Need life advice, could have been so much better, now a sad code monkey
November 8, 2016 1:16 AM   Subscribe

I am turning 29 this month. I graduated 3.8 GPA with a undergraduate Business degree in 2010 from a good university but then went through about 4 career changes in the last 6 years. I thought this kind of "soul-searching" would help me explore a lot of different areas and find myself. But in fact, I'm so miserable about the fact that I'm so behind and have not built anything worthwhile in the last 6 years. Today, I'm stuck at a uninspiring coding job out in the suburbs and just am staying with it because it pays the bills but I know I can be so much better. I see my peers who are now graduating with their MBAs + PhDs from Columbia and Cornell and getting married or just doing amazing things with their lives in general and feel terribly behind, have so many regrets, extremely depressed. How can I turn my life around?

I know this sounds like a self-pity party. Right out of college in 2011, I interviewed with my dream companies like Google, Amazon and IBM but was knocked out of final round. Since then, I've gone from marketing (1 year at BBDO), acting (quit my marketing job and did 1 year), IT sales (cold-calling slave), waiting tables and coding.

Two years ago, I taught myself how to code so now despite all the job-hopping I've done, I can now make a decent living making $90K coding and fixing code. But I'm so uninspired and feel so underutilized. My peers who graduated with me and were at my same level of academic achievement now have years of experience under their belt at places like BCG, Google, IBM, Deloitte, Accenture ... and me, because I've been hopping around so much with indecision, I have really nothing but short-stints and some coding under my resume.

Most recently, I had a huge wakeup call when the startup I was working for fired me. Basically I had a stable W2 job as a Software Engineer at one company and then got offered a Lead dev role at a startup and decided to hop. This startup was a huge mistake because they legally said I was a self-employed"1099" contractor for them but basically treated me like an employee and then fired me because they thought I was too junior and inexperienced. With my resume already being full of job-hopping, this was one of the worst career moves in my life.

I don't know what to do. I know I should get my act together ... I know I should stop comparing myself to others. I think I want to go back to grad school, and really commit myself to an academic discipline I can build my life around.

Coding/development is lucrative and I thought I had a passion for it but I've been pretty disillusioned by the whole app/startup hype since my last fire.I don't think I wanna be making apps for the rest of my life. People say I shouldn't be complaining because I am a good developer. Since i taught myself how to code, I captured the attention of good tech companies like Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Google recruiters again and they want me to interview with them but I don't think I will ever pass their grueling interview process. I have no formal background in CS and been doing terribly in their algorithm interviews. And with the recent shitty startup experience, my resume doesn't look as an engineer either.

Despite the fact that I believe I have potential and that I am pretty smart, I've been just a career mess. I think I need help but I don't know whom to reach out to. Would studying something new change my life for the better? Should I just stick it out with coding? I have no clue.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This might be me totally barking up the wrong tree, so feel free to disregard, but - your post makes me wonder if your problem is depression/anxiety as much as career malaise. Objectively, it sounds to me like you've done amazingly well - you taught yourself to code to a standard where you can pull in 90K, top companies are approaching you to work with them. You had some really bad luck with your last employer, but the facts as you describe them don't sound like the kind of doomsday scenario you're feeling, which for me usually means depression is at work.

Have you been assessed/treated for mental health issues? (I realise this is anon so feel free to take that as a question for thought rather than one you need to come back and answer). Good luck.
posted by penguin pie at 1:43 AM on November 8, 2016 [18 favorites]

I can guarantee that at least some people who are graduating from Cornell and Columbia with MBAs and PhDs also feel terribly behind, have so many regrets, and are extremely depressed. A lot of people just feel like that, or are at risk of feeling like that, regardless of what their lives look like from the ouside. This is because there is no objective metric for deciding who has passed or failed at life -- the standards are incredibly idiosyncratic and personal -- and it's very, very easy to come up with a way to feel like a failure, no matter what you have actually done or achieved.

The problem lies in thinking of life as a pass/fail test, or a win/lose sport, in the first place. If you think of life as a race where you are either ahead or behind, you are likely to always be anxious or miserable. There will always be someone who looks like they are ahead of you, no matter where you get, so you can never feel secure and are at constant risk of anxiety and depression. As penguin pie says, your own life looks like a stream of remarkable achievements from the outside - graduated with a great GPA, got a high-earning job off the back of a complex skillset you taught yourself, targeted for recruitment by some of the most competitive companies in the world - but you don't feel that way on the inside. The question is why not.

I would encourage you to think about that question (1) without making any comparisons to what anyone else is doing with their life and (2) without using any pejorative labels for yourself or your past choices (mess, failure, nothing worthwhile). If you focus 100% on your future -- not your past, or anyone else's -- what do you envision a happy life looking like? What is your house like? Your social life? Your work environment? Your daily routine? You need a good clear picture of what you value in order to make choices about, eg, whether to take a big salary cut in order to do a graduate degree or which jobs to apply for. It's completely normal and understandable to look back at the past with regret, and to look sideways at other people's choices with envy, but these strategies won't help you to make good decisions. If you can't pin down some specific thing that you want from life that you don't have and feel you could get by making a new choice -- if the concrete reality of your life looks pretty good, but you still feel bad about it in an unspecified way -- that does sound like a possible mood issue and worth talking to a doctor or a therapist about.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:36 AM on November 8, 2016 [37 favorites]

I like Aravis76's answer. Also, this:

I captured the attention of good tech companies like Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Google recruiters again and they want me to interview with them but I don't think I will ever pass their grueling interview process.

You certainly won't pass their hiring processes if you never even try. I encourage you to apply for one (or more) of these jobs, go through the process, and use it as an opportunity to get feedback on what you need to work on. If you made it to the final round (or even a high round) of interviewing at Google and IMB then surely you have something of value for them. Maybe reach out to your interviewees and ask for feedback? That will give you some direction to move towards.

Finally, I want to encourage you to think about NOT defining yourself by what you do for a living. You say you took a year off to act. Do you have any hobbies? Would it be possible for you to find fulfillment in a project that takes place outside of work? Some of the happiest people I know are people who leave their work at the office every day and live well-rounded, interesting lives outside of their 9-5s. In other words, work to live, not live to work.
posted by Brittanie at 4:30 AM on November 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

It sounds like you could be happy at a place like google etc. Consider taking a few classes at a local college to help with this algorithm business.

Look going to grad school may mean 5 years if a phd and 2 years of a post doc. As an engineer who went to school later in life, it's hard to make a tiny fraction of what you made when you were 21. Life carries on and you may literally be living in poverty. It's hard if you are following your literal dream, and otherwise mostly pointless.

But yes, comparing yourself to others is a chliche way to make yourself upset. You have accomplished a lot! You've had a strong career you built yourself.
posted by Kalmya at 5:59 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Figure out what you want. Don't make any big moves or decisions before you're confident that you have a solid answer to the question, "Where do I want to be in 5-10 years?"

You might want to consult a career coach or a book about how to find a career you're interested in. But basically, think about all the things that you have liked and disliked about your past jobs. Pick out the things that are essential to you in a job. Find a few people who you can point to and say, "I want their job." (Not "I want their life," but "I want their job.")

It doesn't make sense to think about grad school and career changes without having a goal in mind. It takes time and effort to really think through these questions, but it's worth it if you feel like it's time to stop exploring whatever comes your way and start taking steps in a defined direction.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:55 AM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Regarding the algorithms and white-board interviews. A lot of people recommend this book. If you live in an area with lots of tech companies, look at Here in Seattle there are meetup groups where people help each other prep for white-board interviews. I imagine there are groups like that online, too. I think Free Code Camp has resources.
posted by valannc at 7:24 AM on November 8, 2016

If you want to stick it out with coding, and want to get some more experience in Algorithms/Data structures, consider applying for a programming/dev job at a large public university. Most all will include free tuition as a benefit, and you could take the courses you're interested in while working.
posted by czytm at 7:57 AM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Take an algorithms class or (if you're good at learning out of a book) get the book valannc recommended. It's very intimidating at first, but eventually you start seeing the same patterns everywhere. Tech interviews are a skill. You could still get a job at one of your dream companies! Plus, if you fail the interviews, you go home, look up the answers, keep at it, and apply again in 6 months. No big deal.

I also agree with looking for a job at an academic institution with tuition benefits, and taking some more CS courses, maybe even getting a Masters in CS. (There are a lot of "professional" CS Masters programs out there right now.)
posted by stoneandstar at 10:38 AM on November 8, 2016

Look, anyone making $90K at age 29 is not failing at life. If you feel underutilized at the office, try starting some side projects that challenge you. Paid or unpaid, it can help you get out of a rut and start finding joy in your work.

You are certainly not the first person to get chewed up and spit out by a startup, so I don't think it's as big of a black mark as you might assume. Also, big software companies don't necessarily care about a picture perfect resume if you can do the job well, so build out your portfolio in that direction.

PhDs, much like law degrees, don't guarantee you a well paying job. But you know what does? A strong network. If you have classmates you're still in touch with, let them know you're looking to make connections at Google and so on. Someone you know probably has an in to one of these companies. Foster these relationships while you refine your skillset, and eventually you'll be able to transition into a better place.
posted by ananci at 12:58 PM on November 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

OMG you are 29 and so young! I felt the same way as you at that age, and now I totally regret feeling like I had wasted so much time. You could still be a doctor! A farmer! Anything! Your twenties (and even thirties) really are a time to figure some stuff out. And you've done that in spades and are going to get a lot out of your experiences in the future. I wouldn't worry about passion TOO much -- just get really good at something. The book Drive is pretty good at explaining this. Honestly, in ten years you will want to claw your eyes out when you think you thought 29 was old.

Comparing yourself to others is the death of happiness. I found "Status Anxiety" really helpful at explaining this. And a friend sent me this story once, which helped cool my regret spirals.

Also, try to look outside yourself -- volunteer to make an app for a nonprofit, maybe? It might get out of your head, help the world, and selfishly, it feels incredibly good.

Good luck!
posted by heavenknows at 1:16 PM on November 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Run your own race, at your own pace. Don't worry about where others are. But keep running, even if you think it will be hard. Try the hard things, and if you fail, learn from them.

On a more specific note, find bunch of companies you don't give a shit about working for or not, apply to them, get some interviews under your belt. Practice will help you feel comfortable.
posted by gryftir at 1:42 PM on November 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Spending a year acting and doing some time waiting tables are the stand-out things from your list that make you sound like a really interesting person with talent to spare and some real-world skills and toughness. these are qualities that, frankly and perhaps unfairly, I do not expect from business majors who make as much money as you do. & it is a little sad but mostly confusing to hear you deprecate the best part of your resume and describe the entirely usual experience of having more than one job in one's life as "job-hopping." what even is this? Was everybody who interviewed you 'employee-hopping"? no, that isn't a thing. neither is this. Feel bad once you've sat in the same office looking out the same window for ten years in a row, if you must, but don't feel bad for having had experiences.

You can do several things well, nobody owns you, you have money to burn, and you're young enough you can start a completely different career if you want. The only problem is not knowing what you want. Start with why you quit acting after a year - not enough money in it, too uncertain, too much struggle? Most people with that interest dream about it their whole lives and never do it, but you actually did it and seem to have put away (or never had?) the dream. this is unexpected and interesting. whatever made you decide to give that a shot can guide you to what you want to do now.

and lastly, you list getting married as one of the achievements your peers have & you don't. but do you want it? Are you in love with anyone? have you ever been, do you look forward to it? this is something to perhaps explore.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:02 PM on November 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Your career so far sounds awesome to me! Have you considered working in a non-startup environment? The difference between the two can be quite striking. The problem with a lot of startups is the work-like-a-slave-for-a-small-hope-of-millions schtick. Nowhere in that description are things like job satisfaction, a rich and fulfilling work environment, and a balanced work-leisure equation. You are more likely to find those things in a well-established medium to large company. Finding a company whose mission you can buy into makes the likelihood of getting a happy job even better. (And keep an open mind on this: I ended up doing software for a telecom company fresh out of university, with no prior telecom experience. But I eventually moved to a position where I was working on communications systems for developing countries. It felt cool to know that our work was making a difference in countries like Tanzania and Mauritius!)

For tackling the mood issue directly, I would suggest gratitude exercises. Every night write down three things (no matter how small) that you are grateful for. Do this for thirty days and see how you feel.
posted by storybored at 9:13 PM on November 9, 2016

Having a high-paying job at the start of your career is a blessing. You could set yourself a goal to live as cheaply as possible for X years and seriously save/invest the money that you are not spending. Pick a target net worth, reach it, then quit and do anything you want. If the money runs out, get a new job and start over.

It is so much easier to follow your dreams when you have resources to fall back on.
posted by CathyG at 1:46 PM on November 10, 2016

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