Don’t Be Lured by the Fringe Benefits

It seems common for software developers to question their career direction after several years of experience. I have gathered through my own feelings and conversations with others that there is a point in one’s career, usually after about 4 years, at which one wonders how long he or she can continue to build business application after business application. What once was challenging and exciting has become repetitive and mundane because the pace of learning has greatly decreased. The motivation to create yet another CRUD application (one that is categorized because it only involves the most typical business functions: Create, Read, Update, Delete) has been lost, resulting in many introspective hours staring out the window thinking about greener pastures.

What can be done to renew the sense of excitement and urgency that comes from developing something new? Myself, I thought that working in a “cool” industry that I was already interested in would solve the issue. I figured I already loved sports and casinos. If I got a development job in those industries it would make the dull tasks less dull. I would be able to tell myself, “Well, I hate clicking through smoke tests again but at least everything is sports-related!”

Roulette CasinoBaseball StatueFashion Industry

Posted by Heather Clemons
Posted by wallyg

Having worked at an Information Technology (IT) department for a professional baseball team before, I figured I would be able to leverage my experience and professional network to get an interesting new job. Granted, my work there was more of an internship than anything, but a role in such high demand serves as a recognizable selection process and it has been a great conversation topic during job interviews. It was a wonderful overall experience and I appreciated the opportunity. Therefore, I focused on new jobs with professional sports teams, video game development companies, and casinos.

Casino – For someone going to school in the middle of Ohio, I spent a lot of weekend time in college at casinos. I enjoyed Black Jack and was constantly searching for the perfect system to make money. I even wanted to be a professional poker player for a little while. I also toyed with the idea of taking a winter off to learn to be a Black Jack dealer. There is something about fiddling with those heavy clay chips that is both riveting and relaxing at the same time.

Sabermetrics – Growing up I was obsessed with baseball and individual player statistics. I played on a baseball team and played board games like Strat-o-matic. I made my own scoring sheets and even used to make my own player cards to represent my friends in the board game. During my job search, I joined SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and immersed myself into baseball statistics again thinking I could become a full-time statistician or statistical application developer.

At this particular time in my life, I knew I was moving out of state, so I figured it was a perfect time to make an industry change. However, at the time I was not comfortable with the prospect of not getting paid so I took one of the first jobs that was offered to me until something else presented itself. A funny thing happened at that company. As it was a small software product company, I learned that the environment there was close to what I had wanted all along. It was an old company by software standards, but it still had a “startup feel.” I learned what I wanted and what would keep me motivated:

  • The transparency of a small company makes it easier to absorb new knowledge about other business functions (e.g. Marketing or Recruiting)
  • There is a shorter feedback loop from working at a small company. This creates more accountability and helps employees to learn what is working faster
  • Being a software developer at a software company is a critical role and treated as such

Although the company had its share of problems, it showed me what I was looking for in a long term position. I wanted the growth potential and commitment to progressive technology that comes from a software product startup.

While working in a “cool industry” does come with perks, fringe benefits, interesting subject matter, and it may turn out to be generally awesome for some, I caution software developers to think about some of the hidden drawbacks to these types of positions.

Positions are in High Demand

Positions in interesting industries are both scarce and in high demand. If you are interested in a professional sport, does the city you live in even have a team at the highest level? If not, that’s scarcity. If you are lucky enough to see a job opening you are interested in, you must realize that there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of other applications. That’s demand.

As a result, salaries tend to be lower and expectations of working hours are much longer, especially during busy seasons or big events. Additionally, people hired into these jobs stay around for a long time. Because of the low turnover, it can be difficult to gain more responsibility by moving into someone’s role that has just left, limiting opportunities for promotion.

Technology comes at a Cost

By definition, the interesting industries mentioned do not focus on technology. They are generating revenue through entertainment. Therefore, it may make the job more entertaining but it changes the perspective of technology throughout the organization. Employees outside of the IT department view technology as cumbersome, productivity-restricting, and expensive. Any time there is a trivial bug in internal software, it will be treated as an urgent support request. Did I mention developers will be doing technical support?

To summarize, the key problem here is that the organization does not exist for the sake of progressing in technology. The IT department is a cost center. Any mistakes that cost money for the company were not budgeted for and get escalated quickly, making for a stressful environment for technologists.

Think it over

There are smaller drawbacks to consider too. Working somewhere that garners the awe of family and friends comes with requests to trade favors (e.g. introductions or getting event tickets). Additionally, sports teams and casinos are highly competitive with one another, so they are protective of advantageous processes and knowledge. I prefer to be able to learn from peers both inside and outside of my company as opposed to being a slave to competitive information silos.

In reviewing the pros and cons of working for a professional sports team for this post, I have almost talked myself back into trying to work for one. The fringe benefits are great (e.g. free game tickets and meeting athletes), it helps build a resume, and colleagues are all intelligent and ambitious. However, it is my intention to bring up these drawbacks to shed light on the entire package that comes with the job and to remind myself that I really want to work for a software company. To marry the two concepts would be the “Genius of the and.” By working for or creating a web retailer like Zappos, who needs technology to thrive, one can work in an interesting industry, like fashion, AND be a crucial cog in building revenue for the company.

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“6 Simple Steps to Getting Certified” – a Toastmasters Presentation

Since October I have been attending Toastmasters meetings and occasionally giving speeches to improve my public speaking ability.

Below is my 4th speech:

6 Simple Steps to Getting Certified

  1. Ask your boss & peers which certifications are valuable.
    You don’t want to waste time obtaining a certification that will not ultimately help you to achieve your goals. Ask your boss to find out about certifications that would aide in advancement within your current job. Ask peers to find out which would provide opportunity outside of your current employer. Ideally, you should choose a certification about which you have some relevant knowledge already. Otherwise, the preparation process will be significantly elongated.
  2. Research the governing body’s website or magazine to determine what is required. Find out:
    a. The format of the test (e.g. multiple choice, essay, etc.)
    b. Recommended training materials (e.g. text books, practice tests, etc.)
    c. Additional requirements (e.g. years experience, a verbal presentation, etc.)
  3. Study
    a. Obtain the recommended training materials
    b. Review fundamentals
    c. Spend extra time learning new concepts
  4. Practice Tests
    a. Take practice tests to get familiar with the testing environment
    b. Write down notes about surprising answers and concepts with which you struggled
    c. Schedule the official exam when ready and confident. In many cases, your company will pay for the exam fee.
  5. Cram: study for an hour or two right before the test.
    Focus on those concepts you struggled with as well as facts & formulas that will be beneficial to have memorized. No matter how much you study before-hand, always cram. It’s important to have that information in short-term memory going into the test. Trust me, you don’t want to fail a test because of something trivial that you would have known if you had just done a quick review of the material before the test.
  6. Pass the Test
    a. Many certifications last a lifetime
    b. Update your resume
    c. Now you can add those letters after your name on your business card

I have only been attending for 7 months, so I have plenty of room for continual improvement. However, I have already been helped by the members of my Toastmasters club to use fewer filler words and display fewer nervous ticks. I hope to become more comfortable, so that I can focus on my message while on stage instead of being so nervous my mind goes blank.

Toastmasters is useful because of the feedback given at the end of a meeting. It is helping me develop a sense for how long (in time) someone is speaking (including myself). I get to learn what I did well and what are areas for improvement. In the specific video above, I received the suggestion to not look back at the PowerPoint presentation but instead to create speaker’s notes to keep in front of me. My presentation could also have been helped with a personal, specific example.

I am looking forward to improving my public speaking by giving more speeches, receiving the feedback of others, videotaping, and personally reviewing my speeches. In fact, I look forward to improving the quality of my videos. I apologize for the poor video quality this time (I used a digital camera from 2004). To record my voice, the best option I brainstormed (that was mobile and not very distracting for the audience) was to use a blue tooth headset with my iPhone, call into a Free Conference Call number, and record the call. I later merged the audio and video. If anyone has any cheap, wireless recommendations for microphones that will work with my iPhone I am open to trying them.