How do I align my values with my career?
August 24, 2005 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Please help me better align my values with my career.

I'm a software engineer. I currently work for a large defense contractor and, as a liberal who often disagrees with the U.S.'s use of force, I obviously have a tough time finding work I like to do there. I have been able to find work which doesn't flagrantly violate my values so far, but I'd like to feel passionate about my work, and I don't think I'll be able to there.

So, find another job, right? But where? Everything I read about computer programming these days is negative: it's being outsourced to India, workers are expected to work long hours and to be constantly on call, there's no job security, etc. Additionally, I'm not going to feel passionate about raising my boss's stock price by a 1/4 of a percent, so I'm not sure I'll feel much better at a big commercial place. At least at my job, people are trying to do the right thing as they understand it. Also, it pays well, is secure, and basically everything else except for the general thrust of the whole company is perfect. Perhaps most importantly, I don't live in an area with a whole lot of jobs.

How can I either navigate the company I'm in now or find a new one in order to maximize the alignment of my work with my values?

How close of an alignment should I expect?

Personal anecdotes will be appreciated as well.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total)
Perhaps you could reinterpret your personal values in order to experience alignment.

Example: The higher the quality of defense contractor products, the more efficient the military industrial complex, the greater the amount of money available for your cherished social programs.

Example: If all the honest men leave, the crooks will sink the place.

Example: Whereas you may not like war and stuff, you should acknowledge that the US has created more global stability than it has created chaos. With stability comes rule of law, human rights, and decent economic markets. In order to push American Values (not necessarily synonymous with the values of any particular administration) we need good military technology. It's the single most influential factor in our ability to deal with power crazed tyrants.

Example: Making good money and living an ethical life are the best way to influence your community, your state, and your country.

Example: Maybe you are a bridge between people you don't agree with, and people you do.
posted by ewkpates at 11:28 AM on August 24, 2005

You could start your own company, or join a startup. Or, you could find some research project that is doing something amazing and needs a programmer, and help them out. You should definitely not feel guilty for a living.
posted by Hildago at 11:39 AM on August 24, 2005

does your company have non-defense-related divisions? my brother had similary ethical issues about working on weapons systems and gets to work on commercial satellites instead.
posted by clarahamster at 12:00 PM on August 24, 2005

What about programming work for a non-profit? We employ several excellent programmers--they work on our national web site and build web sites for our projects and partners. It's not always the first place people go looking for programming work--people assume we don't need them--but it's rewarding because our programmers can see immediately the ways in which their hard work benefits the greater good.
posted by hamster at 12:12 PM on August 24, 2005

"Grow up" may not be the most constructive advice, but it seems apt. Your morals cause you discomfort at your present job, but they're not enough to make you swallow the long hours and low pay of a different job. That's hardly a mature attitude.

There are many people whose behavior reflects far different priorities than those they profess. Sometimes life is about discovering who you really are -- and if pacifism isn't truly an important facet of your character, summon the maturity to admit it.
posted by cribcage at 12:23 PM on August 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

Your best bet is to suck it up and deal. Provided you're not supplying the Nazis, I don't believe you're under a moral imperative not to support US imperialism. And, really, you need to eat. If it makes you feel better, consider donating some of your paycheck to certain causes. Heck, maybe even volunteer in your community if you buy into the whole karma thing.

I'd be strongly against ewkpates' advice by the way. Lying to yourself is a bad habit to develop. Be realistic with what you're doing and how it affects the world at all times.

If it's more a question about being challenged and excited by your job, tell your boss that you're a smart, eager guy who's not being challenged enough and you want to get in on the bigger/riskier/more exciting projects.
posted by nixerman at 12:29 PM on August 24, 2005

I sympathize. There are precious few opportunities for an engineer or programmer to use their carreer to make the kind of social contribution you're thinking about. You might find something outside the office though. How about contributing to an open source project? I feel pretty good about my work with the FIRST Robotics Competition. They are all over the country, and always in need of volunteer programmers. Especially teams in lower-income neighborhoods.
posted by kc8nod at 12:49 PM on August 24, 2005

I work for a defense contractor, and there really all are sorts of folks that I see in the field, just like anwhere else. There is tons of defense work that isn't directly combat-related. I know of one local place that just does web portals for support services of families back home, that sort of thing. Honestly, it's like the military itself: I don't have a problem with the tech, it's the policy.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:58 PM on August 24, 2005

It's important that you find a way to be happy in life. If your job is colliding with your morals, then ignoring it isn't going to be an effective plan.

There are plenty of programming jobs out there, as pretty much every major company has in-house software suites that they build and maintain.

I don't recommend starting your own company. I've done it, and not only is it extraordinarily hard, but it usually involves a huge amount of financial risk. It's fairly obvious from your question that you're not in a position to take that risk.
posted by mosch at 1:57 PM on August 24, 2005

If it means enough to you, start looking for another job more in line with your values. I don't agree with the "suck it up" posters, at least not for the long term. In the short term, sure, it's stupid to quit your job without a back-up unless it's giving you an ulcer or something.

However, you're going to spend a lot of your life at your job. You might as well spend it doing something you can feel good about the rest of the time. It might mean moving and/or taking a pay cut, but it will be worth it in the long run.

As far as being "constantly on call" -- I don't know too many programmers who are "on call." System admins, yeah, but not so much programmers.
posted by jzb at 9:14 PM on August 24, 2005

"Grow up" isn't the most constructive advice - but it's certainly true in that part of growing up is learning that everything has a cost, one way or another.

At the moment, the cost of your well-paying, secure job is moral and ethical discomfort. Alternately, if you want that comfort, you will probably have to trade off job security or pay. That's life. The perfect job is unattainable. I'm sure even bikini-model-herding has a downside, though I'll be damned if I can think of one right now...

People seem to have this in-built need to be unhappy with something, anything. It's why the ratio of disgruntled wage-slaves to enthusiastic workers seems to rise with age - it doesn't, of course, except that older people have accumulated more things to complain about ;-). The only way to beat this is to draw the line somewhere - to say "I can't condone this, but I can put up with that in order to have XXX & YYY".

On preview: I'd don't necessarily mean "suck it up" - but learn that there are some things you will have to live with, in order to live.
posted by Pinback at 9:21 PM on August 24, 2005

« Older Best way to get digital images from film negatives...   |   Ordering Toscani cigars direct from Italy? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.