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Ask HN: How many of you gave up working as a professional coder?
101 points by sillysaurus3 on May 30, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments
What do you do now, other than management?



I haven't left it yet, but I'm starting to plant the seeds now that I'm hoping will eventually lead to full-time board game designer in 5-10 years. I've got several prototypes, one being evaluated by a publisher currently, and I've been going to conventions and networking with other people in the industry. If one of my designs ends up being a hit, I should have enough money to make the transition.

I still enjoy programming, but there's a lot of "Keeping up with the Tech Jones's" with constant new flash in the pan API's or frameworks and not a ton of just "get shit done", and BA's/managers with minimal technical experience making decisions on what you have to do is the rule, not the exception, and it seems a little pointless after awhile.

Like I could be replaced by someone else and the work would still get done, so what value am I really adding to this? At least in video games I had creative input on the look, feel, and design of the game. In corporate dev I've had almost zero input, except sometimes in how the data is structured (which doesn't excite me anywhere near as much).


>> I've got several prototypes, one being evaluated by a publisher currently, and I've been going to conventions and networking with other people in the industry. If one of my designs ends up being a hit, I should have enough money to make the transition.

Care to share more on this ? If I want to, where do I start making board game prototypes ? An email would do good, I don't see your contact info on your profile. All the best.


I just wanted to say, that's way cool. Best of luck.


I retired from my job managing a group of software engineers in Silicon Valley a few years ago. I'd been quite frugal, mostly driving old beaters I bought outright. I owned a condo outright. I ate the free and discounted food at work. I was making $300K+ a year in base salary and equity compensation, and my expenses were only about $20K a year. (My biggest bill was my monthly homeowners’ association fee of about $400.) So, I was able to save a metric ton of money and invested it all in the stock market.

As a child, I loved computers. I taught myself 6502 and x86 assembly languages, as well as some other languages. When I got to the university and actually understood how digital circuits worked, I was so fascinated. When I finally landed in Silicon Valley, I felt like I was in a dream. I was good at what I did and I met awesome people who were good at what they did. Actually, the greatest pleasure was meeting and working with people who were much smarter than I was.

Eventually, the thrill wore off. I’d seen so many bugs and new projects that they started all feel the same, kind of like my personal version of the film Goundhog Day. I didn’t love it anymore. And then later, I didn’t even like it anymore.

At one point, I calculated my net worth at a few million dollars and realized that I could just quit my job and live off the investment interest. So I just did it. I’ve been retired for four years now.

I travel a lot, which was something I couldn’t do much when I had a job that only gave me three weeks of vacation. I can also travel in a different way: taking the time in a new place to see un-touristy things, meet locals and study the language a bit. I read a lot of books, none of which are about computers. I haven’t been back to the United States in over a year.

Thanks to my frugal habits and the runup in the stock market, my net worth is higher. My “burn” rate is under 2%, which means that I can do this indefinitely. I don’t miss Silicon Valley and will never live there again. In fact, I probably won’t ever live in the United States again. And I don’t miss my cubicle one bit.

What I did is unusual. But the thing I don’t understand is why it is unusual: most of the professionals I worked with could have made the same choices and had the same result. I guess they found more enjoyment in the cycle of work and consumption than I did. And like most people who lived in the Valley, I knew and had friendships with people who were far richer than I was: whose net worth was $10M or $30M or more, who could retire today and have a very comfortable life anywhere in the world. But they continued to work. I can only guess that they found more enjoyment in work than I did.


I would really, really love to hear some details of how you ended up in the very high paying jobs, and any advise you might have for how to manage one's career to maximise earning potential, assuming one starts off with a quant / ML / software eng background.

Also, if you have any observations or advise for developers who are NOT based in the US, i'd love to hear that.


I went to a “second-tier” school in the University of California. Having worked with engineers from better schools (e.g., Stanford), I would say I was as talented on average as they were, but I had terrible study habits in high school and so my grades weren’t that good. At the university I did a lot of stuff that wasn’t required for my degree, like doing a senior design project and leading the local chapter of IEEE. I hustled to get internships. I took an internship doing IT support at a civil engineering firm my first year, but later I got better internships at Apple and Intel. By the time I graduated, I was a far stronger candidate than my peers at my school. I had six job offers when I graduated. I job hopped a couple of times early in my career for better positions, but I eventually ended up at a company I really liked and stayed there for twelve years.

You don’t say much about your background or where you are, so it’s hard to answer your question. I think there’s really two parts to your question: “1. How do I become a great software engineer?” and “2. How do I emigrate to a country with higher salaries for engineers?”

To me, these are pretty basic questions. To be a great software engineer, teach yourself to solve difficult problems and then go do it. Always push the limit of your ability. Learn multiple languages. If you’re a system software person, go tinker with databases. If you’re a compiler guy, go tinker with neural networks. If you’re a C programmer, go learn Scheme or Haskell. Read books on lots of topics: microprocessor design, good software engineering practices, design patterns, etc. In your job, be indispensable. Be the guy who can solve any bug or solve any problem, even if it spans multiple areas of knowledge. Be indispensable.

Don’t be the guy who holes himself up as a guru in a little obscure walled-off technical area and hides his knowledge as a form of power or job security. There is no job security. Even if you’re good, your company could go through a rough spot and lay you off. The only job security is to be known in a network of other people as a great engineer, and then if you don’t have work it’s no problem to find another job.

If you go interviewing for any serious jobs, you’re going to get coding questions. Whether they are a great way of assessing a candidate is a topic of debate on HN, but that doesn’t matter. You’re going to get them. People have put together anthologies of these questions: be sure you can solve them. If you practice and are good at it, you will be able to solve similar problems that you haven’t seen before.

If you’re in an “emerging economy” with low salaries for engineers, then figure out how to get to a different country. The demand for software engineers worldwide is huge right now, and so if you can figure out a way to legally work in a richer country and you have any talent at all, you can find a job. Visa programs put a high value on university degrees in technical fields, so if you don’t have one it’s likely you’ll need to get one.

The United States has the best paying jobs for software engineers right now, but it is very hard to emigrate to right now because the H1-B visa category is oversubscribed. The best way to get in now is to go work for a big company that has a presence in both the USA and abroad (like, say, Google) and then after a year you can transfer to the USA on an L1 if your employer allows it.

I’m no expert on moving to Europe, but I know that various countries have “blue card” programs for skilled technical people to move to Europe on. Anecdotally, I believe the best-paying jobs are in northern Europe, especially in Germany. But the pay will be less than in the USA. I transferred one engineer from Silicon Valley to Germany (his request) and I had to give him a 25% salary cut and he got a lot less equity compensation going forward.

The good news is that there is a huge demand for skilled programmers everywhere. I’m so glad that my childhood passion was computers and not medieval French poetry, in which case I’d be serving lattes at a coffee shop and be living in fear that a robot is going to take my minimum-wage job.


>> You don’t say much about your background or where you are, so it’s hard to answer your question. I think there’s really two parts to your question: “1. How do I become a great software engineer?” and “2. How do I emigrate to a country with higher salaries for engineers?”

I feel like becoming a great engineer is almost orthogonal to getting paid the big bucks. It feels like job hopping, salary negotiation, and most importantly, the opportunity to do great work, all require some deliberate and strategic planning - and that these are the things that actually impact salary levels much, much more than one's raw engineering skills. I could of course be wrong, but would love to hear your thoughts on this.

I studied EE in school, and focussed on statistical signal processing for my Masters. My bachelor was from an okay school in India, and my master was from the top-ranked Asian Uni (National University of Singapore). Most of my professional experience consists of the 6 years that i spent as a research engineer in a research lab, working on various robotics / signal processing / ML type projects. I now work as a Data Scientist for a finance firm in Singapore. I have had no formal CS education, and am a completely self taught programmer. I do enjoy the academic side of CS, and have taught myself many topics in algorithms & data structures, design patterns, computer architecture, etc.


> Anecdotally, I believe the best-paying jobs are in northern Europe, especially in Germany

I think nothing in Europe beats London. Of course, the rents are insane, but if you don't have a family and are willing to live in a shitty place (maybe with flatmates) with a commute, it doesn't affect you as much.


Nothing in London gets close to what people make in SF, and the rent is equally insane. I know senior software engineers in London with 15-20 years experience and they make ~100k pounds(~140k USD)/year,sometimes a bit more sometimes a bit less, and equity is definitely not a given thing. Obviously UK/US salaries are not directly comparable , but still, if you want to be making >$300k/year, then you need to work in finance in London, not IT.


I'm not sure how typical it is for a grunt level developer to be making >$300k in SV. For that kind of money, you typically need to be a manager (team lead at least). I think you can expect yearly earnings of around 150k pounds when you're contracting in London as a (obviously top-notch) technical team lead, which is about $220k. It's less than $300k, but contracting taxes in UK are about 20%, compared to the 33+% figure siberianbear gave. Plus, you don't need to wait years for the stocks to vest.

The biggest problem with that is that a lot of companies don't like to contract out management, so you're options may be somewhat limited (and if you choose full-time employment instead, you go straight into the maw of 40% taxation).


I can confirm this. Permanent salaries in the UK are OKish. Contracting is where the money is at. An intermediate developer can pretty easily make £500 a day. If you can make yourself indispensable, or pick a tech stack used in finance, then £700-800 isn't uncommon. As a benchmark, £600 a day is roughly equivalent to $200K USD permanent salary.


>For that kind of money, you typically need to be a manager (team lead at least).

False. You have to be very senior, but you do not need to 'typically' be a manager. There was a spreadsheet a few months ago on HN showing that with RSUs, most of the top tech companies pay above this for their higher level (non manager) engineers.

>It's less than $300k, but contracting taxes in UK are about 20%

Wow, contracting taxes are higher in the US, maybe it is a comparable if you can make 150k+ doing consulting work in the UK!


> Wow, contracting taxes are higher in the US

The justification in Europe is that governments want to encourage entrepreneurship (and contracting counts as entrepreneurship), hence lower taxes. I wonder what's the logic behind the US situation.


*"2. How do I emigrate to a country with higher salaries for engineers?"

Hmm. You're not wrong, but I do wish location wasn't so critical for this kind of thing.

I've deliberately traded income potential for QoL, ability to buy a house, predictable hours, and job stability. But the prospect of using consultancy to move towards a part-time year with ability to work on my own projects is tempting me on the horizon.


25% cut from SF wage to DE there's still alot left.


"... I knew and had friendships with people who were far richer than I was: whose net worth was $10M or $30M or more, who could retire today and have a very comfortable life anywhere in the world. But they continued to work. I can only guess that they found more enjoyment in work than I did..."

I love hiking. But sometimes you end up on a freaking grueling hike. It's hot, the weather's going south, you're above the treeline, and so on.

Ever stop and wonder why you're doing it? Why not just turn around? Heck, going downhill is a lot easier.

Sometimes when you get emotionally wrapped up in the middle of doing something tough, it becomes extremely important to stay with it, simply because it's tough. The pain and misery of the thing becomes its own reward.


> I was making $300K+ a year in base salary and equity compensation

Out of curiosity, when making a total comp of $300k in Silicon Valley, what kind of take home pay (after taxes) can you expect - including pension contributions?


To give you some hard numbers... in my last full year in Silicon Valley I made $383K in total compensation. I paid $112K in federal income tax and $43K in California state tax.

The mandatory pension scheme in the United States, which is called Social Security, tops out at about $5K. (It's not a major tax for high earners.) I also paid $6K in Medicare tax. (I think my employer paid a matching amount for both of these, but I'm not 100% sure.)

So my take home that year was about $260, so I paid about 33% overall in taxes.

Both Federal and California tax rates have increased since I left, so I might have paid a little more if I had an identical income this year.


Earlier this year, I left my job at Facebook to play tennis all the time. When I'm not doing that, I'm either playing video games or pretending to make furniture.

Only time will tell whether this is a sabbatical or a career change.


I have a plan like yours, replace tennis with cycling and furniture with selling mobile phone plans.


What's your cash burn rate so far?


It's pretty high at the moment, since I'm paying for a lot of 1:1 instruction (7 hrs/wk split between tennis and fitness) and am still getting used to the new area. If you take that out, I'm probably spending something like $20-40k annually.


Are you doing The Dan Plan equivalent for tennis?


I did. Started in '99; started an agency in '04 where I was the lead coder with 2 partners; by 2010 I was dabbling at best. Another six years on, I don't code at all and do sales/management. I'm not sure I'd do it the same should I have my time again, I miss it.


My last day is in just over two weeks! Starting my PhD in type theory at CMU.


My current post may well be my last; I'm sick and tired of continuously working for SME's with no direction, business plan or competent management. If I lived somewhere that there was more opportunities I may feel differently.


Have you considered moving? That seems to be the obvious solution.


I have considered moving, however it means moving to literally the other side of the country. While that's not strictly out of the options, I don't know if the industry as a whole is what I'm sick of or not. Part of me wants to re-tool in nursing, however at 30 that's starting to fall outside of the options too, haha.


It's better to re-tool at 30 than 31, and better at 31 than 32, and better at 50 than never. A few years is nothing, maybe it's different where you are but in the US it's very common to become a nurse as a second career in your 30s.


After getting the 6 figures programming job, I realized that I was already decent so I quit and started a startup. Now I'm just reading books, riding bikes, and networking.


How did you know where to go next? Neither 'leaving a six-figure job' nor 'starting a startup' are trivial moves to make.


The more I read the more I realise its not worth it to be employed as a programmer. I havent even started employment. Sometimes I read that programmers are not even allowed to do what they want, so I start to be content that even though I do little Im free to do what I want.


Well, I can do bread that is edible, alcohol that make your drunk without poisoning you music that people can sing repair bikes fairly well

But ... I get rejected for every job I ask : I don't have diplomas. The bread I see on average are at best and as good as mine, my alcohol is cheaper than market and tasting better, my reparations are clean... but I don't have diplomas and the conforming education...

So I am looking back at coding, and I still hope I will find whatever is not a modern job intoxicated with all the current hype in IT or financial or web agency or startup spirit.

Wish me luck, it is tough but I am still going and as long as I can I will try.


You could move to Copenhagen (or one of these other 19 cities: http://www.wired.com/2015/06/copenhagenize-worlds-most-bike-...) and open a bike repair shop where bikers can have a snack and a drink, listening to good music, while you repair their bikes.

Just sayin'


Could be because being a baker/brewer/bike tech has nothing to do with the jobs for which are you applying.


I did it, more or less. I had a software company, now I am a full time musician.


I worked for a long time as a coder, then team lead / principal engineer and finally architect before reaching a point where I could exit. Now I synthesize new psychedelic drugs and sell them to rich yuppies from NYC seeking mind expansion.


Good question. Im wondering this as well.




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