The baby boomer generation probably helped define the image of career path and trajectory for many Gen X and Millennials that followed. It was incredibly common for the baby boomer to remain with one company for their entire career, possibly move up the proverbial corporate ladder, and retire with a pension. The typical baby boomer’s lifespan may have looked like
college/military → entry-level → low level management → higher level management → retirement with pension
For engineers, the problems of traditional career paths may be compounded. To ‘move up’ and maximize earnings often means getting further from what you do best or enjoy (code) and the result may be to leave jobs more often than you should. Management responsibility is not always on the engineer’s wish list, yet that direction may be the best way to earn more. There is a career point where salaries plateau, and switching employers becomes unsustainable as a method of increasing earnings.
Considering that statistics show the younger generations are typically switching employers every three years, two things are clear:
- Employer loyalty is dead, and has been replaced by either loyalty to one’s own career (hopefully this is the case) or just the need for new challenges (boredom).
- We need to start looking at alternative employment and earning models, career path, and trajectory in a different way.
Entry-level and junior candidates in the tech industry often ask how long they should stay at any given job, how to get into management roles, or what options they have in their career given a certain set of skills. I’m always amused when entry-level developer candidates inquire about getting into management, as if they are trying to get out of coding before they’ve written one line. It seems that most are focusing their questions based around traditional baby boomer type standards of career path and earning, while very few are even considering what alternatives may exist. “Layoff victim? Go find another job, of course!” “Not making enough money? Get promoted or find someone to pay you more!“
Aren’t there some other possibilities that one might at least consider? In technology, the range of opportunities for earning are substantial and alternatives to the standard employer/employee mindset are somewhat vast.
As opposed to approaching your career as simply the search for new jobs, think about career for just a minute as a collection of ways to earn money while building your skills and marketability. One of those ways is obviously to take a full-time job slinging code for the bank or insurance company. That works for many people.
But what if your job isn’t paying you enough? Naturally, you either try to get a promotion (which for engineers is often into a role that may make you less happy) or you go out and get a new employer. Did it ever cross your mind, even for a second, to get a second job? This second job could take on several shapes, so perhaps we should call it a second source of revenue so we don’t lead people to believe this will require 80 hours a week.
Or what if your job is not fulfilling professionally? Do you ever hear about actors who will take peanuts to do the indie films they want and make up for it by doing a few summer blockbuster movies for millions? This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it’s a valuable mindset. I know independent contractors who may have three or four clients at one time, with varying hourly levels of commitment to each, different rates, and a range of project technologies. It’s not easy to do, but it can be done.
If your day job is technically unfulfilling or not providing the necessary financial rewards, at least consider some of these possible options before taking the usual steps (listed by perceived level of difficulty, starting with least difficult).
- Day job + moonlighting (contract) – Could you make a few extra bucks and perhaps learn a new skill through a paid side project ? If you have contacts that own businesses, they may be a good source for this type of work. This could cure both your boredom at the day job and being underpaid.
- Contracting – It seems the decision to go into contracting is often not made consciously, but rather based around a specific opportunity that leads to a contract and then an acquired appreciation for the lifestyle and money. A proactive approach to entering contracting as a full-time endeavor is probably more effective, as you need to think like a business owner.
- Contracting, multiple concurrent clients – This usually requires having a widely respected set of technical skills (a ‘name’), a network, and some basic business knowledge (not to mention time management and negotiating knowledge). Not easy, but something to strive for and aspire to be. Doing 50 hours of remote work a week on three different projects and getting paid for every single hour is probably fairly enticing for most.
- Day job (full-time or contracting) + product - Could you supplement your primary income by creating some sort of product for sale? Your product could be mobile apps, a web app with a subscription model, or even a tech book. This could be time intensive at first and obviously requires some creativity for ideas, but also financially rewarding.
These alternative arrangements are not for everyone, and they may come with some associated risk. The world of employment, especially tech pros, has changed significantly over the past two decades. It’s time to start thinking differently about career paths and traditional employer/employee models. Whether or not these options are right for you, they are worthy of consideration.