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Ask HN: Lack of Meaning/Social Interaction as a Developer
14 points by anonuser15243 on Feb 26, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 10 comments
I am reaching out to HN because I am in a rut.

Long story short, I worry I’ve chosen the wrong profession given my desire for meaning, social interaction and a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

My experiences as a software engineer (~4 years) have been:

1. Meaningless - I don't feel as though I've really helped anyone other than to build some stupid widget that might make some money one day, but doesn’t contribute anything to the world.

2. Anti-social – I’m behind a computer all day and don't have much human interaction with clients or coworkers. My coworkers are eccentric and hard to relate to.

3.) Unhealthy - Bad posture, sedentary lifestyle, RSI, eye strain… the medical evidence essentially says that the average software engineer is slowly killing himself. I'm crawling in my skin every day that I have to go in the office.

I've considered jobs where I could leverage my technical background towards my interests - health, photography, music etc., but I'm worried I'll end up in essentially the same spot, just writing software that happens to deal with one of my hobbies. I've also considered a career change to medicine, athletic training, film, even construction to get me away from being chained to a desk as a software dev.

About me:

- Studied CS at a top-5 college, did well and found it challenging, exciting and fun to learn and teach. Software in the real world has lacked the things I loved about it in college.

- Worked as a contractor, at a startup and a large corporation. Probably liked being a contractor the most, but there is little room for career growth as a contractor.

- I crave personal interaction, helping others and talking about things like ethics, policy, sports, technology.

- In my late 20s and could conceivably go back to school or go without income for a year or so if it put me on track towards a career that I found more fulfilling.

I'd appreciate any advice, thoughts or wisdom if any of you have been in a similar place. Thanks!

You've described "Whatever" by Michel Houellbecq. I recommend reading it, but it won't make you feel better about your situation.


If you feel this way there's not much you can do besides leave the industry. In my experience, some people get rich, the eccentric co-worker types plod along forever until they are laid off 300 pounds later, and everyone sort of "normal" disappears off the face of the earth.

At some level, these problems are all solvable within yourself.

First, acknowledge that it's not your job's responsibility to provide you with any of these things. Your job doesn't have to provide you with meaning, or with attractive and intelligent and compelling coworkers, or with a spa-like work environment. All your job has to provide you with is a paycheck, and everything else is negotiable. It's up to you to demand, take, or find elsewhere, the other things you want.

Order a standing desk and foam pad and expense them. Don't ask, just do it. Take fifteen minute breaks every couple of hours. Don't ask, just do it. Pack a healthy lunch every morning, take time to make yourself something nice, package it up attractively, then walk to the nearest park to eat it, every day, taking a full hour or 90 minutes to do so. Don't ask, just do it. Bring a book and leave your smartphone on your desk. Show up at 9, be at your meetings on time, get your work done, leave at 5. Don't ask, just do it. Read "How to Live on 24 Hours a Day" by Arnold Bennett. You have eight more hours in the day that you're not using wisely if all you're talking about here is your day job.

And all of that is well and good, but it won't fix the root problem, which is understanding why you're in a day job in the first place.

A day job is two levels of abstraction which you have chosen to participate in, because it supposedly beats hunting wild animals, sleeping in caves, risking getting eaten alive or dying young of an injury, and having to literally fight for a mate.

A day job has its down sides: you are twice disconnected from the "real" activities that biologically keep you alive and make you feel alive: hunting, eating, having shelter, procreating. You don't forage for food any more, you sit at a desk and earn a paycheck, and then you go buy food. You don't even have to budget more than a week or two, because, hey, there's that next paycheck.

Freelancing, at least, is an abstraction only one level deep, because you forage for clients, and you have to budget extremely well to survive client famine periods.

I'm not saying quit and go freelance. I'm saying understand why you're in the day job, put it in the right context in your life, and realize that it's there to support your search for meaning, socialization, and health in the other eight waking hours, and other sixteen total hours, of your day.

I read a book many years ago which suggested people have a unique pattern of energy available for different types of activities and they function best when they figure out how to get enough of each thing in their life but not too much. If you need more social outlet, you can try to get that outside of work. You can also do volunteer work to get "meaning" into your life.

If you are dead set on changing jobs or careers to resolve this, I recommend you get a copy of "What color is your parachute?" and do some informational interviews. As a teen, I considered becoming a physical therapist. Then I interviewed one. It was not what I had envisioned. I am so glad I figured that out before getting the education necessary to get the job instead of after.

We seem to generally do a poor job of helping people figure out what a job is really all about and how to find a good fit careerwise. Some people seem to just get lucky or try a lot of things until they stumble into something good.

You could also watch "Beyond Rangoon" and wonder what you really are looking for in terms of meaning. Then go hurl yourself headlong into meaning.

If you really like software engineering, I don't think a career change is necessary.

I'd suggest finding something to do outside of work, volunteering, joining a casual sports league, find meetups centered around your hobbies, etc. to give your life meaning and get yourself more active.

If you have the resource, just quit for six months. It will take six months to come out of it, but it's for the best. If working as a contractor is better, do that. Career growth is more money. Developers can take six months off and come back and get a raise. It doesn't get much better than that.

Why was this thread downvoted, or not near the top yesterday? I saw it briefly in the morning and was anxious to hear more responses. Come'n, respond people! This is one of the better threads in HN!

I'd recommend a more social role building on your experience, e.g., manager, scrum master, project manager, tech lead, customer support, sales engineer, technical recruiter, etc.

In order of easiest to hardest...

For your health:

1. Get a standing desk and foam pad (the foam pad is for your feet, because they'll get sore without it. I think the term for them is "anti-fatigue mat"). Alternatively get a chair with proper lumbar support. When you stand, notice how your spine curves inwards. When people sit their spines often curve outwards (slouching). A chair with lumbar support properly pushes and supports the spine so that it curves inwards.

2. Google articles on proper ergonomics and adjust your keyboard and mouse accordingly.

3. Exercise in the morning before work. That will make you feel a lot more refreshed. Exercising after work in the evenings is all well and good, but it feels a lot better to do it in the morning.

4. Get enough sleep.

For work:

1. How good of a rapport do you have with your manager/boss? If you have a decent relationship, straight up sit down with your boss and tell him/her that you want to have a conversation about your career, you're looking for more of a client-facing role, leadership role, and/or product management role in the near future. Regardless of your relationship with your boss, ask him/her, "What will it take for me to move into X," X being "client-facing role," "product management," "being tech lead," ... take your pick. I think it is counter-productive to talk in negative terms - i.e. how much you're dissatisfied with work - and it is much more productive to talk in positive terms and in terms of the future and in terms of how you want to contribute at a "higher-level" in the future.

2. If your boss isn't receptive or if your boss tells you but you get nowhere, you might consider looking for another job. Make it clear to someone hiring you that you want a role in which you can grow.

For your life (this is the hardest)

1. Try joining engineering-related or CS-related or tech-related meetups in your area. Where do you live?

2. Find a hobby? I don't know you so I can't help in this area. I'd imagine it would do with music/photography.

3. I don't know what kinds of friends you have right now in the area. But try to hang out more often with whatever friends you do have, and ask them to invite their friends so you can meet new people.

4. As someone who has only been working for a short time after leaving school, one thing I've observed about working life is how we all essentially leave our friendships up to chance. When you're in school you usually end up friends with people who happen to be in your classes, people who you happen live with, people who happen to be in clubs you're in, etc. Without something like school that puts you in constant contact with people, you yourself need to make an effort to befriend people you meet who you find interesting. If you meet someone interesting at a meetup or company-related function or a bar, etc., not only should you ask for their contact info (if you give someone your contact info there is a 50-50 chance they'll never contact you), you need to make the effort to set up lunch/dinner/drinks/coffee with that person.

I don't claim to be successful in getting myself to do all of these all the time, but I always try to accomplish these goals and I think they're a helpful set of guidelines for you.

I'd like to talk to you. Send me an email (in profile).

Going back to school will have two benefits: 1) put you on track towards another line of work (and buy time to figure things out) and 2) place you in a social environment.

If going back to school is an option for you, then that's what I'd be jumping into.

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