The first breath after my return to Sydney felt as relieving as I imagined it would. The sweet scent that reminded me of tree sap and freshly mown grass was a good contrast to the exhaust fumes that filled the Xi’an air. The flight had been on time, but my mind was still soaking on five weeks of memories.
Day 1: We’re walking through customs. The Xi’an airport looks the same as every other airport. The grey-and-white walls, pillars, ceilings, and floor tiles, the nondescript lights and dustbins. Why do the insides of all airports look interchangeable? They’re so culture-mute.
We collect our luggage, and roll it to the exit. Outside, the air is cold and ashy. A kind-faced gentleman greets us with a smile and a sign that says “Thoughtworks”. We shake hands, and I greet him with “How you goin’?”, he smiles and nods. It’s then that I realise that he doesn’t speak English. Why would he? It’s China. Through a dense mix of hand gestures and half-spoken words, we soon discover that one of us is missing.
They were supposed to wait for four people, and we are three. What follows next is an endless loop of looking at our phones, realising that we can’t dial numbers here, looking at the driver’s phone and pointing at things, and then shoving our translator app at each other’s faces to find out what’s happening.
In the end, the driver gestures that we’re going to leave. L(-_-L) We reluctantly follow him to the parking lot, but talking amongst ourselves we’re extremely worried about the fourth Thoughtworker. Right before the driver opens the hatch of his car, we stop him, and I ask, “What happens to the missing girl now?”. Of course, he doesn’t understand. What am I even doing? It’s past midnight, we’re in a new country that we know next to nothing about, and after more than 12 hours of sitting in a plane, there’s no news on the whereabouts of someone who was meant to be travelling with us. It’s all too much. Erinna hands me her phone with the translator on, and in one last attempt, I repeat my sentence, carefully enunciating each word, “What-Happens-To-The-Girl-We-Are-Leaving-Behind?”
The translator responds with, “I like singing, and dancing in the sun”, and we lose it. Everyone breaks into a loud, hearty laughter. No more thoughts, or concerns, no plans, just a bunch of friends caught in a fit of laughter at the sheer absurdity of our situation.
Just like the right foreshadowing in a movie, this was one moment that captured everything about TWU.
When I left for TWU, I’d expected it to be a "consultancy training program" - you sit in a class, you attend sessions, shake hands, and write things. Once the schedule is through, you shake hands again - sayonara, see you on my LinkedIn. But what they hadn’t told us was that TWU was a "consultancy equivalent of a navy seals boot camp".
You’re put into a class full of starry-eyed, bright people, grouped into teams, and you champion your way through one challenging hurdle after another. There’s no respite, it’s a barrage of increasingly tough problems. But you know you can do it because you’re not alone. There is trust in the team, and you have a place in the plan, always. No matter what background you come from, and no matter your skill level, TWU teaches you to play your best game with the cards that you’ve been dealt, and it works!
The trainers are always by your side, and they imbibe in you all of the things that you’d been sorely missing - the TW goodies - pair programming, test-driven development, feedback culture - the whole nine yards. And you will use these tools until they become a part of you, and that’s when it strikes you like lightning, why Thoughtworks stresses so much on these things.
The trainers are also your colleagues, so they’ll be there for you, to hear you out, and guide you. Although they won’t climb the mountain for you, they’ll point you to some trusty footholds. And if you’re willing to ask for help, and act on feedback, there’s no place with a greater learning-to-time ratio than TWU.
You learn these things, and you use them, day in and day out. The project starts seeming more and more real. You have invested so much in it, and it’s growing into something. You look forward to working on it day after day, sometimes you even bring your lunch back to your desk, so you can brainstorm on this defect you’ve been trying to fix for two days. And your pair? What pair? They’re your FRIEND, you code together, go on coffee breaks together, have meals together. And when you switch to a new pair, you’re eager to pair with them again. But with the next pair, you also have the same magic. You code with them, squeezing your brain through trying iterations, and on team outings you two have the greatest banter. And you hope you’ll get to pair with them again too. And like so, you make friends with everyone on your team. Be it BAs, XDs or Devs, their company becomes your routine.
And the other teams? They’re going through cycles of the same, and you spend dinners, outings, and bar crawls intermingling between teams. But it’s the office where all the fun’s at, where you indulge yourself in this strange soup of brilliant people handpicked for you from all over the world. And you’re looking forward to another iteration of it, and another, but then they stop coming.
The project wraps up in five weeks. You’ve seen it coming all along, but you never knew you’d dread the end of work so much. Right, there’s a farewell party, and you get to see everyone together again for one big hurrah, and for that one night you forget that everyone will be gone the next morning, tens of thousands of kilometres away from you. But as the night ends, so does the music. And you hug each other goodbye.
We had a hall of 40 Thoughtworkers, hugging each other, saying their goodbyes, a tear here and a sob there. We sat through the bus ride back to the hotel in pondering, the quietest ride I’ve been in. It was sad, the greatest contrast from the 8 am jamborees that went to the office every morning - sleep deprived hooligans, all of us, riding for our first hit of coffee before work.
There were going to be no more team cheers, no more banter in the bus, no more walking around the cold, eye-burning streets of Xi’an, no eleven-people-restaurant-trips for Biang Biang Mien. We were all sad, but the time had come. We hugged each other in the hotel lobby again, and there were a lot more tears this time. The marble floors of the pale hallway were weighed down by 30 consultants and their many tears, and their numerous promises to fly very soon to see each other again. There were many hugs, many more than one can keep count of, but they didn’t quench the hurt. So we left for our rooms. The schedule for the next morning, for nearly all of us, was early morning flights or a day of packing and then rushing to the airport.
It was rather unsurprisingly, a dead day. Even the sky looked drab. We packed our bags and left for the airport, many cried on their way, others cried on the plane, opening notes from their friends. Some of us broke after arriving back to our home cities and opening our laptops to find things we had started back in Xi’an, still open - the web pages you so lovingly crafted with your team, the GoCD pipeline you strived so hard to keep green (and it was still green - weren’t you a bunch of wizards?), and the killer - maps of Xi’an marked with that one place you wanted to go with your friends but never did.
Days of emptiness and reminiscing followed, but true to the values imbibed into us at TWU, action plans emerged. Our loosely scattered batch congealed into groups, and people started sharing their emotions. By sharing, we lightened the burden, and we found ourselves in the same emotional boat, just like the Xi’an days.
We have stayed active since, and everyone is a touch away from their friends on the phone. Group chats keep up the spirit of our banter, and reunion plans are already underway. The end of TWU might have been sad, but we all came out of it better in every way - bold as professionals, more mature humans, and 30 friends stronger.
I’m still recovering from my post-TWU-blues, but I’ve had some time to look back at the time we spent in Xi’an, and no matter which angle I look through, I come up with just one feeling - gratitude. I’m grateful that I had the good fortune of learning so much over five weeks in the company of this brilliant, brilliant cohort. I’m still amazed at the precision of recruitment, that TW practices to achieve this concentration of genuine good-heartedness and talent. And I can only hope that Thoughtworks continues to offer our future grads this program with the same love and rigour.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.