I still love coding, but I hate this industry
It’s an easy story for me to tell. When I was 10 there was nothing more exciting to me than playing around with the old broken computers my dad, who worked in tech, would give me. I became a teenage game modder and hobby web developer. After college I worked at a non-profit, not making much, when I was offered an exciting position as a web developer where I made 5x as much. I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s a story people who hire me or who promote the tech industry love to hear. But it’s not the whole story.
Passion is prized in this industry and people who come into code out of love are considered special. It is also considered the reason why certain groups of people are less represented in tech, because not as many of them are building Linux machines in their basements for fun.
But the problem with that is that hobby coding isn’t at all like coding for work. Very few coding jobs allow you to do the kind of work that hobby coders enjoy. I think in many ways the industry is becoming a lot like the programming portrayed in Snow Crash, which was written in 1992 but reads as almost an oracle:
She is an applications programmer for the Feds. In the old days, she would have written computer programs for a living. Nowadays, she writes fragments of computer programs. These programs are designed by Marietta and Marietta’s superiors in massive week-long meetings on the top floor. Once they get the design down, they start breaking up the problem into tinier and tinier segments, assigning them to group managers, who break them down even more and feed little bits of work to the individual programmers. In order to keep the work done by the individual coders from colliding, it all has to be done according to a set of rules and regulations even bigger and more fluid than the Government procedure manual.
There are certainly more engaging jobs out there, but the reality is a lot of us do work on little fragments, work that is often tedious and devoid of any kind of creativity. As a developer I’ve often had trouble figuring out if a job would be Snow Crashy or not, and been seduced by promises of engaging work only to find myself ferreting out bugs on some enterprise CMS.
But for a long time I pretended it was fun. That I loved it. Because there is a lot of social pressure to portray yourself that way in the industry. People hiring you will run the other way as soon as they see a crack in that facade.
Wanna here the real story of how I became a professional developer? I actually was a freelancer after working at that non-profit, I took the developer job because the medical bills piled up. And stayed because they never went away.
It’s hard for me to admit, I know it’s hard for a lot of people. I know there are others working as developers for the health insurance or to support their families. Even James Damore, who became infamous for his claim women are less represented in tech because we are less interested in it, admits as much in a CNN interview:
part of the reason so many men go into tech is because it’s high paying, I know of many people in Google who weren’t necessarily passionate about it but it would provide for their family and so they still worked there
If I won the lottery would I still code? I would, but it would not be like work. It would be projects I enjoyed. And it would be fewer hours.
Coding for a couple of hours a day in your spare time isn’t the same as coding for 8+ hours a day. Over the past decade it has worn me down. I have regular painful migraines triggered by working long hours. I have the beginnings of arthritis in my neck. I’ve tried standing desks, balance board desks, treadmill desks, special diets, exercising more before and after work. Doctors, physical therapists, massage therapists of every stripe. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars. I’ve hidden it because I was afraid it would make me unemployable. I’ve worked those long hours in intense pain. I’m not sure desk jockeying for these kind of hours is good for anyone, it certainly wasn’t good for me.
I also have to say that there is a toll to the constant backlash against women in tech. That what James Damore said that really cut to the core was that a lot of us women in tech were only there because a bar was lowered to get us in to meet some quota. And reading the reaction to it on websites I frequented and from people I once counted as friends was very hard. I can’t pretend this didn’t contribute to being demoralized. On the other side I am really sick of diversity programs I encountered that are corporate cheerleading and totally unwilling to do the hard work it would actually take to make this a better industry for women.
It’s really hard to celebrate “women’s day” with free feminist speakers when I just found out some guy who does the same work as me is getting paid 20% more. Also once in a while some jerk will be like “if women really were paid less why wouldn’t companies hire more women to save money?” I’m pretty sure they already do this and that recent lawsuits will reveal it is a common practice. My experience is companies are thrilled to hire women, it makes them look good AND they can usually pay them less. It’s not about quotas.
Commenters on my previous article asked me why I didn’t just get my skills up to snuff and get “better” jobs. I’ve never really had trouble with that. I take to new technology easily and learn fast. I suspect I’ll keep doing that. But at this point I’ve lost all desire to try to hack it in the industry.
Because it’s not really “passion” they are looking for, but people who are merely willing to endure long hours. They aren’t really looking for the person who spends a few hours on the weekend on an open-source project, they are looking for the person who comes home from work and spends all night on it.
The good news is I basically already did win the lottery. I built up savings working as a developer which allowed me to quit. I also have a safety net in that if things really go to hell I can live and work on my family’s farm. This is an immense privilege I am grateful for. That savings was originally for a downpayment for a house, but now gives me a landing pad where I can take some time to really do what I love. A few hours of coding, a few hours of writing. I’ve gone from most of my days filled with pain to only a few isolated incidents. Ample time with people I care about. In January I’m starting a leatherwork vocational program.
Where do I go from here? That house downpayment money isn’t going to last forever. I’m not delusional in that I know the effect this is having on my career track. That selling USA-made consumer goods is a tough industry. I’ve had lots of dire warnings from various people in my life. If I try to go back, I know a lot of companies will run as soon as they know I have other priorities in my life and I’m not afraid to defend them. But I have a diverse skillset that hopefully will earn me value somehow.
Of course there are a lot of jobs out there besides software development that involve long, harmful hours. I dream of a world where we all work less. In the meantime I’ll still be here coding, maybe actually enjoying it again, and trying to find a life where I have true balance between my work and my other needs.