Why are careers in information technology unfulfilling?
In the personal finance community, we get to read a lot of people's stories about why they chose a path to early retirement (or at least financial independence)...
Commonly, the impetus for early retirement stems from working unfulfilling jobs, and many times, those jobs just so happen to be in IT.
I'm a primary example. I worked in information technology my entire professional life. From the moment I graduated college, my life revolved around the computer, as if the computer had this invisible gravitational pull that kept me locked in. I spun and spun, and it eventually felt like a soul-sucking monotonous drain on my life. I wanted out, and badly.
Through my career in the tech industry, I've met a LOT of people who are unsatisfied with their careers in information technology. Most continue to work in IT simply because they need the money (often exacerbated by lifestyle inflation), but that genuine feeling of happiness that we all like to feel just isn't there for so many of us who work jobs in technology.
But, why? What makes so many of our careers in information technology so unfulfilling? Even at the top tech companies, why is it so common?
Why information technology jobs are unfulfilling
As a happily retired information technology dude, I've had time to think about this phenomenon – this general disdain for performing tech work. I believe it can all be distilled down to a few basic problems.
I hate working in tech
I know this may sound dramatic, but it’s true. I hate working in tech. While the tech world seems to be a boundless, relatively uncharted territory for creation and problem-solving, my personal experience working within it led to see that it is almost the exact opposite. IT lacks the freedom and sociability I crave. The framework most developers are forced to work within is highly limited and impersonal. While having to perform highly robotic and mind numbing functions for the bulk of the work day, I found myself losing sight and understanding of basic human qualities and how to think more creatively.
Not only that, the majority of my challenges were caused by the fact that tech is constantly breaking and/or versioning. The smallest thing can be coded incorrectly or be out-of-date, and the entire system will breakdown. Having to identify the error and provide solutions to a group of people who for the most part have no foundational knowledge of IT is very labor intensive, stress inducing and serve a major time suck.
What does an information technology person do?
As the U.S. and the rest of the world become more reliant on a digital economy, there is an increasing demand for talent that specializes in technology. Despite these radical changes in the way the world operates, many people in tech have a way less glamorous life while working to support these technological efforts. They would not consider themselves a part of the lofty “innovation sector” that I was once very attracted to. Rather your average IT person is thinking in basic 0’s and 1’s and trying to help anachronistic systems communicate better and more efficiently.
These roles could fall into any of the following categories: software development, computer system analysis, IT security, web development, network architecture, IT management, database administration and support. While there are a few other categories that exist, much of the foundation of these jobs are built on what I’d call “basic computing” functions which in my opinion can be pretty boring stuff.
Information Technology isn't about people
The large majority of us humans feed on the enthusiasm and interaction with people. Even the most introverted among us need people in our lives to feel like we're connected. People enable very organic relationships that most of us intuitively understand. With people, we aren't dealing with the 1s and 0s of computer languages where every damn decision is computationally determined based on a series of predetermined variables that aren't governed by emotion or external factors. Computers aren't organic.
Careers in information technology and software development are about systems, not people. We work with inanimate objects. Machines. We don't get to converse with them and establish relationships like we do with people. It's just code, or hardware, or networks, or machinery. So impersonal.We don't get to "change a computer's life" like we could with another human being.
Connections like those simply do not exist in technology very often, and that absence of an organic relationship while working at various tech companies can, over time, begin to drain our sense of purpose. All we do is work with machines. Dumb terminals. And at the most basic level, they are all pretty much exactly the same. Over time, this becomes relentlessly tedious.
Information Technology is full of stress and pressure
Technology is everywhere. We depend on it in virtually every facet of our lives, and when it works, it's great. Everything seems to be tied into "the system". All things are connected. Cities can monitor every stop light through a series of cameras accessed from a central location. Internet providers can pinpoint sources of congestion and bottlenecks through sophisticated network monitoring apps. Schools uses technology to connect students to the world outside. Businesses rely on technology for their livelihoods.
When everything works, life is good. But, almost nothing always works in information technology. Tech systems are connected in weird and complicated ways. Variables change. Insanely tight deadlines encourage even the most knowledgeable or talented software engineer to cut corners. And, people interact with systems in ways that we didn't (or couldn't) anticipate. In some cases, hackers and other nefarious entities intentionally screw with the systems that we've put together. In other words, things go wrong...all the time.
Here's the larger problem: When our entire world runs on the collective hum of technology, problems are instantly magnified. Businesses lose money every second that the network is down (imagine if Visa couldn't process credit card transactions for 10 minutes - they'd lose millions). What if stop lights in your city suddenly went dark? Or the power grid collapses?
Technology problems have profound consequences, and those who work in information technology feel that pressure. Pressure leads to stress, and that stress builds over time. It becomes a nearly constant strain on our lives. And, those of us who work in tech support or have program management jobs feel it the most. Managers want to look good by keeping their systems operational and often put pressure on their staff to do whatever it takes to keep everything humming along.
We might be able to keep up with this pressure for a few years after landing a new job. Eventually, the pressure of technology begins to break us down. We fix one problem only so we can move on to another. Problem after problem, we keep churning through "the system", fixing this, enhancing that, developing a new cool feature that we hope never breaks. And around and around we go.
Tech salaries keep the golden handcuffs cinched tight
If information technology is so unfulfilling, why do so many people work those jobs? We work them primarily for the money. Tech jobs pay well. In fact, they have to pay well or most of us simply wouldn't do them.
We use those higher salaries to help ignore the stress of the job. We buy things to make us feel better and relax. Our expectations change over the years and we soon begin to depend on that money to fund our lifestyles that become more and more expensive as we earn more and more money.
The golden handcuffs keep us working stressful IT jobs because the alternatives seem dire. If we bring in $150,000 a year working a highly stressful tech job at Amazon, there aren't many who would entertain a $75,000 accounting job at a local firm, even if that job is far less stressful.
We want the money, and our careers in technology keep us wanting that money. It happened to me. It happens to a lot of us.
The longer we work unfulfilling jobs, the more frustrated we become. Until, one day, something finally breaks and we just can't take it any longer. We decide on another path. Maybe a different career. Or, at least in my case, that path was early retirement from full-time work.
Technology jobs can suck because...
It comes down to three primary factors: Technology jobs are about machines, not people. Those jobs are typically highly stressful and pressure-packed because our entire society relies on those systems working harmoniously together. And lastly, money keeps so many of us working jobs that we don't enjoy. Pulling the plug on lucrative careers can be tough.
Too tough for many of us.
Sometimes, society can dismiss a lot of early retirement talk by chalking it up to highly paid tech workers. "So, Steve made a ton of money in technology and then retired early? Yeah, just like every other early retiree. Go figure!"
The reality is it's a lot harder to escape highly paid jobs than people realize. After all, this is what we've all worked so hard to achieve. We all want a high paying job, right? Once we have them, it's tough to give them up!
All that work we put into getting our college degrees (and racking up student loans), reading books, working incredibly long hours, putting up with insanely complicated layers of management that expect miracles...all that finally comes together into a highly-paid job that probably comes attached with "success".
To give all that up - even with a lot of money in the bank, isn't easy. Though high incomes can make it easier to retire early, they also make it tougher for many of us to stomach the stark difference in cash flow. To go from $150 Gs a year to zero (minus capital gains, of course)?
Don't take that for granted. Believe it or not, it's much easier said than done.
Why I left information technology
To further substantiate why I left the world of tech, I’d like to share more in my experience and the positive upshots of my vocational departure.
First, I was experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress for the majority of my waking life. My day-to-day was spent fighting a multitude of uphill battles where I was committed to insane deadlines to fix or troubleshoot problems that affected tons and tons of people. It’s nice not having that kind of pressure anymore.
My work-life balance was also very much partial towards the work side of the paradox. I wanted to be able to focus on activities I actually enjoyed doing like exploring nature and photography, and be able to spend more time with my family.
And lastly, the subject matter of my work became extremely drab. I was no longer excited by 0s and 1s. I wanted to free myself to explore ideas and concepts that were not bound purely to binary systems. I can now think more out-of-the-box as I am less confined to a prescriptive set of code.