This is a (very late) reply to Patrick McKenzie's "Don't Call Yourself A Programmer, And Other Career Advice". I find much of his advice very sensible, and it might be very helpful to someone in the beginning of their career – assuming they can act upon it (and I really don't know whether my 20-year-old self could actually use the advice to improve his negotiation skills, for example).
A few things in the article I disagree with, however. Here I'll mostly focus on those few things, recommending you to read the original article so that you don't miss the rest of it.
"Disagree" is not necessarily the right word – a more precise way to put it would be "it's different in my experience". Which is to be expected because both of us are speaking based on our own careers, which have been rather different. Patrick McKenzie is a small business owner running Bingo Card Creator and a successful consultant. I'm a lead chip architect at a billion-dollar company. Both of us have thus traveled some distance away from "purely programming" (whatever that means), but in rather different directions.
What company are you going to work for?
Patrick McKenzie says 90% of the jobs involve things like implementing an internal travel expense reporting form, rather than a product shipped to external customers. He advises you to get used to the idea, even though such software is "soul-crushingly boring" as he puts it.
How bad is it, and is it really 90% of the jobs? Spolsky thinks it's maybe 80% – and that it's bad enough to "drain the life out of you". He goes on to elaborate why it "sucks to be an in-house programmer":
- There's rarely a business reason to improve in-house software past the point of "barely good enough". "Forget any pride of craftsmanship – you're going to churn out embarrassing junk".
- At software companies, what you do is more directly related to the way the company makes money, so you're more likely to be respected. "A programmer is never going to rise to become CEO of Viacom, but you might well rise to become CEO of a tech company." "…no matter how critical it was for Viacom to get this internet thing right, when it came time to assign people to desks, the in-house programmers were stuck with 3 people per cubicle in a dark part of the office".
Note that McKenzie and Spolsky are in almost complete agreement over these points. But then Spolsky says you should be gunning for a position in a software company – the environment where creatures of your kind naturally thrive. Conversely, McKenzie explains how to prosper as a programmer outside software companies – moving in the opposite direction of where things go by default (being stuck in a dark part of the office while they're trying to outsource your job.)
So the question is which path you prefer. "Not so fast", you say: one of these jobs is way easier to land – 80-90% of the chances are you're not getting inside a software company – so it's not just a question of preference.
Here I disagree: even if only 10-20% of programmers work in software companies (where are the stats?..), and even if they're "the best" (according to what metric?), McKenzie himself says in that same article:
You radically overestimate the average skill of the competition because of the crowd you hang around with: Many people already successfully employed as senior engineers cannot actually implement FizzBuzz.
But if competition is relatively unskilled on average, you probably can land a job in the 10-20% of the sector that you want – as did most people who graduated around the time I did. So I rather firmly believe that it's a matter of choice: do you want to work on in-house software or one-off businessy projects of that kind, or do you prefer a software company?
Let's proceed to McKenzie's advice to in-house programmers – which should in itself help one make that choice.
How to call yourself
One such advice is:
Don't call yourself a programmer. “Programmer” sounds like “anomalously high-cost peon who types some mumbo-jumbo into some other mumbo-jumbo.” Instead, describe yourself by what you have accomplished for previous employers vis-a-vis increasing revenues or reducing costs.
Sure – an in-house programmer is likely doing some type of expensive mumbo-jumbo in the eyes of his non-technical MBA-wielding manager.
To me, however, a programmer is who I'm looking for, while a resume full of revenue increases and cost reductions sounds like an "anomalously high-cost parasite who types some mumbo-jumbo into Excel and PowerPoint, claiming credit for others' work".
McKenzie says a software company looks at this just like a company hiring internal programmers, essentially. His example is "the guy who wrote the backend billing code that 97% of Google’s revenue passes through – he’s now an angel investor". The guy apparently got rich by being near a "profit center" rather than through his unusual skills.
The thing is, in this case I believe he's talking about Ron Garret, the PhD from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Do you think they hired him because he described his work at the JPL in terms of revenues and costs? (BTW he didn't like working on the billing code, bought his stock options and quit, instead of choosing a career at the company's biggest "profit center".)
Did any unusual skills go into the billing code? Ron Garret says:
I did end up writing the credit card billing and accounting system, which is a nontrivial thing to get right. Fortunately for me, just before coming to Google I had taken some time to study computer security and cryptography, so I was actually well prepared for that particular task. …I designed the billing system to be secure against even a dishonest employee with root access (which is not such an easy thing to do). I have no idea if they are still using my system, but if they are then I'd feel pretty confident that my credit card number was not going to get stolen.
Sounds to me that his technical knowledge and programming ability was the bulk of his contribution, whereas deep thoughts such as realizing that there will be some "cost reduction" due to not having credit card numbers stolen is not something an employer needs to hire anyone for.
So if I ever send out a resume as a chip architect, I will focus on my technical role in transitioning from fixed-function hardware accelerators to programmable processors, more than the manpower this saved and the business we won as a result (which I think were real outcomes of our work, but which is rather hard to quantify – as these things often are unless you're a business-friendly-sounding liar.)
Incidentally, I'm not sure when I'll send out that resume, which brings us to the next point.
On job hopping, backstabbing, and the lack thereof
Co-workers and bosses are not usually your friends: You will spend a lot of time with co-workers. You may eventually become close friends with some of them, but in general, you will move on in three years…
<your boss will> attempt to do things that none of your actual friends would ever do, like try to talk you down several thousand dollars in salary or guilt-trip you into spending more time with the company when you could be spending time with your actual friends. You will have other coworkers who — affably and ethically — will suggest things which go against your interests…
There is a certain internal consistency to a view that your coworkers are not your friends, because you will move on in 3 years. In fact, it's a bit circular. They aren't your friends – because you'll move on. And why will you move on? Well, I dunno, maybe for a 10% salary increase. What's there to lose? Relationships with coworkers? But coworkers aren't your friends!
Again, I don't disagree, but rather offer an alternative view, equally internally consistent. I have stayed at one job for more than a decade, in large part because I'm rather attached to the people I work with. To be sure, I got raises, and I was ready to quit over employment terms – but it'd take much more than 10%.
Isn't it just a quantitative difference in preferences – a 10% raise not being fundamentally different than, say, 100%? Well, sufficiently large quantitative changes add up to qualitative changes, as Marxian dialectics or some other Soviet philosophy thingie that my parents sometimes quote taught us. What's going on is that both approaches can lead to career advancement, but they do so very differently.
If you're willing to change jobs over a small raise, you'll be changing them frequently. You won't get attached to people, or to the work you're doing together. You will be very good at finding jobs and you will know what's generally going on in the industry and what's in demand. You will not know that many things specific to any of your employers. You and your employer will become very useful to each other fairly quickly, but you'll also be somewhat expendable for each other.
Alternatively, you can keep a job as long as it's a fun environment, requiring a significant raise once in a while. Your relationships with people combined with your long-term outlook can let you do things together that you otherwise couldn't plan or execute, and learn things you wouldn't have learned.
Much of my knowledge about chip design comes from ASIC hackers I worked with, and their willingness to develop their biggest ideas together with me came from trust that necessarily took time to build. It takes time to learn that none of you is in the habit of "suggesting things going against the other's interest", or pulling other unfriendly shenanigans.
Incidentally, if you stay at one place for a long while, then your worth to the employer grows to the point where you can get the significant raise that you'd quit over without actually quitting. Your worth can also grow well above what employers are willing to pay to experienced new hires, so there's no longer a point in switching jobs. This is somewhat analogous to becoming a consultant after having switched a whole lot of jobs and now making more than the next job hop could give you.
Both approaches work, though I don't have stats showing which tends to be more effective. I do believe that the long-term approach is more fun. I could never land the kind of gig that I have now through job hopping. More importantly, I wouldn't have the relationships that I have at work.
"More importantly", because all means to reach our ends often fail, and then all we're left with is our means. You can't count on any career strategy to give you either a dream job or a load of money; it'll work to some extent or other but who knows. What you can count on is your lifestyle being affected rather predictably by your career choices. The impact of these choices on relationships could thus be weighted as more important than the impact on career advancement because it's more predictable.
The part about bosses is the only one I very much agree with. (I had enough bosses to be able to plausibly deny that I'm thinking about any particular one here.) Yes, some of them will want you to work more time for less money (by itself a natural desire for an employer) while attempting to look like your friends (which is where it becomes a tad irksome). This just means that you should guard your own interests (as always) – and perhaps not judge people too harshly before spending time in their shoes.
How to value an equity grant
McKenzie says you shouldn't value equity very much, and he doesn't spend many of words to say it. I'll talk about stock options, which are worse than an actual equity grant and which is the only thing I've ever been offered.
My basic outlook is again long-term. I work at a private company whose value rose almost tenfold over the decade I've been there. And it's still a private company, so there's never been an easy venue to make money off most of the stock options.
From a long-term view, stock options look worse – and better.
Worse, because having stock options ties your hands behind your back. You usually can't afford to buy them when you quit, or at least buying them is a significant risk that you might be reluctant to take. If the company survives for a long while, then you may start to dislike the place but the hope of making money off your stock options now makes it harder to quit. If you generally like the place, options make it harder to negotiate a raise, since they know you can't quit.
So in the long term, options can effectively be a liability.
On the other hand, as the company matures, its stock options tend to get undervalued by employees, and for no good reason. People intuitively think along the lines of, "it's already expensive – how much can a price rise from now on?" It's a natural thought if the price has went up threefold or tenfold already.
But what this misses is that you don't get paid in percentage points – you get dollars. A $100 share going up 20% to $120 means you make $20 per share. A $5 share going up 100% to $15 means you only make $10 per share. Stock options of a mature company whose price is still rising can thus be even nicer than stock options of a young company which rises more quickly but which is still cheap – and is more likely to go bust overnight.
The upshot is that people overvalue stock options early on – but they also often undervalue them later on.
Note that if you don't intend to stay for more than 3 years, than stock options are most certainly a liability because they make it harder to quit – while the chances that the company makes it big in that span of time are very low.
Working at a startup
McKenzie lists valid reasons not to. In terms of job satisfaction, he says you can work on many exciting things in large corporations, not just startups.
Here's one thing in favor of startups. A large corporation usually doesn't have huge gaping holes that it doesn't know how to deal with or doesn't even notice. A startup often does have many such gaping holes, because, well, nothing is established yet, they don't even understand what they're doing, and most importantly, they are severely understaffed.
This means that you can grab pretty much any responsibility that you want to. There will be areas that people are competing to work on everywhere, but in a startup doing something hard enough, there will be a ton of hard problems nobody is competing to solve because there's not enough time or people for everything. You can be the person pointing out that problem and grabbing that responsibility.
As companies mature, being able to just work on whatever you want gets harder. My metaphor for it is nomadic programmers moving from problem to problem vs settlers with states and national borders where even visiting your neighbor's code may involve a visa.
This isn't a recommendation to work for startups, just one thing worth pointing out. The counterpoint is that if you're an orderly person who wants an orderly process, then a larger company known for its development culture is probably a better idea.
Impact of career on life happiness
At the end of the day, your life happiness will not be dominated by your career.
In one way, I agree wholeheartedly; whatever the merits of a job, it's a job, and I actually noticed my productivity fall at times of treating it as more important than that. The healthy way of looking at it is "just a job, at the end of the day".
On the other hand, we do spend quite some time at work. The question is, to what extent does it make sense to separate "work" from "life" – and to what extent it's one part of life among many, to be treated similarly to those other parts of life?
I argue that the "work/life" separation shouldn't be strong enough to separate "coworkers" into a distinct category of human beings with whom relationships are formed fundamentally differently – nor is it necessarily great to be emotionally detached from the workplace to be always ready to abandon it and "move on".
(I'm not arguing that McKenzie's intent was to say the exact opposite of what I'm saying, BTW. I'm just commenting on some quotes and the general atmosphere of the text as I perceived it. A lot of things simply have different meaning when heard by different people; a simple advice like "be wary of others' intentions" is great for someone overly trusting, but not for someone already verging on paranoia. Some people need to hear that coworkers aren't friends; today I'm writing for the other people.)
When I introduce myself, I usually call myself a programmer, regardless of my current work on chip architecture and management and stuff. I got into programming for the money, so it's not like I'm overflowing with pride when uttering "programmer". I just think programming is a great career and the right thing to call myself for me.
There's an alternative approach where you program, but you don't call it that, and you use programming as a starting point from which you transition to some form of being involved in business as directly as possible.
It sounds a bit roundabout to me – why not just get an MBA instead? – but maybe it's the right path for some (especially considering that some prestigious MBA programs want you to have industry experience before you can even enroll.)
The important thing is to choose the path that suits your preferences, follow it consistently, and realize where your approach is most likely to succeed. Because where I work, someone applying for a programming position and not calling himself a programmer will not make a good impression.
I agree emphatically with many of the points in McKenzie's article – my favorite point is the importance of communication skills – and I very much recommend it.