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Software Developer Careers Considered Harmful

Christian Grobmeier, http://www.grobmeier.de

When I published "The Zen Programmer" book in 2013 [6], a manager from a big company sent me an email. In this book I describe how I applied Zen to my daily work and how I am able to keep balance despite how hard I work.

The manager told me that almost everything I wrote was just plain wrong. For example, I believe that there is nothing like a career one can have; he responded that my career would be successful if I just would do what my manager commanded. "Jump if your boss tells you to jump", he wrote.

This certainly is not how I want to live. A career is an illusion, a theoretical term, but Life is not. "Making a career" is sometimes just the wrong thing to run after, and that can cause serious harm to you.

At least in the western world things are running just fine for software developers. We have a choice and we have some freedom. The tools we use and the expectations towards developers are not longer as they were twenty years ago. But the way to work didn't change as much.

Today we are told that we need careers, constant happiness and are never allowed to fail because otherwise terrible things would happen. But the statistics on depression and burn-out prove us there is something wrong with this thinking. In the following text, I will elaborate on a few of my thoughts and explain, how getting rid of my career made it more "successful" than ever.

The way we work

In 1980 work and life was different than it is today. This can easily be proven if you just look at the tools that we use today: tablets, smartphones, mobile computers. You can work everywhere, even on the toilet, and people do work everywhere. Life and work today can't be separated that easily anymore. I wrote parts of this text when waiting in the car to pick up my son from kindergarten. Twenty years ago I most likely would have just read a fiction novel.

For that reason we cannot say: we worked hard in the 80's already, why do people start to complain about that now? The reason might be tied to the fact that emails didn't exist back then and nobody expected to receive a response late at night or on weekends.

As a society, we have reached a new milestone: work and life become one single thing. We cannot ignore a change and just keep on going. That's what dinosaurs probably did.

We need to deal with modern working on the one hand, but we need to do it right. Otherwise we will have a hard-to-beat enemy: stress.

Stress may have a negative impact on our productivity, life experience and can even cause physical problems like heart attacks or strokes. It can lead even further to mental diseases like depression or the burn-out syndrome.

Some people claim depression can be cured with just pulling oneself up and burn-out doesn't exist. But on the other hand, well-educated medical personnel are treating people with these problems. And that is a good thing: mental illness exists, and diagnosis or getting rid of it is difficult. Ignoring their existence may lead in a downward spiral, which ultimately can even lead to suicide.

Statistics say, taking sick leave from work is on the rise due to stress. Mental disease costs companies a lot of money each year. In Switzerland, the cost of mental illness is around 15 billions of euros each year [1]. In Germany it's similar, and there is one more concerning fact: according to the TK (a German health insurer) mental illness is not only a disease which takes the most time to cure but has overtaken any other reason to stay away from work.

As employer, but also as employee, we can't ignore that. Workers need to stay healthy if we want to avoid risks for the company. What can happen is not only losing employees with high expertise but also losing reputation worldwide. The bad news on working practices at Foxconn did not only have an impact on the company itself but also on their main customer Apple [4]. Apple executives were forced to react, which alone is awkward.

My father told me I need a career

Some people may feel pity for me, as I would "never make a career" in this life.

Why should I make a career? Some people seem to think you can life a "happy life" only with having "a successful career". Looking closer at "happiness" and "career" I couldn't find that much substance behind these terms.

Some say you'll be very happy when you have "made it". It's a kind of binary decision, you make it or not. It is often not further defined how you can "make it". However it seems to be clear that drug dealers, burglars or solitary alcoholics haven't made it. But a dentist driving a Porsche, a software manager with a Rolex or a politician working in the US Congress are considered the opposite. It's getting difficult if we think about a (stressed but happy) mother of six or a farmer, who likes his job. Maybe these people are happy, but usually nobody would say: the farmer really made it! He has a job he likes! Or, look at the tired mom around the corner - she must have made it!

If one could choose a life right now, I think most people would take the Rolex, the Porsche or the job with reputation. I showed this list to a few people and many would have picked the Porsche. I did not say the dentist was happy. I asked for the reasoning and it seems people expect Porsche-drivers to be happy, and being a dentist simply sounds better than being a mom.

With that observation in mind, it looks like we need a successful career to "make it", and we need to make it to live an easy, happy life.

It would be OK for some people, to first work very hard (like studying dentistry) and after a while they can enjoy the rest of their life. That's exactly what my father told me: if I didn't learn much and work hard I would end up as a poor assistant to some random craftsman. This vision combined the worst two scenarios for him: being poor and having a job without reputation. He told me that I would never be happy without earning a lot of money.

"What is a happy life?", I asked my father.

He couldn't give me a clear answer, but it included the ability to travel to exotic places, owning a home, and to be able to have dinner in a restaurant from time to time. If that would be the only thing we need and want from life, then it is a logical step to run after a career.

But there are fine nuances. My father would have told me, that owning a Porsche is too expensive and only a few people will be able to buy it. And he is at least not wrong with that. There are many people out there who will never "make it". And I speak of well-educated, nice people, who fail at some point in their career.

It would eventually mean that only a few of us are able to live a happy life.

The career model and its flaws

The career model is like a pyramid, and you need to get up the ladder to earn more money. As long as you are on the bottom of it, you have nothing to laugh at. But so you move up more, and the richer and happier you'll become. It's a carrot system: first do the work, then take the money.

I would guess it needs around 20 years of hard work first to succeed in this model. As a dentist you need to study, then work and pay back the loan. If you want to open your own clinic you have to buy a lot of expensive devices. You also take quite a risk with employing dental nurses. I calculated that it would take around €500.000 to make a person a dentist, if not more. In Germany it means that you are around 50 until you are out of the biggest debt. Then you have "only" 15 years left to "make it" before you retire.

But there are a lot of risks: a drunken driver could hit you when you leave your favorite coffee store. Is that unlikely? It happened to a colleague of mine recently (although the driver was texting).

Honestly, a lot of things happened recently that were considered almost impossible:

  • in 2011 around 20,000 Japanese residents were killed by an earthquake and a following tsunami, which caused nuclear meltdowns in three nuclear reactors. From the new dead zone, 150,000 people were expelled from their homes. Almost uncovered by media were the volcanic eruptions in the same time happening in the south of Japan. Until today the situation is not under control with tons of radioactive water spilling out from the reactors day for day.
  • In 2014 – after Russia accepted Crimea as part of their federation – people started to speak of a Cold War again. The country is deeply divided and if it hasn't happened yet; there is a new war taking place in Europe.

Life doesn't run straight and unexpected things can happen. Nobody expected natural disasters of that strength and nobody expected a new war in Europe. Only a few people expect their own death.

What I want to say is: when something is so uncertain, so fragile as life, how can we make such deals as "working hard for 20-30 years" just to have a couple of "happy years" after? The career model isn't accepting that we are humans. It's like Russian roulette: hope you do not die before you have managed to get a certain amount of money.

Being unhappy is OK

We all do this because we are constantly told that being "unhappy" is something which we need to avoid. We waste a lot of our lives to reach permanent luck and wealth, but in the end we'll find out that even the richest of us do not constantly smile. Here is a secret: even George Clooney sometimes poops. And sometimes his teeth hurt.

No matter what today’s media tells, it's perfectly OK to be unhappy. Nobody feels happy all the time. Corporations play with our fears to make us buy their products. But it's not that their products would help us to prevent sickness or solitude. If it would just be that easy.

At the university I learned people are constantly trying to imagine how others look at them. This may develop self esteem (or not). What, if we all just buy these things to make others think we are "happy"? This would certainly be very stupid, but we all are struggling with this. If we would have a great job, then people would surely think I am a healthy, intelligent, high-performer. If we have the job of a cleaning lady, people may think I was too stupid for college.

We are afraid to be alone, and this is what social media and our cell phones fix.

When I travel for work I often take the tube. Recently I was the only person in that wagon who didn't look at the small screen of a smartphone so I could observe others. None of them looked happy in that moment. People are constantly distracted. If we are not participating in social media, we might feel to miss something. We don't want to be disconnected from the people around us, so we stick with sending unimportant messages to people we rarely know. Just to not feel alone.

Were people less solitary without their smartphones? I doubt it.

In fact we are slowly unlearning to accept that life is not only happiness, it's also being unhappy. Unhappy people like Edgar Allen Poe wrote about in some of the best poems ever written. It's not necessary to avoid this, it is to accept.

Sometimes humans are feeling solitude. It's natural and we don't need to fix this immediately.

It's also OK to feel bored. As Nietzsche once said: "Boredom is the lull of the soul," (freely translated).

We need to accept that these feelings are there. We should not overvalue them. We should also not stick with these feelings. We need to learn: all happiness will go at one time. But also unhappiness will go. Both are tied to each other. There is not only one thing to achieve, it's always both.

The career model doesn't accept we are having these two sides in us.

Hippies? Weaklings? Wise?

A group of people, often called "Y Generation", are the people born between 1980s and early 2000s. They want to keep a balance between work life and free time. They want to develop themselves freely, work fewer hours than usual and maybe think, "working" was done wrong in the past.

When they got attention recently in German press, they were sometimes called weaklings because people assumed they are lazy or too soft.

It seems that there is a demand of some people to change the current way to live. Actually I agree, when they say we don't have a healthy relationship to our work today. However, having a lot of spare time would be just another way to run after a career. There is a time for fun, but there is also a time for work.

"A day without work is a day without food," Kôdô Sawaki

As it is wrong to say: "I want to work 60 hours each week", it is also wrong to say "I want to work no more than 10 hours each week". Sometimes it just feels good to work hard. Sometimes it's bad. With dogmatic views on work times, we miss one important thing: work is part of our lives.

It's not only exhausting and causing stress, it is sometimes also fulfilling and satisfying. I met one of my best friends at work. We are friends, since we made a big project work just fine, when everybody thought it was a lost cause. It was exhausting, but also fun to work there.

The "Y Generation" wants to experience life. But sometimes life requires long working days and even stress. The right view would be to understand that these periods will go away. And if there is no change in sight, or when one cannot identify any longer with what he does, there is most always a way to leave the situation.

I believe it is not the hours we work which cause the problems; it is how we look at our work and if we believe it is worth doing it.

Somebody once asked me, if Zen wouldn't mean to just quit the job and become a monk. For some of us, it is the right thing to do. For some not. Zen does mean to do the right thing, and it's up to you to decide what the right thing is. Personally I am not ready yet to become a monk. I struggle with a lot of things, and I admit, I am fighting the fear of tomorrow as many of us.

The discussion on self-expression and and how many hours you work or not is again not fixing the problem, that at some times you feel energetic and at some times not.

"Every day is a good day", I learned from Kôdô Sawaki. To achieve this, we often do not need to change the method, but we need to change the view. When we have changed the view, the method will adjust. Extreme views in any kind are rarely helping.

I am afraid

We worked hard before, and with the arrival of tablets we work even harder. Being online all the time, it became harder to speak to the person standing next to us. It's possible to fix a business deal when our counterpart sits on the toilet. In the tube we can chat with mom and the last thing we may do before going to sleep is checking our business emails.

Why?

Maybe because we are afraid.

You could lose your job.

You could lose your life partner.

You could lose your kid.

You could become poor and solitary.

You could not get a promotion.

You could die.

In fact, you will die. As everything else on this planet. Some people tend to think dying is a bad thing which we need to prevent sometime in future. I don't think so. I am afraid to die myself, I hope it will not be too painful. But in the end, it could be more worse to stay alive than to die.

In ancient times, men were afraid before the darkness. Today we have put a candle in each corner of the earth which gives us light. With social media, making careers, considering ourselves important, we do the same: putting up candles at places where we are afraid.

Slowly we melt more and more with the technologies we build, becoming some kind of cyborgs – see Google Glass [6]. Or more drastically, we have started to distract ourselves at any time and anywhere, with business emails, social media, taking pictures. We have started to lock ourselves into a digital world which in the end makes us live like zombies.

We need to get out of this circle of fright.

You don't need to earn happiness

The people who told you that you'll be happy after working hard for 30 years were wrong. The people who told you that you need to be successful at your job were wrong as well. The people who told you that you need to self-express at any price were wrong. The only truth is: you need to breath – and maybe a couple of other biological things.

Whoever you are, where ever you live, how much you ever have worked: you deserve to be a happy person. And there is absolutely nothing which prevents you to be one. Except that you will struggle hard with this thinking when you have to fight for existential things like water, food, or safety.

I am honest: I want to own a house. Maybe nearby a sea with a great view, or close to the ocean. I know, at least in Europe the cost for that house would be insane. I would have to work for the rest of my life to pay back the loan. For that reason, I have decided this is not the way which would make me happy. I don't want to commit myself for living a long time at one place. For you this may be different. For you it might be the right decision and you will happily take on the burden. But if not, then there is absolutely no need to get such a house just because you were told to do so. It will not make you happy afterward, it needs to make you happy right now, when you decide to spend your life for it.

Although living a simple life in a rented flat and working hard every day including Saturday and Sundays I am happy. Because I do what is right for me.

How can you work so much?

To be honest, my workload looks insane to others sometimes. I try a lot of things, and I have a family. It's complicated to get everything under one hood, but it's doable. At busy times, my day starts at 5am and ends at midnight.

Zen changed my view, but it's a hard practice. You can't learn Zen from a book, it's something you need to do every day. It's difficult to do a sitting meditation in an open space office, but inspired from Kôdô Sawakis words, that one can do Zen at anytime, I created my own strategies to practice. I call it "Kizen". It's best translation maybe would be: "The way of Code". I would not go as far to replace other meditation practice with Kizen. But I feel it's a good companion because you can do it at any time.

One of my favorite Kizen practices is to drink tea. Actually I love coffee very much and I drink lots of it in the morning while working. As this is nothing extraordinary to me, I have chosen to do something else which will need my full attention. Almost once a day I try to brew and drink the best tea ever made. I take time for this event: I clean the place before I make tea and to clean up everything afterward. Perfect tea needs more than perfect leaves. It needs the right temperature of water, the exact time to brew. It's even more complicated to drink tea: one needs to concentrate on the aroma, the taste and the perfect size of the nip.

With fully focusing on the tea, I can get rid of constantly thinking on today’s business. My mind gets a distance and I calm down. Doing this and some other practices as described more in detail in "The Zen Programmer" help me to get things done without being worried about my workload.

A career, without a career

Previously I wrote that running after a career is bad, but then I explained how I can manage to get done with an unbelievable huge amount of work. As mentioned, it is the point of view you take. Anybody who read this article that far could argue, that I would actually use Zen practice to increase my working performance to ultimately make a career.

In reality I consider "successful career" a side effect which you may have, or maybe not. Since I learned that my career doesn't need to go into a specific direction, it's running on steroids. I am having some kind of career, without wanting one or caring about it.

Let your career go. Instead focus on what you think is the right thing to do.

Life is not in ten years. It's now. Every second.

When I understood that my life and my happiness didn't depend on my career even in the slightest way, I started to lose my fright before the future. Nobody knows what the future brings. It doesn't make sense to be afraid before it. Without fear, I was able to make the decisions that changed my life in the way I have it today. Maybe still full of work, but with work of which I know that it is the right thing for me. With that knowledge I can enjoy the good and the bad parts.

Ask yourself the questions:

  • Do you like what you do?
  • Do you think the things you do are things you want to do?
  • Would you do the same things if you were to live alone, without kids, no loans or other things you might be responsible for?

If the answer is "yes", then stop running after your career. You have already reached everything to be happy. Just continue to do the best you can, but be aware that things are good as they are right now.

If your job is not like that, then you might start to hate it one day. You'll be worried about your situation. You might panic when somebody else is able to "make it", but not you.

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." - Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

When I started with meditation I lost the ability to hate. I relearned to breathe. Eventually I could see that it is only me who am responsible for my life.

  • What we should understand:
  • A project is just a small slice of your life. There is your family, nature, the air you breathe.
  • A missed a deadline, requires action, not worries.
  • Your happiness doesn't depend on your job. If you lose it, it maybe be uncomfortable but it is unlikely that you die alone, poor and suffering.
  • Your boss might lead the project, but not your life.
  • There is no reason to be afraid for the future. All future is uncertain.

Leaders, and Leaders

I know quite a couple of people who were working, and almost every year they would earn a promotion. At lower levels the promotion is almost automatic. You can reach a career level by just not quitting your job, as long as you are half-competent in what you do. This alone is quite absurd.

Some programmers think their career goal is to quit programming and become a manager too. The difference between these two jobs is that big, one cannot say its "promoting to an upper level". It's switching jobs.

In 1969 Dr. Laurence Peter wrote something which went famous as the "Peter Principle":

"In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence," - Dr. Laurence Peter

It means that you become promoted, until you are no longer able to deliver satisfying results. At this point promotions would stop and you would stick with a job in which you can't perform well.

There is quite a chance that you are very good at programming, but not that good with managing a company. Working with people is simply not the same as writing computer code. Still people aim to reach higher levels and are even willing to sacrifice their happiness.

There are good team leaders by heart. Like Sun Tsu described one in his excellent book "Art Of War" [3]:

„During the Warring States era, when general Wu Qi was military governor of West river, he wore the same clothes and ate the same food as the lowest of his soldiers. He did not use a mat to sit on, and he did not ride when traveling. He personally carried his own bundle of provisions and shared the toil and hardships of the soldiers. Once, when one of the soldiers was suffering from a festering wound on his arm, the general himself sucked out the pus. When that soldier's mother heard about this, she began to mourn. Someone said to her, "Your son is a soldier, yet the general himself sucked the pus from his wound - what is there to mourn about?" The woman said, "Last year General Wu did the same thing for my husband, and as a result my husband fought in battle without taking a backward step, finally dying at the hands of an enemy. Now that the general has treated my son in this way too, I have no idea where he will die. This is why I mourn him." - Sun Tsu: The Art Of War [3]

This kind of leadership can't be learned easily. Wu Qi didn't care much about his career level. He knew that a career is worth nothing. It is the goal that we need to achieve. The way he led people is nothing that can be learned easily. Such leaders would not be recognized in the current vision of career. Nor would a person who was semi-automatically promoted to the career level of a general be able to act like Wu Qi.

Decide yourself

Whether you decide to stick with your company or to leave it: what counts is to do the right thing. Happiness is not a constant thing. After periods of excitement and fun, you might be unhappy in each and every company. Things come and go, chances too. There is no reason to be afraid before the future.

You live now. You need to decide what you do with your life.

I have decided to not wait for happiness until I am promoted to a certain level in the career game. I don't worry on a successful career, I worry about a successful life. And that is not tied to working hours, it is tied to the ability to sleep when I am tired and to eat when I am hungry.

The career model makes people sick and a lot of us do fail at the game.

We need to forget that becoming a manager is the next milestone to reach for a programmer. Instead we should focus on the things we are good at and which we want to do. If you can feel the fun in it, then you are at the right job – and you should decline any further promotion which would move you "up to the next level". Because there are no levels.

References

  1. Cost of mental illness (in german): Last retrieved on 08.04.2014. http://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/leben/Psychische-Krankheiten-kosten-die-Schweiz-19-Milliarden-pro-Jahr/story/18005771
  2. TK Gesundheitsreport, last received on 08.04.2014: http://www.tk.de/centaurus/servlet/contentblob/516416/Datei/83065/Gesundheitsreport-2013.pdf
  3. The Art Of War: Complete Text and Commentaries, Shambhala Publications Inc, translated by Thomas Clearly.
  4. China Contractor Again Faces Labor Issue on iPhones, last received on 12.05.2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/11/technology/foxconn-said-to-use-forced-student-labor-to-make-iphones.html?_r=0
  5. Google Glass: http://www.google.com/glass/start/
  6. "The Zen Programmer": http://www.zenprogrammer.org, or at Leanpub on https://leanpub.com/thezenprogrammer

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This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Methods & Tools

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