Fight or Flight
As software developers, or, more broadly, as techies, we are extremely fortunate. So many people want to give us money and jobs that we find it annoying. Let that sink in for a moment. A serious first world problem that we all share is how many times per week people cold call us to ask us to interview for other jobs. That’s our strange reality and, as someone who graduated with a CS degree right into the teeth of the dotcom bubble bursting, I can tell you that it isn’t the worst problem that one could have. Still, it’s shaped our collective outlook on work and, in my opinion, is pushing us toward free agency in which developers eventually stop having even the pretense of long associations with companies.
But what if you don’t want free agency? What if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of resumes and interviews involving silly brain teasers and other indignities? You can just ignore the recruiters in the short term, but is the writing on the wall for complete deterioration of the traditional association between developers and (non-consultancy) employers? I’ll get back to that.
My girlfriend told me a story once about a guy she had dated years earlier. They were driving down a highway when they came upon a guy broken down and with a flat on the side of the road. He looked like he could use some help. The ex-boyfriend, apparently in an inexplicably foul mood, took note of this situation, leaned out his window while driving by and gestured obscenely at this hapless and now bewildered motorist who was doing absolutely nothing but having a bit of bad luck. This random act of meanness, my girlfriend told me, was the exact moment at which she knew the relationship wouldn’t work out. They dated for a bit after that, but apparently from then on it was pretty much a matter of running out the clock until the inevitable, awkward conversation. It wasn’t as if in that moment she thought “that’s it, this is over” nor was that by any stretch the only problem with the relationship, but it became a defining Moment — a catalyst.
I think there’s a Moment like this in every job that you leave: being passed over for a big promotion, hearing an official announcement that you’re going to be switching everything to VB6, being verbally abused by a superior in a group setting, etc. It’s The Moment at which you know that it’s over and the rest is just details and formalities. I can think back to every job that I’ve had and remember this Moment (or perhaps 2-3 viable contenders) with amazing clarity. In this day and age, few programmers practically think that they’ll be somewhere until retirement, but the idea of leaving the company is some nebulous, abstract, future concept when they start, and it remains that way until The Moment. And then it becomes clear, concrete, and, while still in the future, not far off. Your departure is no longer a class in source code but an instantiated object in process memory just waiting to be triggered and exhibit real, actual behavior.
But what if you don’t want this? What if you’re not interested in moving around and don’t want a long list of one year stays on your resume? After all, if you’re a job-hopper, The Moment is like an old friend beckoning you onto a greener pasture. But if you’re content and more of a permanent worker type, The Moment is probably depressing and terrifying. So how do you avoid it?
Well I certainly can’t give you anything bulletproof, but I can sum it up with a simple mantra that you can hang onto when you’re contemplating taking a job: find a place worth fighting for. Maybe you’re a big advocate of green technologies and you find a job working for a solar panel manufacturing company. Maybe you really like Legos and you go work for Lego. Maybe you go work somewhere that all of your friends work and you’re invested in the camaraderie. Whatever the case may be, you have to find a reason that you’d fight to stay there. If you have that, then The Moment becomes one of galvanization and thrown gauntlets (within reason — if it’s something like harassment or a pay cut, all bets are off) rather than the centerpiece of a future story about why you changed jobs, anyway. When those Moments come, like a random driver with rage issues — and they will come — it’s fight or flight. And if you’re not willing to fight, it’s going to be flight.