Maverick Traveler

Location Independence, Geo Arbitrage, Individual Freedom

Why I Left My Programming Career And Haven’t Looked Back

Over seven years ago, I quit my programming job at a promising startup. The decision was anything but easy and straightforward, but nevertheless ended up being the absolute right choice in the long run.

My job certainly wasn’t the worst in the world. It came with lavish perks. The office was spacious and airy; it had tall ceilings and was furnished with overpriced leather chairs. We had access to complimentary snacks and drinks. We had flexible hours. In exchange for surrendering our precious time, eyesight and youth, the company dangled carrots (stock options) in front of our faces. The best part was being compensated for writing code, a very fun and addictive hobby that I enjoyed.

After finishing a critical project that I was working for several months, I collected my overdue vacation and took a three-and-a-half weeklong trip to Central America. It was one of the first “extended” trips that I took abroad. Unlike my previous vacations, this time, instead of staying at hotels, I backpacked from country to country, staying in various hostels while mingling with other backpackers and locals.

After the trip, I flew back home and rejoined the daily grind. As I attempted to settle into my old routine, something was off. It wasn’t like all my previous vacations where getting right back on the hamster wheel was as easy as jumping off it. This time, the process of going to work became an unnatural and robotic slug. Instead of seeing my work as “important” and “life-changing” (words recruiters love to use to describe a position), I began viewing it for what it really was: driving to office, writing some computer code and going home. Since the money wasn’t a strong initial motivator, It mattered even less that I was receiving a paycheck for it. The work began to feel monotonous and repetitive.

Feeling that continuing along this path wasn’t in my best interest, I met my manager, and informed him that I would be quitting. He was disappointed but sympathetic; he assured me that the job was always mine should I change my mind down the road. We shook hands, and I left the building.

I never did return. Although, I couldn’t initially pinpoint the exact causes of my discontent, over the proceeding years the jigsaw puzzle slowly started to come together. As always, the issue was the most efficient way to spend my time.

Once the fog cleared, and I had a chance to look at things in a more objective matter, I realized that I can either spend my scarce time communicating with a lifeless computer or spend it communicating with real, breathing people. And the more time I spent telling a computer what to do, the more rusty I became when dealing with humans; by perfecting my skills of talking to a computer, I was simultaneously atrophying my skills when dealing with actual living and breathing humans.

Since it’s physically impossible to do both, I had to choose one. In economics, it’s called opportunity cost. Every additional minute that I debug an obscure bug is an additional minute that I’m not reaching out to perspective clients or business contacts. Every additional minute that I look up a vague function is an additional minute that I’m not seducing a cute girl at a coffee shop or at a bar.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it all came down to whether I wanted to interact with real, living and breathing humans or keep trying to get some device with transistors to obey my commands. In the end, I chose people.

It also doesn’t hurt that I was deserting a commodity field. Thanks to the plethora of tutorials, manuals and guides available, it’s completely possible for anyone in the world right now to learn and master the same exact skills that I have, enter the market place and begin making money — competing with guys like me in the process. These days, a person doesn’t need much beyond time, dedication and an Internet connection.

Programming is a skill without barriers and competitive advantages. More competition means less job security and lower wages, something that should be concerning to anyone who relies on a commodity skill to pay his bills. That’s a great scenario if you’re an employer but terrible if you’re an employee.

In the new globalized world, in order to matter, you have to add some kind of value. And more often than not, it means dealing with people. The very best skill in the world is the ability to deal with people, whether it’s arranging deals for a new business, or seducing that cute girl in the coffee shop.

After all, it’s the people that make the world go round. And you can’t get really good at the latter if you spend most of your waking hours staring at a computer screen trying to catch some obscure memory allocation bug.

Although I no longer code for a living, I still spend a lot of time staring at a blinking cursor on the screen. I’m using the computer to communicate, but the difference this time around is that I’m communicating via a human language (English) that’s understood by actual people, instead of toiling in some dark cubicle constructing arcane instructions that only a computer can understand.

Furthermore, it makes sense to leverage the fact that there’s a vast army of developers looking for projects and are willing to work for low wages. So, for my next project, I’ll be looking to hire a developer instead of doing it myself.

I’m more than certain that the contractor I hire will be much more capable than me; in several years my programming skills would rightly atrophy as a result of spending more and more time in front of people: arranging business partnerships, seducing women, and writing in English and other human languages instead of funneling my time on a very specialized skill that only a computer can understand and appreciate.

27 Comments

  1. So what do you do now for a living?

  2. That’s what I was about to ask. I thought you work with online brands or something of that nature.

  3. Write another article AFTER you have done some projects managing people 🙂 I do this and there are two interesting facts I have found. While the number of programmers are increasing the number of “really good” programmers don’t increase proportionally with that increase. It is still very difficult to find people that are good. For example, you may find a good programmer but he is unreliable because of his personality – happens often. Then there is the issue of managing them. You still have design the app, decide who will do what and review things. And as your team grows so does the management overhead. Basically you will find you are just trading one set of problems for another. In the end this is what life is really about: deciding what kind of problems you want to deal with.

  4. IS a job in programmin viable at all? I’ve been lookign to Uplift my income by learning SQL/Reporting in order to change career path. Should I even bother?

    • Define viable. Programming alone won’t get you ‘rich’. Hell, working for a boss won’t get you rich unless you end up in the top of a (valuable) company, with stock options etc. Programming is mainly an executive skill. You build shit in your head, you try new things and you work it out.

      It’s awesome and if you have enough liberties, you’ll be some kind of Gyro Gearloose working in this logical and almost unlimited environment where you can actually realize logical harmony and stuff, things that tend to be harder (or impossible) in the real world. It’s like math in a lot of ways. But cooler.

      I know people who are senior game developers working on A-titles, and hell, even these guys aren’t loaded or ‘pretty wealthy’. They are logical/creative geniuses, very bright, the crop of the cream. They get good pay and some extra benefits, work on the shit that they love and that’s that. SQL/Reporting for business intelligence purposes will not suddenly give you 1.5x the income. Actually, I’d be surprised if it’d make a significant difference at all. It won’t make you as much of a snowflake as you’d want to be. You’ll still be executing work for someone else, grinding for their success.

      The ‘pretty wealthy’ guys that I know are generally either artists or entrepreneurs. And as we’ve seen in all the Silicon Valley success stories, a good deal of programmers there had (or joined) a really good idea, a great solution to a fairly big ‘problem’. They combined their knowledge and executive programming skills with a superb vision, execution and dedication… and then made it big. It wasn’t because of programming. It’s the entrepreneur side of things.

      People need to want your shit and it’s even better when you can make them see that they actually ‘need’ it. You might want to be an entrepreneur. You’ll need to understand the world, the ‘business’ and it requires you to understand people, their needs, their drive, etc. Get creative. 🙂

  5. @Maverick, interesting read, thanks for putting this up. I think it’ll be a good move to let someone else handle the technical execution of your next idea. Think big and focus on getting it built.

    “I began viewing it for what it really was: driving to office, writing some computer code and going home”

    Well, in physical essence, yes, that’s exactly what you were doing. That’s what other people see you do, too. There’s not much human interaction happening and you were indeed working for someone else. Did you still enjoy the work in the end? Was it that much of a grind to you? I mean, of course you were sitting in that office, yapping away on the computer keyboard, making shit work, getting that project done. But did the fun dry up along the road?

    I vaguely remember a post of yours where you wrote about some sort of web application that you were launching yourself, correct? Was it more enjoyable for you than the work back at that startup company?

    When I work on a really cool project, I enjoy wrapping myself up in greater and bigger ideas, thinking of new possibilities, experimenting, researching, doing shit in very minimalistic and efficient ways, polishing the implementation, etcetera. For me, it’s a mental and creative process, your mind can run free and I get this sincere sense of accomplishment, especially if I’m working for myself. Money is rarely the motivation. Hammering this cryptic language into a keyboard and having it show up on the screen is just the execution. It’s the execution of greater and more fulfilling things happening in my head. That’s what I like about it and I hope that it won’t vaporize soon.

    You get to be that kid in this supercharged candy store full of cogs and wheels, man. I think that the description of “sitting behind & talking to a computer” doesn’t do that much justice. Sounds like it indeed turned into a grind for you.

    • Launching my own web app came with its own challenges such as marketing, advertising that I didn’t have to worry about back when working at the startup.

      Nevertheless, I’m trying to distance myself from doing the coding. Better to hire a dedicated guy.

  6. Upon initially reading this, second thoughts about my hobby choices aroused…

    T’is true that the more tume you spend talking to a computer rather than interacting with another human being, the less social/extroverted one could turn out to be (hence “geeks” n “nerds”).

    Like the sharpening of a knife, as soon as you stop it could rust and dull.

    Not wanting to be more of one than another (intro/extroverted) this was a good reminder to keep a balance between the two.

    I too hope to be able to delegate task to others more willing to do it than I one day.

    • Yeah, it’s all about balance. It’s also the issue of comfort: you get too comfortable simply sitting in front of the laptop and coding all day. It helps to push yourself out of that comfort zone every now and then.

  7. What do you think of the profession of web design? Would you say the same things about it? Also, what sorts of fields do you think design or programming are transferrable to if you’re relatively socially competent? Thanks a lot by the way!

    • Web design is a bit of a different beast because you’re doing something more creative that is easily presented to people unlike programming.

      • And yet the coding can be incredibly frustrating and unrewarding nonetheless. Plus you don’t get paid as much as programmers.

        If you instead had a knack for web design do you think you would have stuck with it?

      • Do you think web design (front end development even) would satisfy those social cravings of interacting with people better than backend development?

  8. What is your opinion on writing code in a freelance setup to fund your travels? I am currently learning Javascript and will soon begin learning Python/PHP/Ruby in order to pursue a freelance career that will let me travel.

  9. How does one make decent money living in Rio or traveling elsewhere?

    Must I own several rental homes or apartments?

    Should I save a 100k and try to live off investments?

    Is learning to code via some MOOC (e.g. Udemy, Udacity nanodegrees, etc.) a waste of time?

    Honestly, coding seems the only skill worth developing as it can be freelanced online.

    Would Brazil value an Amercian Web Developer or Data Analyst more than a U.S. corporation?

    I could be wrong, but doubt professional, U.S. licensure (finance, health care, etc.) transfers to South Amercia easily. I think work visas only last six months.

    Regardless, I love the blog and struggle to stop reading. Thank you for posting your wisdom.

  10. Great article. I think I can leave my career and feel good about it now, haha.

  11. An article without bashing Eastern Europe? I’m surprised! 😀

  12. Actually you wrote my thoughts – world around us is a nature with exists and went though evolution cycle for billion years. People who dedicated to spend their time communicating with machines (which exists for a century) just can’t be happy in a long term.

    They do happy for a first time (3-4 years) and it lasts until they are starting to lose their natural skills and imagination (which is much important than many of us used to think). It is can be compared to a starving body – consuming his own fats at first and dying at last.
    In this case techies are don’t die completely. They are very short on emotions, feelings and have very strange sense of humor which isolates them from the rest and make communication much harder.

    Good luck with that ljmp without ret.

  13. Hey, that’s the former location of our coworking space, CoworkBuffalo! I’m one of the co-owners. I’m glad we could … illustrate programming?

    Please note that a professional photographer for the Buffalo News took that photo, which you used without caption or credit. It would be nice if you could amend that.

  14. I want to leave my current job and never go back either. I have done that with my previous jobs in fact. Anyways, I want to walk to the road to happiness. People who choose to stay in the road of misery (by continuously working at soulless, lousy jobs) are missing something great indeed.

  15. shit. exactly same situation here!

    i’m mediocre programmer, doing soulless dull work that actually nobody wants to do. I suck cuz i got lil training + documentation is zero.

    Taking a wider look, coding is smth i would get tired of later on. and I share exact same passion for traveling!

    +10 for making a point on WHO MAKES the decision!
    After all, it’s the people that push the button, give orders and make actual ‘cogs’, workers do the job! It’s still humans not some AI that makes key decisions.

    +10 for noting how social skills atrophy at the expense of coding skills

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