As a software developer, I have turned my long-time hobby into a job, which is not always a good idea. Your job does become more than just a way to make money, which leads to trouble. This blog post is my retrospective on a big mindset reboot I have been going through in the past year or so.
Late 2021 was when I realised I need a big mindset shift, and 2022 was when I carried through that change and became a lot more intentional about seeking what I want for myself.
This is going to be opinionated. If the advice below goes against the grain for you, that is ok. There isn't a single mould to fit us all, and this is not intended as general-purpose advice for everyone. But I hope I can share my way of thinking with some people.
The Constant Hype
Software Development changes quickly around us, things that were trendy a few years ago will go stale or obsolete. Tools, techniques, and whole paradigms shift.
My father, a Fortran developer, retired this year and likely will not be replaced with another Fortran guru. Fortran was first created in 1957. Even Fortran has not been constant, if you look at it over 60 years, it has had a lot of evolution. But it is hard for me to imagine sticking to one main programming language for my entire career.
Things change fast, and there is always a lot to master. It is not just the programming language that I'm talking about. In the past few years, things that have piqued my interest may have looked like this:
Single Page (web) Apps! React.js, no Vue.js!
Go, Python, TypeScript, Bash, .NET Core, Rust, keep going.
All the clouds!
Docker, no Serverless, no go back to containers with Kubernetes!
Wait get away from cloud lock-in!
Now the AI tyrants are writing code and taking our jobs!
Ok, "hype" is a strong word – a lot of new things are fads, but others are legitimate trends that are good to learn. Trouble is, it can be hard to separate, and you definitely cannot sit still for too long without major change. (Unless you are doing some super specialised Fortran-like archaeology, delivering to an industry that resists change.)
If you dive further into each item on that list above, you will find years of further digging you can do into each of those areas to hone your skills.
No to "Always Keep Growing"
This is where people tell you to "always keep growing"! I have heard this so many times. And honestly, this has been my motto.
While well-meaning, to me this phrase now comes with bad baggage from observing myself as well as others. Elitism. Burnout. Not valuing your workplace or personal relationships. Not valuing your time outside of work. Moving away from your passion into a "higher tier" position or to a "higher tier" company.
I fell into this trap so many times, and after much self-reflection, I am now careful not to chase that.
Adapt with purpose
Instead of "always keep growing". Think about what you want to do for yourself and how you can manoeuvre yourself to get there. Be intentional. Be explicit with yourself. Be explicit when you talk to your employer – "I want to move towards this-and-that. I do not want to keep doing so-and-so for long."
That move could be backward, sideways, or in any direction you want. Sometimes it helps to let go of the concept of "growing", and seek something that is fulfilling, even if it feels like more of a steady state.
But, keep in mind, that this will include letting go and neglecting some skills that you no longer need on your journey. It is fine to be an expert in X one day and then forget about it later.
This can also mean taking another position or job that is at a less "fancy" company. Even if to others this may look like a demotion. Even if you end up taking less pay in exchange for having a sense of purpose and fulfilment, or a better work-life balance.
Don't chase the shiny titles
In the past year and something, I have done a very intentional move from Dev Management, being a leader of leads, to a position back to focus on more hands-on tech roles in the Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) and Cloud Architecture space.
It is not that I never want to do management or that I don't like leadership positions. I needed to find something where I can hone in on the technical tools a lot more. And moving into a higher-level leadership position was not helping that goal. Even if it has been something that I was intentionally after for a while.
It does not mean that I never want to pursue that path again. It just means I'm going to put that on hold for now, which is right for me at this point.
The same traps exist if you're pure only the "Individual Contributor" (IC) path, it's easy to get caught up in chasing titles. Senior. Staff. Principal. I was officially a "Master Engineer II" at a top company once (too weird, rephrased on my CV). What I find is that all of it can be somewhat arbitrary and up to the whim of a particular company or people manager. There is also nothing wrong with going from Principal in one company to losing that title in another, especially when you move to a different field.
Don't think about the supposed prestige or the titles of a role too much. They are not universally recognised and chasing those titles can be a distraction away from what you're truly after.
A new approach to side missions
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie”
– The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
When taking on a side mission at work, or a home project, where I am somewhat free to look at something else, I used to pick something relevant to what I was doing at work at the time.
My change this year was to let go of that. I have enough experience and enough good reputation in the industry where honing in deeper on something turns into diminishing returns. There are only so many extra opportunities to be gained by going deeper into something I already know.
Instead, I welcome the distraction of doing something tangential, something radically different from what I normally do. Who knows where it will lead career-wise? Maybe nowhere? But I will enjoy the journey nonetheless! And that is more important than the destination to me today.
There are a few things I want to focus on in 2023 that are outside of my hands-on technical skills:
Technical writing, which is why I'm here.
Launching my personal side project using the tech I want to play with.
As I've said, this a is a personal retrospective and I hope it can help share my current mindset. The advice is not one side fits all, you always need to think about how things fit your own situation. Please do drop me a line if you have different oppionon in the comments below or find me over at Mastodon.