Counterpoint: Information technology jobs can be fulfilling
Last week, I read Steve's post “Why are careers in information technology unfulfilling?” as I too have spent my entire working career in this field. Fact is, I’m still there. I understand the viewpoint presented, yet I also felt there is - or could be, a different perspective. Rather than dumping this entire post into a comment, we decided a separate guest post was better.
Let’s jump in.
The three main arguments in the original article were:
- Information technology isn’t about people
- Information technology is full of stress and pressure
- Tech salaries keep the golden handcuffs cinched tight
Information technology isn’t about people
I would guess that most people who think about software engineers assume they sit in a cubicle with headphones on. A lot do. I did (at least when I could get away with it). Many software engineers are introverts and unskilled in the fine art of socializing. Still, I have met a number of IT people who are very extroverted and they are, by nature, very much people oriented.
In my career - and I don’t believe my career was all that unique - I wrote software that directly led to the employment of 1000s of people. The same software enabled dozens of businesses to thrive and be profitable (some of which were publically traded so by extension stockholders benefited as well). I was, and am, proud of my contribution to that software product.
Throughout my career, I have found that writing software was a form of helping people solve a problem. When I could, I would sit with end users and watch them use my software. When I observed something that seemed awkward I would ask the end user about their process to gain insight. After receiving their feedback, I would make software changes to help solve the issue. Hearing a ‘thank you’ and the occasional grateful response was fulfilling and rewarding.
[Note from Steve: This kind of autonomy in your job is a huge boost to job satisfaction. I've worked on projects like this before and fully attest to the difference this can make]
To Steve's point, IT work often involves hardware and I can’t agree more that working with hardware is impersonal. My mantra when I was in these situations was always “I hate hardware.” There is absolutely no reasoning with hardware, there is no warm connection with hardware. Unfortunately, software doesn’t work without hardware.
Information technology is full of stress and pressure
In my career, I have been the guy on call 24x7 for operational issues and when “the system is down”, businesses not only lose money, they lose customer trust and brand. Steve used VISA as an example. If VISA’s systems were down, do you think people may switch to American Express or MasterCard? As a consumer, I may or may not change. As a business owner that relies on accepting payments, if I couldn’t receive payments, I would certainly look to make a change.
At the same time, information technology is not the only job that places workers under stress and pressure. Examples abound.
My uncle was a research neurosurgeon. He typically didn’t see patients until other neurosurgeons determined that the patients’ condition was likely terminal. He was, for all practical purposes, the last resort. I cannot begin to imagine how he dealt with the prospect that very few of his patients would live and that he would need to discuss depressing prognosis with family members. I couldn’t do this type of job. I would buckle under the stress in these dreadful life circumstances, but my uncle had a passion for research and for neuroscience. It was that passion, I believe, that kept him going.
Steve contrasted an accounting job as possibly being less stressful. I think, after reading a number of posts by The Wealthy Accountant, I would not characterize accounting as not having stress, especially during tax season. Every CFO that I have known during my career talked about the hours and stress of producing financial statements, especially for the companies that were public.
My own career had its share of stress and pressure. At times I had operational responsibilities. On one occasion, the fiber optic cables connecting our data center were broken when a railroad bridge, where the cables ran, was moved laterally 10-feet by a flood. I got the dreaded call from the VP about how much money the company was losing and asking why I couldn’t get service restored “NOW!”
After I pointed him to the Weather Channel story about the flooding (yes, the storm made national news), I got a little reprieve. I still needed to resolve the problem but I at least had my VP helping and not harping. This incident became a learning experience for me. I learned. I grew.
There is a difference between occasional stress and unreasonable stress. When a given job is nothing but stress, there is something wrong. Maybe the process is flawed. Perhaps the wrong resources are being used. If your job is nothing but a source of stress, it probably is time to consider your options. This applies to any job, not just Information Technology.
Tech salaries keep the golden handcuffs cinched
After personally seeing salaries at a .com company, I couldn’t agree more. Steve mentions Amazon as an example. Browse Glassdoor for salary information and you will see that Amazon, and many name-brand internet companies, do pay generous salaries. I can also attest to the difficulty that exists in walking away. While Steve up and quit his job (for good), I’ve walked away from more than one position and each time had the difficult decision to leave money on the table.
One point that Steve did not mention is stock. A lot of Internet-based and startup companies use stock and stock options to attract workers. This is where, in my opinion, tech companies really handcuff you.
For the right candidate with the right skills, you can receive a $75,000 - $100,000 stock grant when you are hired. The company often sweetens the deal by providing an additional $10,000-$20,000 grant every year. Of course, every grant typically vests over a 5-year period. Thus, how can you ever leave? There is always a carrot that is hanging out there in the 3-5 year timeframe that keeps us working jobs not just for the dependable salary, but for the extra stock perks.
With this stated, doesn’t salary bind us all, at least until FI? Are we not all working so we can achieve the goal of FI? In reading several FIRE blogs, I have run across individuals who are more willing than I am to make sacrifices so they can achieve FIRE sooner than later. Some may choose to accept the unfulfilling aspects of work so they can accumulate their FI target sooner and can then step away from the unfulfilling work. I choose a balance where my salary may not be as high but I am able to find my level of fulfillment.
When Steve wrote “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”, I couldn’t agree more. The challenge we have and the discipline we need is to not become a slave to our jobs simply because of the salary. We need to remain focused and live within our means while staying focused on our FI goals.
Keeping our eye on the end goal should mitigate the effect of the golden handcuffs.
I believe information technology jobs are not very different from any other job. Most (all?) jobs can be unfulfilling at times. A job is work. When my kids entered college, I told them to find their passion. If they can find work in the area where their passion lies, they will enjoy a fulfilling career. If they simply found a job to pay the bills, they would have toil.
Find where you fit. As a software engineer, I found fulfillment by the expressiveness of creativity in solving a problem. As a manager, I found fulfillment by mentoring and helping my staff grow (sort of like a parent with their child).
Find your passion. If you are struggling with your work, make a change. Your time is too precious to waste being unhappy and unfulfilled. I’m not saying that everyone will be entirely satisfied with their work but there is no need to be overly stressed and miserable either.