The Only Way is Sideways

Warning: lots of "me" and "I" in this post. It's about me, and where I am, and where I'm going. Hopefully it still works if you change all the "me"s to.. er.. "me." I mean, apply it to yourself. You know what I mean. Or what you mean.

I am at the end of the tail of Generation X; I was in the fourth grade when the Simpsons hit our TV; when I started high school we had Nirvana and no world wide web, and when I finished it was the reverse. So now I'm in my early thirties (I'm even in my 0x20s) and I've been programming in various guises since before the turn of the millennium. For the past decade and a half I've been called a "Head Programmer" and a "Lead Developer" and a "Senior Software Engineer" and even a "Senior Web Developer." I'm at the top of my profession.

The problem is: I'm in my early thirties, and I'm at the top of my professions. And I'm not exceptional; the top here isn't very high. My current employer is quite happy to pay for me to attend training courses and gain further qualifications and progress my career, but the only courses available are things that lead towards management. I'm currently eyeing off a Cert IV in Project Management, which is relevant for a senior developer who does project work (i.e. me,) but that's – after my rudimentary ITIL qualifications – kind of it. My next professional step is up through team leader/supervisor, to section manager, and on through the pointy-haired ranks. I don't really want to be pointy-haired. I want to be a coder!

This reminds me of an anectode about my supervisor while doing my honours thesis (yep, I even did that – Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) with Honours.) I can only remember a couple of things my supervisor told me the whole year I was "working under" him: once he told me I was going to be a bad father; and another time, when he saw that my work was focused on implementation and didn't contain enough theory for him, he said that I would "only be a programmer" (the emphasis is mine – he said it dismissively.) You know what? I like being a programmer; there's no "only" about it. I saw his code, it was, to put it bluntly, shit. What is a highfalutin academic computer science research without programmers? Where do all your fancy algorisms go? Who implements your esoteric ideas so they actually have some real world value? Computer scientists work for programmers, not the other way around!

Sorry, I'm digressing, but the sentiment remains. Why are programmers less? Why does programming have to stop here? Why do I need to touch less code as I move further up the ranks? Actually, that's a misphrasing, because it's not the code I like, per se; I'm equally happy to design structures and implement patterns and solve problems on a white board or in a discussion or in my scribble book or on a keyboard, which is why team leadership isn't so bad in and of itself, except that it feels like the first step on that long journey away from getting things done, towards middle management.

The options before me seem to be:

  1. do nothing – stay here where I am, slinging the same code for the same pay, and be happy with my work but maybe not so happy with my life (especially as my kids hurtle inexorably towards their teens, and all the damned expenses that accompany teenage girls...)
  2. grow pointy hair – shuffle diagonally upwards, moving further from where I want to be at work, but at least keeping the payscale in line with where I'd like my lifestyle to be; or
  3. start up – most of my peers who've made it seem to all have founded startups or be working for startups or upping starts, or things of that bent. I might be happy to go this way if I had an idea that I felt was workable, but it's no good saying "I want to start a startup, what's an idea I could chase?"

Are there any other options? If you're a programmer type, where are you and where do you see yourself going? If you're not, but your profession has a similar hard ceiling, let me know, I'd like to hear about it. Even if you just have some random advice or commentary, drop a line and let us hear read it. Add to the Disqus discussion below, or comment on Google+, or even @tweet me. Whatever.

Matthew Kerwin

CC BY-SA 4.0
development, meta, software, web

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