December 1, 2016 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I seem to have reached a plateau in my career, and I’d like some advice to help me figure out what to do next. A lot of detail and ideas inside…

I’m a 36 year old white male with a bachelor’s degree (from a flagship state university, in the liberal arts – I don’t think that matters, but just so you know). I currently work in the customer support department of an enterprise software company, where I’ve been for about four years. My responsibilities are primarily training-related: most of our support requests are of the “how do I…?” variety, rather than technical issues. I do a lot phone training and face-to-face training both in our office and at clients’ offices. I also do a lot of internal training for new employees, including curriculum design. There are a bunch of other things I do as secondary duties that look OK on a resume (presentations, event planning, data analysis, etc.), but that I don’t really do often enough to emphasize. Before this job, I’ve had a lot of experience in customer support and service, as well as operations and account management. I’ve been asked to do internal training pretty much wherever I’ve been, because I’m generally the most competent person in whatever department I’m in. I pick things up really quickly, and I love solving problems. When I took the GRE years ago, I scored in the 98th percentile on the verbal section. I had a lot of leadership experience in college, although I haven’t had as many opportunities since then. I also taught myself how to code, and so I know basic JavaScript, PHP, and SQL. I’m generally pretty hard-working and professional. One thing to note is that I recently made it through the interview process at Amazon (who are known for their rigorous application), but I turned down the offer because it was contingent on relocating to San Francisco, so I’ve got some things going for me.

In a lot of ways, my job isn’t that bad. I get paid a decent amount ($46,000, which in my low-cost-of-living city is enough to pay bills and save some money for the kid I’m about to have). I live close enough to my office that I can ride my bike to work. I have fun co-workers who I hang out with outside of work. I get to travel around the country, pretty much whenever I want to, but never when I don’t want to. I rarely work more than 40 hours a week, and when I do, it’s usually less than five hours over. My work stays at the office, never comes home with me. Upper management is friendly, and there are a lot of extracurriculars (company cornhole tournament, adult league volleyball and soccer, fantasy football, March Madness pool, food drives, etc.). There was just a restructuring that moved my department from my old boss, who I really disliked, to a couple of guys I really enjoy working with. I wouldn’t be miserable staying by any means. It’s just good enough that I don’t despair.

But if I look a little closer, there are a lot of issues under the surface. While I’m not dissatisfied with my salary, a lot of other people are. Pretty much everyone I know thinks that someone with my intelligence, leadership, and work ethic should be making a lot more than $46k. I’m not a materialistic person, so I’ve always just laughed it off, but now that I’m going to have a kid, I see the value in saving large amounts of money. I don’t see that ever happening in my current position. We generally get a $2000 raise each year. That’s not nothing, but it’s not building a Scrooge McDuck money bin, either. Making in the $60k-70k range would go a long way toward paying for kid expenses, paying down debt, and saving for things like a house. More is obviously better, but $60k seems like a nice good starting point.

What I’d like even more than money, though, is responsibility. I have basically zero now. I think one of my greatest skills is my decision-making ability, but I rarely get a chance to use it. My best work experiences have been when someone has given me a project and let me do my thing, but this happens maybe once a month. I’ve been in the workforce for almost fifteen years now. I’m a little tired of entry-level and near-entry-level positions. I’d really like someone to trust me enough to do serious work. (In the meantime, I just answer a bunch of AskMe questions.)

One of the big problems with my current company is that I’m unlikely to get either more money or more responsibility there. Opportunities for advancement are almost literally non-existent. In the four years I’ve been there, we’ve had two people promoted off of our ten-person team. The first had been with the company for twelve years at the time. The other is the niece of the primary owner of the company, and she was actually just reassigned back to our team. The position I’d most want to be promoted to in the company (product manager) was just filled about six months ago, and it seems unlikely that they’re hire a second. Even if they did, though, there’s another person on my current team who has similar interests (and is, in all respects, a rock star – of all the people I’ve ever worked with, I respect her the most), and she has a year of seniority on me. So there’s basically no chance of me doing that, meaning that if I did somehow get a promotion, it’d be doing something I don’t really want to do.

There have been some troubling signs about the direction of the company recently, as well. We seem to have been hemorrhaging people in all departments, and when they leave, we haven’t been replacing it. Our marketing department is down to three people. They’ve cut back significantly on fringe benefits. (For example, we used to get catered lunches two or three times a week. Now, even for major meetings with clients, we just put out a spread of cold cuts.) I’ve heard rumors that one of the reasons people have been leaving is because there’s a freeze on raises.

Even in good times, there are things about the company I don’t really like, specifically the dominance of the sales department. Everyone is a salesman, almost literally. The majority owner is a longtime salesman, the president was promoted from VP of sales, the product manager was promoted from a sales position, and the account managers (my new bosses) were promoted from sales positions. The only leadership position in the entire company that’s not a salesman is our lead developer, and even he reports to a salesman. As a result, the culture is strongly focused more on making new sales than on improving the product or retaining existing customers. We’ve had a lot of churn with new customers after they’ve been on the system for a few weeks and realized that our product doesn’t fit their needs as well as they’d thought during the sales process. In customer support, this is frustrating because we get a lot of unhappy people, but the response is that we’ll make up for the loss with new sales. There’s also a powerful culture of inertia, where people stay just because it’s easier than finding a new job (AKA where I’m at right now). The company doesn’t really provide any incentive to improve, either. Both sides are content to keep doing what they’re doing.

There are a couple of things specific to my situation that I need to address, too. First, there’s a very strong possibility that I’ll be moving in under a year. My wife just graduated from grad school in May, and she’s working a post-grad fellowship that runs until August of next year. Since before we married, we’ve discussed the possibility of moving back to her hometown (a five hour drive) after she’s done here. I love her hometown, and I’m probably even more excited about it than she is. The problem is, my company really hates working remotely. There’s no reason that I need to be in the office to do my job, and in fact, people have done the job remotely before. But there have been a few people in other departments who have slacked off while working from home, and they’ve ruined it for the rest of us. The company recently got rid of one of our most invaluable employees because she moved away when her girlfriend started grad school. So if I move, I will definitely need to find a new job. There’s no possibility of keeping my current job in another city. I’d also prefer not to get a new job in my current city if I’m going to have to search again in a few months after moving. Finding a new remote job seems to be the best option.

The other thing, and this is probably the biggest reason I’m dissatisfied, is that I feel like I’m getting stupider. I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but I am a pretty intellectual guy. I read Tolstoy and Proust for fun. I study foreign languages, I play chess, I listen to classical music, I read the New Yorker, etc. My job just… isn’t challenging. I don’t really expect it to be, but at least at times there are things I can learn about how software works or whatever. I’ve been in the same position so long now, though, that those moments are infrequent. Meanwhile, the job involves interacting with customers who are really not intelligent at all. I don't know how to go into detail without sounding like a huge dick. And as friendly as my co-workers are, they’re not particularly bright. Again, I don’t really expect my job to provide an intellectual challenge, but I don’t want to feel like it's undermining my intellectual efforts off the clock. As they say, you're either getting better or you're getting worse. I don't feel like I'm getting better.

I have a few ideas about possible career paths, and I’d like to get input on whether these are worth pursuing, and whether they’d accomplish what I hope for. One thing to note is that I’m not interested in going back to school. I’m aware that a master’s degree would make me much more marketable, but I’ve still got a ton of loan debt from undergrad, and with a newborn coming any day now, the timing just isn’t right. These are what see as my best options:

-Customer support manager/team lead. Basically, a managerial position leading a department like the one I’m in now. It’s something I’m pretty well-qualified for, as I have years of experience in support and service. I’d have more responsibility, and I’d most likely make more than I do now. The downside is that, well, I’d basically be doing what I do now, with a lot of the same drawbacks. Very few companies actually care about customer service, so even though I’d have more responsibility, I probably still wouldn’t have the resources I’d need to do things the way I’d like. I would also really prefer to not be in a call center environment. I’m lucky that my current company doesn’t care much about call center-type metrics like handle time, and I wouldn’t want to supervise others that way.

-CRM admin or consultant. This is an idea I got from another AskMe question. My current company’s product is basically a CRM system specialized for the insurance industry. I think I could translate that experience into handling CRM for another company. The salary ranges I’ve seen would be a nice upgrade from what I currently make, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason that I couldn’t work remotely. I’d most likely have to take a certification exam, which doesn’t bother me, but I’d rather not do it unless I’m certain this is the direction I want to take. I’m also not sure how much responsibility I’d actually have. Would I actually be making decisions, or just implementing others’ decisions?

-Software product manager. If I had my choice of positions at my current company, this is what I’d choose. I really enjoy working with software, finding bugs and writing enhancements. I know enough about programming that I can work closely with developers. I’d have the responsibility I seek, and there seem to be a lot of remote opportunities. The biggest problem seems to be getting experience. Most postings I’ve seen want someone who already has experience. How can I break through?

-Insurance agent. I have experience in the insurance industry beyond my current job, and I like it. I’ve spent the past four years learning the industry’s best practices. Even if I worked for an established agency, I’d still most likely be a contractor, so it’d be like working for myself. On the other hand, I’d be pretty tied to one geographical area, so moving would be tough. Most importantly, though, I don’t think I’d be very good at sales. I was actually offered a junior agent position during my last job search (when I ended up taking the job I have now), and I turned it down because I didn’t think I could survive on commission. I’m also of the opinion that, long-term, the individual agent will be automated out of existence.

-Business analyst. This is a pretty nebulous idea I have. It’s a term that’s pretty broad, and means different things to different people. Basically, though, I’m using it to mean “monitors data and makes recommendations based on what I see”. It seems like enough responsibility, and I don’t see why I couldn’t work remotely. I have no idea what the salary range would be, though, and whether it would be otherwise fulfilling.

-Program Coordinator. This is another nebulous idea. One of my wife’s friends has the job title, and it sounds intriguing. It seems kind of like being a product manager, but with an ongoing service instead of a product. Sounds ideal. Again, no idea about salary or long term career paths. There’s also the question of which program I’d be coordinating, which is kind of a big deal. My wife’s friend coordinates a student services program at a university, which is

So tell me: Are these good ideas? Would I be able to make the salary range I desire? Would I be able to work remotely? Do they seem like they’d let me accomplish what I want to do? And if so, what should I do to make myself an attractive candidate? What keywords should I search for (beyond the obvious)? If they’re not good ideas, should I just stay at my current job and stop complaining?

Thanks for reading my little novel.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
i'd suggest moving to a smaller company, even if it's doing the same job at the same wage. there, i suspect it will be easier to move from one area to another.

(at first i skimmed your question and thought, "well why don't they accumulate responsibilities and drift where they want?", then it struck me you might be in a big company where everything is fixed. so i look back and see "enterprise"...)
posted by andrewcooke at 2:05 PM on December 1, 2016

Goodness -- if you're moving soon, and you want jobs with good pay, etc., and you really do have coding skills, working remotely as a coder (product like you said, CRM coder, etc.) seems like it could work. Helps you get to see your kid more, too.
posted by hardlikealgebra at 3:42 PM on December 1, 2016

Where I work (internal software development, large corporation) you'd already be a Business Analyst with those responsibilities. Our analysts do things like capture requirements from users to be incorporated into new software releases, design business processes for new functionality, and also a lot of software testing and training (when there's not a formal testing group). They are the ones who get tasked with figuring out software bugs and their impact, and coming up with possible solutions. So if you want to be there in the trenches helping users, designing new features, etc. that's what you'd do. If you wanted to get away from the detail, you'd step up into a product manager position. I don't think there's a path at my company where they would bring someone in from outside as a product manager though, because they would want expertise in our specific software first.

We're not coders, though, we're "business side" and have IT folks to do the coding. We do the heavy lifting in terms of analysis and implementation, though.

I don't know how long you've been in your position, but the salary you quoted is lower than an entry-level salary at my company for the same approximate responsibilities. A mid-career person coming in with 10 years of experience would get at least $70 - $75k.
posted by cabingirl at 3:48 PM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Customer support manager? Sure! Go for it! In fact, if you have time, I'd advise targeting higher responsibility and title (so not team lead).

But why not find opportunities as a facilitator/trainer, especially if you enjoy it, are good at it, and have experience with a particular CRM?
posted by A hidden well at 6:58 PM on December 1, 2016

Generally, I think escape is a good plan. I think for you, the question is "how and when?"

If I am you, I do an extremely deep dive on what businesses and opportunities exist in Wife's Hometown (WH). I research the absolute bejesus out of it. What I learn informs my next step...

This will all take time; effort now may not yield results for months. That is perfect, because you are not ready yet. If something super exciting did come up, you could probably find a way to make it work. People and families have survived harder transitions.

Look for a handful of high opportunity/adjacent/relevant businesses in WH. Make yourself aware of what those businesses are working on and make yourself known in that space/city/industry/recruiting-department (how you do that depends a lot on the size of the town and the size of the companies).

If nothing actionable surfaces, use that intellect to make a bet on what might surface in your time frame. If you talk to internal recruiters, or honestly even some external recruiters, they will tell you the kinds of roles that they are placing actively (past, present, and future). Now you have a second job, one with tons of responsibility... Do everything in your power to make yourself an obviously well-qualified fit for things of that ilk.

In your case, I agree that a shift to Business Analyst makes tons of sense. Learn Agile front-to-back. Get warm and fuzzy with mock-up tools (Balsamiq, for example). Become a Rally/JIRA ninja. What training or responsibilities at your current job can you justify as means or ends along this course? Going above and beyond to develop a whole new *something* that will help the company be more effective given this headcount hiccup without being asked... that makes people look good. And you build skills/experiences/resume-fodder for your next thing.

The whole damn org is sales focused? Cool, learn Salesforce (or your company's sales CRM) enough to figure out how to make their lives easier/lazier or how to give management more visibility to what is going on out in the field. Do this for a while and people will be terrified when you try to quit. Try to make your boss, or your bosses's boss, look/feel good. You may get more money, you will at least get more experience. Double points if you can make one of these things roll into the skills you want/need at the next thing in WH.

The bigger a shift you want between where you are now and where you want to be, the more you will need to commit to making non-standard, out-of-the-box professional moves. I am a very career-focused person so maybe some of this sounds extreme. Still, investing your extra/bored/responsibility-less hours into these sorts of things is going to yield more than investing those hours in Tolstoy. Think about your long-term happiness and your family.

In general, you will likely not solve yourself out of this problem with the same thinking you used to get in it. Further, I would encourage you not to focus on end goal of "getting" a new, better job; but rather to focus on the end goal of becoming the person who is capable, qualified, and well-positioned for that job.

Happy Friday, good luck! :-)
posted by milqman at 8:01 AM on December 2, 2016

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