Programming: “It pays the bills” vs “It satisfies me”

At this point in my career I find myself increasingly frustrated with my day to day work. You see, living in the DMV area (DC-MD-VA), a lot of the jobs available are in government contracting and as many will tell you, those are well paying jobs with a certain level of job security added. For a while I did it and enjoyed it but deep inside i knew that this was not really what i want to be doing for the rest of my life. With things being the way they are, even when trying to switch jobs, it has been easier to do so going from one government contract to the next, with my attempted moves to the private sector being unsuccessful primarily because first my experience is mostly related to government projects, and second, the pay range was below was I was willing to go for. It is not greed on my part, but being married with kids means ” I got mouths to feed man! “(<= in Dave Chappelle’s voice) and obligations I have to tend to and can’t ignore.

This has limited the number of opportunities I considered and from a passing thought in the back of my mind it has grown into a daily contemplation of my future in this business. Over the years, I have gravitated toward doing and enjoying more of the front end work, and it’s a coincidence that the field in itself, especially when it comes to enterprise J2EE development, is becoming a full position in itself as opposed to being lumped in the “Java Developer” category just a couple of years ago (It still is, i just got another inquiry from a recruiter looking for a Java Developer where most of the work is front end related). My frustrations with the projects I have been on mostly stem from the technological limitations of working on government projects which sometimes involves outdated technologies,  security limitations and convoluted requirements that end up taking the fun out of the development process. From a design and functionality point of view, these applications lacked the “Wow” factor and being internal applications, even if they were, they were not of the “living portfolio” type of web applications that customers companies want to see when interviewing a developer.

I’ve realized that the type of work I want to be involved with has to be challenging, innovative, and current to what’s getting done today. It has to be a good mix of creative and technological skills that keeps me on my toes and gets the “Cool!” approval from family and friends when presented with it or when explained to, instead of a blank stare and a “Uh?”.

To work towards achieving that goal, I’ve started working on projects of my own, ideas i have been nurturing for a while with the hope of turning it into a startup if it gains traction. It’s a combination web/mobile app developed with CakePHP and Sencha Touch that has helped me turn some of the concepts and techniques I have been reading about and itching to try into actual code and challenged my thinking and skills in a way I had never experienced before. It has forced me to step out of my comfort zone and try new skills I didn’t practice before and it is a continually rewarding experience. I’ve also started working on side projects for friends of mine in order to expand my skill set and keep it sharp and relevant.

Through discussions with others (friends and colleagues) I’ve found out I was not the only suffering from this programmer’s “existential malaise” but some choose to go with the status quo while others like me find other projects to get involved with on the side that keeps them interested and challenged.Some have started their own startups, non-profits and organizations, building on the skills they have and pushing into new directions. Me, I figured I could spend my free time better than racking up “The Feared” accolades on Modern Warfare 2 or shouting angrily at my TV because my players messed up again in Fifa 11.

All this in waiting for that project that will bring the good mix of creativity, innovation, coolness and most of all, “will keep the kids fed, man!”(<= in Dave Chappelle’s voice).

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14 thoughts on “Programming: “It pays the bills” vs “It satisfies me”

    1. Hey Toukarin, thanks for the link, it helped put what i am feeling in perspective!

      “It’s not easy to reconcile the fact that the software we write each and every day is, for all intents and purposes, mind-numbingly boring. Magazine subscription management. Medical billing reports. Realty inventory management. This is not the type of software that changes the world. In fact, it probably won’t even put a smile on someone’s face. Its sole purpose is to add to the bottom line by making other workers be more productive.”

      I realized now that it’s just not government software that’s boring but that it could be replicated as well in the private industry. I still want to work on “sexy” software and as other have suggested, open source software might be the way to go.
      Thanks for the insight!

  1. I know exactly how you feel: many exiting new technologies, but business is 10 years late and stuck with legacy technology. Additionally I have the impression that, as a developer it’s getting increasingly difficult to “keep the kids fed, man!”

  2. I just stumbled across this, but I thought of another possible solution: You can contribute to an open source project that grabs you.

    You can fins something interesting and engaging to do on the side, which will certainly help you to learn new skills and challenge yourself and “put yourself out there”, but without any pressure or deadlines.
    And you will be helping the broader community of users and contributers.

    Here’s a good place to start looking: http://openhatch.org/

    1. That is definitely an alternative i thought about, but i never took the time to find a project that did tickle my fancy and make me want to spend the extra time. The two points you brought up about pressure and deadlines are crucial too! I’ll check out OpenHatch and see if i can find somethings to get vested in!
      Thanks for the input!

  3. There are many programmers who are programmers just to pay bills. And do not have much interest in programming other than that.

    The IT industry requires such programmers who are willing to work on such so called “boring” projects. Because it is these boring projects that are being used around the world. As you have said this happens in both government and the private industry.

    To work on your own interesting projects, we have to be good enough and interested to get a job perhaps in research. Or an easier alternative is to work on an open source project.

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