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.

Searching for geek heaven

We’d love to love our jobs. To the point where we can’t stand how long a weekend is, before we may go back to work on Monday. Utopia? Not at all. I know people who genuinely love their jobs, who found their geek and non-geek heavens. And I have my own criteria for evaluating companies I would consider joining.

There are three qualities that combined would make a company a Geek Heaven:

  1. IT is central to business,
  2. everybody has someone else to learn from, and
  3. there’s a non-monetary reason for the company to do what it does.

IT is central to business

Has your department ever been called a “cost center”? That’s another way of saying “we will outsource your work to <insert cheap labor country> as soon as you start asking too much money.” You are disposable. A cog in the machine. But the ramifications here are so much broader, because if IT isn’t the driver of business, then all IT decisions will be monetary decisions.

  • there’s no point replacing a stone-age era technology, as long as it works,
  • there’s no point speaking at a conference, because that’s a cost that doesn’t contribute to business,
  • there’s no point contributing to open-source projects, because again it’s a cost with no return (oh, but we’re happy to use free, open-source software),
  • and so on.

On the other hand, we can easily name companies that heavily rely on their IT for business success. Google, GitHub, Etsy, Netflix, Spotify… We know them, because they’re very active members of our community. They speak, share, collaborate, contribute, while internally, each one of them is pushing the boundaries of their technology.

You want to be at one of those places, where each and every day IT people ask themselves “how can we make this better?“, and the business people answer by asking “how can we help you?

Everybody has someone else to learn from

I was never the smartest guy in the room. From the first person I hired, I was never the smartest guy in the room. And that’s a big deal. And if you’re going to be a leader – if you’re a leader and you’re the smartest guy in the world – in the room, you’ve got real problems.

Jack Welch, interview at Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN, June 2011

Jack’s right, and his words apply to everyone – not only “leaders”. You always want to be around people who are better than you. If you dig through the stories of most successful people, they always reference somebody who inspired them, who they learned tons from.

You want to work for a company that has a diverse set of top-notch specialists. People passionate about their work, who continuously pursue mastery. People who’s contributions will inspire and motivate you to develop your own skills. People who will be happy to share their knowledge.

Non-monetary reason for the company to do what it does

The “why are we doing this?” is perhaps the single most important question that is barely ever asked in a work environment. And when the answer mentions “shareholder value” or “sales increase”, it’s a dead end. Money is very uninspiring. Sure, it’s motivating, but for all the wrong reasons:

The goal is not just to hire people who need a job; it’s to hire people who believe what you believe. I always say that, you know, if you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears. [emphasis mine]

Simon Sinek, TED Talk: How great leaders inspire action

Simon’s talk is well worth watching to understand how much the “why” we do things matters. You should also grab his book “Start with Why” to dive deeper into the matter.

Too many times important initiatives are explained in monetary terms, which don’t mean anything to most people working on them. If the company makes an extra million, are we actually going to receive any of it? Not likely.

What you want instead is a business pursuit you can believe in – big or small, like getting the world rid of malaria, or making awesome tools for developers. You want to be part of something good being done for others, where money comes back almost as a side effect.

If you look at Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the three qualities above align precisely with the top two layers of Esteem and Self-actualization:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

It goes without saying, that in order for a company to become a Geek Heaven, the bottom layers need already to be catered for. You certainly won’t feel any good working at a place, where you may get fired any minute, you’re getting peanuts for your work or which is physically unsafe.

A lot of companies these days do very good on the bottom layers of the pyramid, but very few succeed in the upper ones.

Why does it all matter?

Our work as geeks relies on creativity – finding novel ways of tackling problems in a world that’s impossible to describe in ones and zeros. Every single day we’re fitting square pegs into round holes. Creativity is a shy creature though, that only shows up when we’re comfortable and content, at what psychology calls “cognitive ease”:

[G]ood mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 [intuitive, automated thinking] form a cluster. At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together. A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 [analytic, logical thinking] over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors. (…) A good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down. A bad mood indicates that things are not going very well, there may be a threat, and vigilance is required. Cognitive ease is both a cause and a consequence of a pleasant feeling. [emphasis, explanations mine]

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

There’s a clear business case for building companies, where geeks are happy.

You’re a geek. You’re doing a job that’s highly in demand these days and will remain so for the nearest future. Use that to your advantage and “vote with your feet” for companies that you truly feel great working for. Find the criteria for what makes your very own Geek Heaven, and if you haven’t found it yet, move on.

(Maslov’s pyramid image by J. Finkelstein on Wikipedia)

An army of sheep led by a lion

I’ve yet to see a company that, having sound leadership, failed. I’ve also never seen one to succeed with bad leaders. And the surprise is that being a “good” or “bad” leader has nothing to do with how you treat people around you. You can be a tyrant (Steve Jobs), a bully (Bill Gates), a corsair (Larry Ellisson) or a friendly, passionate geek (Larry Page, Sergey Brin) and succeed nonetheless. But if you lead in the wrong direction, then boy, you’ll hit an iceberg sooner than you can spell “Titanic”.

This isn’t to say that you should immediately burn your copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People and start screaming around at your team like a drill instructor. But it does mean that if you’re not naturally a social, likeable person, trying to change yourself is probably a misallocated effort. You may rather want to spend time getting to know your market and learning as much as you can about your domain. Put a lot of work into becoming the best expert in your field.

Being a great leader may motivate people to row faster, but it won’t help anyone if you’re all heading for a cliff.