When you want to make something new, there are three strategies
- Work within an existing organization: Whether it’s a government agency, a non-profit, or a corporation, working within an existing organization can give you the resources to attempt something big. The limitations of this strategy are that (1) you can only pursue projects that fit the organization’s strategic goals and (2) as organizations get larger, they develop inertia that makes it hard to gather support for your idea — especially if it’s crazy.
- Form a startup: This is the glorious way to bring something new into the world. If you have the right team, enough passion, and enough luck, you can change the world. Aside from burnout risk, the limitation (and strength) of this strategy is that at a start-up the clock is always ticking, cash is always running out, and you always have to be finding a way to make money out of whatever it is you’re doing.
- Work on your idea as a side project: This is the traditional way to try out a whimsical idea or scratch an itch, and Hacker News is filled with awesome things engineers have made on the side. You might make money with the project, but you can also happily give it to the world as a gift. You’re not limited to small ideas, either: part-time volunteers in the open source community have built huge parts of the modern world. The limitation of this strategy is that the more time you spend on your side project, the more your day job or your personal life suffers.
Let’s add a fourth strategy
- Work on your idea full time without pay: This strategy has all the benefits of a side project but allows you to focus on your work without having to sacrifice family, friends, or health. Ditching your day job frees up time to learn more, be more giving, and be more creative. The biggest limitation is that with no feedback from the market or from a boss, it’s hard to be sure you’re doing something useful. It’s up to you, every day, to evaluate whether you’re taking a risk on something valuable or whether you’re just entertaining yourself. Money is the obvious second limitation, but you can solve the money problem simply by spending less.
Engineers are wealthy even if they don’t know it
Before the 20th century, only members of the “Leisure Class” were free enough from material need to pursue interests in frivolous things like the behavior of electromagnetic fields, the philosophical examination of human rights, and, yes, the powdering of wigs. Today, our entire society is much wealthier, and even though poverty is still a terrible reality and even though income inequality is rapidly growing, the fact is that there are now millions of engineers with the earning potential to support the lives of leisure that were once restricted to the top percentile. Why, then, don’t we have a large “engineering leisure class”?
The most fundamental explanation is that our spending tends to increase with our earning, instead of being based on some underlying level of material need. An engineer earning an amazingly-not-uncommon salary of $100k/year ends up living in an expensive place like San Francisco, starts spending money on some admittedly lovely luxuries, and quickly becomes convinced that her spending is just about right for a comfortable life. Luckily, there’s a corner of the Internet dedicated to breaking the link between “comfort” and money. My favorite writer on the topic is Mr. Money Mustache, who documents how he and his family used “badassity” (a form of self-reliance) to cut their spending far below their earning potential in exchange for radically more leisure time.
If you’re fortunate enough to be a well-paid engineer you can buy quite a lot of leisure with a year of paid work. But why should you? If your work is the primary way you contribute to society, the phrase “early retirement” probably sounds lame. We’re used to thinking of leisure in the narrow sense of “use of free time for enjoyment,” but leisure can be more meaningful if we focus instead on its broader definition as “opportunity afforded by free time to do something.” Working on a project at your leisure has a more relaxed feel, but it’s no less meaningful than working for pay. Your purpose as an engineer is to create useful, delightful things for the world to use, and it’s very possible you can do that better by buying yourself years or decades of leisure.
My experience leaving paid work
I worked for years at a startup, and then post-acquisition I worked at IBM. The environment was great, but after twelve years I burned out, so I left and started work on a decision-making app called VoteUp that I had long wanted to do as a side project. It’s not a startup, but I don’t like to call it a hobby either — it’s simply the largest of the projects I enjoy working on. Meanwhile, I’ve used leisure to broaden my skills: I’ve helped a family member launch a dog grooming business, I’ve done scientific research in the unlikely field of Ophthalmology, and I’m slowly approaching competence as a handyman and gardener.
Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with my official unemployment, but I draw inspiration from “unemployed” role models I’m lucky to know. Early in his career, my old co-worker Austin McGee was confident enough to start working full time without pay on his WellDone water-monitoring project. When his husband moved to Japan to teach, my friend Chris Vasselli could have done remote work for pay, but instead spent the next two years building his innovative Japanese dictionary. My trusty CS164 partner John Brian Kirby switched to part-time work so he could make beautiful electronic music as Nonagon. By the statistics, their choices have decreased our nation’s economic output, but personally I’m sure they’re contributing to society.
Many engineers have already gone down this path, but we don’t have a name to describe it. Without a name for what I do, I’ve wasted too much time struggling to define my work identity. So let’s try to find better words for working without pay than “early retirement” or “dropping out”. In the past we respected Gentleman Scientists who were given everything but also gave back, and today we respect Starving Artists who trade comfort for art. Let’s claim a similar role for ourselves as “Engineers-at-large”, and let’s invite our friends to join us.
Let’s define ourselves by our creativity, and not let the distractions of consumption hold us back.