You Can Always Go Back. (Better)

November 29, 2013

          I think an end is in sight. That giant sucking sound which accompanied the annual flood of all the smartest quants, developers and systems engineers being swept up and into the giant banks, hedge funds, VC/PE firms and other financial institutions (never to be seen again) may finally be quieting down.

          More and more talented programmers and engineers are bailing out – looking for better, not necessarily bigger – and leaving the “friendly confines” and the comfort of their current positions to look for new opportunities.  And “confines” they really were. Turns out that, once you actually got into that tantalizing temple of men and money, you’d quickly discover that at the end of the day – however much money you were making and however well-appointed your digs were – you were still a troll in the tunnel. And it wasn’t anyone’s idea of the Tunnel of Love.

          And, of course, the most ironic aspect of the situation is that the new attitudes and behaviors which are driving these alternative occupational choices are more apparent and more consistently present these days in many an employment calculation even though the long economic drought is finally beginning to abate. Big bonuses are back and sadly it’s still way too much “business as usual” on Wall Street. You’d think nothing ever blew up and, of course, since no one with any true culpability was ever punished, it’s like the whole deal happened to some other guys and we all just read about it in the papers.  And, for sure, since this is a culture that never learns its lessons, you can expect a whole lot more of the same down the line.

          So it’s a lot more “show me the door” than “show me the money” these days. And really, for the good guys, the job was never about the money anyway – it was always about the work and not about the perks. It had much more to do with the idea of and the freedom to tackle the really challenging problems which were fundamentally changing the way in which the world’s financial markets worked.

          And it’s not like we’ve solved all those issues; it’s just that today is all about tweaks and tweaking (just like twerking) is nothing to write home about or brag about to your hacking buddies. It’s the difference between inventing the Model T, on the one hand, and worrying about how long the fins and tail lights should be on this year’s model, on the other.

          So the smartest guys aren’t locked-in, laser-focused, heads down and grinding out new code any more. The truth is that they’re realizing that they’re not chained to their desks and they’re heads up and heading for the door in droves. So, if the shoe fits you, you need to start thinking about the same things if you don’t want to be left behind in the new digital Gold Rush. Get going, get out there while the getting is good, and make sure you get yours.

          Now I know that this is an easier thing to say than it is to do for many people and that most developers and engineers are surprisingly conservative whether they’d admit it or not. Structure and stability is a goal in their code and a major virtue in their lives as well. And that’s why I’m going to share a little secret with all of you which should make the process a lot simpler, safer and more comfortable.

          Here’s the secret: You Can Always Go Back. (Better)

          Now what exactly does that mean? It’s really simple. If you’re not an asshole when you leave (and you don’t leave anyone in the lurch), they’ll always take you back in a heartbeat if things don’t work out better for you out there in the “real” world.

          And just why would they do that? Because on the round trip, you’ll be a better trained, more experienced, and especially more up-to-date candidate for the position. The fact is that everyone gets stale and everyone gets a little lazy. So if you’ve been in a job for years and you’re working with the same code base and working on variations and tweaks of the same problem set, you’re just not likely to also be the one guy in a thousand who spends his weekends making sure that he’s current on everything new that happening. And you’re also not likely to be the guy who wakes up one morning with a ridiculous and counter-intuitive approach to handling some problem that’s been staring your whole team in the face for months or years. Radical change and disruptive innovation come from the outside of organizations, not from the people in charge or the one’s maintaining the status quo.

          So, instead of being a scarlet letter or something to be ashamed of (as if you were disloyal and abandoned ship), the fact that you joined a start-up trying to change the world or spent a year or two learning a new set of mobile tools or some crazy new e-commerce platform isn’t a bad thing – it’s actually a career-booster, even at your old place of employment. I’ve seen it happen a million times already – if you’re good and newly- gung ho to jump back in, only someone who’s a complete management moron would hold a grunge and bar the door back in. If they’re smart, they’ll ask you if you’ve stumbled across 3 more guys who also want to join up and also have new skills, new strengths, and a new outlook on how to approach the key issues. As long as they’re not bitter and happy to have you back; you’re actually in a better position and a better hire than anyone else they could find because you know the ropes and the mess of legacy spaghetti that they call their code.

          So what are you waiting for? There’s a big wide world out there waiting for you to rattle a few cages and make some critical, game-changing changes. And you can do it. And, worst case, you can always come back. Better.


PP:  “You Get What You Work for, Not What You Wish for”