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.

  • Allen Conway

    Another awesome editorial Erik. It is true we are in sweet times where the supply of developers / engineers is lower than the need, and even lower for quality engineers. The result is there are a lot of job opportunities which is a nice ‘problem’ to have.

    Last night I was listening to messages on my answering machine at home and made the mistake of picking up the phone right in the middle of dinner. It was a recruiter.

    1. Hi Allen, are you interested in a job, it’s doing….
    2. Oh OK, do you know anyone who might like this job, it is….
    3. Do you need a recruiter to assist at your current employer find candidates for your open positions, we could…

    Can’t blame them for trying! I remember a few years ago when I was using these folks they spoke of how difficult it was to find quality engineers. All 1st world problems as you mention. Like you say, we can be choosy to find that job to ‘fight’ for and try to keep if so desired.

    Best quote that many can relate to: “…hearing an official announcement that you’re going to be switching everything to VB6″ :D :P

  • http://www.schmonz.com/ Amitai Schlair

    Data are inconclusive whether I’m a hopper or non-hopper by temperament, but I’ve had success sticking around at a large company by lazily invalidating and reevaluating my purpose in being there. The intersection of its needs with my aptitudes and skills contains multitudes, so when I’m not learning enough or being appreciated enough (or whatever else), my fight to find a new purpose has repeatedly gone well. So I strongly agree — whether or not one’s strategy is to stick around at one job — about needing a reason for taking a job, and would append that the reason doesn’t necessarily have to be designed up front, but can sometimes emerge (and reemerge) as constraints change. And I’d add that we ourselves, like the companies we work for, never stay the same. So we should be prepared — perhaps especially so with smaller shops — to choose new reasons for ourselves over time.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Sounds like you have a pretty agreeable attitude toward the recruiters. Some people are pretty hostile. I think it sounds like you have a pretty good attitude too, which is no doubt valuable in making your services that much more desirable.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Out of curiosity, when you “repurpose” yourself within an organization, does that typically involve some kind of transfer to another department or different role, or is it just about adjusting your own attitudes and perceptions about the tasks at hand?

  • http://www.schmonz.com/ Amitai Schlair

    Each of the above: different department, different role, different self-assigned goal for doing the same thing, different timetable and rationale for trying to wait it out, etc. In my case, transfer has been the last resort after more than one mental adjustment fails to do the trick.

    One reason I used to be sure I had a non-hopping temperament (despite hopping every couple years) was an old-school need to see things through even when what’s going on around me was ridiculous. I see now that that was a lie I told myself, that my real problem was a combination of trusting myself too much to do great work no matter what anyone else around me was doing, and not trusting myself enough to decide how much ridiculous is too much. I got better, on both counts. And now, even though I’ve been at the same company for upwards of four years, I’m not at all sure I’m a non-hopper. :-)

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