Notes On Job Hopping: You Should Probably Job Hop
Last week, in a post that either broke the Google+ counter mechanism or blew up there in very isolated fashion, I talked about job hopping and meandered my way to my own personal conclusion as to whether it might be construed as unethical. I don’t think it is. Today I’d like to talk a bit about practical ramifications for the individual, as promised at the end of that post.
The title of this sounds like link bait, but that’s not really more my goal. I wrote the post without giving it a title and then reread it. This title was the only thing that I could think to call it, as I realized, “wow, I guess I’m recommending that people job hop.”
A Scarlet J
Conventional wisdom holds that there is some kind of sliding scale between loyal employee and job hopper and that you get into a bit of a danger zone if you move around too much. Everyone can really imagine the scenario: you’re in an interview and the interviewer awkwardly asks, “since you seem to switch jobs a lot, how do I know you’d stay here long enough for the hire to be worthwhile?” And you’d fire a blank at this point, you job hopper, you. You’d be unable to convince this hiring authority to take a chance on you. And what’s worse is that this would be a common reaction, getting you turned down in interviews and probably even tossed from a number of resume piles in the first place. You have a scarlet J on your chest, and nothing but time will remove it.
If, on the other hand, you opt for the loyalty route and keep the number of job changes pretty minimal, you’ll have no trouble finding your next job. Without that scarlet J, the townsfolk are more than happy to give you an offer letter. They figure that if you’ve spent a decade at Initech, you’re likely to spend the next decade working for them. And, really, what could be better for them? Everyone knows that turnover is expensive. There are training periods and natural inefficiencies to that concept; it’s just a question of how bad. If Bob and all of his tribal knowledge walk out the door, it can be a real problem for a group. So companies look for unfaithful employees, but not employees that are unfaithful too often — otherwise the awkward question arises: “if he’ll cheat on his old company with me, how do I know he won’t cheat on me with Initrode?”
Apparently, there’s a line to straddle here if your eye starts wandering. Job transitions are a finite resource, so you’d better make them count. But that’s not exactly a reason not to job hop, but a reason not to do it too often. It’s the difference between having a few cold ones on the weekend and being Kieth Richards, and I’ll come back to this point later. But, in the meantime, let’s look at some reasons not to change jobs.
Should I Stay…
One of the biggest reasons people stay at a job is simple inertia. I’m listing that first because I suspect it’s probably the most common reason. Even though a lot of people don’t exactly love their jobs, looking for a new job is a hassle. You have to go through the interview process, which can be absurd in and of itself. On top of that, it typically means awkward absences from work, fibbing to an employer, getting dressed up, keeping weird hours and putting in a lot of work. Job searching can be a full-time job in and of itself, and the prospective job seeker already has a full time job. And if job searching weren’t enough of a hassle, there’s a whole slew of other issues as well. You’re trading what you know and feel comfortable with (often) for the unfamiliar. You’re leaving behind a crew of friends and associates. You’re giving up your seniority to become the new guy. And none of that is easy. Even if you decide in the abstract that you’re willing to do all of that in the abstract, it’s likely that you’ll put it off a few more weeks/months — and keep putting it off.
Another common and more uplifting reason to stay at a position is due to a high rate of job satisfaction. I think this is less common than simple inertia, but it’s certainly out there. Perhaps you spent the early part of your career doing help desk support and all you ever wanted was a shot at uninterrupted programming in a R&D outfit, and now you have that. Maybe you’ve always wanted to work for Microsoft or Facebook or something, and now you’re there. You’d pass on more lucrative offers or offers of more responsibility simply because you really want to be doing what you’re doing, day in and day out. Genuinely loving one’s job and the work there is certainly a reason not to job hop.
I think that a decreasingly common reason for staying put is loyalty to a company. I observe this to a degree in the boomer set, but it’s not common among gen-Xers and is nearly nonexistent among millennials. This is a desire to stick it out and do right by a company instead of leaving it high and dry. It may take on the form of the abstract loyalty to the company itself, or it may be loyalty to a boss and/or coworkers. (“I’d hate to leave now, they’d be so screwed if I took off that I can’t do it to them.”) I personally view this as a noble, albeit somewhat quixotic, sentiment, tinged with a form of spotlight effect bias. I think we tend to radically overvalue how high and dry an organization would be without our services. Businesses are remarkably good at lurching along for a while, even when understaffed or piloted by incompetents.
Rounding out the field of reasons that I’ll mention is a more specialized and less sympathetic form of inertial (and perhaps even loving your job), which is the golden handcuffs. You’re an Expert Beginner or the “residue” in the Dead Sea Effect, and your company drastically overvalues you both in terms of responsibility and pay. To put it bluntly, you stay because you have no choice — you have a relatively toxic codependent relationship with your employer.
There are certainly other conceivable reasons to stay at a job, but I think that you might loosely categorize them into these four buckets and cover the vast majority of rationales that people would cite. So if these are the reasons to stay, what are the reasons to go? Why does jumping from job to job make sense?
Or Should I Go?
First off, let’s talk money. If you stay in place at a run-of-the-mill job, what probably happens is that every year you get some kind of three percent-ish COLA. Every five years or so, you get a promotion and a nice kick, like five to ten percent. If, on the other hand, you move jobs, you get that five to ten percent kick (at least) each time you move. So let’s follow the trajectory of two people that start out making 40K per year out of college as programmers: one who hops every two years and one who stays loyal. Let’s assume that the hopper doesn’t get COLAs because of when he’s hired at each position. We’ll just give him ten percent kicks every two years, while his loyal peer gets three percent COLAs every year as well as the ten percent kicks. The loyal guy is making 61.3K at the end of ten years, while his job-hopping friend is making 64.4K. If we were to add in the COLAs for the hopper, because he timed it right, that balloons to 74.7, which is almost 25% more than his friend. Neither of those salaries may seem huge, especially given all of the turmoil in the hopper’s life, but consider that for the rest of your career, there’s no bigger determining factor of your salary than your previous salary, and consider the principle of compound interest. Even assuming that after year ten both people in this thought experiment make the exact same career moves, the difference between their salaries and net worth will only continue to widen for the rest of their lives. It pays to job hop. Literally.
In fact, I might argue that the case I just made above is actually somewhat muted because of another job-hopping-related consideration: career advancement. Before, we were just talking about what probably amounts to token promotions — the loyal guy was “software engineer III” after ten years, while his hopper friend was now “software engineer V.” But here’s another thing that happens when you hop: you tend to accumulate more impressive-sounding titles, kicking off a chicken-egg kind of scenario about qualification and title. What I mean is that you don’t just number positions like job shifts, but you start to rack up qualifiers for title like “senior” or “lead” or “principal.” So now our two subjects are a software engineer making 60K and a lead software engineer making 75K, respectively. Which one of these do you think is likely to get promoted to management or architect first? Done right, job hopping earns you better pay and better titles, which earn you still more pay.
Related to this skipping around for better circumstances is the middling corporate narrative that the job hopper is escaping — specifically one of “dues paying.” For a bit of background on this concept as it relates to programmers, take a read through section 5, “Career Development,” in Michael O. Chruch’s post about what programmers want. Dues-paying cultures are ones in which advancement is determined not by merit but by some kind of predetermined average and set of canned expectations. For instance, if you hear things from companies like, “we don’t hire lead architects — we only promote from within to that position,” or, “we don’t offer development promotions more than once every three years,” you have a dues-paying culture on your hand. Call it what you will, but this is essentially a policy designed to prevent the mediocre, tenured natives from getting restless. It seems insanely childish and petty, yes. But I have personally witnessed plenty of cases where person X with ten years of time with a company had a hissy fit because someone got to engineer level IV in three years when it took person X four years to get there. Enough tantrums like that and promotion governors are slapped on the engine of advancement at the company, and dues-paying periods become official.
But this need not concern the job hopper, who won’t be around long enough to play this game anyway. This is a win on two fronts for him. It’s an obvious win because he promotes himself within a year or two instead of waiting three or four for the HR matrix to catch up. He also avoids the endowment effect of earning his way past the dues-paying rope. In other words, if he did stay around long enough to ‘earn’ the coveted lead architect title, he’d overvalue it and stick around even longer to savor it because he’d be thinking subconsciously, “being a lead architect at this awesome company is truly amazing or else I wouldn’t have twiddled my thumbs all these years waiting for it.” He’d be a lot more likely to stick around for the even more coveted (at that organization) “super lead architect” position that one can only ‘earn’ after another four years.
Speaking of empty titles, there is another powerful argument in favor of job hopping: avoiding and minimizing interaction with Expert Beginners. On the more obvious front, jumping around helps you avoid becoming an Expert Beginner since you can’t build seniority capital of questionable value to use in lieu of well-reasoned arguments or genuine skill. If you’re bouncing around every year or two, you can’t start arguments with “I’ve been here for 20 years, and blah, blah, blah.” But a willingness to job hop also provides you with an exit strategy for being confronted with Expert Beginners. If you start at a place and find some weird internal framework or a nasty, amorphous blob of architecture and the ranking ‘experts’ don’t seem to see it as a problem, you can just move on. Your stays will be longer at places that lack Expert Beginnerism in their cultures and shorter at places with particularly nasty or dense Expert Beginners. But whatever the case may be, you as a job hopper will be the water evaporating in Bruce Webster’s metaphor, refusing to put up with organizational stupidity.
And putting up with organizational stupidity is, in fact, something of a career hazard. Job hopping gives you a sort of career cross-pollination that hanging around at the same place for 20 years does not, which makes you a lot more marketable. If you work somewhere that has the “Enterprise Framework,” it’s likely you’ll spend years getting to know and understand how some weird, proprietary, tangled mess of code works in an incredible amount of detail. But in the market at large, this knowledge is nearly useless. It only holds value internally within that organization. And, what’s more, if you have a sunk intellectual property cost at an organization in some gargantuan system written in, say, Java, you’re going to be pretty unlikely to pick up new languages and frameworks as they come along. Your career will be frozen in amber while you work at such a place. There are certain types of organizations, such as consultancies, where this is minimized. But if you doubt the effect, ask yourself how many people out there are cranking out stuff in Winforms or even VB6.
What To Do?
We can summarize the pro arguments for job hopping as money; advancement; avoiding mediocre, dues-paying cultures; avoiding Expert Beginners and organizational stupidity; and being marketable. On the other side, we can summarize the con arguments for job hopping by tagging them as inertia, satisfaction, loyalty and golden handcuffs. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the stigma in either category, even though that’s ostensibly a clear negative. (I will return once again to the stigma angle in the third and final post in this series that addresses the future of job hopping). This is because I view the stigma as neutral and a simple matter of market realpolitik.
When are you most likely to be branded with the scarlet J — scratch that — when is the only time that you’ll be branded with that scarlet J? Obviously, while you’re applying and interviewing. You’ll be working at Initech and considering a switch to Initrode, and Initrode takes a pass on you because you seem to skip around too much. So you just keep working at Initech and put in another year or two to let the stigma fade. As long as you don’t quit (or get laid off) without something else lined up, the job-hopper stigma really doesn’t matter. It happens when it happens, and you actually have a peek-ahead option to find out that it’s about to happen but without dire consequences (again, assuming you aren’t laid off and are generally competent).
And really, this makes a certain kind of sense. I have, in the past, been told to stay put in a situation I didn’t like for fear of acquiring a scarlet J. People were advising me to stay in a situation in which I was unhappy because if I got out of that situation I might later be unhappy again and this time unable to move. Or, in other words, I should remain definitely unhappy now to avoid possibly being unhappy later. That strikes me as like sitting at home with a 105 degree fever because the ambulance might crash on the way to the hospital and put my health in jeopardy. The stigma argument seems actually to be something of a non-starter since, if it happens, you can just wait it out.
So, on to the million dollar question: should you job hop? Unless you’re happy where you are, I don’t see how the answer can be anything but “yes.” The “no” arguments all involve personal valuations — with the exception of “golden handcuffs,” which really just means that job hopping is impossible because you missed that boat. Are you too busy with family to conduct a job search? Do you really like your coworkers and working environment? Do you love the work that you’re doing right now? Do you really love the company? I can’t lobby for personal decisions like that in people’s lives, and there is certainly more to life than career advancement, money, and responsibility.
But in terms of objective considerations like money, position and title, there’s really no argument. Job hopping will advance you more quickly through the ranks to better titles, paychecks, and career opportunities in general. You will have more breadth of experience, more industry contacts, more marketable skills, and more frank and honest valuations of the worth of your labor. Companies are generally optimized to minimize turnover, and if you want a path that differs from steady, slow, measured advancement, staying in one place isn’t in your best interests. Should you job hop? I say absolutely — as often as your personal life and happiness will allow, and as long as you manage to avoid the scarlet J. I’d imagine that at some points in your career you’ll settle in for a longer stay than others, and perhaps eventually you’ll find a calling to ride out the rest of your career in a place. But I think that you ought to spend your career always ready to trade up or to change your scenery as often as necessary to keep you moving toward your goals, whatever they may be.