<CharlieDigital/> Programming, Politics, and uhh…pineapples

3Feb/06Off

A Little Introspection

I've always had a hard time figuring out what I want to do with my life. From a career perspective, I've always had a hard time defining what interests me because, to be honest, everything, interests me. Well, let me clarify that, everything technical, from a software perspective, interests me. From BizTalk to DHTML to .Net to software design, I want to learn it and I want to explore it.

For the most part, I'm not even particularly interested in mastering "it"; I'm just curious about how things work and what things do. Reaching a level of mastery with any of the technologies I work with is purely happenstance and a byproduct of my repeated experience with it (not that I've mastered any of the technologies I work with, but I think I'm certainly above average in most areas).

I think that, even beyond that aspect, I'm fascinated by refining and improving my technique.

The act of building a typical house is fairly standardized these days. For the most part, there's very little innovation and challenge in building houses because most houses are built from the same mold. Whether you build a 2000 square foot house or a 5000 square foot house, whether you build a house with brick face or a house with siding, whether you build a house with three bedrooms or a house with four bedrooms, the act and practice of building a typical house remains pretty standard for the most part. In fact, many companies have capitalized on this fact by building house "factories" which kind of lay out a house's frame and various bits and all of the core pieces of the frame are shipped on one or two flatbed trucks, partially assembled.

For the contractors that build these houses, there's very little challenge; there's very little knowledge gained after constructing such a house. The entire design process has already been thought out and the difficulties taken care of ahead of time. All that's left, really, is to do the manual labor.  At the end of the day, this is what most builders do because it's what pays the bills and that's good enough.

For a comparatively small set of contractors/architects, there are clients that demand houses that are different. What different means is up for interpretation. It may mean building a house on a site that makes it extremely challenging to build a sound foundation. It may mean constructing shapes that typically aren't constructed in cookie cutter houses. It may mean integrating systems (networking, electrical, software control, etc.) in ways that have never been integrated before. It may mean building with materials that typically aren't used due to lack of exposure and knowledge. It may mean utilizing untested and undocumented methods to accomplish what would otherwise be impossible. Whatever the definition, this class of builders/architects are driven by a different desire. They're not so much driven by the bottom line (making a highly profitable business) as they are by the chance to innovate (even if this term is used in a relative sense), the chance to try something new, and the chance to improve the understanding of techniques and tools that may otherwise be foreign.  If these individuals are successfull, financially, that's just the icing on the cake.

That's me in a nutshell 🙂

In my consulting days the last few years, I've seen both sides of the coin. I've worked places where the work was so cookie cutter and boring, that I started to look for new positions even just a few weeks into the job. I've been in at least two organizations that were so creatively stifling and just not a developer friendly environment that I ended up just being so frustrated and a little drained each day I had to be there.  On the flip side, I've had positions that offered me opportunities (although not consistent) to build some really awesome solutions.  I've had positions where I've been given free reign to do some really creative work (both visually, programmatically, and design wise).

I think what I'm seeking, nowadays, is the ability to do the latter, but on a much more consistent basis; I want to feel like I'm doing something interesting and challenging every day that I wake up. I want to work where I'm expected and given the opportunity to learn ideas, concepts, constructs, techniques, technologies, processes, frameworks, and practices that would otherwise be considered unimportant to deadlines. I want to work with people that are as geeky (or even more so) than I am.  Certainly, I understand that the bottom line (dollars wise) is important, but I want to work where there's a fair balance between the that and taking some risks.

This morning, I was handed two printouts of lists of incentives from Handbook of Human Performance Technology (quite a hefty, but seemingly interesting book). The lists are broken down into monetary and non-monetary incentives. Reading through these lists, I could immediately tell what this superior was trying to point out to me. I identify very well with the items listed in the non-monetary list, including:

  • Choice of project,
  • Flexible schedule,
  • Informality,
  • Nature of work,
  • Type of community,
  • Type of organization,
  • Mentoring,
  • Participation in professional conferences,
  • Support for personal development,
  • Training materials,
  • Job aids and documentation,
  • Type of furniture,
  • Freedom to innovate,
  • Dynamic leadership,
  • Entrepreneurial support,
  • Membership in elite team,
  • Patents

On the other hand, I find far fewer items that I can identify with in the complementary list. Things like:

  • Overtime payment,
  • Weekend payment,
  • Clothing allowance,
  • Sick leave,
  • Club membership,
  • Expense account,
  • Medial insurance,
  • Stock bonus

Just don't concern me at all. I'll gladly work weekends, holidays, 16 hour days, etc. so long as the work is interesting to me. To confirm this, simply ask my wife, who oft complains about this and claims that my company is screwing me somehow. But I never think about projects that are interesting in those terms. I frequently work unbilled hours that I don't even count when I'm deep into something I'm interested in.

Well, I'm not totally agnostic of the monetary incentives. If that were the case, I'd be doing my PhD right now on my way to being a professor or a high school math/science teacher. I certainly believe in receiving a competitive, market salary and a fair bonus plan.

This last bit is the reason why I think I'm starting to fall out of love with my current job. Whereas in the early-mid portions of the last year, I've been able to do some fairly nifty work and work alongside some really good people, the last few months and the outlook at my current company seems bleak for doing the type of innovative and interesting work is waning. For the past year, I've made sacrifices (perhaps selfishly from the perspective of my wife) in terms of my salary for the opportunity to do cool things, work with people that I like, and work at a site close to home. But I'm just not feeling the love these days.

There's a good passage from this printout that I received this morning that kind of sums up my current situation to a T.

Adequacy is the condition of being sufficient for a given purpose. It is a relative concept: what is adequate for one individual or group may not suffice for another. There are two aspects of the adequacy of an incentive system: it should enable the employee to maintain a standard of living typically associated with the job, and it should be comparable to incentive systems associated with other jobs available to the employee.

The first aspect of adequacy deals with the cost of living at an expected level of quality of life. When the same level of salary does not tempt a computer programmer from Columbus to move to San Jose, it is probably because the salary does not fully compensate the increased cost of living in California. Similarly, a newspaper publisher must provide greater salary or allowances (including housing) to successfully induce an Indianapolis reporter to move to Tokyo. In many developing nations (and among such professions as teaching and nursing in developed nations), inadequate salary is the major obstacle to recruiting and retention of talented individuals.

I'm actually more interested in the second aspect, but unfortunately, the printout left that page out :-S I'm currently making a long journey each week from my home in New Jersey to a client site in Connecticut. It's not that the commute is that bad, really, it's that there's no incentive for me to do so. It's not even a matter of being short sighted; even in the long run, there's no incentive for me to do this because of the nature of my company, especially when the work is so boring and grinding (even worse considering that the environment isn't developer friendly).

So that's that. I think I may be leaving my current company, the longest tenure I've had with any company, in the next few weeks for either an opportunity to do more interesting work or at least make more money doing more driveling work 🙂 Just a little thinking that I had to get off my brain and put in writing.  As Nader would say, we shall see.

Posted by Charles Chen

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  1. being a computer programmer myself makes me very proud of my job-;-


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