The Perfect Career?

I have recently installed Live Writer Beta 1 on my desktop and am using it to author this post, let’s see how I like it…

It seems that everyone I speak to in the the software industry is looking for the proverbial golden egg in the ideal career – working as little as possible for maximum benefit.  Many say that the only way to make pots of money is to going to business for yourself, others insist that the approach is to work hard at a regular paying gig.  It is certainly true that working for yourself can provide plenty of financial reward, but this approach is also packaged with it’s fair share of risk.  On the other hand, full time work for a stable organization won’t generate so much green, but this path is less likely to end you up in financial loss.  

So the question is, “what is the best career path to take in the software business?”  Below is a summary of the various options open to software developers and the like, based on personal experience and communication with other like-minded individuals in the IT business:

Full Time Employee (Corporate Version) – This is probably the least likely career path to produce a high financial yield, and yet is probably the most chosen type of career track.  Most large companies in corporate America seek their money’s worth from their employees, requiring them to work a minimum of 40 hours a week and a certain amount of voluntary overtime.  In return said employees can expect a fixed paying salary, health insurance and a retirement plan.  Employment usually involves 100% investment effort from the employee, leaving little time for other money spinning endeavors.  However, a W2 paying job does provide a certain comfort level of stability, and this type of career track is popular with employees that have dependents at home. 

FTE positions have the potential to go south in favor of the employer from time to time, and this was especially evident after the .dot COM crash in 2000 when the market became an employers haven for inexpensive out of work software developers.  Since then, the market has balanced out and it W2 positions are not so cut throat for employees looking to earn a stable crust for 5 days of the week.  Like most career opportunities, seeking out the right organization providing a good work-life-balance is part of the up front effort in making a good career move.

Full Time Employee (Government Version) –  This has to be the most stable kind of work available.  The US government has been in business for many many years, and is not likely to go anywhere soon.  Aside of the occasional budget cuts to working departments, most government employees can rest in peace knowing that they have a job for the long foreseeable future.  FTE government workers have to go a long way to loose their position of employment. Aside from committing a crime or never turning up to their place of work, most FTE government employees are protected from unfair dismissal, unpaid overtime, or unreasonable work expectations sometime associated with the corporate world.  Government employees can usually expect great health care and retirement rewards – especially if they come from a military background.

The downside – The US government engine is renowned for operating at a slow pace.  This can be detrimental to software engineers looking to get ahead in the latest technologies of today, when their employer is still back in the dark ages of COBOL and Fortran development.  Many government departments are waking up to newer technologies and are employing individuals with modern skills, unfortunately most of the lucrative spots are given to government contractors (see the next career track).  Financial reward for government FTE’s is not so hot – typically employees reside within a fixed pay scale and can only increase their salary by changing job role.  Government salary is usually lesser than that of a contractor or corporate salary.

Full Time Government Contractor – This career track is what I consider the sweet spot in the IT industry (and yes I’m biased).  Government contracting gives employees the best of both worlds – a reasonably stable position and comfortable work environment without the financial sacrifice.  In the Washington DC metro area there exist a number of contracting companies who are ready to snap up software developers and place them with government agencies.  It’s easy money – the government gets the modern technical expertise it desires, the contracting company charges a huge billing rate, and the employee gets all the benefits of working for a commercial company without the pressure usually associated with non-government work.

Do not be mislead, I am not trying to portray government contractors as lazy developers – nothing could be further from the truth – work is just as demanding as that of the commercial world, but experience has taught me that the work-life-balance is much more fair, and expectations are reasonable.  Picking the right contracting job is an art, just as with government FTE positions, this arena is awash with open positions requiring legacy development work in dated technologies.  Finding the ideal position may involve infinite patience and soul searching.

Independent Consultant– After a long career working to fill somebody else’s pocket, many software experts find themselves looking to independence.  This track is one step away from operating a self business.  Independent consulting requires plenty of business savvy and lots of experience in the industry to demand large financial reward.  Going independent is risky because this type of career demands a person responsible for managing his/her own benefits (health insurance is very expensive), income tax is more complicated, and due to the nature of short term gigs; stability is pretty much non-existent. Metropolitan areas typically provide a greater choice of contract positions, but commuting in these areas can be a bear because the best contracts are not always a stone throw away from home.  On the brighter side, independent consulting does not involve a middle man, so the billing rate is what it is (just be sure that you allocate enough of it for Uncle Sam come the April tax date).

Independent consultants are in direct competition with contracting companies/agencies/body-shops, and some of the larger contracts fall into the enemy’s lap, but independent’s can offer a cheaper billing rate and usually a faster development turn around.

Ironically, this type of career track is suited to single individuals with no requirement for expensive family health insurance and no ties preventing them from traveling in seek of the more lucrative opportunities.  So, family driven individuals may find themselves shying away from independent consulting.  Not to say that if you’re a family man/woman, independent consulting is out – households with two incomes can benefit from this kind of career track if one of the incomes is packaged with good health insurance, or if enough work is in demand that out of pocket insurance costs are not a problem.  Those with spare time on their hands can make use of this career track to to supplement one of the aforementioned stable tracks above.

Business Owner – This has to be the only career track where I’ve had little to no personal experience, but have had many a conversation with those who made the leap into business ownership.  Owning your own business certainly takes a different talent because the game agenda has changed.  Unlike FTE employees and, to a certain degree, contractors, business ownership requires both financial and emotional investment.  Maybe the business occupies physical office space, perhaps the owner may have used his/her savings/hom
e as collateral to launch the business, or just having the name on the door is enough to care about reputation.  No matter what the driving factor, owning a business is like having children – you cannot turn you back on it, and your life has now become about making the business work.

Startup software business owners typically operate in two career roles – business management, and continued involvement in development to enable the flagship product to launch with the business.  The up-front cost are immense and there is always a huge risk that the business model may flop, leaving the business owner back at square one.  However, if the business is successful then this career track has the potential to provide the largest pay off.  As businesses grow into conglomerates owners can expect to sit back and reap the rewards.

Unemployed – This is not a career track (unless you’re an at home parent), although worth mentioning.  If you find yourself in this unfortunate position then now is the time to review one of the above career tracks and make the jump.  If you have the talent, now would be a great time to consider the independent consulting – what have you got to loose?

Conclusion – There’s a saying that goes something like – “Nothing in life is free”, and this is certainly true of work life.  There is no such career track that pays people for doing nothing – trust me, I’d have found it if it existed – but there are best fit choices for each individual.  The trick is to find the right career track that provides you with the most incentive and reward.  If you’re slogging for your employer and getting little to no reward then there is clearly a mismatch, likewise if you are struggling to keep a business alive and loosing money hand over fist then it is perhaps time to throw in the towel.  The happiest person is the person who is excited to get out of bed on a work day, motivated with their job, and isn’t out of pocket at the end of the day.  Choose wisely – your career is likely to affect the rest of your life.