Why do we get up and go to work every morning? How did we get here and where do we want to be next year?
I’ve worked in the tech sector for nearly 25 years in a huge range of jobs at many levels of seniority. All of the jobs were engineering although some didn’t immediately look like it (I even coached a 2018 Oscar nominee on painting techniques, which was more like developer training than you might think). I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for hundreds of jobs. So, have I learned anything about what makes a successful career?
Why Are We Here Again?
Are we at work just to get paid? To maximize the amount of money we put in our bank account every month to save for a dream? Maybe to spend it all on nights out?
If you’re in tech in the West, I’m going to assume your long term work goal isn’t just to put food on the table. If you aren’t earning more than that (and you’re working purely for the money) you may need to reconsider your employer, spending habits or location. But if starvation isn’t the issue, is it only about salary?
The Good Stuff
Given that work takes up probably 50 hours of our week (including the travel) that’s a lot of time to spend handle turning for $, but there is stuff a job can provide in addition to cash:
- Stimulation from new people and ideas.
- Pride in achievement from a job well done or a new skill mastered or taught.
- Belonging from working together in a team to achieve a group goal or project.
- Challenge from learning and doing new things.
- Pleasure from social status associated with a brand or role.
- Self worth from mutual respect.
- A sense of achievement from helping create things you believe in.
The Bad Stuff
That’s not to say no crap happens at work:
- Bad stress and guilt from projects that are undeliverable or you don’t agree with.
- Annoyance from poor tools or lack of training.
- Upset from habitually rude colleagues or management.
- Frustration from lack of progress.
- Loneliness from isolation.
- Misery from not getting any joy out of what you do.
You Get What You Expect - And What You Ask For
It’s very easy to believe that the purpose of work is to get paid to put up with the bad stuff: bad stuff=work. When I was young I used to think that - you work and be miserable, or do something fun like a startup and give up all your pay. But that’s not true. The bad stuff is not an inevitable part of work. It’s poor management. It’s a sign a company is under-performing.
- Badly designed projects indicate a strategy or communication failure.
- Poor tools and training show under-investment.
- Rudeness, frustration, loneliness, or misery from poor task assignment, shows bad management.
If that shit is happening, speak up. If you’re ignored, I hate to break it to you but you are in a prison camp. I’d recommend that you carefully plan your escape, but you need a new destination in mind.
If your current career path is “cash in exchange for misery” with the only progress being “more cash”, is the sole alternative “poverty plus freedom” (the Brexit manoeuvre)? It’s an option, but it isn’t the only one.
It’s perfectly reasonable to expect and ask for a tech job that pays decently, gives you plenty of the good stuff, and isn’t chronically awful. That doesn’t mean you’ll lounge about like a lotus eater. You’ll notice the good stuff still requires some striving. You don’t feel pride, challenge, or belonging without effort - the difference is you believe in what you are doing and there’s an emotional pay-off.
The Interview Question I Always Ask
When I interview a person for a job, I’m looking for someone who will strive for the good stuff. That means they have to believe it exists and is achievable at work. People tend to get what they expect.
So, I have an interview question that helps me see who still has belief, some understanding of what motivates them, and something to aim towards. That question is “Can you tell me about a project at work that you’ve enjoyed?”.
I find the answer tells me more about them, their attitude, and their self-knowledge than any beautifully reversed binary tree on a whiteboard. I want to know that they expect, and get, some “good stuff” from their career. I want to weed out the folk who made the choice “cash for misery” and will carry that wisdom of defeat and acceptance of poor management with them into my team.
What people are enthused about, what they care about, is the best of them. It’s what drives them to deliver and get better. If I hear they love teaching, they’ll do a lot of teaching. If they love fixing field bugs (there are some of us) then their manager should build their stretching goals on that.
Sometimes they’ll say they want something very specific that you just can’t deliver (once I had a guy who only wanted to design cars). In that case, point them at other jobs that will take them in that direction. However, that’s unusual. Terrifyingly, by far the most common response I get when I ask someone to tell me about something they’ve enjoyed at work is, “I can’t think of anything”.
What I’m looking for is people who know what good looks like. Who enjoy learning, pushing themselves, working as a team in our industry. People who still have expectations from their job and their lives beyond a paycheck. Individuals who want the treble: good money, enjoyment and very little of the bad stuff. That’s what I expect, it’s achievable, and if you don’t expect it, you won’t get it.