I wrote this article the day that Bill Gates announced he was leaving Microsoft to pursue a career as a philanthropist. It sat on the shelf until about two weeks ago when I started helping Rob Walling edit his article Nine Things Developers Want More Than Money. I couldn’t help but be reminded of it, and Rob encouraged me to publish it. If you enjoy this article, you should definitely check out Rob’s article, which pinpoints what developers are really looking for in a job. Enjoy!
Earlier this year, Bill Gates announced that he will be leaving Microsoft within the next two years. In a way, I’m rather surprised that he lasted this long. Let me tell you, if I had $40 billion in the bank, one of the last things I’d be doing is working. Still, it does prove a point. People have a tendency to work extremely hard at the things they love, regardless of the pay. Great pay helps, but it also prolongs the inevitable if you’re just in it for the money.
To be honest, I have worked some places just for the money. It’s not fun. In fact, it downright sucks going to work at a place you simply can’t stand just to see a fine looking paycheck at the end of the week. The common inclination is to think you would feel otherwise in that situation. “Oh, if I were making six figures, I wouldn’t care what I was doing. I’d work there forever.”
No, you wouldn’t. I guarantee it. It’s not about the money. It never is. People always say this, but it isn’t true. It’s about enjoying your career. If you work at a job for long enough that you don’t like, you’re going to eventually start looking around for what else is out there. There are two underlying reasons for this.
First, and more importantly, the job sucks. It’s either boring, not challenging, monotonous, or you sit in meetings all day when you hate going to meetings, etc… You make up excuses like “I’m working from home today because my Chihuahua is sick and I need to take him to the vet.” Be honest. You don’t even own a Chihuahua.
Let me put things a little differently. If you had a 9-5 job where your sole task was to sharpen pencils all day long and it paid 50% more than what you were making now, or $100k/year (whichever is greater), how long do you think you would last? A day? A month? A year? What about two years? And your ten year plan is what? Sharpen enough pencils to get in the Guinness Book of World Records! Score!!! Maybe not.
The second reason is that after a while, you come to realize that you need to move on and find a new job, even if it means taking a pay cut. As you sharpen those pencils every day, you literally feel your brain being dulled as the pencils grow sharper. They are now being sharpened by osmosis. Do that too long, and you will become utterly unemployable, and then where would you be? I’ll give you a hint. It’s one word, starts with ‘unemploy’, and ends with ‘ed’.
When I lived in Rochester, NY, there were some companies that I would have taken a $20k pay cut to work at because the work would have been exciting, incredibly interesting, and my technical talents would have increased tremendously. Personal growth is important to everyone, no matter what career you have. Try as they may, a lot of companies don’t seem to understand this and don’t offer career advancement paths. This is partly why I left the IT department at Wegmans, which has been touted a number of times as one of the best companies to work for. I eventually just got bored.
When I first moved to Massachusetts, I had started looking around at jobs and was considering a mild career change from that of a software developer to more of a software/hardware interfacing developer. I have the hardware training. Hell, if I can reverse engineer and rewire a Furby so you can control it over the internet, I can sure as hell get somewhere in a hardware/software interfacing career.
On the power of my cover letter alone, I was able to land an interview at iRobot. I was told that my cover letter blew them away and was their basis for even calling me. I had basically explained my experience and that I was considering a career change and wanted a chance in the ‘new’ field. They were impressed with the projects I had undertaken outside of work and wanted to bring me in.
I guess in my mind, it wouldn’t have really been all that much of a new career. I mean, after you’ve designed a CPU at the substrate layer, interfacing IC chips to form a product just seems like a natural extension of that.
But the job market is a funny place and you’re not going to even get a foot in the door unless it’s an entry level position, and this was an entry level position.
Unfortunately, I had to decline the iRobot interview as I had accepted a position at Pedestal Software literally the day before. I hadn’t signed anything with Pedestal, but I wasn’t going to go back on my word. I guess that’s just the type of person I am. I thanked iRobot, and that was the end of it. Sort of. The HR rep spent the next five minutes begging me to “just come in for an interview and see what you think”. Three years later, iRobot went public. Oops.
It turns out that I could have done what I loved, and probably made a lot of money at the same time. Pedestal Software did very well for itself and was eventually acquired by Altiris to the tune of $65-$75 million or so. (The actual amount is a bit fuzzy, since it depends on how you count their cash on hand, and who was speaking when the press release was issued.) Me? Well, I really enjoyed working at Pedestal, but I made less than $10k from my stock options, which turns out to be around 0.00014% of the deal. It made me realize something.
A lot of people have delusions of grandeur when working at startups. This product is going to be great, everyone is going to want one, and we’re all going to be rich!
Yea? Let me know how that works out for you.
The most viable exit strategy for most companies these days is selling out to a larger company, which by default means no IPO. The reality is that unless you’re the CEO or one of the founders of a company, you’re not going to make a lot of money when that happens. By a lot, I mean millions of dollars. Even vice presidents of startups don’t make a huge amount of money when the company is sold. They make a few hundred thousand to be sure, so it’s not as if it wasn’t worth their time. But they don’t make out nearly as well as the CEO and the founders.
An IPO is reserved for Google, iRobot and those other rare, one in 100,000 startups. But you don’t have to go public with your company to have a successful career. You don’t have to sell your startup company to make a good living.
One of the things that attracts a lot of people to the Fog Creek way of doing things is how Joel lays everything out. It’s not that he has truly original ideas. But Joel has a unique way with words and puts things so well that it’s very difficult to disagree with him unless you start nitpicking, at which time you’re probably missing the point of his argument anyway.
Who doesn’t want to work at a company where the engineers make the decisions instead of the marketing or sales guys? When is the last time you talked with a sales or marketing guy who really understood the underlying technology? Unless he was a developer turned sales guy, I bet you never have. Part of the reason for this is the barrier to entry for a developer to get into sales. When you make the money you do as a developer, it’s really hard to give all that up and start over at the bottom rung, taking a huge pay cut. Not impossible, but very difficult. In a market like Boston where rent and mortgages are outrageously expensive, it’s even more difficult.
As desirable as these people would be, I would wager that you will likely never even have the opportunity to hire one. Do you know why? Because these are the type of people who start their own companies. They not only see and understand what people want and need, but they have the technical background to build it. They understand all of the angles and realize that they can control their own destiny, and that’s what self funding your own company is all about. Being in complete control of your own destiny.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone out there needs to run out and start their own company to have a happy and healthy career. Far from it. You simply need to work in an environment that is encouraging you and your professional growth, rather than discouraging it.
If you’re anything like me, you’re a bit of a geek, and you enjoy being a geek. Karnaugh maps are cool. At least a little bit. Wiring Furby’s to the internet is even cooler. Geeky, but definitely cool. Gadgets and gizmos, slashdot and thinkgeek. We play with new technology on our own time for one good reason. Because we can and because we like it. Ok, that was two reasons. $echo complaints | /dev/null
When you first get out of college, life is great. You get a job as a developer, and although it’s grunt work, the pay is better than you got working at the Student Union flipping burgers or washing aprons. As time goes on, things change. Despair.com and Dilbert turn into role models as working in corporate America gradually takes its toll. I’ve said it in the past, and I’ll say it again. Dilbert is only funny because its true. We’ve all had our PHB’s and wondered what life would be like without them.
And you know what? It’s really hard to find companies that aren’t like that. That’s why I started Moon River Software. I was tired of looking for one. Convincing Joel to move Fog Creek, or Eric Sink to move SourceGear to Boston simply wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
So now, I’m doing what I love, there are no PHB’s in sight, and things are going well. As someone who went before me probably said, “I think I’m onto something here”.
Special thanks to Rob Walling for reading drafts of this article.