During the 2020 pandemic, like many people, my job became insecure, and the resultant job shuffle taught me a lesson about career satisfaction. In the scrounge to find new work after CAT Lab, two constrasting oppruntities sprung up at Wikipedia and Facebook, taking them both was a massive undertaking, but showed me spectrum in career I'd only ever known theoretically. Now, at the end of that sprint and at the dawn of my paternity leave, I can appreciate how job security and satisfaction interact, and what a privilege it is to have a choice of the two.
The rough bookends for this chapter in my career were from 2017 to 2021, where ran the programmer's career-type gamut: finished my master's, interned at a National Lab, cubicled in finance, hustled for an academic start-up, won an individual grant, and fulfilled an ambition at a FAANG. The more intense part was roughly the last two years, at the very end I had three jobs at once and worked nights and weekends for three months in a row (never will my adrenals forgive me). These jobs howerer triangluated a career-space between the stereotypically imagined axes of safety-sustainability-security vs. autonomy-agency-authenticity. In this space I plotted first CATLab, a four-person team bankrolled by academic institutions, conducting open science experiments on social platforms. It gave me a blance of interest in my field, and medium-level of security with piecemeal contracts. Next was Humaniki, my very own pet project, creating a dashboard about biases in Wikipedia. With it, my motivations were nearly purely intrinsic, but it came with precarity as it was grant-funded by the Wikimedia Foundation.
Finally, joining facebook at this stage was like seeing a great parking spot, and then in stunt-driver fashion whipping the car 180 degrees with flair perfectly into the space. The ideologic alignment is fair as I work improving the 'Civic Classifier' indentifying and quantifying how much political and socially important content there is on the platform; and of course it offers good finanical stability for myself and new daughter.
Without intending it, having these three opportunties over the last years has mean that I lived three different types of career opportunity. That exeperience I feel left me with some deeper insight into the classic idea that a career is either: authentic but insecure, or insipid but lucrative. Enumerated,
Firstly, after these jobs, I can empirically confirm the existence that trade-off do in fact exist. But knowing it to be true from first-hand experience has an emboldening quality. I've had times where excitedly coded deep into the night and internationally collaborated on open-source projects, living frugally to make it work. And I've also had times where I was earning enough to book luxurious holidays and retail-therapized myself to counteract dealing with insipid work problems. Having this embodied knowledge is the lesson on which a high-school career counselor couldn't seem to lecture me. Now that I believe in the curve, it allows me to take the next choices more seriously. For instance, I can hypothesize of potential projects that are even more extreme versions. In figure 1, I marked them as A and Z. A would be taking making the most money without any interest in the domain (Goldman Sachs or something?); and Z would be following my creative instincts without attention to money (working on my backlog of whimsical app ideas).
The second point is that, the dimensions aren't linearly mutually exclusive. That is, they don't trade off their utility one-for-one, buut the dynamic is more a pareto frontier curve. With this interaction points that are further from the dashed line are more 'efficient' mathematically, or 'successful' in busines speak. The counterfactual, where there is a linear trade off between A and Z (Figure 1, dashed line), would mean that the center balance points would represent a worst-of-both worlds outcome, as ther total output of authenticity and security, as a vector be less than points A and Z. This finding is important to me, because I used to think quite the opposite. My internal dialogue would narrate that the 'compromised lives' of C, H, and F, were denying me from both reaching my creative potential while also denying me from achieving maximum stability. But today I can see the reason to priotize the chequebook and the personal checklist at the same time.
Lastly, we all know the trope that maturing into middle age means letting go of your dreams for stability at work, moving you in the direction of the mundane/pay-out end of the spectrum. It's clear as to why this happens. The wolrd drags you rightwards because if you prioritize anything else besides your authentic interests: your family, friends, rest, or simply junk-food soothing from the stresses of life, achieving security is the easiest way forward. However, unlike the School of Life's analysis on the subject, I don't believe the shift right to pure destiny. De Botton likens our attachment to authenticity to a child who has a favourite doll or unusal hobby. To the child it's unclear why no one else is quite as enthralled by Dinosaurs as they are. And the answer is, it's not because dinosaurs are without merit, just that there's a lot else in the world to attend to. The child is only concerned with authenticity, it's no wonder that our adult selves are repulsed by "selling out" - we lose some of adolescent innocence, according to De Botton. Still I would like to defend those who cling to the right-ward highminded ideals, not everyone needs to find the consolation prize of the right-shift, because I believe as long as you are on the curve you are close multidimensional optimization.
To find satisfaction with such any career compromise, let us realise that being on the curve at all is a clear indication of success. The curve is opportunity and choice, and taking any of those permutations can be 'pareto-efficient,' a maximising mix of the two axes.
True, shifting towards safety and stability feels bad because you are mourning the simplicity of childhood where your interests roamed free. And one doesn't have to stoically take a "we all have to grow up eventually" attitude to console themselves if we reframe the choice. I chose my new direction to bankroll my adventure as a father. Taking a job with paternity leave to fully savour that windfall, my choices have already afforded me much, experientially as well as compensation. It would be obnoxious to complain about a win-win scenario, just because its not a triple win.
This choicefulness is the real conclusion for me and it's meaning for me is a type of arrival. It represents the culmination of a decade of trading up and hustling, but also, it must be said, some innate luck. Sitting in Dolores Park one evening after work, looking at the skyline, I asked fvntr , "what is it when you can choose between two career directions?" His quip reasonated when he replied, "it's privilege." I'm especially lucky as computer scientist living in California, growing up middle class, natively english speaking, and clearly white and male privileged. As well as those classics, there are less well-known forms too. Chatting last week with my friend Roche who was recently promoted to Engineering Manager at Uber, I told her I was bit jealous that she managed to have the patience to attain 5 years of seniority. Her reply was just as illuminating, that as bootcamp entrant she was compensating for a lack of math or CS degree with loyalty. The crendentialing is yet another booster I don't think about often. Those two achievements for me are now ambient, but represent 10 years of identity-boosted effort. On top of the long nights and weekends, I carry around my 2x opportunity multiplier everywhere I go. I've taken it for granted, and it's taken me far.
Let us appreciate the programmers' authenticity-security career-curve, it's a form of maturity, earned and unearned that afford choice in life.