Leaving tech to work with people
August 24, 2020 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Incredibly miserable in Silicon Valley. I want to help people, not build apps. Please help me make sense of everything.

I realize I’m so lucky to have the privileges I currently have in life; I grew up working class, and have basically become upper middle class thanks to pursuing a career in tech. But I’m... really so miserable, in so many ways.

For those of you who care about the Myers-Briggs, I always tested as an INTP until recently, when I started testing as an INFJ. The scales fell from my eyes. I realized that I idealize INTPs, I love them, they’re so cute, but I’m not one. My whole life I’ve been concerned with helping people— not supporting a cause, not theorizing about abstract optimizations, but tangibly empowering and helping people. Every time I’m in a hospital, despite many traumatic experiences I’ve had in them, I think “I belong here, I want to work in a hospital.” I’ve enjoyed teaching and TAing; I love leading a student to deeper understanding and confidence. When my dad had a stroke, I attended his speech therapy sessions with him and thought, “what an incredible job this is!” I’ve always loved the idea of working with students, clients, etc. and helping them reach their potential. Being a stay at home mom sounds incredible to me. And I want to be closer to my family of origin, especially when we start a family (within the next couple years, fingers crossed).

Right now, I’m not doing any of that. I’m building apps. Which in general, I simply don’t care about. I generally feel completely uninspired by “tech for social good,” I want to actually work with people. Pre-COVID, I was going to volunteer as a literacy teacher.

I also hate being stuck on the West Coast— I actually love it here in a lot of ways, but I want to be closer to my family (in the Twin Cities).

I realize I might be idealizing these jobs, and I’m totally OK with hearing that feedback. But part of me knows I like puzzles, I like planning, I like problem solving, but I also really love helping and supporting people 1:1. I feel like for the last 6 years, I’ve been letting that part of me die and jumping through corporate hoops to make money and get promotions to make more money and yadda yadda yadda. I just don’t care; my only motivation for making more money is to be there for my family when they have financial emergencies. I don’t want to be broke, I’ve been there before, but I hate living thousands of miles from my family doing work that is frustrating and means nothing to me. I feel like I’ve completely lost touch with my inner voice. I’m on autopilot. I feel dead inside!

If you’ve left Silicon Valley for another, smaller city, or left tech entirely for another field you felt drawn to, how did you do it? Did you have a savings/financial goal before you left? What did you consider? How do you feel about your choice in retrospect?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
You may find some inspiration from or want to contact Glen Chiacchieri, who left one of the most idolized tech jobs to become a therapist and wrote about it, after realizing that it would be a more direct way to help & know people.
posted by tmcw at 8:31 AM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Would teaching tech skills to folks in high school or community college be of interest? Or through programs aimed at people who don't usually have access to tech jobs? Your real-world experience seems important, beyond your tech knowledge.
posted by latkes at 8:35 AM on August 24, 2020 [8 favorites]

Could you at least address the location part of it by going remote in your current work, or finding remote work? Now is a good time to be doing that, for obvious sad reasons.

I'm in a similar position to you, and reading along I was nodding my head at every sentence, but unfortunately I don't have good answers. The money of SV, and the life it can provide for your family, is very hard to walk away from, but I think there are very few people who draw real, deep-in-the-soul meaning from it.
posted by StephenF at 8:48 AM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I left tech (not in Silicon Valley though) to become a librarian and overall I'm much happier. I make less money though and jobs are a lot harder to come by, so there are tradeoffs.
posted by kbuxton at 9:27 AM on August 24, 2020

I've previously written about changing from I*TP to I*FJ. I work in tech in a large-ish midwestern city. If you want to discuss any of this more directly feel free to send me a message.

A few thoughts on how I derive meaning in my life:
  1. I have a fair amount of community and religions service / support / volunteering / involvement. My job is just something I do but not who am I or where my value comes from. You might be interested in the TEALS program, for example, to help support new CS teachers in high schools
  2. I've often been in jobs where I support end users or directly interface with clients, so I'm constantly solving problems or helping people. When you say "building apps" I suspect you may be working on internal projects supporting internal goals, which can feel rather abstract at times. I think it's easier to focus on "customer satisfaction" when you have external clients rather but that might just be me.
  3. I consider my work (backend server development, for the most part, as well as leading teams) to be creative work. There's an analytical component, of course, and skills to develop, but I truly see myself as taking a "right-brained" approach to my job instead of the traditional "left-brained." This is probably covered by the MB test results but I think this is a unique quality that has helped me be very successful in my career. Develop that aspect of your own personality and figure out how to apply it in the workplace. One way to phrase this might be to "Listen more, provide quick technobabble less"?
  4. Know your limitations and strengths and don't fall sway to engineer's disease. You're really good at doing certain types of work because you've put a lot of time into that. Your thought processes and approach can be useful elsewhere but this doesn't mean you can hop right into another field and be as effective without putting the time in. But on the other hand, don't be dissuaded from making a big change if long-term it will be better for you.
  5. My wife has tended to work in fields that are along the lines of "tangibly empowering and helping people" as you describe. Unfortunately these jobs do not pay as much as working in technology, and frankly she has had concerns about not providing for our family in the same way that I do. But we've come to terms with the idea that her work helps society and my work helps subsidize that. It sounds like you don't have a partner but this may be something to keep in mind if you're dating. Alternatively you may want to make regular substantial donations towards causes you think are worthwhile. Your work may not be contributing towards those causes but the fruit of your labor can.
One other thought - there are organizations that look to help people in your position connect with jobs that are more... tangibly helpful. Tech Jobs for Good is one example of a job board, but 80,000 Hours ("You have 80,000 hours in your career. How can you best use them to help solve the world’s most pressing problems?") might be a really good resource for you.

Best wishes as you learn how to grow and satisfy these important values in your life. Don't hesitate to get in touch if you think a conversation might be worthwhile.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:29 AM on August 24, 2020 [11 favorites]

Upon a re-read, I realized you talk about starting a family so maybe you do have a partner. If that's the case then I'd encourage you to be talking about this with them if you aren't already. And I don't mean the move but your desires in life and this search for purpose. You can meet your needs with a fulfilling job by yourself but you can also work together to be meeting these needs.

This doesn't mean that one of you works for a non-profile while the other works long hours, but I do think fulfillment can come from the overall contribution of a household towards improving the world. Perhaps your partner is in a better position to contribute towards your community, and you can support them by running the household more than you are, or by moving more discretionary income towards growing their skills in a related area.

My point is that there are a lot of approaches here and you don't have to do this alone if you already have committed people in your life.

(Also one other note - anyone else can feel free to reach out as well. These questions pop up from time to time, and a change in perspective like this can be hard to navigate. I'm not an expert and I don't have all the answers but I have gone through some of this and am happy to share my experiences.)
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:41 AM on August 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're looking for someone to give you a push on this direction, I'll give you a shove. I'm not in tech, bit I am in San Francisco. My background is in drug development, lab science, and epidemiology. I legitimately hated the work space despite loving the education and training. A little over a decade ago, motivated by the economic crash, I jumped ship and went into the nonprofit sector. I cut a zero off of my income, and it was very difficult for at least the first five years. But I'm back up at a decent salary now and, all along the way, the change in how I feel about my work has been very worth the struggle. I've just gone through a divorce—my ex is deeply motivated by ambition and chasing money which, while that wasn't why we split, it certainly reared its head when other issues came up—and I, too, am trying to figure out where to move next. I think it's important for those of us coming from the Bay Area to understand just how deeply the cost of living here influences... everything we do, or feel we have to do. I'm contemplating returning to my very rural hometown in the South to be closer to my parents in their golden years, and also to maximize what I can do with my salary (which is a pittance in SF, but a royal mint in my hometown). Now that the lockdown has helped me understand how little I actually need out of the city I have loved living in for many years, I feel much less complete staying here. Savings is good, but it's not essential. You are certainly not the only one deciding that West Is Best was perhaps true in the before times, but it's not true right now. The deck is being reshuffled again.

If there are any nonprofits or researchers/practitioners doing work you admire right now, contact them. Start a conversation. Ask if there's a role for you in that work. That's how I started my transition back when and it worked marvelously.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:45 AM on August 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I left a very good job in tech to go back to school as a pre-med six years ago. I felt very similar to the way you do; even though there was an abstract link from my work to helping people, I just did not care about the work I was doing, and felt increasingly drawn toward healthcare.

I'm a doctor now and it's quite frankly hard for me to imagine there was ever a time that I was not going to do this with my life. It's very much a calling and the job that best fits my skills and personality. I still have my share of frustrations in life, but with my choice of profession I am absolutely happy and at peace.

Regarding the financial aspect, I saved for many years while I was working in tech (not specifically for school... mainly because I grew up in a different socioeconomic class and was raised to never spend on luxuries for any reason, but I digress). Consequently, I was able to pay out of pocket for my first year of school. I saw that as a sort of trial period where if I hated it or was bad at school or missed my old job I could still go back and wouldn't be in crushing debt. I also squeezed every last dollar out of my job before I left; I found ways to work remotely while I was in school for as long as possible and even considered trying to use my company's tuition reimbursement program to pay for pre-med courses (the verdict was that it would probably be technically allowed but would result in burned bridges when people realized what I had done, so I left that cash on the table, so to speak).
posted by telegraph at 1:08 PM on August 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

I was in the Internet industry from 1995 through April of 2020. For the last 10 years I've cordially loathed the industry, and what I did in it. And, frankly, for the past three years I've been getting increasingly physically sick as end-stage renal failure does its best to kill me. I'm on the waitlist for a transplant, but it's going to take a while, and it's been sucking a lot for, like I said, at least the past three years. Which means I've been getting increasingly bad at my job.

At any rate, things finally caught up with me in April: I was laid off, ostensibly due to COVID-19, but more or less really because of my lethal 4Q19 performance review. So be it: not my first rodeo.

But after the dust cleared, I asked myself what I really, honestly wanted to do with what remains of my life. And, understanding that, I made a plan. It's a ludicrous plan, and a baling-wire-and-duct-tape plan, but...it's a plan. I'm back in school to complete a BA I dropped out of in the early 90's, and hopefully after I get transplanted that will qualify me for an Advanced Standing BSN (a nursing program for people who already have their bachelor's degree).

So, you know, except for that whole transplant thing, I'm practically there!

Anyway. I'm 48. I have two kids. I had a hell of a career in the Internet industry and probably could have landed another job making extremely good money. I'm sicker than hell, and headed towards full disability, at least for a while.

But, I won't lie to you: the moment I realized that really and truly, I was never, ever going back to that industry and that job, for any reason? I felt 10 or 15 years younger. I am scared witless at the scale of the risk we're taking as a family. There are a nearly infinite number of failure points to this "plan". But here's the thing that I think may resonate with you.

At the end of the day, I think it's important to us to make a mark. And sometimes, the abstraction of our good job making widgets, that provides for our families, isn't quite good enough. For me, it was the realization that I'd spent 30 years writing words nobody read about products nobody used for companies that no longer exist. Fundamentally, I'd spent my entire career making...nothings. Ephemera.

I realized in April that I want to be the kind of person to others that nurses have been to me throughout my life: the kind of person who walks in when someone is having the worst day of their lives, and makes that day a little bit better. Because moving the needle for someone, just that much, is a real and tangible thing. It's the closest thing to being a magician you can find in this world.

If you are finding yourself in this place with feelings like this, and you are looking at the uncertainty and the terror and the Can I Do This, I've been right there with you, as have thousands and thousands of others. A lot of the nurses I've run into over the past few years have been second-career folks who retired out of things like tech and then became nurses.

There are two things I would suggest you do to clarify whether or not you're ready to make this jump:
  1. Make a deliberate, clear-eyed financial plan for what a change in career will look like. How will you pay your obligations? How would you finance the education needed? Can you weather your income going down drastically for a while? Make several plans. Wargame them out. Get used to the idea. Admit the possible to your world.
  2. (this is the harder one) Make the jump. Commit to the new path 100% and let fly. Get good people around you who believe in you. Ignore the counsel of anyone who doesn't have skin invested in you, because it's an abstraction to them. And then hold your nose, recognize that there will never, ever be a Perfect Time, and fucking go for it. Because until you try it, there's only what you're doing now (which isn't working and is probably killing you), and what you haven't tried doing yet (which is this other thing).
TL;DR with all this waffle is that you are not the only person who feels this way, and it is entirely possible to escape into something different and more fulfilling. However, it will require you to give up a lot of (IMO false) security and privilege and take some real chances. You need to know whether you're ready for that.
posted by scrump at 1:46 PM on August 24, 2020 [9 favorites]

If it wasn't now I would say University IT. There are always people with monetary ambitions getting poached by the FAANGs. I spent a good 16 years doing network/systems/random-stuff just knowing that it was for the students, teachers, security, doctors, hospitals, blah, blah, blah. It's nice to know that whatever tech-nerd-thing you're doing is for a whole swath of people. I'm sorta sad I left, but that's a different story altogether.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:11 PM on August 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I left media & digital marketing to work in Martial Arts - some direct service provision (not teaching martial arts, but working in the after school program) but mostly operations management.

I took that leap for a number of reasons including a change in lifestyle (work close to home/my kids' schools) and (seriously) having seen Wonder Woman at a vulnerable time, but it mostly came down to that Martial Arts helped me move from a burnt out, traumatized version of myself to a less burnt out, more empowered version of myself...and I wanted to help make that happen, especially for women. And I was tired, so tired of chasing a bazillion eyeballs. At my small Academies, I see people.

So how did that work out for me? Well, financially, way less money which is a lack of a fungible asset, but spending-wise it kind of worked out because of some other things. These do not quite pay for my children's future tuitions but within our family context it was okay. So if you can, basically, adjust your lifestyle accordingly and still save etc. that part may well be okay.

Career-wise, it was a sideways move that people want to hear about but a lot of people don't get, and of course in digital media, things move fast and I am rusty. With Covid-19 killing my business, I'm now enrolled in a UX/UI certificate (more on this later) but I feel like my positioning is...not terrible, because I have a clear narrative, a renewed interest in life, and a decent shot at an on-ramp. We'll see if this holds true. (Also, we've reopened.)

Personally...it has entirely rejuvenated me and given me back myself, even on the worst days when I literally spend hours telling teenagers why they have to clean the bathrooms and help kids hydrate at summer camp...or lead a field trip....

Working with people who are not burnt out media types, and especially a) younger people (most of my staff are under 22) and b) people with deep expertise in teaching and helping people become strong has been...amazing. Knowing the name of almost every student that walks in has re-grounded me in my community. Watching a kid with autism come in from school entirely stressed out, express (!!!) that he needs to kick a target, and do good front kicks, instead of melting down is...the absolute best. And I've seen my own strengths be a benefit too.

Having said all that...besides Covid-19 killing my business, I have also learned that there were parts of my old jobs that I miss a lot, particularly working with people dedicated to creativity/joy and the intellectual pursuit of good content and design.

The good news is...if you can find a field where you don't have invest in something like medical school, you can do it for a while and if it doesn't work out - you can go back! Or marry the two! I've been in discussions for a couple of roles that were not ultimately great fits for me, but I could see that saying "I really wanted to help people do Martial Arts, but now I miss creating amazing websites and here's how I can be an asset to your organization" is something a lot of hiring people get. They in general (in my field) do not mind if you took a few years to make a better world, as long as they also believe you are capable of making a better product. And I kept a fund back for training, because I knew I would need it if I had to get back in the online game.*

So I say...if you can:

1. Work out the money end in a responsible way...
2. Find a field you can enter in an amount of time that is reasonable for you and
3. Keep your network and your eyes open

Why not?

* Note this hasn't worked out yet.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:17 PM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

One question you should ask yourself: can you help people more by being a programmer outside of Tech? I’ve never worked in Silicon Valley and have always been a programmer or lead in advertising, publishing, or consulting. My experience has differed from job to job, but I’ve found myself in a position where I’m spending most of my time mentoring junior programmers and extremely gifted non-programmers, plus planning and building small, useful, internal projects. I’m willing to bet that you could find some jobs like that, with a possible pay cut, much closer to home or as a remote worker. (I worked for years on a tightly knit team with a Minneapolitan)

One thing to consider is that if you get satisfaction from helping people, then you’ll get more satisfaction if you’re doing things they don’t have the experience or training to do. There’s a line in Real Genius that’s always stuck with me, even if in a world of brogrammers and disruption it sounds pretty naive: “when you’re smart, people need you.” And it’s true: you’re under no obligation to build bullshit regulatory arbitrage platforms or killer robots, but you should certainly think about why you got to where you did, and how you can use those skills to help people, one on one.

Here’s the Real Genius clip, btw, in case it helps:

posted by condour75 at 7:18 PM on August 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

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