I'll be smart, experienced, and missing ALL the buzzwords
February 29, 2012 4:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to choose between two programming jobs. One company is very, very unusual for its field, and the features which attract me to that company are rare or even unique within its field. I'm worried about how taking my first job there will limit me in terms of experience, stereotypes, and networking if/when I have to change jobs and/or fields. Are my fears valid?

Company A is a geeky newcomer to a very old field. It hires smart people from outside the field, the sort of people who are recruited by Google but won't leave. It uses a particular technology stack that interests me, releases parts of it as free software, and employs or collaborates with the principal contributors of relevant open-source projects. It encourages continuing education by hosting in-house talks, reimbursing for tuition and books, and letting people move around internally to new projects for the experience.

I've heard from multiple sources, including my own experience being interviewed by competitors, that all of these features are rare or unique in the field. When I change jobs I may also need to change fields, at which point all my professional experience will be writing very domain-specific code in a functional language that appears more often in academic papers than in blog posts. I'll have no object-oriented or agile experience on my resume, and there is a non-negligible chance the interviewer will think that the world would be improved if I and all my ilk were removed from it.

Company B is a pretty standard web-2.0, not-a-startup place. I'd be writing C++ back-ends on a pretty standard stack, accruing much more readily transferrable experience. There would be no formal educational benefits, but my daily work would probably expose me to the framework du jour. My coworkers would be similarly top-notch and also more connected to the field where I expect to find my second job. And, of course, instead of being tarred with the same brush as insurance salemen and high frequency traders, I'd be working at a glamorous company whose name you almost certainly know.

I should emphasize that both these companies are great, and I consider myself very lucky to be offered a position at either one of them. I'm worried only about how Company A would look to future employers, about the perceptions and prejudices I would have to overcome. I am not worried I won't be able to teach myself C++ or agile or object-oriented when I need it; learning new skills is actually a strength of mine. I am worried that I won't be able to convince future employers to give me that chance.

And, of course, there's always the siren song of Company C, which is a century-old player in a millennia-old field and sounds like it would be the best culture fit I'm likely to find anywhere. Formal mentorship programs, full tuition reimbursement for any class at all, a culture of aggressive and evidence-based optimization in every aspect of their operation, and incredibly smart coworkers from all backgrounds, from medieval studies majors to mainframe hackers with decades of experience just in this one company. Of course, they have hardcore mainframe hackers because they develop in COBOL and VB.NET because technologically speaking they're still ambivalent about the nineties...
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There's no single answer to your question, but I'll chime in from the perspective of someone who took his first job out of college at an old-guard software giant and then found himself switching fields entirely 7 years later out of boredom and frustration: if all the jobs you're choosing between are reasonable starts to your career and put food on the table, then do what you find the most interesting. Where "interesting" is necessarily a melange of tech stack, domain, and environment that only you can really puzzle out for yourself.

There's no point in worrying about the transferability of skills and contacts within a field if you don't like what you're doing in the first place. Give yourself a chance to really enjoy this field.
posted by gurple at 4:48 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

You sound much more excited about Company A, and that's all I really need to know. I think you'll find that an opportunity to do interesting work in a supportive environment is more valuable than just about anything else a company can offer you. If you're smart enough to get and succeed in a job like the one you've described at Company A, you'll have no trouble picking up whatever skills you need to get succeed elsewhere. Since they're cool with the open source thing, you could potentially get some resume-friendly experience working on more conventional object-oriented style projects in your free time.
posted by Mars Saxman at 4:57 PM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

...and for whatever it's worth, after nineteen years of work in software development my impression is that a company's level of interest in your buzzword bingo score is positively correlated to the tedium involved in the work they have to offer. Interesting companies care about your experience, your intelligence, your knowledge of CS fundamentals, and to a limited degree your social network (since personal connections can skip you pass the HR bozofilter). Boring companies care whether you can manage the specific heap of clunky technologies their vast, sprawling hellscape of database frontend code was built on.
posted by Mars Saxman at 5:00 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

You're always going to find a "standard" company. Go for something that is unique. Actually because of its uniqueness, if you decide to leave the company in the future, it will look more interesting to resume readers, IMO.
You're also probably going to find more interesting people at Company A and more interesting experiences and stories. Save Company B for when you want things in your life to be more predictable.
posted by xtine at 5:06 PM on February 29, 2012

The plus side with niche skills that you really like is that while the demand for them might not be huge, the supply of them is often even smaller. So paradoxically you might find it easier to get jobs because there's less competition, and the jobs you can get will likely be ones that you like a lot.

It sounds like what company B would be for you is learning how to do something that's not so exciting to so you can be sure of being able to spend the rest of your life also doing things that are not so exciting.

The only thing that gives me pause here is wondering why you're so certain that you won't be staying with Company A long term when it sounds like such a good fit. Can you say some more about that?
posted by philipy at 5:18 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Company A. You'll do better in a place that is more interesting, and referrals count more than super specific experience.
posted by lumpenprole at 5:24 PM on February 29, 2012

All else being equal, take the job that you'll talk about with an increasingly wide-eyed exuberant grin, as opposed to the one you'll talk about with a shrug and a wry, cynical roll of the eyes.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:59 PM on February 29, 2012

Company A.

Worry a little less about the particular languages and frameworks, more about getting yourself in rooms full of really smart people. You can figure everything else out on the side.
posted by yeoldefortran at 6:27 PM on February 29, 2012

Pretty sure I know who Company A is. You'd be dumb to not work there given the opportunity :)
posted by wrok at 6:45 PM on February 29, 2012

I met lots of middle-of-the-road wife-and-2.5-kids career-coders like your Company B (or maybe even C) when I worked at a cool company called Electronic Arts. There were a lot of brains, interesting products and nice fringe benefits, but not a lot of personality. If it's all the same, Company A sounds better for the market and your goals. Then again, John Cage said, "start anywhere," so it probably doesn't matter what you choose as much as you think it does.
posted by rhizome at 6:46 PM on February 29, 2012

Company A. I say this because the technology landscape changes pretty fast these days, so the skills and toolsets you learn at Company B might not be so highly desirable when the new hotness comes along in a few years anyway. It's not really as practical a consideration as you might think.
posted by Andrhia at 7:54 PM on February 29, 2012

Mod note: From the OP:
More specific responses to wrok and philipy below, but it sounds like the overwhelming consensus is that I should follow my niche interests; that more mainstream experience isn't as important as I think, especially for the good jobs; and that if I can learn the missing pieces then I won't have trouble getting out of this niche later. I have to say, it's very reassuring to hear this not only from multiple people but also from someone older like Mars Saxman. I was worried that this whole "follow your passion" business was a young man's folly, born of naivete and idealism rather than good sense.

I just want to make sure that consensus isn't because I undersold Company B by leaving unsaid all its similarities with Company A in terms of coworker intelligence, open-source involvement, etc. It's a small, successful former startup with no shortage of interesting, challenging, educational projects, so if any of you thought I was choosing between 1997 Viaweb and Microsoft IE 6 North Korean localization team, now would be a good time to revise your answers.

wrok: If you know the company, I'd love to speak to you more. If you don't mind, could you contact me at askmefithrowaway1@gmail.com?

philipy: I only meant that over time scales as long as the rest of my career it seems foolish to assume that I won't have to change jobs eventually. The only way I would voluntarily leave either of these places is if working adult life were to change my preferences in completely unforeseen ways. Which it well could---I intend to have children one day, and I have it on good authority that a newborn completely alters your priorities. But I'm not going in with the plan of making my stake and getting out, if that's what you were thinking.
posted by taz (staff) at 10:34 PM on February 29, 2012

From 14 years of experience, I can confidently say to avoid work you don't want to do--it has a way of following you, and you'll end up doing it again and again. That said, it's easy to change tracks as a sw engineer! I've done work in a dozen different niches and lack of experience in a particular subject has never been a problem through three different employers. As long as you can write code, do what you love and the rest will follow.
posted by jewzilla at 10:56 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I only meant that over time scales as long as the rest of my career it seems foolish to assume that I won't have to change jobs eventually.

In that case let me point out that over timescales as long as the rest of your career, knowing the framework-du-jour is not all that relevant.

Domain expertize can be a different thing though, so if you like the idea of working in B's industry, and it is a large industry that is likely to still be relevant in 10 years time, that is certainly worth some consideration.
posted by philipy at 6:02 AM on March 1, 2012

I wouldn't worry about how the niche area of Company A defines you too much, provided that you have a good base of experience. When the day comes that you are seeking your next gig what really matters is that you have a compelling story about problems solved and relevant lessons learned.
posted by dgran at 6:45 AM on March 1, 2012

Do you believe that Company A's technology stack is the future of software? That's the crux of the matter, in my opinion. My advice on whether you should go with Company A depends entirely on the technology stack. Does another tech giant invest heavily in this technology stack (if not in products, in r&d)? Do the features of this technology stack find their way into other stacks? Does Company A have government contracts? Does Company A have a contract with Apple? If so, go for Company A.
posted by at at 7:34 AM on March 1, 2012

I vote for the intangibles. Which people do you like better? Which office did you feel more comfortable in? How is the commute? These are the things that will make or break your life for the next two years of your life. All else being equal (sounds like they are), those should be the tie breakers.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:20 AM on March 1, 2012

« Older I'd like to be nicer   |   Will they throw me in prison? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.