July 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of starting my first full-time job in tech. Sure, I’d had plenty of part-time and temporary jobs during my student days (including many happy years working in HMV), but following my graduation from university, it was time to find myself a desk and a computer (hopefully with a window).

I’ve been fortunate to have encountered more good times than bad, in ways which have occasionally been fortunate (swerving potential large-scale redundancies by leaving organisations just before they happened) and some which have been more earned (surviving redundancies by having the right skills at the right time). But there are a few common threads which might be relevant to anyone who’s entering the job market right now, especially if it’s for the first time.

Finding your passion might take time

I left university with a degree in journalism, and little more than a desire to not enter the world of journalism. The course left me somewhat jaded; even in the days before “fake news”, dumbing-down and clickbait, it was obvious which way the wind was blowing. With that in mind, priority number one became “paying the bills”.

I tried to maintain a journalistic connection with my first role, working for a company which built bespoke websites for events related to the magazine industry, cutting my teeth on websites for such illustrious events as the National Recycling Awards. Truth be told, a part of me was still holding out hope of making some industry contacts who might help me to put that degree to good use, but the closest I came was meeting David Bellamy at one of the aforementioned niche industry conferences.

I wore a lot of different hats during my three years with that first company. I joined as an office administrator, but was given the opportunity to manage a new dedicated customer services team. When the customer service team became bogged-down by repeated complaints from customers about recurring bugs, I trained myself as a tester and grew a team as QA Manager. And when there were gaps following staff departures, I even took up the reins of Development Manager for the best part of a year.

Trying lots of different roles gave me the opportunity to learn what I was actually passionate about. It turned out that the world of testing was right for me: as a journalist, my strength had always been sub-editing (basically, proof-reading and checking for adherence to style guidelines). Testing was very similar, but much less mundane, and so I jumped in with both feet. While I’m no longer spending quite so much time on the coal-face of testing, this somewhat chaotic path was extremely helpful in cementing what I actually wanted to do with my life.

Know your craft

So you’ve found your dream job. Fantastic! But don’t rest on your laurels. Whatever your industry, things are constantly changing. New standards will emerge, and new tools and devices will arrive on the marketplace. If you’re keeping your head down and just doing “what’s expected”, you might suddenly discover that “what’s expected” has shifted under your feet.

I’ve seen this on a large scale earlier in my career, when I was working within a test team where management suddenly decided that they wanted to reshape the test job specs to be much more automation-focused. It was such a large shift in responsibilities that the team were all put under threat of redundancy while they demonstrated whether they’d be capable of fulfilling this new role. Thankfully, I’d been honing my test automation skills independently of my day job, meaning that my involvement in the process was described as “a formality” by the powers-that-be. But I watched other skilled people lose their jobs, as the company had suddenly decided that they didn’t value those skills as highly any more - and they hadn’t seen where the market was heading.

We’re seeing this happen under our feet right now, with artificial intelligence. Some people may fear that their jobs could be negatively impacted by AI; some people may find their jobs become easier as they can incorporate AI tooling into their workflows; but perhaps more worrying is the group of people who aren’t even aware that there’s an AI revolution happening.

Keep in touch with your professional community, by following respected industry figures on social platforms, subscribing to podcasts, attending events or participating in online forums. Even if you’re just absorbing rather than contributing yourself, you’ll be positioning yourself to be at the forefront of new developments.

Know your worth

With inflation, energy crises and other external factors at play, everyone’s feeling the pinch more than ever. This has made people more hyper-aware of their earnings, and how their spending power is affected (especially negatively) by what’s happening in the world. With this in mind, be wary of doing anything which boils down to “doing extra work, for free”.

While I’m about to share some amusing stories about bad reasons that I’ve had for leaving companies, I’ve never regretted moving on from a role for financial reasons. In that aforementioned first company, despite all the different managerial badges that I wore during my time there, I was never able to get my salary to £20,000. Granted they were different times (it’s probably more like asking for £25-30k in the current market) but it’s not as if I wasn’t demonstrating my worth, nor demonstrating my commitment to the company (I was with them for over three years).

When it became clear that I’d hit a (relatively low) pay ceiling, I made my peace with it and sought out a company that was willing to pay what I felt I was worth. (And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first company went through some mass redundancies, followed by eventual liquidation.)

Talking about salaries is still seen as something of a taboo subject. As a manager, I’ve always tried to encourage transparency and openness, even when this has negatively affected the company. Within one team, we were advertising new roles with a salary band significantly higher than several long-serving members of the teams. When all of my attempts to achieve salary alignment for these individuals failed, they left the company and took up roles which were able to offer them what they deserved.

Make your peace with office politics

While I’ve certainly had noble reasons (such as ethics) for choosing to quit some roles, it’s funny how many jobs I left - particularly in the first half of my career - for reasons which seem somewhat trivial in hindsight. While I’ve never been a fan of office politics, or other sorts of corporate game-playing, there were still certain things where I thought “I can’t believe this company works in this way!” where I didn’t have the knowledge of “well, actually, almost every company works that way”.

Here are a few of them, and good ways to make peace with them!

  • Feeling more qualified than those above you. This is often the nature of how promotions work - the Peter principle teaches us that skilled people will find themselves repeatedly promoted until they reach a level which exceeds their competence. So if you’re observing this skills gap, there’s a reasonable chance that said person is also having internal conflict about this. Demonstrate your value to such a manager by becoming someone that they can rely upon to help them with difficult tasks.
  • Not getting the recognition that you deserve. This can sometimes go hand-in-hand with the above! One of the downsides of repeatedly digging your boss out of hot water is if they take ownership of your ideas/solutions for themselves. While you can’t control how others act, you can certainly strive to become the kind of leader or manager who shares the plaudits with people who deserve it.
  • Too much work / not enough time. This is never going to change! Managers are always going to want to ship products, driven by executives whose focus is on securing the bottom line. If you work feverishly to finish a project a week early, you don’t magically get a week off; you immediately begin work on the next project which itself has a dangerously short deadline. Don’t be a hero. If you put in unreasonable extra hours to get the work done, this turns into “hidden effort” which only leads to the company confidently overestimating what they can achieve next time too.
  • It seems like management doesn’t know what they’re doing. Most of software development is a degree of guess-work! It’s why, in agile development, we talk about things like “estimation”: we don’t know how long something is going to take to build. We use agile methodologies to decrease time-to-market, because we also can’t be sure that users want what we’re building until we put it in front of them. It’s unrealistic to expect product managers to be some sort of genies, with their crystal balls illuminating the perfect approach to building a product. Uncertainty isn’t a weakness; it’s a prompt to work smartly and collaboratively.

Don’t burn your bridges

So you’ve decided to leave a role, and you’re confident that it’s for a good reason which you’re not going to regret. You may even feel a huge burden has been lifted from your shoulders, with your excitement for your new role vastly outweighing your lack of passion for your current role - a difficult sensation if you’re on a long notice period.

Nevertheless, try to remain professional and dedicated during any notice period. If your new role isn’t everything that you hoped it would be, you might (as I’ve done previously) find yourself taking advantage of the common parting message “if it doesn’t work out, we’ll have you back in a heartbeat”. Even if you don’t return to the same company, local networks tend to be relatively close-knit, and with a 2-3 year tenure being pretty common in the tech sector, you may find that a former colleague or manager has moved onto another organisation themselves, and they might remember you as a potential pivotal member of that new team. (This has happened to me on no fewer than four occasions in the past 20 years!)

Then, of course, there are references. I’m sometimes asked for references for people that I last managed over five years ago. When such a request comes in, a manager often has to recall their most recent or lasting memory of working with that person. If you’re someone who didn’t pull their weight during their notice period, or bad-mouthed your team after they left, it doesn’t matter how many years of hard work you’d put in before that.

Key takeaways 📝

  • A job might not be for life any more, but a career is.
  • Focus on crafting a career which aligns with your passions.
  • Jobs are sometimes going to suck. That’s why you get paid to do them. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but know your worth.