“I wouldn’t work for the same company for two years, even if I enjoyed it.”
Shortly after I said these words, I watched the recruiter slowly scratch my name off her list. This was 15 years ago, and we were at my university’s computer science job fair. Much has changed since then — including my attitude — but employee turnover in tech doesn’t seem to have improved much.
It’s no surprise that as the world changes, the job market changes with it. And this is especially true in the tech industry.
There’s a lot of talk about how artificial intelligence will require the workforce to be retrained at scale. We may have just had a preview of what that will feel like: As of August 2020, the pandemic has put around 55 million Americans out of work.
One shift that’s occurred in the past decade is the increased accessibility of software development as a career. No longer just for nerds in a basement, software is attracting a growing number of career changers.
“Software is eating the world,” said Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape. Indeed, everything that can be done through software has the potential to reach everyone in the globe at the moment its source code is written.
It comes at a price, however, because programming is often not an easy job to handle. What we notice nowadays is that software is also eating: software developers.
Enter the ninja
Many of the smartest programmers I know are self-taught. They’ve learned from online materials freely available for any of the popular (or obscure) programming languages. For students who prefer a hands-on approach, coding bootcamps promise to teach marketable skills in as little as 10 weeks.
I’ve hired and worked with many junior graduates from these schools and from online classes. To me, they have proven that programming is truly accessible today. Anyone can learn to create software, even without an inclination for math. As long as someone enjoys being creative, and maybe enjoys a bit of tinkering, they will have a decent shot at becoming a great software engineer.
By tinkering, I mean the absolute broadest sense of the word: fixing a bike, baking a cake, writing a novel, doing someone’s hair — if you enjoy any of those, modern-day programming might be right for you.
Half-life of the engineer-athlete
While software development jobs sound great right out of the gate, technology roles don’t always offer a great career path. The entry-level salary is fantastic, and the job is fun. But five years on, the average developer reaches a senior role, and there aren’t many more rungs on the technology career ladder.
An article from 1998 in The New York Times reported that six years after finishing college, only 57 percent of computer science graduates were working as programmers. After 20 years, the figure dropped to 19 percent. In contrast, the figures for civil engineering were 61 percent and 52 percent.
This means that by the time today’s computer science grads are in their early 40s, four out of five of them will have already ended their programmer career — while over half of the civil engineering grads will still be in their field.
With such a short half-life, a developer’s career is similar to a professional athlete’s. If a programmer starts to work at 25 and gets burnt out at 40, they only have 15 years of professional career in them before they have to look for something else.
The perfect setup for burnout
Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger was the first to coin the term “burnout” in 1974. His and many other studies discussed preventative measures and methods to mitigate these issues once they occur.
Many early studies referenced low or unpaid workers. However, we now see that even well-compensated individuals have very similar problems. It’s not just about the money — it’s at least as much about the control you have over what you do. And software developers these days have little say in what apps they build.
“More than anything, what bothered me is the feeling that my work doesn’t matter one way or another,” said one of my friends before he quit his programming job. He continued, “You get into software thinking you’ll build cool things, but instead, it’s about jumping through hoops for business school people with bad ideas.“
Make your money and get out?
Rapid changes in technology make programming one of the fastest-moving careers. Avoiding burnout is the only way to have a long and sustainable career in tech.
Veteran software developers often recommend to:
- Work at a place where you can grow. Constantly learning new things is a requirement in tech, but it’s only sustainable if you can do it as part of the job.
- Build transferable skills. Many developers find it interesting to invest in learning leadership skills and explore technical management roles — those don’t change as often as programming languages do.
- Have creative outlets and create a space to focus on yourself, switch off, and relax. Make sure you move enough, eat well, and spend quality time with friends and family.
Of course, there’s always the nuclear option: Make your money and get out.
It’s often hard to take a step back and observe the situation when we’re in it, but the first step to recovery is always to recognize the problem. A good rule of thumb is that people need autonomy, competence, and relatedness for happiness at the workplace. Programmers are no different.