Getting out of your Comfort Zone

May 7th, 2013

 After almost 8 years working at Corel, I am about to switch jobs. I accepted a job in the Core Research and Development group at TransGaming technologies.

In many ways, Corel was my first “real” employer. When I started working there, I did not even know C++, but it was a classic case of “the right person at the right time”. They were looking for someone with lots of Mac Toolbox experience to help them move Painter forward, now that the contract with the original Painter developers was over1.

I really enjoyed my time at Corel, especially the Painter team (at large, including QA, Localization, Documentation, Setup, etc) which is made up of smart and interesting people, whose company I will definitely miss.

The outpouring of support I got from friends, colleagues and relatives was surprising to me. But right now, in the last week before I start at my new job, a new feeling has invaded my life. Did I take the right decision?

In winter 2007, my family and I vacationed to the island of St. Lucia for two weeks. We rented a house and a car. We drove around the island as we saw fit, doing groceries and generally living like the natives, not as tourists.

In St. Lucia, people drive on the left. I knew that beforehand, but I figured it was no big deal, and it would even be fun.

Our plane was scheduled to land at 4:00 PM at the south end of the island. The drive up to our house was supposed to take about an hour and be pretty simple: go through Castries (the capital, easy to find) and when you exit, 5 km on your right will be a car dealership. Take a left, and look for the house with the blue roof.

We landed at 5:00 PM. By the time we cleared customs and had our car, it was 5:30. In the Carribean, the sun starts to set around 6:10 and by 6:25 it’s completely dark.

When I sat down in the driver’s seat of our rented jeep, I noticed that though the shifter was on the left, the pedals were in the same order (gas on right) but the turn signal / wiper control sticks were inverted: wipers on the left, turn signal on the right.

As I started to drive out of the airport, huge signs were reminding me to drive on the left. What followed were fifteen minutes of the weirdest sensation I had ever had: I was eighteen again, driving for the first time. Think back to your first drive. There are so many things to watch for:

  • “Speedometer!”
  • “Stay in your lane!”
  • “Oncoming car!”
  • “Watch the ditch!”
  • “Turn coming up!”
  • “What’s this road sign?”
  • “Look at the horizon, not at the hood!”

Basically, in 15 minutes, I had to completely let go of 20 years of reflexes2 and re-learn those drving automatisms. And I only had 15 minutes because while the initial section of our drive was on a relatively flat and wide highway, the section coming up was across mountains and a thick jungle, and nighfall was approaching rapidly.

During those 15 minutes, I was terrified, but hopefully did not show any of it to worry my wife and kids. I’m a dad, and as you know dads can do anything, right?

As I was downshifting going up a steep hill in a tropical jungle, my headlights barely shining up to the next hairpin, I was thinking to myself “This is really cool!”. The kids in the back were quiet, and my wife was getting used to the ditch hovering just outside her door3.

We made it to the house around 7:00 PM, dealing with traffic and detours that completely screwed up my landmark-based navigation (I did not have a map). We even found the house with the blue roof in complete darkness, a feat in itself.

The following three days I got progressively better at driving on the left, to the point that I preferred it. It must have been that “feeling young” sensation of exercising new reflexes. I was driving like a native, flashing my lights to let others turn and honking my way through traffic. And I could easily pick out the non-natives: they were the ones who, when they meant to signal their intentions, activated their windshield wipers. That makes me laugh to this day.

So here I am, on the verge of starting a new and exciting job, and I have a similar feeling. Will I be up to it? Will I freeze in terror? How will I learn my way around this completely new code base? The Painter code base is old and familiar, much like driving on the right. Now I will get to work in another old, but completely alien codebase.

I will be driving on the left. And I’m sure I will like it.

When we returned home, I had no problem readjusting to driving on the right. But for a good two weeks, whenever I activated the turn signal, my wipers would go…


1Corel acquired Painter when it was at version 6, and retained the services of Tom Hedges and Mark Zimmer during the Painter 7 cycle, which is when Painter’s Carbon transition occurred.

2For example, look left, then right, then left when crossing a street, a right-hand turn at an intersection is the easiest turn, etc…

3 In St-Lucia, most of the roads have a concrete, square ditch on the side. That ditch’s opening is exactly level with the road, and is slightly wider than your tire. If you go too much to the left, you will drift in the ditch, your tire will drop and your axle will hit the road, probably damaging it. You can’t get out without help. When I asked an experienced minibus driver if that occurred very often he said “No. We don’t drive in the ditch.” Thanks, Sherlock!

Those ditches are designed to rapidly evacuate water from tropical storms and hurricanes from the mountains to the sea. Without them, the roads and houses would flood rapidly.

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