As I’ve discussed here before, this past spring I made a decision to resign my position as a tenured Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Maryland, and to (eventually, after a bit of a break) return to my roots as a software engineer.
I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But timing conspired to make it even harder than I had anticipated. You see, I had decided ahead of time that I would take about 5 or 6 months to “decompress.” I was, after all, leaving behind something that had for better or worse been the center of my professional life for the last 15 years. Only after this decompression period was over would I start actively looking for anything. Specifically, the plan was to wait until my wife and I came back from a long-planned trip, in late October, and start looking for a job then.
Unfortunately, “then” was exactly when A Certain Someone decided to buy Twitter and lay off more than half its workforce, including a multitude of highly-skilled, well-connected software engineers. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “No point in launching my search at the exact moment when I’d have to compete with all of these folks. I’ll just wait a few weeks; by then these people will have gobbled up the available jobs, and the job market will re-settle.” Haha funny I know. You know what happened next: we entered a cycle of successive big‑tech layoffs where every few weeks, yet another tech giant would lay off thousands of employees. (Sometimes as much as ten thousand at a time.) It started to become painfully obvious that “waiting this out” might be a proposition with no clear end in sight.
Now, one of the interesting things that was happening in the wake of the twitter implosion was a marked rise in the popularity of Mastodon. Mastodon isn’t new, of course; it’s in fact almost 7 years old, and builds on a collection of open communication protocols some of which are even older than that. What’s undeniable, though, is that the twitter implosion fueled (and periodically, whenever a new twitter “improvement” hits the market, continues to fuel) an influx of new users fleeing twitter for the decentralized pastures of the Fediverse.
As the proud owner of a highly tech-poisoned brain, this interested me. A lot. At the time, I was spinning up a bunch of new little software- and systems-related projects anyway, just for the sake of shaking off any remaining cobwebs and getting myself truly & fully back into the swing of the whole software thing. So I thought, “What the hell. I’ll spin up my own mastodon instance, too. Might be fun to play around with.” And so I did. One of the nice properties of the fediverse is that you don’t need to be on a “big server” where all the cool kids are (?), you can literally run a server where you’re the only user & it’ll still connect (=”federate”) and communicate with all the other servers in the network. You can still follow anyone else’s posts & anyone else can still follow yours.
And so began my time on the fediverse: half technological experiment, and half genuine attempt to find a replacement for the slice of my life that twitter used to occupy.
One of the interesting things about that particular moment in time on the fediverse is that the proportion of techies among the users coming in was remarkably high. I think this was partly a matter of self-selection. To explain why, it helps to lay out what the microblogging landscape was like in that particular moment in time. There were a bunch of microblogging platforms making a proverbial “bid” to attract users who were either fleeing twitter or at least shopping around for other microblogging platforms. Some of these platforms were new – some even (regrettably) rushed to launch – in the wake of the twitter implosion. Others, like mastodon & the rest of the fediverse, were not new at all. Some of these platforms were & are imo pretty terrible, incl. every single one that operates as a “walled garden” with a centralized and/or non‑open protocol, but this is maybe not the right place to litigate all of that. (It is probably the place to acknowledge that the fediverse in general and mastodon in particular didn’t just spring out of thin air, but are the results of years & years of work by a dedicated group of contributors, who saw the writing on the wall about centralized social-media platforms long before the rest of us did, and spent their time & effort building and refining an alternative. It’s an alternative that is imperfect and which leaves room for (ongoing) improvement, but an alternative nonetheless, and one that is crucially open and decentralized.) But back to the actual point: there were all kinds of microblogging platforms vying for these users, and mastodon is (and to a definitely larger extent, was) not the easiest of them to get started on for someone who isn’t particularly tech-savvy. As a result, there was undoubtedly some self-selection in favor of tech types afoot among late‑2022 mastodon adopters. And this proved quite serendipitous for a person trying to transition back into industry, looking to make new connections, and to generally just “plug back in” to what’s going on in that sphere.
For one thing, mastodon allows you to “follow” hashtags as if they were individual users, and there were a bunch of hashtags (
#HachyJobs) where people on the fediverse posted job ads. There was, for a time, a really good hiring bot, too, running on the Hachyderm instance (
@email@example.com) and reposting anything with one of the relevant hashtags.1 Speaking of which, the Hachyderm server (
hachyderm.io), run by the inimitable Kris Nóva, is imo the best online tech community in the fediverse, and just browsing the instance’s local timeline was & is a great source for all things tech.
I want to clarify something: there is of course no dearth of job boards, some open and some “walled” (like LinkedIn), where one can go searching for tech jobs. These are a dime a dozen, and from my recent experience, most are not particularly helpful. That’s because it’s all about curation, and these boards hook you up with a firehose of almost entirely irrelevant jobs. So for me, the key was that the fediverse connected me to (potentially) relevant job ads. I even found, through other people’s posts on mastodon, a couple of more targeted job boards that did prove useful. (For example, NoCommute, a jobs board exclusively for remote work / work-from-home, with job postings broken down by category, delivered daily.) What was special about my mastodon / fediverse jobs experience was not that it connected me with *some* job ads, but that it connected me to *relevant* job ads.
If I look at the positions for which I advanced past the initial, general screening phase – whether I made it one stage past that, or several stages – I think every single position on that list is one whose existence I wouldn’t know about if not for the fediverse. And that includes the job where I ultimately landed. In some cases, the job ad itself was posted on the fediverse; others I heard about on job boards whose existence I wouldn’t have known about if not for the fediverse; and yet others I heard about directly from the hiring point-person, connecting with them one-on-one on mastodon, introducing myself through mastodon “DMs”2 and so forth.
As more and more users continue to join the fediverse, I imagine that some of the “curation” aspects of what I just described might become somewhat diluted. Perhaps what I’ve described here was specific to a very particular moment in time. But I certainly hope that doesn’t end up being the case. (Hachyderm, at the very least, is going strong & showing no signs of slowing down or declining in quality.) Even if it does end up being the case, though, I hope there’s at least some stuff in this story that will be interesting or useful for someone at some point.
Sadly, it looks like
@firstname.lastname@example.org working sometime around Feb 8, for whatever reason. ↩
Mastodon “DMs” aren’t really DMs (=direct messages) in the traditional sense, which I think bears repeating. See here. ↩