As of this writing, the job market for technical talent is booming in the United States. Even though the US economy is still recovering from the economic calamity of 2008, circumstances have conspired to create a high demand for technical talent. The fear of outsourcing has driven down enrollments in domestic technology education while the pace of technology change continues to grow within US businesses. Those who embarked on a technology career during these times are now seeing demand for domestic talent while the supply of such technologists slowly catches up. As with all boom and bust cycles, this will change over time. But for now, it’s largely a sellers’ market when it comes to career mobility.
During these high-demand cycles, the technologist’s fancy turns to job satisfaction and career mobility. As my colleague Theresa Hummel-Krallinger writes, companies realize that they must compete for tech talent and are starting to wake up and smell the improving job market. In the meantime, ambitious employees assess their current positions and their prospects. The purpose of this article is to share a model that I devised for assessing job satisfaction that helped guide me in my career decision-making.
It is my sincere hope that the reader will earnestly look at their level of satisfaction with their career. My experience suggests to me that satisfied employees are energized by their work and produce better results. Those are the type of employees that a technology leader should aspire to attract and to strive to retain. For my colleagues who might question the wisdom in suggesting that technologists assess their satisfaction with their careers for fear that these employees might be tempted to depart, I say that employees are already thinking about their positions when circumstances create dissatisfaction and recruiters knock on their door. My sincere hope is to guide technologists to make more informed career choices.
A Model for Assessing Satisfaction
Over my many years of employment in the technology sector, I’ve changed jobs a number of times. Each change was preceded by events leading to a sense of dissatisfaction. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has changed jobs through their own volition. After each dissatisfaction-provoking event, I did some soul-searching about my current situation and whether it was worth staying or leaving. In most cases, I came to the conclusion that things were not as bad as I first thought and ended up staying. In a few instances faithfully documented on my resume, I pulled up stakes and moved on. When I did ponder my situation, I considered it along the four dimensions of interest in the work, how I was compensated, the level of politics and bureaucracy present, and the prospects the job held for the future. The following illustrates those dimensions:
After getting past the emotional component of my apparent dissatisfaction, I thought about each of the four dimensions to try to assemble an objective view of my situation. I’m sure that many who read this article will come up with additional dimensions of their own. But these four kept resonating with me and provided a sound model for my decision-making.
Job interest is a subjective topic. For me, jobs that provided the opportunity for technical innovation are important. I’ve always been a bit of a technology wonk, and I gravitate toward the interfaces between software, infrastructure, and humans. This had lead me to interest in user experience (UX) and what is now called development operations (DevOps). I’ve also spent time early in my career building tools to support other developers. This highlights my interest in seeing the things that are developed applied to real world problems.
My interests aren’t necessarily your interests. I challenge you consider what you really find interesting in your career and your current situation. It might be the excitement of technical innovation, but it could very well be the chance to build a cohesive team, the prospects of learning from really gifted architects, working within an engaging business domain, or any number of things encounter through the course of technology development. Only you know what interests you!
Compensation can be a dicey topic. Many people convince themselves that sub-par compensation is the main source for their dissatisfaction. In practice and having known scores of very talented technologists, I have found that compensation is rarely the primary cause for dissatisfaction. More often, dissatisfaction with other dimensions is amplified by thoughts of better compensation. I caution the reader about this because I have seen employees job-hop for pay and get themselves into worse situations because they didn’t understand the true source of their dissatisfaction. Of course, that’s what this model is all about!
When considering compensation, it is valuable to understand the market value for your role. There are many sources of salary information available that is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that it’s not too hard to understand if your compensation is equitable. However, salary is only one component of compensation. In today’s economy, it’s wise to think in terms of “total compensation.” Total compensation is a fairly recent approach where you consider all sources of income and benefits offered by your employer as a single package. This includes salary, incentives, paid time off, retirement contributions, health and other forms of insurance, and any other instance where you get a financial benefit as part of the terms of your employment. This is especially important now in an era when employers expect quite a bit from employees, and healthcare costs are rising. Not all employers are equal, and the benefits add up for both individuals and families. Viewing remuneration through the lens of total compensation allows you to balance all facets of a package. For example, a lower base salary might very well be offset by a better incentive compensation program and vice versa. You might have a young family so work-life balance in the form of paid time off, and better healthcare may be paramount. It depends upon your individual preferences and circumstances.
We all have parts of the job that we like and dislike. I have noticed that for me and many technologists, few things are more annoying than excessive bureaucracy and the related politics. Silly things like jumping through hoops to get office supplies, decent equipment, and competent support can irritate an employment experience. Admittedly, I have rarely found bureaucracy to be a primary cause for dissatisfaction. But taken holistically, it can sometimes tip the balance when considering an employment situation. Conversely, we frequently take for granted well-run bureaucracies that provide great service. I urge you to take a balanced approach when considering this dimension since every company has its challenges in this area. The bureaucratic grass is seldom greener elsewhere; it’s just different grass!
As a final note and a pet peeve of mine, please treat your administrative and support staff well. All too often these are the folks who contribute the most to the efficient operation of the business. They seldom get the credit they deserve when the business runs smoothly but sure take it on the chin when things don’t go as expected!
Of all the four dimensions, assessing that prospects of your role within the company is the most subjective of all. As I previously mentioned, being involved with innovation is a great source of job satisfaction for me. I tie my prospects for continued employment to the company’s commitment to sustainable innovation. You need to ask yourself what matters to you. If it’s not innovation, then is it long-term stability, continuing to work with a great team, advancement up the career ladder, predictable compensation increases, short commute, amount of business travel, having a great manager, or some combination of these! Whatever it might be, remember that change is at the heart of most businesses. Today could very well end up being the “good old days”, or the future could hold the promise of better things to come. Only you can judge.
I had worked for a software company for many years. I joined right after they received a round of venture capital investment. I stayed through their acquisition by large firm and eventually became a technology leader within the division. The parent company left us alone so long as we generated revenue and margins, so the prospects for the future were reasonably bright. We had the stability of a large firm yet continued to operate as a much smaller company, and I had a great relationship with my manager. My satisfaction profile looked like this:
We had just completed a major product uplift, and the work continued to be interesting within a range of variability from average to high (see the above length of the “Interest” indicator line). I felt adequately compensated for the position when viewed through the lens of total compensation. The raises were low, but the incentive compensation was very good so long as we performed. The bureaucracy was well-run and supportive because the team had been together for a long time and was very cohesive. The prospects were fairly bright within a range of uncertainty. In short, the averages seemed to be in my favor.
Then two things changed. First, we were placed under a new senior manager at the parent company. Second, we were looking for a modest investment from the parent company to continue to innovate the product. To make a long story short, it turned out there would be no investment from the parent to support the proposed innovation strategy and it was clear that the parent company would be calling the shots more and more. They would be taking the division in a different direction. After assessing my satisfaction once again, the profile had changed:
Since innovation would be an uphill battle, my interest level dropped. I knew that we would have new direction from above so the bureaucracy and politics would rise as is common with larger companies. Finally, I saw my prospects for future advance diminish as I would be a smaller cog within a bigger wheel. I decided that it was time to seek greener pastures.
I hope you will take the model described above and apply it you your situation. You just may find that you have a pretty good deal where you are now. I found that to be true most of the times I found myself soul-searching about a job change. Remember that petty annoyances at work are mostly ephemeral and evaporate after a few good nights sleep. However, if you keep coming back again and again to the notion that it might “be time” then I hope you will use the model to create your own satisfaction profile. It might guide you to a better opportunity!
In the three articles to follow, we will examine three main stages in the lifecycle of a company: The Start-up stage, the Take-off stage, and the Maturity stage.
We will use the model for assessing satisfaction introduced in this article to assess possible sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction within each of the three company lifecycle stages. My intention is to help you understand the different types of companies and to be better able to assess what might be best for you. You could very well find that your present situation is just where you want to be, or you could find that your interests lie elsewhere!