A while back, when I was having lunch with a friend, he was telling me about his part-time job. Now, he wasn’t a student or a parent with young kids, and he also worked full-time. This part-time job had nothing to do with his career or many of the skills it involved.
He looked at it as more of an apprenticeship. Because though he’d worked in tech for years and had established himself, he didn’t really think he’d still be in tech at the end of his career. He was looking ahead to what was next.
It really stuck with me, because leaving tech hadn’t really occurred to me before. Sure, there are piles of articles about women leaving STEM in droves (or girls never getting into it). And stories about people abandoning soul-sucking corporate jobs to start artisanal jam making or vintage motorcycle repair businesses. (I have a few friends who joke about their plans to open cheese shops or bookstores in the south of France when they’re having overly stressful days.)
But lately, it had never occurred to me that I might want to do something else entirely. Maybe I was just happy in the tech sphere? Maybe the catalyst to get me thinking about pursuing something else just hadn’t arrived?
At the same time, I had trouble thinking of people I knew who were close to retiring, or had retired, from long-term tech careers. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of them, but they’d be closer to my parents’ cohort. Which then got me wondering about where people end up in tech at the end of their careers. Not everyone wants to work in management, but does everyone want to be committing code, wireframing or clearing customer support tickets in their 60s?
It begs the question, though . . . what’s next? Will those of us mid-career (or early on) in tech stick it out to the end, or will we depart for other pastures and leave this oft-crazy business for the kids these days?
Sure, the grand wizards of the tech world tend to be greybeards, famous in their day, faded (sometimes for decades), and then lionized after their deaths. We have a few female icons, too, the Grace Hoppers and the like.
But we also fetishize youth, especially in startup land. The younger you are when you find the Next Big Thing, the better the story. The older people I know at small companies tend to be brought on slightly post-founding as senior management.
It’s a bit of a formula. Start up the company, get it going, and when it gets to the point of seeming viable, start bringing on experienced people to make it really start growing. I can’t think of anyone I know who’s been a member of a dev team, for example, where everyone else was their kids’ age.
Which also gets me thinking about the terrible corporate tendency to promote people who are good at what they do . . . so they no longer do what they were good at doing. Could that be a reason to leave tech? You were good at your job, you enjoyed it, and you knew you were supposed to “advance.” But when you got to management you didn’t like it, didn’t feel you were excelling, felt stalled as you spent your days in meetings. And so you started thinking outside the tech box.
Also, for some larger companies and teams in tech, there is only so far you can go. (Again, especially if management isn’t your thing.) Many teams/disciplines just . . . stop at middle management or even team lead. There is no senior or C-level track. You’re never going to go anywhere bigger or better unless you change tracks, which will likely require at least a partially lateral move.
If you’re going to be faced with stalling and only moving sideways when you’ve got years under your belt, I can see how changing directions entirely would come to mind. And if you’ve gotten far enough along, perhaps you’re past a point where you need the same income and stability that you used to. You can afford to live more simply to pursue interests from the beginning. Maybe that lifestyle change is as refreshing and welcome as the career one.
Or, at the very least, presents you, once more, with a whole lot to learn, which can be a great motivator for springing out of bed in the morning. Where you still feel curious, and the problems may be hard, but they’re new, and you interact with entirely different people than you’re used to.
Another thing I remembered was a wedding a few years back, where I happened to run into a whole bunch of people with whom I’d gone to theatre school. It was a great opportunity to see where those who stuck it out to get the degree ended up.
Bottom line: not in theatre, at least not much. Sure, they did some on the side, but had day jobs to pay the bills, or had married lawyers or investment bankers to take care of that (seriously). It just wasn’t viable for most people for decades, especially if they wanted other things from life. Pursuing the arts requires a lot of sacrifice and commitment.
I ended up mulling this over from a tech perspective as well. Sure, tech pays much better than theatre, but what does it require in exchange? Again, lots of articles out there about lack of work-life balance, the mental, physical and financial perils of startups, the horrid conditions in particular industries, like video game companies, etc.
Perhaps it’s about doing what you love until you stop loving it. Or until it’s no longer what you loved originally. Or perhaps it’s just that people change and want different things. We’re supposed to end up having, what, five different careers in our lives?
So why would it seem notable for people to leave tech? Is a life-long tech career supposed to be something to which we should so aspire? Is it because a lot of education tends to go into getting there? (But I know of doctors who’ve quit that profession, and there’s a lot more commitment there.)
Ultimately, I don’t have a definitive punch line, answer, or ending for this column. Perhaps I’ll know in 20 years, as may you. As much as anything, it’s gotten me thinking again. Wondering. And also kind of looking forward to that cheese shop . . .
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech.