Calling the happily employed
February 19, 2008 10:03 AM   Subscribe

I have almost finished my degree in computer science, and soon the Real Word awaits. I still have no idea what I'd like to be doing with my life. So, for those who have been able to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs: how did you do it?

I have read What Color is Your Parachute, but was sorely disappointed. I found this book to be full of trite advice and platitudes. Also, reading a 10-page listing of potential jobs whose characteristics are broken down into meaningless categories such as 'mathematics' and 'time spent outdoors' was of virtually no help for getting a sense of what those positions were all about. I'm currently reading Gig and Working in order to get an impression of the day-to-day life in the workplace. I've talked to several people in my field during the 'career days' organised by my university, but they tend to give evasive answers and do not address the issues I'm really concerned about. Currenly, I feel the only way of really knowing whether I'll like a particular position is going out and trying it, since it's almost impossible to make accurate judgements about all the aspects I value from the outside.

So, my question to you: which actions did you take to find that fulfulling job?
posted by koenie to Work & Money (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of computer science jobs are you interested in?
posted by demiurge at 10:07 AM on February 19, 2008

Sorry, I realize that that doesn't help directly answer the question, but for me, to find a fulfilling job, I thought about what kind of job I would like having.
posted by demiurge at 10:08 AM on February 19, 2008

What kind of computer science jobs are you interested in?

It'd be nice if my work could contribute in some way to society, so I've been considering getting an additional master's in neuroinformatics and helping out with brain research. One of my major disappointments with computer science was that it isn't really all that great a discipline to pursue in itself; i feel its major strength is in being applied to other fields.

but for me, to find a fulfilling job, I thought about what kind of job I would like having

This is a sensible question, but how do you know whether your conceptualizations, your thinking about it and imagining it, are accurate? The only way to tell, as far as I can see, is experimenting.
posted by koenie at 10:23 AM on February 19, 2008

My answer in this other thread about finding IT work might be of use. It's a goal-setting technique that I used to get my first 'real' job, which led in short order to my current one, which I definitely see as a career, and one I want to excel in, because I love the company and the work.

Also, consider unpaid internships - great way to get on the radar, feel out a company and figure out your priorities.
posted by Happy Dave at 10:25 AM on February 19, 2008

Does your comp sci program not have any internships? I think that's a great way to see what entry level positions are available to you.
posted by jrishel at 10:26 AM on February 19, 2008

what Happy Dave said.
posted by jrishel at 10:27 AM on February 19, 2008

Does your comp sci program not have any internships?

It does, and I have finished one recently, but it didn't really live up to my expectations. I feel as if I could spend the next two years doing internships in order to find out what's available and what I'd like best.
posted by koenie at 10:31 AM on February 19, 2008

For me, it was helpful to have part-time jobs and internships through high school and college. That way I got a chance to "try out" different jobs to figure out what I liked and what I didn't like. From experience, I learned that I like problem solving and working independently, and that I dislike corporate work environments and group programming. With that knowledge, I was able to find a job I enjoy.

Seeing as how you are nearing the end of your college career, I assume you are probably not looking to do internships. Perhaps you could try temping as a quick way to assess many different workplaces and jobs? Part of the experience I got after college was some temp jobs through a tech-focused temp agency.
posted by geeky at 10:32 AM on February 19, 2008

Environment matters a great deal. Do you like the people you work with? Do you get along with your boss? Are they flexible and give you your space or do they micromanage your life?

I work in architecture. Coming out of school, I wasn't sure that's what I wanted to do, but I applied for work at architecture firms because I needed income.

And I got lucky. VERY lucky. As in, I can't believe I'm actually working here lucky. It's not a big firm, it's not famous or glamorous, and the pay isn't spectacular. But where I work, I can load up MAME. First time I did that, my boss comes by, and says, "Hey, is that MAME? You know, we have all the ROMs on a CD around here somewhere." If you need to take time off, for yourself or to spend time with your family, you have the flexibility of doing that, as long as you get your work done otherwise. No one's breathing down your neck.

This is my first real job out of college and I've been here over three years. Nearly all my friends from architecture school have already quit their first jobs and are on their second or third firms.

That's when I realized that sometimes it's not so much what you do that matters, where where you do it. The same job, in a much more restrictive, bureaucratic environment (as most firms are), would have compelled me to leave the industry a long time ago. But what I've learned is that not all companies are the same. Just look at the stories of what it's like to work at Google versus what it's like to work at Microsoft.

So yes, you do need to just go out and try things. But let's say you work at Initech and you hate your job. Does that mean you change your career? No, not necessarily. Maybe Initrode down the street lets you do the same thing, or similar, in an environment that is much more rewarding.

Practically speaking-- since I got lucky the first time-- I don't know what actions work the best to find that ideal workplace, but think I know what to look for now if and when I ever change jobs: what works best for me are smaller, younger firms, where people do things that make sense for the moment at hand and not things that make no sense just because it's "tradition" or "policy."

YMMV of course.
posted by lou at 10:46 AM on February 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

One of my major disappointments with computer science was that it isn't really all that great a discipline to pursue in itself; i feel its major strength is in being applied to other fields.

Well, some people get enjoyment from stuff such as compiler design, programming language design and even computational theory. However, I'm like you in that I'm drawn to applications research for specific problems. I'm a PHD student in graphics and I do medical visualization; specifically, I write tools to view medical data and to do surgical simulation. I'm not too familiar with neuroinformatics and computational neurology, but if you want to do that sort of thing, you probably want to get a Masters degree.
posted by demiurge at 10:50 AM on February 19, 2008

I think you're mostly right that experimenting is the only way to tell for sure. You may be surprised at what you end up enjoying.

What classes did you enjoy the most? Low-level OS/network programming? High-level object-oriented stuff? Web programming? Databases? Scientific/mathematical things? AI? Graphics? I think your best bet is to choose one or two of your favorite non-theory classes and then just look for something that seems similar.

Another thing to look at is the size of the company. Do you enjoy working in groups? If so, you might want a larger company, and vice versa.

And yet another thing to look at is what the company makes--if they produce narrowly-defined tools used by other developers, like compilers, physics middleware for games, etc., then that's pretty much what you'll be working on. On the other hand, if they produce applications for users, then you might be working on a wider range of stuff: in addition to whatever it is that the product actually does, there's GUI code, file format design, interaction with other products, maybe some network stuff, maybe some interaction with physical devices, and so on. So there's another thing to ask yourself: do you like focusing on long-term projects, or are you more restless?
posted by equalpants at 11:02 AM on February 19, 2008

My first goal coming out of CS was to figure out whether I wanted to go to grad school or enter the workforce. I spent a summer working as an intern (paid, but not handsomely) and realized that the jobs I could get in my area with a bachelors were not what I wanted. So I went to grad school.

Coming out of grad school, I knew what area I wanted to work on, and used my connections - friends, family, acquaintences, friends of friends, etc, to find a job dead center in my area of interest.
Do what you love. If you don't know what you love, or can't find a job doing same, work your network until either you find what you love or find something you can be OK with while you're figuring out what to do.

Don't be afraid to do an internship. It's a great way to figure out what you want, to develop a resume, pick up some skills, and make contacts. If you find an internship that will give you skills and or contacts, you're ahead.
posted by zippy at 11:13 AM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you looked at working for a university in their research/commercialization department? I've been working for a state university for about a year now in the field of computer simulation and training. Our projects span many areas of research (medical, emergency response, law enforcement, (non-combat) military, and so many others) so there's your "applied to other fields" aspect), and most of them have been "fulfilling" to me as they end up helping others, whether directly or indirectly. The environment is generally wonderful too; it's a world of difference form the corporate world. The money may not be quite up to par with the private sector, but it would take a LOT more money for me to even consider trading the flexibility I have here for a higher salary.

I can't say all universities would be the same, but my experience at this one has been nothing but satisfactory. One thing it would offer is a bit of variety in the projects you work on, so you may be able to use it as a dip your toes in the water of particular fields of study, to see if you'd really like them. Plus, if you're looking to continue your education past your current degree, most universities offer free/reduced tuition to staff and faculty.

You're welcome to send me an e-mail (address should be in my profile) if you want any more specifics, and especially if you live in my neck of the woods! Good luck to you!
posted by XcentricOrbit at 11:17 AM on February 19, 2008

FWIW, Here are my random thoughts:

1.) I would guess the reason people seem "evasive" about answering your job-related questions-----is because most people are NOT fulfilled by their jobs. There are people who hate their jobs, people who are fulfilled by parts of their job, and people who totally love their jobs. I would guess that middle group composes about 75% to 90% of the population.

As one of my close friends says: "If it was fun, they wouldnt call it work". (Hence why the movie "Office Space" is funny). The stark reality is that a lot of jobs/employment/careers are long periods of work drudgery punctuated by rare (and short) moments of unexpected fun.

My advice to you as a potential employee = bring energy, and creative ideas. If that means you have to leave the stability and dependability of a large corporate job and find a small dynamic company, then DO IT. It'll be far better for your mental health.

2.) Dont underestimate the reality that you might need to try 5 or 10 different jobs before you find one that you like. You can read all kinds of books, and ask all kinds of internet forums, but you wont know what its like until you actually experience it. Why?, because companies are run by humans, and humans are dynamically different from person to person. You can start 2 identical companies and over time they will grow to be different just due to the personalities of employees involved. Equipment and software and processes are not important - humans are the most important element.

The job I am working now (been there for 6+ months)... when I interviewed, I was really weak in UNIX skills, but they offered me the job anyways. I was completely surprised. After going through orientation and training, I stopped into the CEO's office to ask him some questions. One thing I asked was: "Why DID you guys hire me?"..... to which he replied: "nothing specific, we (the interview team) all just agreed that you seemed to have that certain drive/spark/personality/something that we think fits our team."

That is what you want to find. Doesnt matter if you're slinging trash or cooking in a high-class kitchen, or racing cars or doing neuroinformatics - just try to stay true to what it is you want to do, and find the right group of people to do it with. Like I said above, this may take some time. I worked several jobs through my 20's , but am happiest with the one I have now.
posted by jmnugent at 11:26 AM on February 19, 2008

Also dont forget: Nothing is stopping you from coming up with ideas on your own or becoming self-employed.

The thing you want to keep your eyes open for is (the magic word) "Opportunities". There are times when you are randomly going through life when you will hear things like:

--"god, I wish there was an application that did ____THIS____"
--"Why is this process so convoluted and difficult..I hate it!!!"
--"I wish someone would make_____insert idea here_____"

You might hear these things at work. You might here them at a party. You might read them on the internet. Doesnt matter -- just keep your eyes and ears open and start writing them all down somewhere. (an "idea book")....

THEN.. start researching on the internet and figure out which ones you might be able to conceivably accomplish and start figuring out how to do them. Some of the ideas may fail, but failure teaches as much (or more) than success.

For some reason, in all the jobs I've had, I've always become the person people come to with bizarre strange requests. But over time, I've gotten really resourceful at finding interesting solutions to interesting problems, and people like that.

Also.. keep your mind active. Stimulate it with new things daily if you can. Inspiration can happen at any time (for me, usually in the shower).
posted by jmnugent at 11:35 AM on February 19, 2008

If you work for a large firm like Cisco you will be stuck in a cube for the rest of your life, a la Mr. Anderson.

If you get a gig at a Independent Software Vendor, a small shop with less than 50 employees, you may get your own office, be around interesting people, work downtown in a loft, whatever.

The larger the company, the more bureaucracy there is. And life is very, very short.

Good luck!
posted by plexi at 11:36 AM on February 19, 2008

Environment means so much more than you'd like to believe. I like programming. I love being a developer. I like and get satisfaction from the tasks I work on. I am a geek at heart. And although I definitely do have geek tendencies and can live up to the stereotype, i'm not really that anti-social. That being said - work would be great without the people. Don't get me wrong - I work with a great group of people, people I would generally get along with the in the non-work real world. But the part of work that makes me contemplate running away and joining the circus are the management issues, promises being made by higher ups that the people who do the work can't possible keep, the huge communication barriers between our techies and non-techies, astonishingly stupid clients, the fact that everything, everything, is the highest priority and had to be done yesterday, and the negative attitudes that fester due to these problems. (I could go on, but you get the idea)

To summarize - pay attention in your interviews. Evaluate opportunities not only on the technical aspects of the job, but on the people, the environment. Talk to as many people who work there as possible, and actually listen to what they say (or don't say). Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be in a rush to get out of there when your interviews are done - hang around and observe.
posted by cgg at 11:48 AM on February 19, 2008

Oh - I should mention i work in a company of < 30 people. So although the generalization is that smaller is better - it's not always so.
posted by cgg at 11:50 AM on February 19, 2008

I got my job through random luck and exploitation of the Python Paradox, so I'm kinda different. The advice I do have for you is, first of all, read The Daily WTF. The stories of horror you get from there will prepare you for exactly what to avoid, and also, its highly entertaining. Second, remember to network! I made good friends with all my work buddies at my first job, and through them, I ante'ed up for even more money the next time around, and completely bypassed the sending-out-a-million-resumes phase. Lastly, nthing everyone else, definitely go for the small agile startup if you can. It will help you so much in the long run from an experience standpoint. Save the boring corporate jobs for when you have wife/husband/kids/whatever and want to be home at 5:31. Good luck!
posted by Mach5 at 11:52 AM on February 19, 2008

If you're interested in neuroscience, head off to graduate school. I went to graduate school for similar reasons (although no in CS + neuroscience) and made the connections that got me my current job. I did it fully on scholarship and if you can arrange a similar debt-free, or at least debt-light, way of doing so, grad school is a totally legitimate consideration.

Interesting work is the primary determinant for job fulfillment for me and to get the skills/connections necessary for interesting work, grad school was the most obvious path.

If you get a gig at a Independent Software Vendor, a small shop with less than 50 employees, you may get your own office, be around interesting people, work downtown in a loft, whatever.

To comment as someone working at a small start-up, it is not without its disadvantages. When your company is small, money is always a problem. They may not have the resources the hire more employees, even when they are desperately needed, so you might end up working a lot more than you would at a larger company. You'll also likely be paid less than you would be at a larger company, have poorer benefits, less time off, etc.

I realized these things going into my currently gig and took it anyway. They're annoying, but not deal-breakers (yet). However, if you value these things more, ask about them before you sign on with any smaller places.
posted by Nelsormensch at 11:55 AM on February 19, 2008

So, for those who have been able to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs: how did you do it?

No book or form will tell the answer to this one. You have to get out and touch the world a bit, try things out, try things on. You can't sit in your living room and discover that you (unexpectedly) love botany, for example.

So, you are getting a CS? So what? Do not tie yourself to a career just because you have a degree in that field. College education used to be about preparing to meet the world not vocational training. Take your degree as a starting point for your education, not the end-point.

Ultimately the only way to find fullfillment in your work (I didn't say 'job') is to work at something you love, and love to the point of doing it in your spare time (or whether or not you get paid). Some people know what that is from childhood others don't figure it out until well into adulthood. You can't find it until you start looking so get going.

Happy hunting.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:46 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

To comment as someone working at a small start-up, it is not without its disadvantages. When your company is small, money is always a problem. They may not have the resources the hire more employees, even when they are desperately needed, so you might end up working a lot more than you would at a larger company. You'll also likely be paid less than you would be at a larger company, have poorer benefits, less time off, etc.

I'd like to reiterate that working for a small, dynamic company isn't always a good thing, and structure is there for a reason.

Even if it seems your small company has excellent perks and benefits, it doesn't mean the job is good - on the other hand, it may mean that the company is hampered by bad management and will never get any bigger - so you have no defined promotional path, no training budget, and less job security.

And then companies change over time.
posted by meowzilla at 12:47 PM on February 19, 2008

I write software, and I like my job. So, what actions did I take to find that fulfilling job? Honestly, none of the right ones. What you need to remember is that your first job might be awesome, and it might be terrible. Unlike college, however, where it's very difficult to switch if you hate it, it's not very difficult to change jobs to find something you like better. This is particularly true if you like programming and you like learning new things.

In fact, if you do like writing software, learn quickly, and want to work for a mostly Linux software company with a bunch of young people, send me a message with your resume. I'd also be happy to give you straight answers to any of those questions that those career day types answered evasively.
posted by LightStruk at 2:08 PM on February 19, 2008

I'm still technically a recent-grad, but I recommend not worrying too much about how fulfilling your job is at the moment in terms of meaning and all that good stuff ... start off by worrying how well it will propel you upwards into the various other things in your life you want.

Right now you have better control over your out-of-work social life, and that is--I found anyway--the far stranger adjustment. Now that I'm spending hours of my day doing something somebody else told me to with people who I wouldn't necessarily go drinking and partying with, is my off-time filled with the kind of things that keep my head up on the morning commute?

Make sure the job you are in doesn't suck and isn't undertax your capabilities. Make sure that your job challenges you to become better at it. Make sure that it provides for enough things, through timing and benefits and whatever, to let the rest of your life be as shiny as a working dude's can be. Then work your damndest to earn that glory job to augment the meaning you get from the rest of your waking hours.
posted by man why you even got to do a thing at 2:08 PM on February 19, 2008

Big and small companies both have their perks. I spent most of my career working for small companies (and running my own). The small companies were a lot more fun on a day-to-day basis, but one of them, my first company meeting after I was hired began with the CEO saying, "So, you're probably wondering when you're going to get paid again..." It went rather downhill from there.

I am currently on my first contract at a certain very big software company in the Seattle area and, well, let's just say that it's nice to know I'll get paid. I ended up in a small group that is being spun off from the research division, and I've really enjoyed it, much more than I expected to. I'm going to miss it when my contract is up next month. Having access to a full-featured technical library that delivers the books to you is a nice feature. And I'm a lowly contractor; full-time employees at this firm get lots of additional perks.

If you're not sure what you want to do in the computer field, why not contract through an agency for a while? You can take short jobs at several firms and see what you like and don't like about each, and you'll be a known quantity when you decide to go for a full-time position at one of them.
posted by kindall at 3:00 PM on February 19, 2008

You should look into HCI, a branch of CS that does stuff that is less algorithm focused and more human focused. This kind of design+tech work is a) in big demand and b) hard to "offshore." It's also something I love, so there's that too. But think about specializations that would be of interest to you. These can be domains, like your neuroscience idea, or they can be business focused (finance, logistics, medical), or specialization focused ("I like algorithms!" or "I like databases."). G'luck.
posted by zpousman at 5:08 PM on February 19, 2008

It's really impossible to predict what you will like or dislike about a certain job or field. The job that looks perfect on paper (or in the interview) may turn out to be a giant shit hole and a waste of your time. And the job that looks all meh beforehand may turn out to offer you opportunities and tap talents you never would have dreamed of.

You're probably starting to interview, or will be soon, right? Follow all the excellent interviewing advice in this thread and then just pick one of your job offers. Your first job won't be your last. If it's not a good fit for you, stay with it long enough to learn something solid, and then move on.

To answer your question "how did you do it?": After 15 years of shuffling around from job to job that were all ok, but never really made me truly HAPPY happy, I went through this written exercise from one of the many "Parachute"-style career books: I made a list of the times when I felt good about my work, and the kinds of comments I got at those times. Patterns emerged. Now I teach computer science, rather than code for a living. So I'm using that fabulous (and fabulously expensive) MS in CS, but not exactly in the way anyone would have predicted.

Final piece of advice: be ready for U-turns and forks in the road. That's where all the best scenery is anyway.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:44 PM on February 19, 2008

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