On Golden Handcuffs and Knowing What's Really Important
Monday, August 12, 2019

While this post could really apply to anyone in any job, I think it's particularly relevant to developers – where staying up-to-date with technology is part of the job career and critical to success...

Early in my career, I willingly took a job for far too little pay – and far too much work, including a lot of out-of-state travel. I did so because I wanted exposure to newer, better tech stacks and a larger team to collaborate with, and I knew I'd never get this at my then-current company.

Fast forward a bit, and I'd decided that the frequent travel was simply too much for me. Now, to be fair, I was young and naive, and while my offer letter may have mentioned travel requirements (I probably didn't even read it), I am certain that no one ever told me personally that out-of-state travel was part of the job. I've never been a fan of flying, and I wouldn't have taken the job had the frequent travel been mentioned.

So, as one typically does, I found myself another job – in my case, one with no travel and better pay. Things were looking up! As I made the rounds, letting my various bosses know that I was leaving, one of them made a comment during our conversation that's stuck with me since:

"I just wanted to let you know that I've taken another offer, and I'll be starting next week," I told him.

"Why are you leaving?" he asked matter-of-factly.

"My new job pays about twenty grand more, and I really don't like all of this out-of-state travel."

He leaned back and looked up at the ceiling, almost as if in-thought, for what had to have been at least ten seconds. He then looked back at me, stood up, extended his hand, and said, "Congratulations, best of luck to you."

"No counter offer?" I asked. (In truth, I wouldn't have accepted one, but I'd figured one were customary).

"No," he said, "if this were just about money, we could have talked about it. But since you're unhappy for other reasons, we're not going to counter. We'd just be paying you more to continue being unhappy here."

And that was that. As simple as that comment was, it's stuck with me forever.

Fast forward again many years. I found myself in a new role – one with no requirements, virtually no direction, too few resources and too much work. I knew early on that this wasn't a role I'd be happy with as-is, and I was very transparent about this. For the success of the project, some things needed to change, in my opinion. I advocated moving to the cloud for a number of reasons; these were shot down. I advocated going Agile (or at least some form of it) – having daily stand-ups, a formal product owner, etc. After four days of being Agile, management put an end to it. It was "taking too much of everyone's time".

I knew at that point that this wasn't the role for me – and I continued to remain very transparent. I let management know my position, and they responded... by giving me more money. Ignoring the lesson learned many years prior about working unhappy, I relented. I figured I'd try to make the best of things. (For what it's worth, the CEO of one company I'd worked at prior was known for saying, "every problem is an opportunity for improvement", and that had stuck with me, too).

Suffice it to say, things were not improving in this case, and I was still unhappy. I continued to be given hearty raises and bonuses, and while I'd like to think they were for my stellar performance, I'm more inclined to think they were simply to keep me around. At one point, I'd grown so frustrated that I even requested more money to continue to working in an environment that was making me miserable, and amazingly, I was given what I asked for.

Ultimately, in what was really a "better late than never" moment, I'd decided that no amount of compensation was worth a job that could ultimately stymie my professional growth were I to stay. I moved on to a new role – for less money but far more technical challenge and room for professional growth. The pay was lower, the hours were longer, the work was harder, and I was much happier.

When to change jobs (and why) are personal decisions that individuals must answer for themselves based on their specific situation. My only advice is this: if you're a developer who has a real passion for writing software and you're stuck in a job that you dislike (or maybe even hate?) because you're being paid well, consider whether the money you're making is worth the personal happiness you're sacrificing now – and the professional growth that you may be sacrificing later.

To paraphrase my old boss: being paid more just to stick around and be unhappy at work benefits no one.

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