Community, Maslow & Boundaries

by Jesse Noller in ,

In my last post I opened up a fair amount of personal "stuff" much like one of those superfund sites "opens up". I meant it as a start to unwindind the good, the bad and the ugly I see in myself, what happened and moreso, what I mentor and guide people now to avoid.

I promised to unpack, bit by bit individual components of things so this is the start.


First up, by way of an apology, my last post didn't make it clear that I don't blame a/the communities I am and have been involved in for what happened. Communities are what they are - they are tribes of semi-like minded people grouped around a thing.

In tech, these tribes tend toward stasis - this means if you're "trying to fight the good fight" (whatever that may mean) you spend the majority of your time well, fighting.

I like to think I "won" some of the fights to make "my" corner of the world a better place. Except I made the same error I have made, time and again, in my life.

I didn't pick what fights to fight.

Let me be clear - without my involvement in the Python/PyCon/PSF community, activity on twitter, hacker news, et al my career and "me" would not be where it is. A lot of people (shockingly) look up to me. Hence me publicly admitting that I fucked up.

If I had not gotten involved, fought for what I did, did what I did I would not have:

  • A network of friends, albeit distant and not "tangible" spanning the globe.
  • The career/position I have now: or have come to the realization that I deeply and truly believe in being a leader of people (not a "manager" - more on that another time).
  • Would not have had the support through some truly dark times (see: "the impossibility of it's going to be ok")
  • Would not have had the sheer plethora of opportunities I have had, and continue to have.
  • Would not have the breadth of knowledge I have today

So I have a lot to thank many of you for - Jacob, Alex, Guido, Van, Jessica, and many others. Many people reached out to me and told me I was a mentor or inspiration to them after my last post; let me be clear - each person I have interacted with has been a mentor to me.

Yes - I have a lot to thank a lot of people for. But I can take a step back and admit that "fighting large scale fights of philosophy, politics and human motivation" is a sinkhole. Unless you have good personal boundaries and a clear objective for success (e.g. desired outcome) you will find yourself crashing upon the rocks of stasis and status quo while ignoring things that are more important.

We work in a society that raises up "rockstars" - be they creators of tools, languages, codes of conduct, etc. In a work/business context they are known as "leaders". We place them on some higher plane for being able to be the outspoken, passionate ones filled with an unflinching belief of what's right. This is normal human behavior - there have been many posts written about cults of personality, etc but the simple fact is this is normal human psychology.

So no, without the communities I still love, I would not have what I have. Where I fucked up is not having boundaries. Not saying "not my circus, not my monkeys". Not closing my email or delegating more in the community and focusing on work, family, friendships.

We have a word for that: addiction.


As somewhat of a sociology geek; I can see patterns in behaviors of groups and people (including intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. But it's really simple:


Yeah I just cited Maslow. 10 points to griffindor. You should already understand what this is. Where communities - online tribes, social media, etc come in, at least in my case is that:

  1. Prior to heavy involvement, I was stuck somewhere in the bottom.
  2. While having personal relationships (e.g. a mate) helped "move up the stack" the allure of triabalism is that it's like mainlining the top 3 layers.

When you take someone (me) who, from a very early age was on the career obsessed track (bottom layer), to the negation of fulfilling this set of needs through somewhat normal means, finding a tribe with open and welcoming arms who wants/needs help, who is friendly, who don't judge you (well...) is a bit like a drug addict finding an infinite fast way to get high all the time.

Online tribes, the communities I got involved in were my way of "moving up" this heirarchy of needs. I felt needed, I felt like I had social belonging, friends. I had acceptance.

Those mental reinforcements, that addiction to the "fast path" still maintain within me today. Except now I'm trying to focused on doing it right, vs doing it "fast". But you should be able to see the same patterns within yourself, if, like me, you have your tribe that reinforces your self-actualization.

I mention this because, quite simply, we, as humans confuse intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivations dangerously easy. Whether its our tribes or our job, it's easily to blur (see: overjustification) "I am doing this for me and my self satisfaction" and "I am doing this because I will get cheese at the end of this and they need it from me".

And that's the mental trap I fell into. The dopamine highs of arguing endlessly on the internet, of running a conference, of being "loved" were so strong they overrode "real life".

I did that. Not you.

There aren't any easy answers - from a comment this week when Hacker News picked up my last post (comment, mine):

Factor in the following: my ex and I are still best friends and confidants. As we went through this little slice of hell, what was best for our kids above what was best for us was top of mind.

Now, factor in the following: I've learned - the hard way - that investing yourself into certain things can net you things you didn't have. For example, without dumping all into the community, I wouldn't be where I am in my career, and I would not have discovered things about what I want to do in that career.

Now factor in what I described is the sign of an extremely obsessive, insecure, and potentially depressed personality with no actual definition of "self" outside of community, work, and kids. Literally - now that I've set boundaries I'm busy looking around saying "Uh. Shit. Who am I?"

Now factor in the strict clinical definition of what you go through in a divorce - it's akin to significant loss (e.g a death in the family). You go through (as I am) many stages of that including grief, depression, etc. I'm somewhere in the no man's land without an end in sight just as of yet.

Now factor in the severe anxiety and depression that comes with all of that. Yes - I could quit my job and move just to be near my girls. However not being physically or mentally fit outside of my definition of self in my career I would be throwing myself into a position of not "not moving on my own terms".

Think of it like this: I agreed, with my ex, that this would be the best course of action for now. Just up and moving wouldn't solve the root cause of why we separated, it would just solve one aspect of "me". This would result in a probable mis-directed resentment on my part towards my ex, my children and others.

Therefore, while given the information you gleaned you may be correct albeit callous, you are right that there are many more factors in a situation like this to be taken into account.

Net-net - mental health is hard. Recovery is hard - you can't tell a depressed person to "just don't be sad" and you can tell a person with an addiction (such as I've gone through) to just "give it up" without a goal, or a process by which to solve the root cause.

I fell into a trap - no sense of "self" - no sense of belonging. Few friends but having the gift of being able to empathize wholly with people (but not being able to shut that off; their desires became mine). I saw the warning signs; for example this quote from "On Family, Cranking and Changing":

As I've worked to improve my awareness of this - I've noticed how bad I've been/gotten. This is why "Cranking" hit me so hard. My ability to balance my time and attention effectively, while also spending it on the things that matter most has been grossly out of alignment. My iPhone has been a surgical attachment - I reply almost in real time to email work, or non-work related. When I should be sitting on the couch comforting my wife, or watching a movie (even though we've seen Tinkerbell 900 times) with my daughter, I'm sitting on my laptop turning a crank of some sort (for what it's worth - I'm writing this while my wife and daughter are sleeping). Instead of focusing on them, though I love them dearly, I would do anything for them, I'm turning cranks

Addiction to ambition, to belonging, to cranking is a thing.


So, what have I gotten to learn the hard way? A lot. Too much if you ask me when it's Sunday night at 9pm and crushing lonliness grabs my chest and I lie in the dark crying (hey, dudes, it's ok to cry ok?).

I learned too little, too late that boundaries really matter, and unless you set them, recognize addiction and motivations for what they are (with help) you're going to have a real bad time.

What have I done to fix this over the past two years?

  • I set strict do not disturb rules on my devices that silence them at 6pm, every night.
  • I don't work - unless absolutely nessecary - on the weekends.
  • I made peace about arguing on the internet; it's not worth it, it's not rewarding.
  • I am seeing therapists.
  • When I am with my girls I shut everything off. I don't multitask.
  • I mentor the people around me, and the people I lead not to make the same mistakes I did.
  • I encourage people to walk away, spend time with their families. If I catch them online I ask "hows the kid/wife/husband/spouse" vs "what are you working on".
  • I try to reward myself reasonably and rationally.

That said, I'm still incredibly insecure. I'm still terrified of the world in many ways. I've spent over a decade defined by my job, my family, my tribe that now that I'm compartmentalized away from it all saying hi to someone in a coffee shop is like asking me to eat live spiders.

I love my daughters. I love my team/job. I know that. The jury is out on whether I can crawl back of Maslow's stupid pyramid and love myself.

By way of closing this monster of a post out, I'm going to apologize in advance to XKCD for doing this (and if Randall asks me to take it down, I will) but I think it may provide some much needed context for you, and me.

For example, this is one of those seminal comics from XKCD:


LOL RITE? You say. You just spent like, 10 hours arguing about a patch, or some theory about distributed systems and someone is wrong! LOLOLOLOLOLOL.

Here. Let me fix that for you:


Suddenly, it's not funny. In fact replace "come read me a book" with your wife asking you to come hold the baby. Replace it with your boss asking you to "be at work and not arguing on the internet". Replace it with a friend asking you to come have coffee in meatspace.

Replace it with reading Dr. Seuss to a four year old who thinks you're god.

It's not funny now, is it?

A lot happens.

by Jesse Noller

Note: Part two is here

My last post here was April 15th, 2013; it was my gushing post letting the world know I was joining Rackspace to chase a dream and change the world.

Well, a lot has happened since then - two years is a lot of time to let pass and the world, people, communities and more have changed. This post isn’t about that. This is, well, personal.

I’m not going to start at the beginning - don’t expect a cohesive thread, or narrative. That will come later after I unwind this gordian knot.

Some of you know I’ve become a bit of a recluse. Maybe recluse isn’t the best word but it’s a word that resonates. It’s September, 2015 - a Sunday. Since Friday when I left work, I’ve been shut in my two bedroom apartment doing nothing but playing video games, sleeping, and taking the dogs out. Oh, and sometimes drinking.

Living the high life, I know!

Not really. I dragged myself out to my favorite coffee hangout to write, and be “around” people. Even if I don’t talk to them. It was a mental battle for me to do this, in fact, except for going to work and the store, I don’t really “get out much”. At work, it's a totally different story, might as well be a social butterfly.

Let’s work backwards from the recluse bit.

Personally, the last two, no, three years have been a mental and emotional crucible. I can’t put exact dates and times to things, I can’t say when certain emotions or events took place that in turn caused a series of ripples that have stripped me down to my core.

One of the first things I know, and apologize for, is that I withdrew from the Python community and the people and friends I made there. The reasons are multitude, the drain and destruction my “emotionally all in” behaviors caused my family and I. The fact that I kept smashing my face against the same rocks, toxic people, etc time and again. I’d wake up mad, go to bed mad. I’d snap at my kids, my coworkers.

This isn’t really a blame-the-community thing; its one of the reasons I’m broken - it’s “all or nothing”. When I go into something I go all in. At one point I was blogging, coding, working at a startup, running PyCon, on the PSF board, running various python community project and more. On top of that, I had new baby girls and a wife, a family.

Humans aren’t meant to do that. You can’t be emotionally all in on everything. You can’t make another 24 hours appear to be “present” for everything. Instead, I stole time and ran my emotional credit card like it was limitless.

I stole time from my family, from work, from everything. I stole it from me, I gave time, emotion and empathy freely to anything and everyone.

My values - what I should have been caring about - were, putting it bluntly, completely and totally fucked.

Online communities are an interesting animal; they’ve given me so much, and I’ve made friends all over the world. It’s opened career doors and more for me, it’s supported me when I’m or my family was down.

However, “community” is not the gift that keeps on giving, it is the gift that keeps on taking and taking and taking. If you don’t set clear and absolute boundaries, it will drain you dry and move on.

I know that sounds awful - don't think I'm bitter or angry - but each time some accomplishment would get made, some thing would be done, there was just more to do more people and things to fix. I couldn’t control what I gave - I couldn’t pick my fights. I’d argue on the internet for days; I’d push for changes and things and see nothing for it. No boundaries, fighting all the things at once, not being strategic in my thoughts, actions and what I'd invest in? Good game bro.

I see the warning signs that were posted all over now, looking back. A good friend and mentor warned me, Dusty, my now ex-wife was telling me. The fact I had a rough relationship with my oldest daughter was telling me. All the signs were there.

Take, take, take, give, give, give - for what? To change the world? Can a programming community change the world? Can it hug you when you’re sitting alone at night on the couch staring at a black TV? The friends you make, if you can touch them, can. Otherwise, No.

Will it raise your daughters or be there for your wife?


That was my job; and I bombed. Then I snapped. I remember the day I snapped too - actually, two times. The first was after the last PyCon I ran, coming home from that carrying all the emotion and pain and things that happens like boogeymen all the way home. It infected work, my family, me. The final snap was when I read a single email on a mailing list from someone basically calling me out.

I probably deserved it, but the lizard brain kicked in and said “hey, asshole - I’ve given so much, how about you show some fucking decency”. That’s the key right there, the decent and kind and nurturing people are silent, they see the snake pit for what it is and sit back. Only the most persistent and toxic survive.

That day, I resigned from the PSF, I unsubbed from every single community mailing list. I walked away. I didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, I just gave up. I stopped going to most conferences/speaking, writing & travel.

This series of events run parallel to what was going on at home - I didn’t see it, but I had poisoned my marriage and my family and the chickens were coming home to roost. I “kicked ass” at work still, but I had given everything to everything but my own damned family.

Let’s just say I'm divorced.

Yeah that’s a bit of a punch - but I have no one and nothing to blame but myself. I wasn’t “present” I wasn’t in the moment. I had one job. One damned job. And I failed at it.

Dusty and I parted ways amicably, and sanely. We have two beautiful daughters whose very smile is enough to chase away the darkness, and we put them first and foremost. We’re still good friends, we talk, etc. For awhile, we even co-parented in Texas which worked out well.

That changed (again, amicably) this year when she moved back to Massachusetts. I had to pick between two fundamentally awful choices: “force” Dusty to stay so the girls would be close to me - which would hurt her more than I care to admit, or agree to let her take the girls for the school year and I’d have them during the summer. Least awful of awful choices.

So that’s where we are now - but the things I’m thinking about are all the events and mistakes that have me sitting in a coffee shop on a Sunday, feeling completely alone, just wanting a hug and maybe have a good cry.

Back to the story.

So let’s throw more wood on the bonfire - community burnout/flameout. A new job in a new state that I threw everything in to. Always being connected & online no matter what day or time. It’s a recipe of multiple disasters - and they all happened.

Learn from my mistakes.

I learned too late. Sometimes it takes getting punched to realize something is just fundamentally wrong, rotten or toxic. I had no boundaries, no work/life balance. No balance at all. Like most of my life, I basically lived every day as if I was strapping on a rocket pack, shutting my eyes and saying “fuck it let’s go!”. I wasn’t intentional.

Thing have changed. And so have I.

Lately, I spend a lot of time looking at people’s smiling faces with their partner, family or kids. I admit freely, it hurts. Each time I see a happy couple talking in a coffee shop or a “normal family” playing, it feels like a dull ache.

I joke about “being bad” at people and “adulting”, and the few friends I have reassure me I’m not, but given the carnage and hurt and more I’ve wrought upon my outside of work life, it sure feels like it.

Am I depressed? Yeah, that’s fair. I’m not angry anymore, so that’s a bonus. Yes, I see a therapist (and have been for some time) who encourages me to re-start my life by simply say “Hi” to people outside of work.

I’m trying to rebuild some semblance of “self” - who am I? Why do I exist? Is it right that every day is exactly the same and time really doesn’t exist, it just passes.

What is joy? Should I try online dating? Should I write? Should I get out of bed today?

It’s not all doom and gloom.

Sometimes, total destruction brings about changes that would not have otherwise have happened. I’m not a workaholic anymore - I have strict rules on my devices for do-not-disturb. I rarely work into the night on weekdays, almost never on weekends. I might respond to an email or three, but generally speaking it can all wait until I’m “on the clock”.

The only exception to that rule is I’m now a people-leader. If anyone in my org is in trouble, or needs an ear, I’m there for them.

Oddly, while all of my personal life was burning to the ground, I somehow compartmentalized it in such a way to shift from just a developer/technical leader into now running an org of almost thirty people all of whom I care about. I believe in the things we’re doing as a team, and what we’ve accomplished. I’m sad for the losses we’ve had and the misses.

However, I can be proud of my career in many regards. I didn’t do it on my own, and I didn’t do it easily, but I can be proud of it. I can be proud of my team and take comfort that I can care for them and lead.

So now, here I am.

I’m thirty five, I see my kids on thanksgiving, I avoid getting deeply involved in “large communities” (mostly, tech and programming). In fact, I coach my team and coworkers about the balance they need (I tell them honestly I learned the hard way). I still love making things and creating. I love my girls more than anything in the world.

I care deeply about my team, and my people. Sometimes, I enjoy the quiet solitude that comes with living alone. Other times, its a shadow choking the life out of me.

Not everything is lost and hopeless, I know. I know, in the abstract, that I have friends. I know that I have two amazing, smart, beautiful children. I know my ex-wife is still my best friend.

I know that I like getting together with people and playing games, or just shooting the breeze.

I know I need to keep writing, to spinning all the context and things in my head out. I have to learn what “life” is supposed to be when I’m not valuing my sense of self and worth by the number of things I’m doing at once, or the communities I am part of.

I know I have to work through the all the skeletons in my mental closet. I’ve defined my “self” by the wrong things for most of my life.

I’ve learned a lot, some in incredibly painful ways, some in less painful ways. Some in challenging ways and some things like “I really love leading & inspiring”. I'm going to keep writing about all of it.

Just saying things “will be ok” isn’t enough, I’ve got to start making things better.

Maybe I’ll start by saying hi to someone in this coffee shop.

Joining Rackspace

by Jesse Noller

The Switch

So, as you read in my goodbye post; I'm switching over to a new role at Rackspace starting today, April 15th. The short version is that I am coming on board to help improve and evolve the way Rackspace cooperates with the open source community internally and externally. Of course, I'm crazy excited about this - as I said before:

...if could meld the open source/community work with my "day job" I could do a lot more. I could be more - I could tap into skills I've grown and developed in all of my "lives" and do even more.

If I could bring together the worlds I operate in I could potentially do even more within the Python community, the Open Source world, at my "day job", etc. But things like that don't exist, roles like that are fleeting and rare.

Ah. But roles like this do exist, come to find out, and I managed to be offered one at Rackspace, already working on leading the way with open source and the open cloud in a myriad of ways. They don't just want to be a "big company" - they want to be a great company.


What’s compelling is that Rackspace wants to be/is recognized as one of the world's greatest service companies. This means a fundamental shift away from a “product” driven cycle of development and internal structure - if you’re a service company, you need to hold values like Rackspace's dear:

  • Fanatical Support in all we do.
  • Results first, substance over flash.
  • Committed to Greatness
  • Full Disclosure and Transparency
  • Passion for our Work
  • Treat fellow Rackers like Friends and Family

Interestingly - these values, especially fanatical support directly align with my personal beliefs, and more importantly how you compete with entrenched players in the "cloud" space (see "How do you compete with Google")

But going back to product - we all know services are fundamentally products, but there’s several methods of development. What Rackspace wants to become is “Open First” - this means they see the value in the services they provide, and the fanatical support, but they want develop the software they use for those services and products (especially the Rackspace Cloud) in the Open - this means Open Source all the way down.

Open first means that rather than develop internally and then push externally, development of tools, services, etc will eventually happen in a truly OSS fashion: as open source projects first, and then deployed and utilized internally to Rackspace (as they now do with Openstack/Rackspace Cloud). This means internal changes in development processes, legal processes and much more, much of which is already under way.

This of course means I will be working on internal developer advocacy and changes so that this vision becomes reality: software will be developed in the open, open source will be rewarded, community involvement will be critical for individual developers, support, marketing, etc.

Rackspace doesn’t just want to ship code though: they want to get deeply involved in the developer community as a whole (not just Python). They want to be building products and services that developers want to use and open source projects that developers want to use and contribute to.

Rackspace wants to make itself an awesome place for developers - they want it to be a place where developers can come and write code that doesn’t just benefit Rackspace, but the whole developer community and open source world as a whole. They want to raise the profile of those internal developers who get involved, they want to openly communicate with developers internally and externally.

But that’s just some of the internal pieces.


Externally, Rackspace wants to get more developers involved with its cloud platform and OSS projects. Rackspace wants to support the community as a whole, via outreach, education, code, getting involved in hack spaces, workshops and more.

Rackspace has always been known for fanatical support. What that means for Rackspace as “the Open Cloud company” is that they offer fanatical support for developers. Essentially Rackspace being a great place for developers to work and contribute in every dimension.

Strive to make Rackspace the place where every developer wants to work; make Rackspace services the ones that every developer wants to use. Work to make Rackspace’s Open Source projects the best of breed solutions in their areas (such as OpenStack).

This is important as it represents a shift for Rackspace, but the dedication to this vision comes from all levels within the company. Thats why I’m coming on board - to help drive this vision, bringing together my community work within the Python community, wider developer community and my own development skills.

Some of the things that are on my mind/list:

  • Lower the barrier to entry and friction for internal developers contributing externally.
  • Lower the barrier to entry and friction for external developers to contribute to Rackspace OSS projects (For example, OpenStack and others)
  • Lower the barrier to entry and friction for developers to leverage Rackspace’s cloud services. This means making those services not just easy to use, but robust, compelling and enabling for developers.
  • Supporting outreach groups, workshops, hacker spaces, meetups, conferences, etc - not just within the Python community, but other languages and communities.
    • Rackspace is already supporting conferences, startups and much more - I want to work with them to extend this everywhere within the development community.
  • Internal support for developer/development R&D and more.

Excited Much?

Yeah, I'm pretty excited - nervous, yes - but excited. This represents a huge leap of faith for me. Moving my family across the country, taking on a much larger calling, combining two worlds (product development, community work) and a lot more.

I'm sitting here, outside in San Antonio on a bench waiting for the shuttle to the "Castle" filled with thoughts of the future and what it could hold. I'm shaking, I'm nervous, but it's going to be amazing.