Why does an engineering career have to be about racing to the top along universally predefined paths, instead of being driven by passion and working to become the best version of yourself? Beier Cai takes a deeper dive into the career gap and limited options for software engineers and considers a better way forward.
Raise your hand if this sounds like you.
You just graduated with a computer science degree, probably with a few co-op job experiences with a mix of startups and established companies, and now it’s time to face your first major career decision. Do you start your own company or join a startup? Or do you find a decent job at an established company with a stellar paycheck?
The startup cycle
For the small percentage of engineers who choose the startup route, a year or two later, when the startup is likely to fail, they face the same decision again. A handful will choose to return to the startup path in the hope of winning the unicorn lottery. Best of luck with that! But most engineers in this situation will choose to work for an established company for a more stable and bigger paycheck — especially those who have to pay back their student loans.
For the first few years at an established company, life is good. You learn a lot, progress from a junior developer to an intermediate, and you earn a solid salary, helping to pay off your student loans and hopefully start filling your savings account. But after coding for three to five years, you start to think about how to build a career. You start dreaming about advancing your career in a way that makes sense to you and also working on projects you are passionate about.
While these dreams are vivid, at some point you confront the reality that there are really only two predefined career options for you in a corporate setting: become a manager, dealing with people and processes instead of tech, or become a technical guru (or Individual Contributor) in specialized technical areas. Both career tracks involve significant competition and an ongoing race to the top, with only a limited number of winners in each category. These career paths are generally predefined and rigid, without much consideration of who you are as an individual. The paths might work out perfectly for some, but for many, a career plateau isn’t far away, since the tracks just don’t match your highly personalized interests, talents, working styles, and needs. At this point, you can jump to another company to work on different domain problems for a fresh challenge, but soon you’ll face the same fork in your career journey: manager or technical guru.
Back to startup square one
But there is a third option, outside the conventional corporate environment. You can go back into the startup world, where you can fulfill your passion, learn new things, build cool stuff, move fast, wear multiple hats and work with lots of interesting people. But by this point in your life, chances are your risk profile has changed. You may have started a family or you’re thinking about it. You bought an apartment, or you’d like to, in an expensive city. The risk and reward tradeoff of a startup may not be as attractive as it once was when you were fresh out of school.
To mitigate the risk, you can try to identify a potential winning startup, but can you really do a better job than the VCs? They study startups all day long and still get it wrong nine times out of ten. Even if you get lucky and find a few promising opportunities, you’ll have to go through dozens of conversations and stressful interviews while hoping your current boss won’t find out. After several months of searching, you might land a great opportunity, but it’s likely that you’ll end up back to square one again after a couple of years — the odds are against you. Thinking about all this, all of a sudden a stable job at an established company, even if it’s not that exciting or fulfilling, doesn’t seem like such a bad choice.
A fourth option is to start your own software consulting firm. You could start solo, then gradually build out a small team. The appeal is obvious: get paid well, be your own boss, and have the freedom to choose when to work, how to work and what to work on. But you quickly realize that you have to constantly find new work, create numerous SOWs, deal with unhappy clients, chase down unpaid bills, and manage accounting, legal, taxes, and other admin tasks, leaving little time to build cool software. It might be a great fit for some, but it’s not an easy or satisfying route for most.
Or go freelance
A final option is to become a freelancer, using a platform to help you streamline the overhead and admin. But you still have to compete for work, potentially with very cheap labour from other parts of the world. It’s not the right fit for many engineers.
A new way to think about your career
Why should engineers be limited to these five career options? and why are there so much risk and friction working in a startup environment? Many of us have fairly straightforward career desires: you want to be challenged, build something meaningful, continually learn and share, work with amazing team members, and enjoy financial stability with the potential for a big upside. You want to improve and become your best self, not necessarily compete with others to climb the career ladder. In essence, you are a software engineer that would thrive in a startup environment.
As Earnest Capital’s Tyler Tringas noted in a post earlier this year, new tools, resources, and funding options are enabling entrepreneurs to carve out unique and highly personalized startup journeys for maximum optionality. This is good news for the startup entrepreneurs, but what are some of the options and opportunities that could give startup engineers more control over their career paths, and greater satisfaction?
Balancing risk and reward
Ideally, engineers would be able to pursue fulfilling roles working on projects they are passionate about. For many, it could be a position with an early-stage startup, but with a degree of financial stability. We all know that startup work is often exciting and the experience energizing, but the vast majority do not yield significant financial payouts. What would be great is a startup experience that combines ongoing financial stability, as well as the potential upside — turning your sweat into a diversified equity portfolio with long-term growth potential — with fulfilling work.
In a perfect world, engineers wouldn’t have to grind to find a startup with great potential that fits their skills and passion. As an individual, it’s just too much work. It would be great to have access to a system that vets and filters companies into a selected few that best fit, so you can focus on your work, not constantly searching for opportunities or round after round of interviews. Even better, engineers would have the ability to dip your toes in a variety of projects for an array of companies, to find the projects and teams that match your objectives, talents, personality and working style.
An organization that prioritizes you
At most companies, shareholders and customers come first, and employee interests and personal and career development are not the priority. While this might make sense from a certain perspective, in practice this incentive structure often leads to burning and churning through the staff. Engineers would be better served by a special agency that is incentivized to prioritize your interests and has a fiduciary duty to you and your career growth.
Sharing experiences and expertise
Engineers would also benefit from being part of a community, a supportive and purposeful structure where you can share with others, learn from experts and develop skills in a wide array of areas, surrounded by like-minded peers, regardless of which companies you work for. Sometimes engineers are treated as cogs in the corporate machine. Wouldn’t it be great to find customized support and career counselling, to dive deeper into skills and interests, to get assistance in finding the right pathway for your unique skill set and long term goals?
Commit.dev, which I founded earlier this year, is part of the new cohort of companies helping to expand the options for engineers. These challenges and opportunities inspired us to create a community that is aiming to provide top tier engineers with more choice and greater control over their careers — choices that balance risk and reward and provide a supportive environment, endless opportunities to learn, and the freedom to choose your own adventures.
Want to be part of the Commit community, to expand your career options in new and rewarding ways? Let me know what you think, and if you want to start a conversation about where you are in your career and where you want to go next. Also, make sure to follow our LinkedIn Company page to stay up to date on our latest news and developments!