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Is Software Development Slowly Killing Me?

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When I was 8 years old, my parents bought the family an IBM PCjr. It was a great computer and one that I'll always remember fondly. My brother showed me how to get to the BASIC interpreter and my parents bought programming books. And boy did I program. You name it, I built it. I programmed more than I probably should have at that age. Some boys knew the euphoria of hitting a home run... I knew the euphoria of getting a program I wrote run and do exactly as I instructed.

When I got to high school, I had the opportunity to actually take a class in computer programming. My public school had a math teacher do the instruction, but his part-time programming experience couldn't match what I learned over the last previous 8 years. It was a given that I would continue to study computer programming in college and make a career of solving problems and getting high on working algorithms. Somewhere in the middle of college, I realized that my love for programming had started to die. I didn't really realize it was at the time, but there was simply too much theoretical paper work, where you wouldn't get the joy of actually creating something. After four years of this, I started to rethink whether I made the right choice.

At the time I thought it was too late to do anything else. Programming was all I knew. My math skills didn't pass the test of multivariable calculus. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Paige, did everything she could do convince me to stay from the written word. I should have known that I could do a number of other things, but I pushed forward with software development.

In 1999, just a few months out of college, I hooked on with a hot Internet company. Suddenly the joys of programming had come back to me. I could make something that literally millions of people would see and use. I could go home and show my mom, "This is what I do!" I was in heaven until late 2001 when bad times came to the industry. My entire department had been let go to save on costs. For awhile after that, I bounced around a few jobs. Each time, I would start the company to hear about layoffs in the first week. Finally things eventually got better, but in the last year, they've been the worst they've ever been before I finally had no drive to program any more.

I thought I was unique in this thought, but I've found that others feel the same way. In fact it almost seems to be a universal feeling amongst many developers. I was talking to a friend who I used to work with about it last night. We went on for 3 hours about many of the problems in the last job we worked at together. It was an extremely insightful conversation. I've started to realize that it's not simply everything about programming, but just some of the more common pitfalls that I have problems with. If I can find a job that is similar to the ones I loved in the past, perhaps there's hope for my career as a software engineer.

I'm praying that is the case because we talked about something else last night - the market for software developers in the Silicon Valley is the best it's been in some time. This has made me think that maybe I'm leaving money on the table by not working. Perhaps I'm leaving a lot of money on the table. It made me update my Monster.com profile this morning and think about getting another software engineering job. I've said it before, but I want to retire in my 40s. Perhaps a steady job is a better than starting my own side businesses.

Posted on November 29, 2007.

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22 Responses to “Is Software Development Slowly Killing Me?”

  1. SJean says:

    i clicked on this article with interest, as I do software as well (though my degree is in electrical). I don’t see where you explain what is killing you about it? Are they things specific to SW or is it just… real life corporate work? Just curious.

  2. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve become so disillusioned towards software development. I’ve been a “code monkey” for about 5 years now, working nowhere near Silicon Valley, and am still in love with what I do. I guess I should consider myself lucky.

  3. programmer says:

    Have you tried learning a new or growing technology? Go where the demand is, become an expert, and work as a consultant to maximize your earnings.

    I, too, am an software engineer. I also make between 200-400k a year consulting (depending on how much I feel like working).

    You’re without a doubt leaving money on the table. The key is finding the programming technology that fits you and that you feel passionate about to excel in. The best paid people aren’t the code monkeys, but the ones who learn new tech. on their own, love what they do, and as a result have excellent skills because they’re passionate about their tech.

    But, if you’re lazy, then you’re probably not worth a premium consulting rate anyway. Right?

  4. Brandon says:

    I think the problem is that some of us have very dry programming jobs.

  5. Decisions like this are always so personal. I came to the conclusion that a career change was necessary when the company I was with started to merge. The writing on the wall was clear that things were going down hill fast. Although I loved the work I knew those feelings would not continue. Right now I am working a job I like but it isn’t very challenging so I am looking for other revenue streams so that I can eventually get of the industry. Programming may be a short term solution to you retiring early because the money is so good.

  6. Mr. Cheap says:

    I came to the same conclusion (worked in SF during the dot-com boom, have become increasingly disillusioned as time goes on). I think tech jobs are:

    1. Hard work
    2. Low pay (for the time, intelligence and skill they require) – they pay great compared to a fast-food worker, [editor: poopy] compared to a lawyer, doctor or engineer.
    3. Disrespected within the organization (its always the developers’ fault)

    I think the only way to really leverage tech skills these days are to consult (and make sure you’re getting paid a big premium like the commentor further up mentioned) or start your own business (and develop the need business skills).

  7. I have 2 programming friends who have both been coding for a number of years, one left a year ago and is now a gym instructor and says he will never program again. The other also gave up for 18 months as he found he had completely lost interest, but has recently got the buzz again and is working in Malaysia loving his job. I think the problem isn’t programming its monotony. Any job where you are doing the same thing day in and day out will become tedious so the trick may be to find a new challenge using the same skills. Maybe or just become a gym instructor ;)

  8. Have you read THE DIP by Seth Godin. It’s a tiny book about what you’re going through right now — when to quit and when to stick. It sounds to me like software development ISN’T killing you, but rather the jobs you’ve had. Maybe you want to go freelance, or maybe you want to just find the right jobs. In any case, your side business gives you some freedom to be picky, to rebuild your personal brand and reenter the marketplace on your own terms.

  9. FourPillars says:

    I’ve been programming at the same co. for ten years – can you say BORING!!!

    However, it pays well, nice place to work, 9-5 and I plan to suck it up and keep working until I can retire – hopefully in about 15 years at age 55 or so.


  10. Brip Blap says:

    I think the trouble is not programming or coding. Anything you do as a routine becomes dull. Anything you do at someone else’s direction is dull. That’s why people want financial independence. If I was able to select the work I did based on what was interesting – rather than on what pays the bills – I think I’d like it much better. As it is I have to do a lot of work simply because bills must be paid. In 5 years when I retire in my early 40s I’ll just do work I enjoy, just to get out and earn a little extra here and there…

  11. Ryuko says:

    I understand where you’re coming from – I dabbled in programming, but after the dot-com bust, I got pretty concerned. I was already in the military by that time, but was considering getting out and learning to program. When I started my family, I decided that coding would not be a viable job, especially since more and more of them are being outsourced. Not to mention, the majority of the work was BORING. I still work heavily with computers, and love it because I have a pretty diverse job description (that, and I get to carry a gun :p). I’m not rich, but I will be pretty well off when I retire from the military. The key is management. Anyone can be trained to do a skilled job, and Mexicans, Chinese, and Indians will do those jobs for less than we will. But it takes something else to be in management, and that’s where the money’s at. Consulting isn’t bad, either. Both jobs require leadership, creativity, a bit of politics (or ass-kissing), although maybe in different ratios — whatever floats your boat, but remember you’ll never get rich doing what is basically mental labor.

  12. Brandon says:

    “2. Low pay (for the time, intelligence and skill they require) – they pay great compared to a fast-food worker, [editor: poopy] compared to a lawyer, doctor or engineer.”

    I have to disagree with this point. I think that tech jobs pay very well if you are good at what you do. I think the main thing is that there are few jobs for engineers who are not college educated, but there are plenty of jobs for developers who have only went to tech school, completed a few certification tests, or have the right aptitude. I mean, I got a $45,000 a year job right out of college with excellent benefits, no overtime, and sorta flexible hours (I have to work Monday to Friday during the day, but I can come in anytime between 6:30 or 9:30 as long as I am somewhat consistent about it).

    I also know a lot of people who get paid better. I was offered to interview for a $65k a year job for example, but I didn’t take it for several reasons.

  13. Ernesto says:

    I can relate to the boredom of coding. I think by the time the IBM PC Jr. came out, I’d been coding for 10 years..in COBOL; makes me want to crush a Prozac into my coffee thinking about it.
    In corporate America, I’ve had it all: downsized, outsourced, off-shored; I once worked in the same cube for three years and worked for three different companies.
    Anyway, to get out of coding, I first moved into management (too stressful) then into a Business Analyst roll. I get to work in an industry I enjoy (Insurance), and get to interact with both the computer geeks and the movers and shakers in my company. BA pay started lower than what I earned as a Sr. programmer, but with experience (and yes I’m back in management) the pay is in the ballpark of coders, PMs and other well paid people in IT.
    You seem to enjoy writing, that’s what I do most of the time.
    You enjoy researching and learning new things (finance).
    You have a desire to lift your head out of the code.
    So, find an industry you find interesting and look for a BA related job.

  14. mapgirl says:

    A good chunk of my generation within my family does software development work of some sort. There’s all kinds of burnout, but ultimately, your concern about software work is about your own sense of job satisfaction with what you are doing.

    I get crap coding projects. I get awesome coding projects. It’s just enough to keep me interested in my job every day. Perhaps the trick is to find the right job situation that has the intellectual stimulation and work-life balance to keep you happy. There’s nothing you’ve said in your post that can’t be said about the technical support work I used to do. I hated it and hated it and hated it some more. Then I got out of it by doing what I do now and while I still do support as part of my job, it’s not the main focus and that shift was all I really needed to make me happy.

    I absolutely agree with Programmer that you are leaving money on the table now in Silicon Valley. Yes. By what my family there tells me, it is the best it’s been since the tech bust in 2001. If anything, try freelancing or contracting so you can try companies out before you commit to them. It sounds like you just need the right situation to come your way.

    Good luck!

  15. Chris says:

    I thought I was alone miserable at my work, but found company with the Lazy Man here! I hated doing the detailed debugging and coding stuff because I’ve done so much of it and I’ve had enough! I feel I’m burnt out and wanted to quit, but just can not quit because I’m well paid. It will be 10-100 times harder to earn the money doing my own biz than the corporate paying job. But I am really suffering. I don’t like to detailed programming work, instead, I’m very interested in software business management and leadership opportunities, such as VP engineering or Director Software, because I have started a software company before, and I liked to create a vision and build a team to realize the vision and go to market and make money for the business. But there is hardly any such type of corporate job for me. I have tried for long, but mostly the corporate VP positions are scarce and even if it shows up once in a while in the job sites, they are mainly looking for people who was in large corp VP positions before. They were not looking for people like me who are very entrepreneurial and very experienced hands-on software person with both biz and technical know-how. Sometimes their hiring manager may have been shocked by my strong biz and software experience.

    So, I am totally stuck with a very unhappy but well-paying job, to a point that I wanted to quit, but unable to do it because of an upcoming new-born and a just laid-off wife staying home preparing for the new baby, also I have heavy mortgage payment and a family needing the money I bring home.

    What a delima this is!

    I am in the same shoes with you and some other readers on where our directions will be? We are totally not content with our current job situation, and because of money, and because we have not found the right job/directions yet, we are just stuck! I feel very miserable and self-pitiful for myself and the fellow sufferers.

    One thing that seems to come to light is my determination to continue seeking the right directions/opportunities that I am passionate about. I don’t know when I will get there, but I hope I am at least not losing hope on finding the right job or the right biz opportunity to startup again. I am living my work life day by day, and it is yet another Friday! Either way, let’s celebrate it and believing our glorious days will come!

  16. Dong says:

    golden handcuffs. a blessing and curse. while I don’t have a programming job, I often feel the same way. I’m burnt out, and often feel i’m letting my coworkers down. It really is a terrible feeling to want to more but somehow not being able to muster it. I realize in the end I’m in such a priviledged to be where I am. But rolling into work is hard to do at times.

  17. kitty says:

    “2. Low pay (for the time, intelligence and skill they require) – they pay great compared to a fast-food worker, [editor: poopy] compared to a lawyer, doctor or engineer.”

    I second Programmer above and disagree with this sentence. First of all, I think a good software engineer makes no less than any other engineer; maybe less than some, but more than others. Starting salaries for CS majors are no less than those of other engineers, maybe less than some, but more than others.

    Software engineers often work flexible hours, or work from home.

    Doctors may earn more, but they have to study for years to get there, work with little sleep and for little money during residency. Most of them graduate with tons in student loans – there is no financial aid for medical schools, and they are expensive, even state medical schools. By the time doctors start earning money, a good CS graduate has already had an opportunity to have family, buy a home and save some money.

    Additionally, there are plenty of assistantships in CS, so any good CS major can get an MS for free if he/she desires to do R&D for a technology company.

    One shouldn’t confuse a software engineer with an application programmer, though, as some posters above seemed to do. Software engineering is not about coding, it is about system architecture, design, algorithms, problem-solving, ability to learn new technologies, creativity. Programming is the most trivial part of the job. I work in a research center of a large technology company, but even when I worked in development, figuring out how to design system or system component, coming up with algorithms was a major part of the job.

    Some software engineering jobs may be boring, but personally I think I have way too much excitement in mine. Sometimes I think – wouldn’t it be nice to just code or just do UI work, and not have to always learn new technology or try to figure out how to design and implement some proof-of-concept for something totally new (or even what to design or what to implement as the concept itself is often so vague). Last year I worked on an actual product which was so much easier in spite of crazy schedules. This year it is a pure research project, and I still need to figure out what I am doing, not to mention how (and what I need to learn to do it), then learn all I need to learn to implement the proof-of-concept prototype and then do it. Oh yes, and then patent all the new things I can come up with.

    I am sure there are jobs out there you may like to do. Personally, I think I’ll work while they keep me.

  18. Mrs. Micah says:

    Mr. Micah went through this a lot faster, but it was similar for him. He loved coding and such in his teens (in the early days of the internet–well, the mid 90’s). Then in his senior year as a Comp Sci major he got really sick of it. He spent a summer as a code monkey and said “Screw this.” So he got a PhD in philosophy.

    He’s not the only one from his graduating class to make the same switch (into philosophy, no less!).

  19. 2million says:

    I hear you — been there done that. Use your programming skills to get in the door and then transition into an area of the business that interests you more. The only reason to tough it out would be you find satisfaction/fulfillment in other things like flex schedule to spend more time with family, volunteer, you look forward to early retirement, etc.

  20. Lord says:

    There comes a time when it loses interest. I, for one, couldn’t give a damn about technology anymore, because the world isn’t about technology; it is about accomplishing things with it. If you have interesting and rewarding things to do with it, it can be interesting and rewarding, but if not, it won’t be. After a while, learning new technology is little more than intellectual masturbation, ultimately unsatisfying at its core.

  21. Ian says:

    Interestingly enough, there’s a fair number of engineers wanting to go back to their CS roots (not software engineers, naturally). The pay does tend to vary by industry, with the poor mechs and some elecs making bottom dollars and chemical/mining engineers making more than they can count. In my case, the engineering degree can really pigeonhole you as a skilled technical worker; you know, the kind that actually makes profits for a company. It’s very difficult to break that mold and push into management or other leadership roles without some external stimulus.

    Good luck with the quandary!

  22. Jacob says:

    I work in research (another cretive field) and I can relate to what you’re saying. I think it’s good business practice to arrange for “mind”-workers not to think too much of various other problems like “how am I going to find my next job when this job expires” or “how do I deal with stupid human resource regulation #42”. Transferring all the risk on the workers might work on an assembly line as a way of saving costs, but I doubt it’s the best practice for professionals. It just leaves us less productive.

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