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i-Technology Viewpoint: When to Leave Your First IT Job

"Don't Work in Cubicles, Ever" – IT Workplace Advice From the Front-Line

It was early May of 2004, and I was almost at the finish line for my degree. Between me and graduation: Just two summer classes. I was in the process of finishing what could only be described as the most intense spring semester of my college career. As the semester's end finally hit, I realized something. I was going to need a job, and I hadn't even started looking.

Then, almost on cue, the phone rang. The president of a small and local software company was looking for computer engineers with .NET experience. They searched my university's resume database for candidates, and I came up. Would I like an interview? Hell yes.

I was to be part of a team of highly skilled, versatile, .NET Ninjas. We were going to produce top-notch software for the nuclear power industry. Combining management's knowledge of the nuclear field and our kung fu grip on .NET , we hoped to dominate our market niche. As developers we would be on the ground floor of a booming company. There was greater room for advancement compared to a traditional office environment. We all hoped to have company cars, top-notch health care, company cell phones, and tons of other wonderful perks; all just slightly out of reach.

It did not go as planned.

One stressful year later, while I was staying late with a few other developers to finish up on some work, I was asked to report to the president's office. My manager was already there, sitting on the same side of the desk as the president. They explained to me, in a level and professional tone, that due to financial factors, I was going to be let go, with only an hour's severance pay. Thanks for all the hard work, and best of luck.

The first layoff is tough. After bending over backward, after being a loyal employee, this is the reward? To summarize how I felt: Disillusioned. Only one thing kept me going -- pure ego. You know when the schoolyard bully says something about your mom in front of everyone? But, ignoring the size difference and the fact that he's already shaving daily at age 14, you step forward and say "Oh yeah?", with a Brock Sampson-like eye twitch the only warning of the impending ownage? That's the kind of ego that kept me determined to give software engineering a second shot.

Over the course of the previous year, my friends quickly learned I liked to talk about work less and less. When I did open up about it, they were astounded by, well, let's say various factors of the work environment. Each and every time it was discussed with my peers in the field, time and time they gave me the same advice: Get out.

I have to say, they were totally right.

All the signs were there, but I blazed on, telling myself that this was just a rough patch for the company, and that we'd pull out of this tailspin in time to land safely at our destination. I was ignoring the pilots screaming "Mayday, Mayday".

Now, while I was blind to obvious signs that it was time to leave, doesn't mean that you have to be. I would like to present the 4 signs that you should leave your workplace (for software engineers):

1. It's the environment, stupid!

In the University of Pittsburgh's Computer Engineering program, there is a mandatory department seminar, where the department informs us about our career options. Oftentimes, alumni come back to speak about the career opportunities in their field. It's all very, very dry, and as a result, nobody listens. They also fail to give one piece of advice that I would at the first seminar of every year, if I was ever asked to give one:

Don't work in cubicles, ever. Working in cubicles is the sure sign that you're not working for a successful company. Imagine the smartest person you know, working in your field. Now imagine how they would react if they were told they're going to work in a box with no door or roof, allowing them no privacy.

They would no doubt leave that organization for one that is less creatively stifling. So unless you are convinced that you're stupid (and, in that case, you're in the wrong field) you shouldn't be accepting cubicles in your work place either. If the company will not or can not spend the money to create offices for its knowledge workers, so they can get into the zone, the odds of it creating a successful software product and capitalizing on it are about the same as you becoming a millionaire by going to Las Vegas, betting fifty on black, and letting it ride all night.

Cubicles do not automatically make an employee stupid; but it is one more barrier for you to climb over before you can create your own space to think. At my last workplace, the noise traveled. Everyone could hear everyone. An intern with nothing to do bullshitting with your boss, a co-worker venting about how he's not paid enough, the busybody secretary ordering people around with no authority. Not one single employee liked the set up, but without management's understanding, naturally nothing was done.

And for those management types who live in the dead end of corporate culture, if you don't believe noise is a big detriment to your productivity, just buy an electric drill or vacuum cleaner. Turn it on and let it run. Put it as close to your ear as humanly possible, and try to get work done.

It sounds like such a small thing to critical about, but like so many things in life, little things turn out to be extremely crucial. Little things snowball into bigger things. If people can't relax in their workplace, dealing with them becomes difficult, which creates friction where none should exist. That friction could destroy the delicate cohesion every team needs to maintain to produce software. So if you find that getting ready for work in the morning is a larger effort then getting ready to go out on a Friday night, maybe you should talk to your boss about making your workplace more accepting, or find a new one.

2. Just How Dumb is Management, Anyway?

Engineering n-tier enterprise level software is like navigating a minefield. There are countless potential disasters just waiting to happen. From creeping requirements to budgetary nightmares to horribly incorrect estimates, oftentimes it is not technical ability that makes or breaks a product; it is how all the other chainsaws are juggled. Your project is as dependent on the know how of your manager as it is your technical ability.

Since the inception of the term, software engineering, people have acknowledged that it is inherently hard to manage software projects. It is exponentially harder to have a superior that actually understands this, and is capable of both properly delegating and managing the complexity. Here are three major mistakes to look for in your manager. Take any of these as a sign that it is time to have that interview suit dry cleaned.

A. Thinks they know too much:

Is your superior an old hand, who's worked his way up from the trenches, but hasn't kept up with the pace of technology? Does he base his assumptions of how you should be doing things based off the way that he did things? So while you try to explain that the create_user_account module should call a stored procedure in the database to minimize the chance of SQL injection, he's showing you how easy it was to create a form in Access97. Questioning the methodology at work will often result with a "this is how we did it in the old days, and I don't see anything wrong with that!" New technology isn't likely to be adopted at its full potential in a workplace with a manager like this. Instead, you will end up grinding the same gears, only faster, louder, and harder.

B. Relies on, but disregards your technical advice:

Oftentimes, a non-technical manager, or an "old hand" who's edge is no longer sharp will be impressed enough to listen to your technical advice. If they were smart, they'd actually take it.

My former company had the unlucky experience of needing to reformat its single production server. While our DBAs tried to figure out what caused the crash, and how to fix it, I began talking to various other developers about what needed to be done if we had to recover from a worst-case scenario, where a reformat/reinstall was necessary.

I studied up on the re-install procedures, so that I could come in over a weekend, fix the sever, and have it ready so that everyone could work on Monday. I told my superior, who promptly disregarded it. That task was going to another employee, one who had no experience in setting the server up properly. If you find yourself in a situation where management is disregarding the sound technical advice they should be basing decisions on, you need to expedite your job search.

C. Schedule Bullies:

This one needs no explanation. If you tell management that it will take 8 days, and they turn around and tell you they think it will take six, you need to leave. Rushed work is almost always subpar. You will not learn sound defensive coding practices. If management does share your view of "I'm writing this, I'm the only one who can tell how long this is going to take." then you have an uphill battle explaining to your boss such difficult terms as quality or pride in your work. I wish you luck on that endeavor. It will be as fun as herding cats.

Remember, not all programmers make good managers, just like not all managers make good programmers. If your boss' skill set brings nothing to the table, don't expect to replace him anytime soon. Instead, get your references ready.

3. Personal Growth

At my last job, I constantly felt dejected. "You're not growing fast enough! You're barely in the middle of the pack." was the kind of feedback I was getting from my supervisor. Much later, I realized they were setting employees up for failure, and then blaming the employee, instead of blaming themselves.

When it comes to growth, you need to consider two things about your company. Are you happy doing what you're happy doing? Do they have you developing in-house tools, when you'd rather be developing next-generation user interfaces? Are you finding yourself spending half your time fixing the network and pulling cable when you'd rather be developing a framework for your fellow developers?

The second thing you need to consider is what kind of options they offer for career advancement. Will the company you're working for pay for graduate schooling in your field? What about management classes? How about industry certifications? If the answer to any of those three is no, the company is trying to trap you, by removing the path most employees use to get better jobs: Expanding on their experience and education. Plenty of companies now offer this benefit to developers, so if yours doesn't, find one that does. You'll thank me when you have that nanotechnology Ph.D.

4. Compensation and Overtime

If you're not happy with the amount of money that you're making, do a reality check. Find out what you're worth. If you are confident your compensation is inadequate, extend your superior the opportunity to rectify this mistake, and then start looking for jobs where you will be valued.

Overtime should also be considered along with compensation. If you're working too many hours at the office, and the company isn't doing whatever it takes to get you back down to a healthy 40 hour work week, then something is wrong. Is it because the network is breaking and none of you know what to do? Hire a network administrator with certifications. Are you talking to vendors and doing the legwork on products you might need later down the pipeline that a temp could do instead? Are you testing software instead of a full time tester?

While the occasional (paid) overtime is nice, long hours put more wear and tear on you, and over time, can cost you the passion you had for developing quality software. No amount of profit sharing, casual dress or office perk can get that back for you.

Final Thoughts

Work is not all bad. A lot of employers say they want their employees to think work is fun. Few employers put their money where their mouth is, and difference is something you not only see - you feel it when you start working for those employers. After reading this, you should have some concrete feeling as to whether you feel your employer measures up, or whether you need to move on. If you start thinking more about your career and less about your particular job, you'll start to pay attention to those warning signs. And for those of you feeling those warning signs:

I'll offer you the same two words of advice that my friends gave me: Get out.

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