Too long in one job

“What have you learned from maintaining your own code?” is a pretty decent question to ask candidate programmers. Many people we interview have never staid longer in a job than 2-3 years. That’s enough to build something of size, but often leave without seeing whether it’ll stand the test of time.

I’ve been with my current company for seven years now. It’s enough to let me see how my earlier ideas played out in practice. And boy, have I been wrong at times. Several of the components I wrote are now part of our technical debt and when I do a technical introduction for newcomers, on several items I repeat “that one’s my fault”. What I thought will ease maintenance and development, either doesn’t anymore or never did. It’s been seven years of excellent education, and one that I was being paid for.

There are a lot of good reasons to change employers. Abusive work environments and dead-end, repetitive, I’d-rather-die-boring positions top that list, and if you’re in one of these places, you cannot leave too soon. But my approach was always that once I agree with my employer to a set of conditions, including fair pay, humane work environment and, importantly, lots of space to grow, I become committed to that relationship for as long as these conditions are upheld.

On the other hand, some of my colleagues left, lured by offers “too good to refuse”, presenting massively interesting challenges to tackle. Modern technologies, booming industries, novel approaches. Often sweetened with better pay. I cannot blame them and I cannot say myself what I would’ve done if presented with such an offer.

One can certainly also make the argument, that others’ work is just as good a source of learning, as one’s own. That going to a different place, working with different people will expose one to other, often better approaches. Of course. I’m just afraid of this turning into a cargo-cult spiral, where you acquire new ways of working without taking the time to understand them—why they succeed and where they fail—before moving on to the next big thing.

Instruction vs. Experimentation
From Jessica Hagy’s Indexed

It’s complicated. There’s no good number or even range of years one “should” spend in a single place. Not without considering the context of this time—the company, the people, the work and alternative opportunities. And in a world of abundant opportunities, such as the one we have now in IT, it’s crazy difficult to decide whether and when to make a move.

Talking like you own the place

“Last year we acquired [company] and …” I was chatting with my friends about some recent business of the company I’m part of. They looked at me funny and interrupted “you keep saying ‘we‘. That’s sooo unusual.”

I always talked this way. How else should I be talking about the organization I spent over 6 years with, advanced through three positions and delivered numerous projects now used by millions of our users. I’m definitely making an impact on the day to day business of the company and if I wasn’t able to do so I’d be long gone and contributing elsewhere.

Apparently I’m and odd outlier here. Many (most?) people would refer to places they spend half their waking hours at for decades as some variation of “the company I work for” as if they firmly tried to distance themselves from someplace unpleasant. That’s what we do with people—when we don’t like somebody we use words to create distance:

  • revert to formal titles “Mr Smith”, “Mrs Jameson”, then
  • depersonalize references, replacing them with “this man” or “that woman”, reaching extremes with complete
  • dehumanization at “that miscreant” or “those idiots”.

The equivalents for a company would be:

  • “Google” (fill in your company name),
  • “the company I work for”,
  • “sweatshop”.

The moment I catch myself saying “the company I work for” will be my trigger to make major changes. Either in employment or in attitude.

Seventy percent of the time Swiss

Boarding an airplane on Monday morning, coffee in hand, yawning, flying to Zürich for a week of alternating between the customer’s office and hotel, then back in the air on Friday evening to reach base—my home in Warsaw for the weekend. That was the offer I was given a while ago, good money, challenging work. I replied “no, thank you“.

Mind you, I am by no means bound to where I’m living currently, even though I love it here. There are many other extraordinary spots around the world where I could see myself moving. It’s just this particular arrangement that wouldn’t suit me—torn Schrödinger-style between two locations, neither really here nor there.

It would’ve uprooted me from all the current affiliations I had here, in Warsaw—the TEDx people, startup communities, Toastmasters and personal relationships. On the other hand, my temporary Zürich tenure (or anywhere else for that matter) wouldn’t have let me get engaged in anything meaningful there, since these relationships take time to develop and produce results.

There would be also practical consequences to consider. Since I would’ve been spending only weekends here in Warsaw, I’d want to maximize my enjoyment of them, so I’d have to pay somebody to clean my apartment, do laundry and arrange for all the other chores to be done, so that I can rest, catch up with family and friends. And I likely would’ve been spending vacation at home, sick of all the traveling.

There are times in life when that sort of work mode could be acceptable, perhaps even exciting. Usually that’s when one is younger, has no spouse, little experience. With time one learns that things of value require time and commitment to build, often related to one’s personal presence somewhere for an extended period of time. We might be living in a digital age, but we’re still very much physical creatures.