Stories about Software


Gathering the Confidence to Leave Your Job

It’s Thursday night, and I’m holed up in a hotel in Lansing, Michigan.  I figure there’s never been a better time to answer a reader question.  This one is about how to summon the confidence to leave your job.

The question is actually a rather lengthy one, and here is a redacted/obfuscated version of it (removing anything that could be identifying).

I have had my developer position for several years. I’ve been promoted, but I’m still not a senior developer. I have become extremely “silo-ed” in my skills, because those are the types of projects I’ve been assigned.  I read your statement that salaried employment is a bad economical decision for developers. The developer should be making $50 or maybe a bit more at $60. I get paid {a good bit less} an hour for 40 hours a week of expected work.  I feel the need to grow my abilities.

I watched your video on Pluralsight on how to propose practices. My manager bought into some,  but most of my coworkers are ignoring the new stuff.  My place of employment fires developers once they are called as a references for checking if they ever worked there.

I need a goal, something I can achieve to give me confidence to start pursuing other options. Something that gets me into a situation where people seek me for relevant development.

There are actually several questions and issues here to unpack, so I’ll tackle them in order of complexity.

Pay is Relative

First of all, when I talk about developers making 50 per hour/100K or 60 per hour/120K, I’m mainly catering to myself and ease of math.  100K is a nice, round figure, and 120K makes monthly finace (10K) easy to calculate.  These figures were slightly high in the Chicago-land area as of 2+ years ago, which was when I was last seriously hiring and evaluating pay there.

But, beyond that, pay varies a lot by geographic location, industry, filing status (nonprofit, for profit), etc.  If you salaried a developer working in San Francisco at 150K per year, he would probably need to move into a homeless shelter.  (I kid, but only slightly).  Pay that same wage to someone in central Kentucky and “should we install a second hot tub on the master bedroom deck” becomes a topic of debate around the marble dinner table.

All that being said, your wage was fairly low for a developer anywhere of your experience.  But don’t base your assessment of how low on my blog and what I know (I don’t pay much attention these days).  Base instead off of researching in your region.

We’ll Fire You for Looking…

Okay, this is where I offer the IANAL (I am not a lawyer) caveat.  This is based on my experience doing management consulting and working as a manager, much of which happened in at will states (this can vary by state and certainly by country).

If you’re a company, terminating employees is like playing Minesweeper, except instead of bombs, there are lawsuits.  You’re clicking along gleefully when suddenly, one day, BLAMMO!  Wrongful termination!  So you learn your lesson and you start looking at all of those numbers really carefully and insulating yourself against potential problems.



One such strategy is to have cause, which means that you’re being fired for “grave misconduct.”  This is what happens when someone walks in on you making naked photocopies in the printer room or coming to work drunk.  This is hardly a strategy for getting rid of you, though – it’s generally pretty reactive.

Next up is termination for incompetence/non-performance, which is the most common form of termination.  Unlike going Beavis and Butthead in the copy room, however, an employer needs to demonstrate a pattern here, and they need to demonstrate that they’ve provided feedback and offered you the chance to fix it.  This usually happens via the “Performance Improvement Plan” (PIP), which is an employer strategy to document (and have you sign to the effect) that you deserve to be fired.

With cause or an unfulfilled PIP in their back pocket, the employer KNOWS that the next square clicked will not be a mine.  Without them…  cue suspenseful music.

In which of these camps does “talking to another company in your spare time” fall?  The answer is neither.  It’s neither gross misconduct nor is it incompetence.  It’s just you acting in your own interest, and if they go sour grapes on you, they’re at risk of a lawsuit.  They say “he was looking for another job” but you say “discrimination against protected class X” or “wrongful termination.”  At that point, they’re discussing unemployment and/or your cash settlement.  That’s a steep price for some pouting.

And, frankly, this is a pretty obtuse strategy.  The employee is about to leave voluntarily, which is a strictly non-liability situation for the company in every way.  Why pay someone to leave when they’re about to quit?

Don’t get me wrong – when a manager catches an employee looking for other gigs, there’s a tendency to write that person off long term.  But that’s a far cry from a termination.  So if people at your work say that people are fired for looking, I’d maintain a healthy skepticism on the subject.  If you know for a fact it’s true, leave quickly – that’s a silly place.

You’ve Got This

Anyway, onto the meat of the matter.  You want to know how to get people to seek you out, which is understandable because that’s a highly desirable situation.  But, unfortunately, that’s a situation that tends to require an extremely visible profile — moonlighting, giving talks at conferences, writing books, etc.  And if someone taking an interview causes your company to have a hissy fit, I can only imagine their reaction to you building a public profile under there noses.

But don’t worry — you’re in luck.  There is something you can do: send your resume to a recruiter.  Here is, loosely speaking, the conversation that a recruiter will have with you if you reach out, expressed in flowchart format.


I’m obviously having a little fun drawing on my new Surface Book, but this really isn’t far off.  I consult with clients and help them hire, and the single most common problem is, “I can’t find developers.”  I do office hours with startups, as a kind of “rent-a-CTO for an hour” offering, and question I hear the most is, “can you help me find developers?”  The wide world is turning over every rock looking for you (which might explain your company’s FUD campaign to keep you from looking).  Add to that the fact that you can put on your resume impressive accomplishments like “successfully made the business case for adoption of technique X” and “headed up rollout of X.”

The only things I see as impediments to would-be devs are lack of employers in remote regions and lack of any experience.  If there’s only one company within 100 miles, it’s hard (but not impossible, thanks to remote) to find work.  But other than that, anyone that has like a year of experience or more will be able to write their ticket, even if their skills have become somewhat niche.

The one thing that you might do in your spare time is brush up on newer languages and frameworks, targeting the kind of work that you want to do.  But even that is probably optional.

Seriously, you’re going to be alright.  If you keep it quiet and dip your toe in the water, you’ll almost certainly be fine.  I was in a position like yours once, long tenure at my first employer and really nervous about going elsewhere.  I sent a few resumes to recruiters, was instantly buried in an unexpected avalanche of calls, and never looked back since then.

I suppose I could offer all sorts of oblique ways to build confidence, but don’t think that any of us developers really need that in this market.  The work is out there, clamoring to be done by people who know how to write code.  We’re in the fortunate position that all we need to do is take a look out there.

Editorial Note: Want to ask me a question, to be answered on this blog?

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8 years ago

Great post. It’s definitely scary to let go of something that has structured a large part of your life and try something new – whether it’s a new job, starting on your own as a freelancer, or setting up your own company. I would like to ask you how you get to “good” recruiters? My experience with recruiters has been rather negative and I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong here. I would also like to add that apart from seeking our recruiters, it’s worthwhile to look for companies that look like great places to work at and reach out… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
8 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Good point about going beyond recruiters. They were what came to mind in response to the “maximum secrecy” requirement, since they get you the most volume for the least effort. But I’ve talked in the past about how I don’t think that they’re the best way to get a GOOD job — just another job — so I’m glad you brought this up.

I’ve added a card to my post backlog about the question for finding good recruiters. I think that’s going to need more than a comment response to address 🙂

Yan Yankowski
Yan Yankowski
8 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Oftentimes it’s enough to visit a LinkedIn profile of a recruiter to make him/her contact you.

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
8 years ago
Reply to  Yan Yankowski

🙂 I turned off the thing where LinkedIn shows people I visit their profiles, but I have little doubt that this is true. Like sharks to blood in the water.