I told them I did not want to do the PIP, and I signed a separation agreement. A week later, it was my last day. After a total of 7 years, 3 rounds of founding, and nearly 200 employees, it was the end of the road for me. I had become disposable.

Once I left the company, I had 3 months to exercise my fully vested stock options. I had yet to exercise any of my more than 200,000 stock options because I had only recently learned about the alternative minimum tax (AMT). I truly believed that I had equity in the company and that I would just pay the very low strike price, and the stock would be mine. I did not know that I would pay taxes on the difference between the strike price and the fair market value of the stock at the time it was exercised. I did some math, and I found out that if I purchased all my stock options, I would be bankrupt. I only purchased 20% of my stock options, and I have no idea if the increased tax liability will ever be worth it. My depression and anxiety only got worse.

Decent into Darkness#

I had looked at code almost every day of my life for the past 10 years, and then, suddenly, I couldn't look at it anymore. Code was an escape from reality for me, but now I was questioning if I had spent my time wisely. Was I really happy sitting at a desk all day? Did I deprioritize my life and health for a job that didn't really care about me? I went more than 2 months without looking at code—the longest ever since my first CS class over 12 years ago.

I found myself in a very dark and lonely place. I was drinking almost every day. I had been worried about money my whole life, and not having a job was unimaginable to me. I was convinced that I would be homeless any day now, but what I failed to realize was that I had saved a lot of money. I live a very frugal and minimal life. I don't have a family. I don't take sick days or go on vacation. I had worked almost every day of my life for the past 10 years.

Sabbatical#

Once I was able to convince myself that I didn't need a job and that I could take time for myself, my mental health started to improve. I know this is not an option for most people.

After some time, I was able to look at code again. I created my latest open-source project, Transporter. I started my blog (the thing you're reading right now), and rediscovered the creative aspect of software development that I fell in love with. I've now been on a sabbatical for 7 months. I'm still not looking for a job, but that may change soon. I could keep going for a while, but eventually, the money will run out.

Last Words#

If I could go back in time what would I have done differently? Well, if I could go all the way back to the beginning, I would have done a lot of things differently. But if I just focused on the last few years, I would have purchased my stock options as soon as they vested. I would have been able to purchase all my stock options with little to no tax liability. I would have moved out of LA sooner. Probably shortly after the pandemic started. I would have purchased a house sooner, while interest rates were still around 3-4%. I would have left my job earlier, before it became toxic for me. Hindsight is 20/20, though.

So why did I share all this? Well, on some level, I think I did it for myself. I think telling my story will help bring me closure. On another level, though, I hope my story appeals to young people so that they do not make the same mistakes that I did. I hope my story resonates with people who did not win the birth lottery, who have been laid off or fired, who feel isolated and alone, or who have experienced a family tragedy, and are now uncertain about the future.

What is the American dream? The American dream is that if you work hard, you can be successful, no matter where you start in life. It's not a dream, though. It's a nightmare. One that you'll never wake up from.

Written by Daniel Nagy

Daniel is a software engineer and full-stack web developer. He studied computer science at Ohio University and has been doing web development and hybrid mobile app development for over 8 years.

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