Indie programmer or call-center drone? A false dilemma disguised as hope?
March 28, 2012 8:21 PM   Subscribe

Does it make sense to block off a few months to develop the skills needed to pursue a modest career/business developing indie games and mobile apps for Android, or am I better off just getting an entry-level job at a call center and make a decent amount of money doing sales or tech support?

Trying to teach myself enough Java to be able to make my own Android games and apps. It's something I've always wanted to do and now that I'm out of work and back home, I actually have the time to do it.

But is this the right decision for me?

I don't have anything saved up and I'm just able to pay my phone bill through some freelance IT work. Beyond that I am completely dependent on my mom for meals and shelter.

There's no real pressure for me to leave home. In fact, my mother has encouraged me to stay and try to do any kind of work that I can do online so that I won't have to work at an office. (Previous history with years of drug use that I think she associates with me being on my own during my 20s.) However the atmosphere here at home isn't always pleasant--whenever she get frustrated with me she uses the "When are you going to go out and get a job?" line to get me to concede.

For me, I'd rather be self-employed and the thought of creating something that others can enjoy or find useful truly motivates me. Realistically, I am not independently wealthy so I know I can't afford to go the pseudo-starving artist route and keep taking risks. (I'm also already 35.)

I should be responsible for my expenses and my lifestyle and being back at home is just a pit-stop. And it hasn't been a great experience: Aside from the fights and arguments with my mom, I hardly ever leave the house now for lack of money and I've been having serious bouts of depression on and off. I exercise and try to eat right but the feeling of isolation and *shame* for being a 35-year-old man living at home with his mother makes me feel like a Grade-A Loser. For context, I live in a country where it's commonplace for kids to stay home until (or even after) they get married. But I have predominantly Western values (I blame the books and movies I grew up with) and my current situation really feels like Failure. I even avoid my friends or turn down their invites to hang out because I don't want to talk about my shit. (Plus the fact that my mother is very controlling regarding this. While I'm seeing her side of it when it comes to being against binge drinking on weekends, I'm pushed to the other extreme where the only creatures I interact with are strangers on the internet, my clients, her and my cat. (Sad to say, this is literally true.)

My only other option aside from taking a few months to learn Java and app development is to take a job at a call center and just start earning a salary again, and hopefully save enough for a deposit on my own apartment.

Either way, I see it as reaching the same financial goal, only at different timeframes. With the indie programmer route, I would expect to be out on my own in 6 to 9 months. (I have a few web dev projects in development that I'm getting paid for. Plus I intend to sell some of my things to raise money.) But the chances of success are not guaranteed. However I'd probably have the skills to qualify for a job as a programmer if I take this path.

With the call center route, it would take about 5 months to save up enough for the apartment deposit (while starting to pay for my own expenses while still living at home). And I don't know if I'd have the time or energy in between shifts to study programming. This path scares me because I don't know if there's a career beyond "call-center employee". I know there's management positions that I could qualify for if I want to advance but I don't know if managing people or teams is really what I want to do. I really want to create something. That's the reason why I want to learn programming. Besides, I've worked a year at a call center before (long story) and while I excelled as an agent, I was never able to get promoted (although I didn't have a college degree back then).

Hopefully relevant details: I have a degree in IT/network administration so I had some classes in programing and software engineering. I "know" just enough Java, Ruby and C++ to do the basic console input/output stuff but I don't know enough yet to put together a game or an app. But I consider myself competent and able to learn (I've grown up with computers as my hobby since the 80s.)
posted by porcupine to Work & Money (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
This isn't a binary choice.

Most call center jobs provide a desktop PC and ample idle time to mess around in eclipse (unless IT has things
so locked down you can't google or read stackoverflow.com)

You may even be able to increase your skills writing desktop apps that help you and your co-workers perform your duties easier, which will provide incentive to learn java to solve problems, which you may be missing at home with your parents.
Also, weekends are a great time for learning skills that don't pay off immediately.

Striking it out on your own making games and apps can be very hit or miss, would suggest careful research into the average app developer income (distinguishing between salaried, free-lance, and sole operator business owners) before making any definite decisions. You highlighted "decent" as if it's a 2nd tier amount, would be careful with that assumption (plus health-care!)
posted by oblio_one at 8:33 PM on March 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't have anything saved up and I'm just able to pay my phone bill through some freelance IT work. Beyond that I am completely dependent on my mom for meals and shelter....

I should be responsible for my expenses and my lifestyle and being back at home is just a pit-stop

Yup. Get a job (doesn't have to be a call centre) get out of your depressing home and having to rely on your mother for meals. The satisfaction you will get from being independent once again will trump the more nebulous and far-less-likely-to-materialise benefits from becoming an app developer with enough revenue to live off.

Once you're standing on your own two feet - or while you're getting up on them - you can learn your java. I would bet money that the actual downsides of living at home will outweigh the hypothetical downsides of a call centre or other job.
posted by smoke at 8:44 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


> With the indie programmer route, I would expect to be out on my own in 6 to 9 months.

That may not be helpful. In fact that expectation may come back to bite you.

Do you have an exact number in mind for the *minimum* amount you will need to make every month?

There's really no way to predict how much you'll make as an indie programmer within 6-9 months, so I'm wondering if the minimum-income approach will be more successful for you. You can start predicting immediately how long you'll be able to survive on your own at a given income level.

Also, other things I wonder about: That your mom is paying rent is a great thing. If you can find a way to mitigate the interpersonal conflict (maybe changing your habits a little bit, or limiting your exposure to her during stressful times) maybe this would give you the time you need to test the Android route. (As my accountant says, "there are two ways to make money. Earn it and/or save it." :-))

Finally, I hope you'll accept this challenge to find more balance. Yes, you should probably spend a bit more time with your friends. You should probably meet new people (example: other programmers or IT folks). You should probably find other places to hang out when mom gets upset.

But really, as smoke says, independence is worth it. There are some situations that will always be accompanied by a low longing feeling of suppressed free will, and living at mom's house seems to be one of those. :-) Good luck!
posted by circular at 8:49 PM on March 28, 2012


Thanks for the helpful replies! Long-time lurker, first-time asker here.

Also, other things I wonder about:
Freelance IT instead of call center work
One or two part-time jobs instead of call center work


I make a fair amount of money with freelance work. But the security isn't there. So while I can reasonably predict an income that can pay for my rent + expenses for a few months, the uncertainty of what I can scrounge up beyond that is maddening. (And as oblio_one noted, there is that thing about health care, of which I have none.) Part-time jobs haven't panned out. But maybe I haven't looked hard enough.

But I am starting to see the logic of just getting a steady job (call-center or otherwise) as the priority.

The satisfaction you will get from being independent once again will trump the more nebulous and far-less-likely-to-materialise benefits from becoming an app developer with enough revenue to live off.

There are some situations that will always be accompanied by a low longing feeling of suppressed free will, and living at mom's house seems to be one of those.


Yup. It's been nice not to feel the pressure of the outside world for some time. But not that nice. I haven't exactly won the lottery here. Time to get back in the game I guess. As for the app development dream, I know that isn't necessarily going to go away just because I'm employed somewhere. And it's not as if by being unemployed now I've been magically prolific because of all this free time I suddenly have.
posted by porcupine at 9:37 PM on March 28, 2012


I'm also just pointing out things that I don't see in your current plan (not criticizing, maybe you already have answers to these):

• Why 6 to 9 months? How do you know this?

• Do you know that someone will purchase a game or app that you create? Or do you know that several people will purchase these things?

• How long will it take you to make one app or game?

• How long will it take you to earn enough to support yourself?

• Or if someone is paying your rent, will you really be motivated to learn how to do this and then successfully create dozens of games and apps?

If you don't have an answer to any of these questions, I think that for now this path is a bit dangerous (how do you even know that you will enjoy making games?)

I don't see this in your plan and if you were a friend, I would ask those questions.

What about these other routes to get to the same point?

I'm just throwing out suggestions as other ways that I've seen people reach similar parts of your goal (e.g. not working in an office, learning a desired skill, etc).

One way of getting closer to that point is getting a full time job to do the job (or parts of the job) that you want to eventually be paid independently or through other clients to do. These have obvious advantages (training on the job, experience seeing how clients/customers relate to the final product, making contacts, etc.) You mention that you have a degree in IT- is there reasons that this can't translate to a job if you apply for these jobs?

The other possibility is to find out what it takes to get these related jobs (e.g. making games/apps/or whatever). If it is a test that you need to pass and get hired, by then all means...take time off and study 5 days a week/6 hours a day and plan to take the test in so many weeks or months.I've known at least a few pple who changed careers by doing exactly this ...they took a short term hit but got the desired job and it did not hurt them since it was implemented during a short time period.

If for some reason these plans are just not doable, then I would recommend taking the call center job. Yes, it is not what you want to do, but it will give you at least a little $ and a chance to interact with others (it sounds like you miss that from your post). Working in the call center, though, is not the end goal.

Then on your off time, study...and start building games and apps.

Then start testing your plan in steps.Can you build an app? How many hours does it take to do so? How many people purchase it? If you can save up a few months living expenses plus already know the answers to half those questions, then you can jump and try this plan.But right now it seems like their may be holes in your plan (again,there may not be,but I don't see it in the description).

But a job with conditions that you don't like can motivate you to create the world including the conditions that you want. If if no one else is paying your bills, the fear of hunger will motivate you to produce something.

I also quit a full-time job and consider myself self employed and it has worked out for the last 3 years. However, I had a savings buffer of at least a few months. I learned additional skills at a full-time job and I knew the client liked what I did. I made a point of working hard at least the first few months because I was afraid of going broke. So I am suggesting a similar route...get someone to pay you to learn the skills if possible/make a plan and test it in steps/etc.

posted by Wolfster at 9:46 PM on March 28, 2012


Not sure about the programming job market there, but here the pay compared to a call center worker would be starting--starting!--at about twice as much per hour.

Call center work is a dead end. Think of your overall career and earning potential. Go out for walks during the day or have lunch with your friends and not so much the binge drinking--it's not binge drinking OR total hermit.

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:03 PM on March 28, 2012


I am trying to be frank rather than mean. I work at a place that makes, among other things, a fairly popular android app. Based on your description, it seems pretty unlikely that we would hire you, and further, I doubt that you could be qualified for us to hire you 9 months from now even if you did nothing but write java code for the next nine months.

Obviously, you don't need us to hire you to be an indie developer, but think about how hard it will be for a single person with nine months experience to make apps that sell well when he's competing with people like us, who have not only a 10-man android team full of people with years of experience, but marketing people to help make our products known.

If you want to make a living selling Android apps, you're going to have to make something great, and you probably don't have the capacity to build the next Angry Birds (who's going to do the art?) or Minecraft (how's your linear algebra?) by yourself with limited experience.

This isn't to say I don't think you should try and learn this stuff, you absolutely should give it a try. But thinking you're going to be making a living off it inside a year is pretty much impossibly unlikely, especially with no professional software development experience.

I don't know what you mean by "web dev projects". It implies professional software experience of a greater level than when you say you know just enough of a few languages to do console output. Do you know how to use threads, sockets, data structures, graphics frameworks of any sort?

I don't know that a call center is a great option either, but you're being ambitious to an almost ridiculous level with your programming goals unless you're really a lot better than you imply. If you were previously a game developer in C++ for windows and wanted to transition to doing Android development and have something salable on the market in 9 months, it'd still be a stretch.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:12 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think that you have too ambitious a timetable for your programming goals, for sure, as others have said.

As for the call center, without knowing where you are in the world, and the possible stability/instability of call center work as a career sector in your country, it's hard to say whether that would represent "security" or not. Outsourcers are always chasing the cheapest workforce, and who knows what countries are going to price India and the Philippines (to give two examples of countries where the call center sector is booming) out of the market in the next few years?

Maybe dialing back your expectations of "crash course to independence" on one hand and "money and stability that will never go away" on the other might help you find a more productive middle path.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:51 PM on March 28, 2012


Call center work is not a dead end.

10 years ago, right out of college, I started (as in called them on Thursday for an interview, started Monday) working at a call center doing tech support for minimum wage. Within 6 months I was a supervisor. Within 6 months of that I got a job offer for twice as much for an internal help desk for a large company. 18 months later, moved to desktop support. 18 months later, became a supervisor. 18 months later, desktop client packaging and engineering for 50% more money. 6 months later, took over managing the company's global e-mail infrastructure for 50% more money. I now work from home full time doing this.

At each of those positions there were a lot of whiners going on about how it was a dead end job and how they weren't being paid enough to care. None of those people ever did a bit more than they felt they were paid to do, and they never moved up. Many of their positions were eventually off-shored/outsourced/re-outsourced.

The friends I made at the first call center job are still my friends and I've brought several of them with me every time I moved up. We take care of each other.

Take a job that doesn't make you miserable and do it really well and don't complain. Take on new projects. Things work out. You will have time to study programming while you work or in your free time.
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:18 PM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Expect to make very little from apps, at least for a year or several, especially if you do games (the game market is very crowded).

The fact that indie games are interesting to make attracts legions of indies (and pros) to make them, and standing out amongst the masses is extremely difficult, and you don't have a million dollar advertising budget (but you will be competing with those that do).

The love of games tempts people to hand-wave away the ugly realities, but it's difficult to make money on games even when you're an experienced expert (I know many). The most realistic approach I know is to quickly make a lot of games with a long tail, all of them earning very little, but as more of them accumulate in the market over time, their added paltry incomes adds to something you can barely subsist on. This means designing games that ideally won't feel dated next to the games and game technology of two years from now, so they'll have a longer sales life. Phones are probably one of the better platforms for that, but OTOH you might have trouble tying to keep up with bugfixes when new handsets are released.

I think my advice boils down to ignore the temptation of games. Instead, think about things in life that you are an expert in, think about apps that could tap an untapped niche in those areas, and follow those passions in your app making rather than games. Too many other people have the same passion for games, while other areas are still untapped.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:25 PM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am an independent game developer, and had been doing it professionally for ten years before that.

I don't think it's wise to jump into indie games if you expect to be rich. Or even live sustainably for a while (my first game averaged about $5 a week after the initial spike, after months of work). Do it because you love making games.

To that end, there are many non-Java options, like Unity, Moai, or Flash. Use them to make lots of little games while you learn to program.

Also: Derek Yu's advice on finishing what you start has always been useful.
posted by ikaruga at 12:39 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I doubt that you could be qualified for us to hire you 9 months from now even if you did nothing but write java code for the next nine months.

Probably, but when I say that my back-up plan if when my app or game fails in 9 months time is "job as a programmer" I don't mean specifically as part of a team of Android application developers. I mean that if I keep working on this stuff now I expect to be a better programmer in 9 months. Are the only jobs available for competent Java programmers in the realm of Android app development? Sorry that I sound defensive but is it really that difficult to write a good Android application?

think about how hard it will be for a single person with nine months experience to make apps that sell well when he's competing with people like us, who have not only a 10-man android team full of people with years of experience, but marketing people to help make our products known.

I'm certain there are examples out there of individual developers that can keep up with companies with a 10-man team of programmers. Or is that the nature of Android app development? That adding people to a project increases the chance of its success or exponentially increases the quality of the final product?

As for the marketing people, I agree that is certainly a competitive advantage. And an additional expense. Does your company have a full-time marketing staff to promote your app? That's certainly encouraging if a small business of the scale you described can be sustained by just one application.
posted by porcupine at 1:18 AM on March 29, 2012


Surely you can do both? I work full time, and on weekends and some weeknights dedicate some time to learning Unity (Hint: Unity's Android and IOS Exports are available for free till April 8th, you might want to pick them up quickly. Usual price is 500USD.)

On the side I'm also learning lots of other stuff, IMO having a full time job means you need to budget your time. Give up TV, reduce gaming etc. It's 10,000 hours to get good at a subject. Get your horses moving :)

You might also want to check out the realities of game/app production. Sounds awesome, but not always a one person job. Finally, check out sales figures between IOS and Android.
posted by TrinsicWS at 1:29 AM on March 29, 2012


I've decided to look around for any immediate employment. First priority being something in IT then at a call center. I've also reframed my long-term goal for studying app development not to be a "success" in 9 months but instead to create something that I'd pay for myself.

I really appreciate the different perspectives here. Thanks, tylerkaraszewski. I was being very unrealistic in assuming that I can make a living off of app development before even writing a single app (or game). I'll work on being a better programmer first. Then see where that goes. As for the job, yeah I'm going to update my resume after this. Thanks, MonsieurBon for talking about your experience. When I was at a call center I was doing pretty well but it coincided with a screwed-up period in my life. Had things been different maybe I'd have seen it for the opportunity that it was and made better choices.
posted by porcupine at 1:32 AM on March 29, 2012


Hey TrinsicWS thanks for the tip about Unity being free until April 8th! I've played with it before on my Mac but the license cost for Android and iOS was discouraging. This is great.
posted by porcupine at 4:10 AM on March 29, 2012


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