Need some programming career advice
July 24, 2014 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Need some special snowflake programming career advice.

OK, I know, it's a boom time for the entire tech industry. And I'm doing OK, but not great. I don't even know what kind of job I want. Help.

- I live in Minneapolis. My wife has a non-tech job she loves here and she really, really doesn't want to move elsewhere. But the software job market here is very limited. If I were in a big city I wouldn't be asking this question.

- My career so far: I got a CS degree, couple brief IT jobs, I got into a relatively decent CS PhD program but dropped out after finishing all the course work and a few super minor papers (family member died and I needed a break). A bit after that fiasco I got offered a position at a large old-line tech company (think IBM or HP) which happens to have a little office here. I talked my way into a high profile project within the company, and for 2 years I was one of like 8 developers on a brand new big thing. I did everything from write C code to do test scripts to talk to actual customers, and I rocked at it. That project was cancelled after we already started making money (no clue why) and I'm currently maintaining some very old boring code for the same people (and browsing the web too much at work). Time to change.

- I'm relatively personable and extroverted for a software engineer. On the other hand, I don't have the kind of intense focus and persistence that makes for a really top-tier software engineer. I'm good at presentations. I'm American so unlike most of my peers visas aren't an issue.

- I make about 110K total, which would be very low for me in a techier city (according to Glassdoor), but seems to be the very high end for here. The cost of living here is lower than the West Coast... but not as low as salaries are. My wife makes about the same as I do and we've been saving around 50% of our take home for years, so taking an irregularly paying contract job would be ok.

Basically my dream job would be to work 30 hours a week in something that's very independent, hands-on, and people-focused, rather than my current life which is 50 hours a week doing exactly what people tell me to do while sitting alone in a dark windowless room. I either want a lot more money or a lot more time off. If I stay on my current path the only real way up is by grinding for 4 or 5 years until I get into management, and that doesn't really meet any of my goals.

So what direction do I go? Independent consulting? Project management at a smaller company (my current people want an MBA for that)? Sales engineering? I'm really pretty lost here and I could use some guidance. All the people I know seem married to their jobs (maybe a Midwestern thing) and basically refuse to even contemplate reaching for something better, so I'm not getting a lot of help IRL.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
CS PhD program but dropped out after finishing all the course work and a few super minor papers

One quick question: Did you get a Master's out of it? If not, you should find out if there is something that you can do to get the school to grant you one based on this work. It might be as easy as some paperwork and combining the papers into an MS thesis. With a Masters' you will likely have more options on whichever path you choose.
posted by originalname37 at 8:25 PM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Basically my dream job would be to work 30 hours a week in something that's very independent, hands-on, and people-focused, rather than my current life which is 50 hours a week doing exactly what people tell me to do while sitting alone in a dark windowless room.

It sound like freelancing/consulting might be perfect for you. It's got its major downsides (I'm pretty sure I'd never want to do it), but it allows you to control your own workload (making 30 hours a week a possibility), work closely with clients, etc. It sounds like you have the financial cushion to weather the occasional lean times (one of the biggest of the downsides from what I hear), and odds are you can stay exactly where you are geograpgically (since you'll generally be freelancing for non-tech companies not being in a major tech city won't matter so much, and once you're established and have a reputation you can probably work remotely). There are a million resources on the web for getting started as a freelance programmer; I don't know any especially good ones (since I'm not a freelancer), but someone else may have some more specific pointers.

The one thing I can say is having a specific in-demand skillset will be a big help. Mobile immediately comes to mind: you say you've worked with C, so you shouldn't have too tough a time learning Objective-C, and from there iOS development.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:11 PM on July 24, 2014

Get out of the big corporate world. Definitely consider working for smaller companies. Not startups. I think the sweet-spot is privately held companies of about 50 to 80 employees, usually family-owned, with the 2nd or 3rd generation currently running the show. These companies have lots of need for well designed systems, and are open to in-house, custom development, rather than throwing a bunch of money at consultants hawking expensive enterprise "solutions". Be prepared to take a pay-cut.
posted by spudsilo at 10:29 PM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Contracting immediately jumps to mind. Especially if you have either a popular / trendy or niche skill. If you can write C well, you will be in demand somewhere - maybe at one of the newish hardware / embedded systems companies?

Startups have evolved in your favor over the last few years - they are more willing to pay large salaries, even at the early stage, because capital is relatively easy to raise, the culture is more willing to consider remote work, and they are often forced to contract because it is so difficult to hire full-time employees. I would take a look at offering consulting services to funded companies of all sizes (even at the seed stage) - you might be surprised at how well you can do, and you might find that California-based companies are willing to pay coastal wages to people anywhere in the US.
posted by bbuda at 10:43 PM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're ABD on your doctorate? Go finish that and do an industry specific dissertation.

A PhD is useful in consulting which sounds like it might be a fit. A lot of people recommend healthcare tech, but we're pretty ramped up people-wise. Between meaningful use and health care reform, healthcare did the big tech staffing ramp as few years ago. You'd be competing with incumbents with healthcare experience.

FWIW, my PM's do not all have MBA's (maybe half do?) All have PMPs or SCPM (many have both). Honestly, tech PM does not seem to be a fit for your aspirations. It's more hours and more heartburn than you seem to want.

I'm an MBA, but I did that in a better market. I really don't recommend paying for one unless your career goal absolutely requires it and you can get into a top tier school (corporate finance, perhaps).
posted by 26.2 at 9:28 AM on July 25, 2014

I think you are very very far off in saying there isn't a lot of opportunity in Minneapolis. Methinks you haven't really started to look in earnest, or don't know how to look. The Twin Cities are a large city, and there's lots of tech stuff going on. It's not Silicon Valley, but take it from someone that's worked both places, this is a good thing. I think you're not doing yourself a favor by thinking that there are no interesting jobs to be had in a multi-million person metro area, especially because it's not true. At both of my last two positions in Minneapolis, they had a huge problem with coming up with viable applicant pools for new software engineering openings.

I just started a job at the U of MN after a few years working for a 20 person private software company in downtown Minneapolis. I absolutely love my new gig, probably the best fit I've ever had at a job. The U pays under market, even locally, so if salary is an issue for you (it sounds like it might be), that might not be a good option for you. However, if your happiness is more driven by work-life balance, it's very hard to beat working at the University.

The job I left paid competitively for the local market, about what you are currently making. They were great to me there and I loved the people I worked with as well as being Downtown, but the work itself wasn't exciting enough for my interests. However, echoing earlier comments, small companies are great for being able to think out of the box, do work that has immediate positive impact, and less likely to drive you into the ground than say the company you are currently working for. I would target them rather than the Target/Medtronic/UHG monoliths that (I've heard) can be miserable.

Networking with people is critically important for finding smaller company opportunities, because they are not nearly as good at advertising their positions as the bigger players. I found out about my downtown job by renewing a correspondence with an old neighbor via LinkedIn, not even with that goal in mind. You never know how the next gig will present itself to you, but in my experience web searching for open positions is one of the least effective ways of doing it.
posted by mcstayinskool at 12:12 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm also a software engineer in Minneapolis. The Twin Cities is a small market compared to Chicago/SF/NYC, but there are absolutely a lot of tech people and companies doing interesting things. The upcoming MinneDemo might be a good event to attend if you can, there are a lot of interesting people and ideas there and I always leave minne* events with a ton of new connections and ideas.

Unlike others here, I don't think contracting/freelance engineering work would be a great fit for you. Finding steady part-time work that is interesting to you is going to be a challenge, and working even half-time on something you don't enjoy wears you down after a while. Plus it doesn't sound like it would get you closer to the job you actually want.

In any case, you're not alone! I've also been wondering how I might specialize in the intersection of tech/products/people rather than just writing code all day (but still get to write code). Memail me if you want, I have some more specific ideas about people and organizations you might want to get connected with.
posted by substars at 2:07 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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