Career alternatives for a burnt-out developer?
June 16, 2009 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Career alternatives for a burnt-out developer? Is there a world past my IDE that I'd make it in?

I'm a developer. I'm pretty sure I'm burnt out. It's not the actual code that's taken it's toll on me, but everything else that goes with it. I've been getting 80% of a paycheck for 6 months now, no thanks to the economy. I'm overworked, I'm tired of dealing with incompetent management, the lack of any sort of job security, insane deadlines, and, well, all the crap that just goes with the job. I'm really beginning to realize I need a change.

Now, I realize with the current economic situation what it is, switching careers right now which technically still employed isn't the smartest idea. But I could literally be out of a job any day now, and I need to figure out what to do with my life. It's just me and my 3 cats to support, so I figure now's as good as time as any.

And hence my question -- what other career paths should I look into? As a developer for the last ~10 years, I've done several different things, everything from crap VB apps to industrial machine programming to web development. I'm not interested in the management side of things. I've worked with good and bad project managers, and that job is most definitely not what I want to do. I don't quite fit the typical anti-social geek stereotype, but I will never be called a people person. I prefer computers to people -- they're consistent, predictable and typically do what I tell them to. I love the analytical thinking and the problem solving aspects of my job. I get along just dandy with numbers. I love making things work. I have a degree -- a B.SC in comp sci.

I'm not really looking to go back to school -- a few courses would be okay, but I'm not really interested in committing to years of schooling, even part time. I've dabbled in sys-adminy type responsibilities out of necessity, and although I don't think it's my cup of tea, I'm not ready to completely rule out all aspects of the job quite yet. Technical writing however is not an option -- like most code geeks, I find documentation tedious and boring.

There are forces in my life that are trying to direct me to a nice secure government job. Influential people in my life have such jobs, and from the stories I hear, apparently I'm smarter than at least 90% of the people in these jobs. The pay cut scares me (everything I've looked at I could even consider being qualified for, after utilizing some creative bullshit to apply my current skill set, pays around 55-75% of what I make now, if I were getting 100% of a salary). Plus, there's all the bureaucratic red tape to deal with... I'm not sure how I'd deal with that.

So... any ideas? What should I do with my life? What else is there for a programmer-type once they're done coding?

(Sorry about the length, I got to rambling and I'm not sure what parts to cut out. I've posted anonymously because I don't need my current employer to know I'm looking to get out, even though I don't think they'd be surprised.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that comes to mind is information architecture. It's sort of like what you do, only you'd be designing and laying out the stuff to be implemented by someone else. I'm a developer (not yet burnt out, heh) and I've been trying to learn more IA stuff. From what I hear they get paid very well, and there aren't a lot of people doing it. But since you have a lot of years behind you in building systems and such, you know what has to be done when given a problem. It's all the joy of building systems, without actually doing the nitty-gritty work.

Having said that, I really have no idea how to get into the field. But it's just an idea...
posted by gchucky at 10:04 AM on June 16, 2009

Have a quick look through this, similar question with some great suggestions.
posted by aeighty at 10:08 AM on June 16, 2009

It's not the actual code that's taken it's toll on me, but everything else that goes with it.

Amen to that, brotha. It sounds to me like you kind of answered your own question. You like computers, you like coding, you just don't like being a cube monkey. Welcome to my world. I've been doing it for about 10 years too, and as I get older I find all of it - being a peon, the endless commute, no one listening to my ideas because I don't have a "C" in front of my title, etc, etc. etc - less and less acceptable.

You said you don't want to be management. So I think you have choices:
1) start your own company, where you can be the boss but also stay hands on
2) freelance. I know it's scary to give up the regular pay, that's why I don't do it. But it also offers freedom, and if your skillset is excellent, as it sounds like it is, you will get work in any economy.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:19 AM on June 16, 2009

Development positions are white collar jobs, but something that separates them from the rest of the office, so to speak, is that they have real blue collar trappings.

Programming is a matter of having the right tools and applying them to the problem at hand... and trying to do it right, so that it can be maintained with minimal fuss. Many careers in the trades are in the same vein. They require creativity despite their reputation these days. And they're way more practical in the real not-internet world (IMHO).

Consider becoming an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter, a mason, a mechanic, etc. These jobs also have you working with your hands which is one of the biggest drawbacks of a programming job (at least for me).
posted by symbollocks at 10:26 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm in almost exactly the same situation as you. I tried staying a developer but moving to a different industry, but that didn't work, either. The important thing I've taken away from this, though, is that taking a chance and not having that chance isn't the end of the world, and I'll be doing it again.

We might not come up with possibilities you haven't thought of and have read about. Should that happen, the only way forward is to try things out and see if they work. Be practical about your money, but there's no need to be paralyzed about trying something new, even if you're not 100% sure it'll guarantee a fulfilling future for you.
posted by ignignokt at 10:34 AM on June 16, 2009

There are decent companies out there - the trick is finding one that you are compatible with. Freelance/contract consulting is one way to go, but you will still have to deal with all the crap of being a cubicle-dweller, but, in theory you will be paid enough not to care.

I switched over to a "developer/product support" position 3-years ago, and while it has it's challenges, thankfully I don't have to put up with the games most people do. I know that to alot of developers/architects/designers, the role of "support" has some stigma attached. But, with the right company it is not your typical "helpdesk" environment. I deal with the issues that have not been solved by first the generally very technical customers, next their partners/vendors and finally our first and second level of "helpdesk" engineers.

When we get called in, it's to fix the problems no one else can - it's a great feeling.

Admittedly, with this role there can be quite a bit of travel (70-80%), (less with a similar role, but dedicated customer-set), but the training and perks help to make up for that. If you are not on-site with a customer, you work from home. You manage your schedule and in some ways are an "independant-unit", though you can always draw upon the vast team & company resources when necessary.

Now - I don't know how many companies have roles like this - probably about 3-4 on a global scale. But, I'm sure that similar roles exist for vertical-market software solutions.

Alternatively - start your own mid-market consulting/services company. Make a "turn-key" product/solution and sell it. More companies seem to be willing to buy software now, than have it built in-house.
posted by jkaczor at 10:40 AM on June 16, 2009

Everything you said sounds like me a year ago. I decided to make a change...move across the country and find something different. A life reboot. Then the economy tanked after I had already committed to the move. I'd say when the plane's wheels hit the tarmac is when the economy went totally belly-up and lay-offs began like lemmings falling off a cliff in an unattended game. Damn it.

I decided to stick with what I know and incorporate a company for software and web development, but it's gone nowhere. Companies are keeping an iron grip on their purses.

While unemployed, LinkedIn contacts noticed I had changed my status to 'looking for work' and I got some contract work that way from some former co-workers who are working on a start-up. Doesn't help much with the burn-out though.

Things are still pretty bleak. Optimists are saying something around a September timeframe before things start picking-up again. So, my advice would be to stick it out for a few more months before doing anything rash.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 10:49 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a programmer. I love the code, and hate everything else.

I'm going back to school to be a couples therapist.

Don't restrict yourself to technical fields.
posted by Netzapper at 10:49 AM on June 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

When I was burned out with development, I turned to teaching. Private schools will often let you teach without a certificate. Of course, the pay is less...
posted by satori_movement at 11:24 AM on June 16, 2009

I've been a developer for close to 14 years now (yikes!) and I've flirted with the idea of leaving the field many times over the years. I can relate to all of what you wrote about burnout and the office politics that go along with a techie, dotcom job. I'm not really a people person either, but I'm also not the typical BOFH dork. You're certainly not alone in how you feel.

I think Information Architecture is incredibly interesting and something you should look into. It would allow you to use a lot of your current skillset - both applied and theoretical - and be a change of pace. Have you read any of Tufte's books? He also does one day courses that I hear are good - the cost of the course includes all of his books, too, I think. I'm going to take one next month, so feel free to MeMail me if you'll want to hear how it goes.

Systems administration might be something you should look into too. While I definitely did some hardware setup and network administration when I was a sysadmin, I also did a lot of programming - shell scripting, sed/awk, perl - and was able to utilize my skills in web app development greatly, something that other sysadmins were not able to bring to the table. For example, while auditing a server farm for one company, I put together a mini-web site that tracked performance and disk space and so on, integrating with Nagios and other tools. One perk I've noticed with Unix systems administration is that people are far more likely to leave you alone... of course, until something breaks, which is a different story.

There's also database administration - if you're a developer you likely know SQL and have setup databases, maybe MySQL or Oracle? Oracle has a bit more domain knowledge that you'd have to get up-to-speed on, but damn, Oracle DBA's make a lot of money and seem to always be in demand.

As for me, I've changed my language of choice many times over the years, doing Perl, PHP, Java, Ruby, and I've worked as a designer, programmer, and systems administrator. It keeps things fresh and the boredom away. I am hoping to slowly change into a different career, one that has me outside organizing treks and hikes, actually. Sitting at a desk all day doing virtual work is just not something I find that rewarding anymore. This change will take awhile, though, so I figure I might as well continue challenging myself in tech in the meantime.

Hope this helps. I'd be interested to hear what you come up with.
posted by jacquilinala at 11:34 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

jkaczor's suggestion is a good one. In fact, that's the very same career move I'm making right now. While no one ever said they wanted to do developer support when they grew up, the role does signify a bunch of important things about a software company. Like they have customers. Customer who not only pay money for a product, but use it, and when it doesn't work, expect an organization on the other end that's mature enough to realize they need to provide quality service in the form of people/time/money to enable their customer base to really thrive. The fact that the job even exists in an organization reduces the odds of the place being yet another toy pseudo company.

But that's just me - my own experiences have led me to believe that I'd rather mop the floors in a place with its head screwed on straight than be the l33t king hax0r in a joint running around in circles cause they've got nothing better to do with their time.

Cons: you need to be a people person. I consider this a feature, as soft skills and good client facing abilities can't be done by just anybody who can twiddle or sort bits on a whiteboard. Since you've stated upfront that that's not you, you might consider some technical outlet where you're more in charge of your own destiny. Rolling your own product or web service is probably the most obvious route - and super easy nowadays considering what's available in terms of off the shelf tools/cheap cloud infrastructure/etc.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 11:40 AM on June 16, 2009

There are decent companies out there - the trick is finding one that you are compatible with.

Can't agree with this more -- it sounds like you like being a dev, you just don't like being a dev at your company. Our field is not THAT closely tied to the tanking economy (well, not as much as some other fields) and there are a decent number of places hiring. Put yourself out there, do some contracting, etc.

The code needs you! (or something)
posted by wrok at 11:51 AM on June 16, 2009

I moved from development to sales engineering, and I've really been enjoying it. There's less day-to-day grind going through lists of issues to resolve, there's more interaction with people, and it's less technically demanding. The problems I tend to solve are more varied, I basically set my own hours, and I'm building a great network now that I'm out of the cubicle and meeting new people every week.
posted by tybstar at 2:27 PM on June 17, 2009

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