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On Funemployment (and My Next Job) (erniemiller.org)
77 points by emiller829 1186 days ago | hide | past | web | 68 comments | favorite

Forgive me, but I'm a little confused by the structure of your blog post. You take us from an understandable point A (being laid off b/c your employer closed shop) to a strange point B (a list of fairly restrictive requirements for your next job).

I don't get how B follows from A. That structure is basically "I just got laid off, and now I'm not looking to relocate to find a new job, but I am looking for an even better one with more money." I know you don't intend to come off that way, but to the casual reader, you sort of do.

The more interesting post, IMO, would have attempted to mine some insights from the experience. I mean, shit, man, you were hired into what sounds like an awesome job, and then had to leave 6 weeks later. Six weeks! That's a story in and of itself. What has that experience taught you? What has it taught you about the nature of jobs, about the job market, about startups, about the developer's life, about yourself? And how does all of that lead into what you're looking for in a new job?

You're in a very unfortunate situation, and that sucks, and I hope you land an awesome new gig soon. You're a smart and hardworking guy. But we need insights from these sorts of experiences, because they're probably not as uncommon as we might imagine. Your experience could, theoretically, happen to anyone here. So what would you take from it that you feel we need to know?

I do not understand why B has to follow A. You are also assuming he is in a unfortunate situation somehow, But knowing him (as a fellow Rubyist) I think he will have at least 10-15 offers sitting in his Inbox right now.

I don't know why you find points he has laid out as "strange" as well,But I think it is a disservice to yourself as a programmer if you are going to settle for anything else. For example:

1. Can't relocate -> fair enough, it is hard to relocate if you have families. I have one of our smartest programmer working with us remotely.

2.My next job will not be a contract -> It should be self-evident. Contract workers are second class citizens.

3.My next job will stretch me -> Can you argue with this one? Daniel Pink in his book "Drive" argue the very same points.

I can go on, but will stop. And oh good luck Ernie (Your contributions to Rails are much appreciated).

I'm not disagreeing with any of that, and I use "unfortunate" in the sympathetic sense of the word, i.e., that it's certainly unfortunate to get started -- and, from the sound of it, love -- a new job, only to have that job disappear 6 weeks later. That's unfortunate, regardless of whom it happens to, and regardless of how quickly the person (Ernie or otherwise) can recover from it.

I apologize if my post came off as harsh on Ernie. That wasn't the intent. But the reason I feel B doesn't follow from A is that there's kind of a missing intermediate step. The story I was hoping for was "A: the company went under," "B: Here's what I've learned from the situation," "C: Here's why I need these things from my next job." Instead, we sort of skip that middle section, and we're left without a lot of the wisdom and perspective I'm sure a guy as capable and introspective as Ernie could have given us.

"I don't know why you find points he has laid out as "strange" as well"

I don't find his requirements strange in the least. If anything, they feel perfectly rational. My issue is with the general structure of his post, not the particulars of it. By skipping the "middle step," he risks coming across a in way he probably didn't intend to.

Thanks for the kind words!

I'm really sorry that is your takeaway:

Re: money -- I tried very hard to avoid coming off that way. I am very discriminating in the kinds of jobs I take, and as I've regularly spoken about, it's not about the money. The money description is drawing on past experience. FWIW: I never think I am worth what I'm paid. I'm a classic case of impostor syndrome.

As for the main takeaway, it is that being unemployed will give me, for the first time ever, a clear look at how employable (or not) I am. That is a valuable thing, to me.

"As for the main takeaway, it is that being unemployed will give me, for the first time ever, a clear look at how employable (or not) I am. That is a valuable thing, to me."

Totally fair, and hey, best of luck to you. I'm sorry if I came across as overly harsh.

In general I liked your post; I want to be clear about that. I was just kind of bummed you didn't go into a bit more detail about what funemployment means in perspective. I guess that's my way of saying that you sort of whet my appetite with an interesting subject and a compelling story, but that I wish it had been a bit longer in certain parts.

I think you must have glossed over the bit where he said "Based on the number of contacts I've received in the past day," [I've realised I can pick and choose my next position and here is what I'm looking for]

Even still, that's not a lesson being shared. That's just a "hey, a setback happened, but at least I'll be fine." It's a compelling situation left somewhat unexamined.

I'm sure Ernie will be fine; he's talented and hardworking. But this particular scenario was a strange one, and I'd have loved to get more insight into what he felt about it all. I understand if he doesn't feel comfortable disclosing some of the particulars -- but I'd have loved to have seen some deeper/lengthier mining for wisdom.

You don't hear everyday about a guy who gets hired into a new job, then the company closes down 6 weeks into it. That's a fascinating opportunity for insight. I just wish it were explored a bit further before leaping into the "here's what I want from my next job" section. For example: how will what he's learned here apply to what he finds next? What if he gets all of his desired characteristics in the next job, but something similar happens? Etc.

I might write more on the subject at a later time. For now, I'm a bit more (hopefully understandably so) focused on lining up discussions about what's next. :)

Totally understandable! Best of luck to you, and thanks for sharing this piece.

Great post Ernie, I'm sure you will do fine. I think you miss the bravado though that is in some of those 'funemployment' tweets, its a scary thing to be out of work and not actually interviewing anywhere. One way we fight back our fears is to loudly profess their non-existence. It helps for a while.

That said, the difference between a 'hot mature' market and a 'hot new' market are starting to become clear to a lot of people. In the 'hot new' version there is demand for anyone who can fill the role, in the 'hot mature' version there is demand for a role at a certain compensation rate. It's the latter that has caught out a lot of people I know, who "grew up" in a company, signing on out of college, working 10, 15, 20 years, and then finding themselves out of work. What has happened is that their salary ratcheted up with annual reviews but the supply of candidates increased dramatically. Their faced with the question of taking a job with a 30% pay cut, or not working. It brings on a whole host of emotions about self worth and future prospects. Engineers, especially software engineers, are becoming somewhat commoditized and that changes a lot of employment dynamics.

You're very lucky. I'm starting to think that we imagine the market is better than what it actually is.

This is my story: I moved to the US on March after working on a fast growing an successful European start-up for 4 years. The one where everyone wants to work at: lots of "I want to get out of the shower and code" problems, smart colleagues and excellent compensation.

I took 5 months off to get used to this country, travel and finish some personal projects I had in my mind since long ago. Four weeks ago I started to actively look for a job and dude... I'm shitting in my pants about the idea that I may have to go back to Europe.

I'm allowed to work in the US, I have a decent Github profile and couple of LinkedIn recommendation (if they're useful or not, I don't know). I've lead teams before, I've funded a company right out of college and sold it for a profit two years later. I've applied to ~20 job offers and so far I only got two replies: for one I already dealt with HR and it's been a week since they told me they'll set up an Skype interview with one engineer (Yes, I'll follow up Today on that one). For the other one, they were looking for Java-enterprisey guy and I told them that Java is not something that I can say I'm an expert with, but that I could get up to speed in one or two months at the most. They said they'll call again... in six months.

HNers: I'm looking for your advice here. Do you see something wrong with my approach? What else should I try? Am I just too anxious? Because it seems to me that everyone take forever to answer! I'm really scared, because I left a lot of things behind on the idea that finding a job in New York City would be easy as cake and now I'm facing reality.

I don't have a network that I could leverage here in New York. I'm trying to build one, but that could take more time than the one I could resist before exploding in desperation and handling my resume to companies outside my field of expertise.


If you would like a response, it's best if you're not anonymous. I am a hiring manager and I've interviewed (at this point) hundreds of techies, and I'm sure I'm not alone in being in this position on Hacker News. However, the only way we can really help is to know more. Post your Github profile and your LinkedIn profile, and let us know what you're looking for. Who knows--you may even score a job!

I'm going to second this comment (I happen to be a 'hiring manager' as they say) and if someone posts here they are looking for work and I have an opening I'll see if I can match them up and contact them if I have contact info. (and sorry Ernie we're in the Bay Area and we haven't been able to make it work effectively with remote folks)

To be honest, I don't want to be contacted. I want to pick a job that looks interesting to me and one in which I could add real value.

In the current job market, that's how it's supposed to be, but I just can't see it. I'll keep trying, I'm just worried that the response rate of the companies I've applied so far is close to 5% only.

Thanks for your advice.

That is perfectly understandable. But it isn't particularly practical in today's age of 'infinite programmers'.

The popular narrative is that there is a shortage of technology talent. This is false. All I have to do to get thousands of resumes is put an ad on Craigslist offering $175,000+ for a computer programmer. I can offer $60,000 and get no one. This is a very reasonable expectation (in that the more I'm willing to pay, the more folks are willing to work for me).

The effect of that, which isn't obvious, is that for "good jobs", the kind you would find that are interesting to you and you add real value too, aren't being chased by unemployed programmers they are being chased by every single programmer who thinks they aren't making enough money in their current job. That is where the thousands of resumes come from, people gainfully employed who are tired of not getting any raises for the last 2 to 5 years. They want more.

So when you apply to a company through the 'fire hose', your resume arrives with a zillion others. Chances are you are in a lottery you don't even know, and the 'scoring' system is something like "College, GPA, open source cred, buzzword matches, Etc." Worse the person doing the initial screening might be an English major[1] who is "good with people" and so they are working in HR and haven't a clue as to what makes one person more or less appropriate for an opening.

When you apply to a company by having someone who knows you and respects you talk to managers who are looking, you aren't in a lottery, your in a select short list of people. People where resume details mean less than the fact that you are considered to be "good" by the person who referred you.

So when you find a job that looks interesting, you contact someone you know at the company and let them know you are interested, then you are doing the contacting but you will get a much much higher response rate.

[1] Not trying to offend English majors here, one of my daughters is one, it's that if they end up in a tech company and aren't in marketing or the tech pubs group, they are most likely to be in HR.

that's a great philosophy, but you have to have the personal network to back it up. make a lot of friends, know who's working on what, and offer to help the ones with projects you like.

Chuck, do you mind if I send you my details on email? (Some info can be found in my profile).

Always happy to get mail from engineers, not so enthusiastic about getting mail from recruiters trying to 'help me with my staffing needs.'

Please send me a message too. (Same as Chuck: No emails from recruiters, please.) We use both Erlang and Haskell at our company.

Could it be that you have not adapted your resume/cover letters and so forth to the American market?

There are regional differences between what should/shouldn't be included in a resume, like a picture of yourself, your age, your family status and similar things. A resume not tuned for the local market may disqualify from some positions in the hiring manager's mind.

Finding a job in a new city is never easy but a capable programmer has a better chance than most others! Have you tried any visiting any local meetups, conferences or co-working spaces?

I think what's wrong with your approach is that you underestimated the difficulty of completely uprooting yourself. In most cases when people take time off, they come back to somewhere that they already have a network - they call people they used to work with, or went to school with, etc. Or, when they want to move somewhere else, they line it up in advance so that if it takes six months they aren't screwed (eg; get a job that will relocate you, transfer within a large company). You now have two strikes - one, absolutely no network, and two, a short employment gap. I think the lack of network is a bigger deal and you would be having basically the same problems if you'd started looking straight away when you got to NYC.

We're looking for software engineers at TheLadders (http://theladders.com), here in New York. My contact info's in my profile. :)

I took 5 months off to get used to this country, travel and finish some personal projects I had in my mind since long ago.

In hindsight, I hope you see how this was a terrible idea. For years, there have been article after article about how the only people able to find work are the people that are currently working.

You appear to have chosen to create a 5 month gap in your work history. Can you imagine how this looks to an employer? I instantly think of someone who is lazy and is only willing to put the work in to find a job when they absolutely have to. It makes me think you'll wait until the last minute for everything.

My advice is to find a way to explain what you were doing during those 5 months that doesn't come across so negatively. If you were working on side projects, tell them you were working for "[YourName] Consulting" and thought you'd try your hand at freelance consulting. Then you decided that it wasn't for you.

Best of luck.

> You appear to have chosen to create a 5 month gap in your work history. Can you imagine how this looks to an employer? I instantly think of someone who is lazy and is only willing to put the work in to find a job when they absolutely have to. It makes me think you'll wait until the last minute for everything.

That is poor judgement on your part. Your advice is crippling. If one is stuck in a dead-end job, then fun-employment for the purpose of self-improvement or side-projects makes plenty of sense -- as long as one can economically support themselves. You think employer XYZ gives a shit if there is a 6-month unemployed window if my GitHub productivity was "rock star" level with amazing side-projects to show? If the employer doesn't hire me, then that saves me the trouble from working for a stale company.

Who knows how many entrepreneurs wouldn't be where they are today if they took your advice and continued wasting their precious time away at Initech and TPS reports.

> You appear to have chosen to create a 5 month gap in your work history. Can you imagine how this looks to an employer?

Are you by any chance trolling? I am a middling .NET developer with a self-chosen 4 month gap in my work history ("personal projects to grow Python experience") and it took me something around four weeks of not particularly intensive search to get a signed contract in not particularly software-heavy Vancouver.

You'd rather have someone lie about what they do with their time than tell you they do something other than pump out code?

This sort of "you must have a job" selectivity isn't a factor for halfway decent software developers.

I hate the attitude too. However HR treats most people with suspicion. They think you've been prison, or fired from a job after a month or two.

Of my applications that proceeded beyond email, five had HR or non-technical recruiters handling the initial screening. It just doesn't seem to have been that big of a factor. Maybe Vancouver is particularly progressive on this, or I've always happened to encounter good HR, but I somewhat doubt it.

I screen & interview a zillion people for my company's engineering team, so I can imagine how this looks to an employer.

It looks like a normal human being who is fairly self-motivated to work on cool projects.

Seems that like me, everyone else commenting does not agree with you. Anyway, I'll mention my particular situation: I worked my ass off for 4 years in my previous company, it had it's ups and downs but it was a great experience.

I moved here, it took me 4 months to organize my legal situation in the US. This is, getting a job permit. I knew how long it was going to take in advance, so I decided to take the most out of that time to travel, know the country better and work in "personal projects".

What does "personal projects" mean for a software engineer? In my case was learning and shipping actual products in two new programming languages, participating in a Challenge Post competition, joining every possible NYC meetup and getting to know every possible corner of New York City.

I'm very glad I did that. And I'll do it again.

I don't know about "funemployment". Not knowing what your next job is going to be takes a lot of the fun out of all the time you have (at least that's my experience). A much better situation is knowing that you'll start in say 3 months - then you can really enjoy the free time. Usually though, companies want you to start as soon as possible, so that rarely works out.

I'm with you. The fun part of funemployment only lasts 2 weeks or so, or when the first rejection comes in.

That said, I found unemployment to be a great time to get fit. It's a rare time where working out for 90 minutes doesn't unduly impact other parts of life.

Better yet: it's a great time to develop a habit of exercise! It's not even a big time commitment (a simple lifting program will take you around 45 minutes every other day; a cardio program will probably take you twice that), and once you get into a habit of it its much easier to integrate into a busier schedule.

I was just thinking about doing this exact thing if I ever had a chance for funemployment. Exercise more, plan and prepare better meals, get a better sleep schedule. This is such a great suggestion, much different than just suggesting to work on side projects, building up your resume, etc.

It's actually in addition to all of that. Treating your body better also helps with self confidence and coping with stress. The routines can last after the job search is over, though perhaps just not with as much intensity or duration.

Why don't you just do that right now?

> The fun part of funemployment only lasts 2 weeks or so, or when the first rejection comes in.

This can be very easily extended by not looking for rejections. In my mind funemployment involves not looking for a job (or writing posts about what you're looking for in a new job, or thinking about jobs).

I fear unemployment like I fear the plague. Honestly I don't get anyone that would even jokingly refer to something like "funemployment". In fact, the very word brings up every negative stereotype about unemployed people such that I would hesitate to hire anyone that ever used it.

I've been employed constantly - literally without a day's break - since I was 14. That's 27 years of continuous employment but I still fear unemployment tremendously.

Not sure why you were voted down, it is perfectly understandable to fear being unemployed. But it's a bad thing when it paralyses you.

What is perhaps most surprising is that I have observed that people are often a better employees if they are less afraid of losing their job.

I think this is a generational thing. I'm 21 and I've been employed constantly since I was 14 as well (if you stretch your definition of 'employed' to include 'Wordpress monkey and high school helpdesk attendant), and the advantage of that is if I were suddenly fired or laid off, I don't have to live in paralyzing fear since I already have around half a year's worth of living expenses saved up. That doesn't mean I'd spend six months goofing around -- I'm a workaholic and I derive an unhealthy amount of value from my day-to-day work -- but I wouldn't be crushed or anything.

I think it's a symptom of being a member of an in-demand profession. I don't know of many other professions that employ as many recruiters as this one. It's easy not to fear unemployment with this many unsolicited offers in your inbox.

It can't possibly last though, so if you're a developer right now (as is the OP), you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to enjoy it.

It's just words. Some will call it "personal projects" or "stealth exploratory startup" or ""consulting,"" some will call it "funemployment."

Some insight: it's possible to be productive outside a job.

It's possible to make money outside a job. It's possible to earn money, save it, and live off it for certain periods, then earn more again later. It's possible to build income-producing assets outside a job. It's possible to learn new skills, etc., outside a job. Some people are overflowing with ideas for projects and some also have the willpower to put their own nose to the grindstone to get them done and ship, so don't need a job to accomplish things. They might only need a job to earn money, especially have a steady paycheck to expect regularly. The opposite of "having a job" is not "doing nothing" or "rotting away" or "being a parasite", etc. Also, some people are just happier with a less externally structured daily life, and with the power to direct their own daily choices. Seeking greater happiness is quite rational. Obviously it's wise to make sure one has the money one needs. But in a high-paying field like software development, and especially if you exercise willpower to keep a lot of your mandatory life costs low, it's quite possible to intentionally have periods of "unemployment" and yet still be in the black financially, and get a hell of a lot of productive stuff done. Often, more productive, because not held back by bureaucracy or legacy systems, and your stuff doesn't have to go into an NDA or back office black hole.

Funemployment. This is why that term is often used.

Nothing is quite the gut punch like a job that simply evaporates. Good luck in your search.

Commenting from the enterprise programmer perspective, I have seen talented, well-credentialed, strong portfolio-wielding, but lesser-networked hackers spend significant amounts of time (up to a year) on the sideline while seeking work in my region. Hackers should remember that this actually happens.

Build a bit of a cash cushion. Be prepared to invest in yourself (http://www.paulgraham.com/badeconomy.html). If you stay or return to the enterprise world, don't join a "cost center" group.

How does a company with 6 weeks runway manage to hire someone like this?

Fair question. There were a series of unforeseen circumstances that cut the runway tragically short. The stories you've probably read are missing a lot of info.

I think you're underestimating the seductive lure of the startup and what it can do to the judgment of otherwise whip-smart people. Also just how well management can hide deep structural problems from the staff. Nobody understood how badly Ecomom was doing until after Jody committed suicide.

Don't join a company without understanding its cash flow. If a startups founders can't give you their runway, then you don't have to risk your career on something that might shut down in a week.

From the post he links to:

>> the loss last week of a planned follow-on investment leaves us little time to secure an alternate source of capital

Isn't it obvious? Poor management.

There's very little in the way of commercial software development that makes me, "want to program wet and naked." The kinds of things in programming that get me going are mostly academic at this point and the application of technology that I am interested in I am not qualified for at the engineering level... so I just have to make my bills and study Hilbert's absolute proofs and meta-mathematics in my own time (which is very little these days).

Maybe it's different for you and I hope you do find something like that because there's nothing like it.

But for practical reasons you may consider just doing a job and not expecting to derive happiness and fulfillment from every waking moment of your day.

Update: Not that you can't find happiness and fulfillment from doing a good job and making people happy. ;)

Unfortunately the majority of us don't get to be so picky when choosing a job - especially when we've just been laid off so suddenly.

Ernie has built up a solid reputation through hard work, you can too! Then you get to be picky ;)

I think you have to compromise on some points in pretty much all jobs. It's very hard to get every single point right. The key is to compromise on the right things. I wrote my own list of what I look for in a new job not so long ago: http://henrikwarne.com/2013/03/26/what-do-programmers-want/

A blog post quoting your own tweets? Seriously?

For giving context for those who don't follow him on twitter?

I know that you are not looking for Contract work, but I looking for someone to create a rails tutorial for the http://www.RubyRails.Com . The content would be Free and the project would support open source. contact me at Ric AT HNusername DOT org

And what if you don't find a job that meets these criteria?

Good luck finding something like that. I don't think it will be easy

I wonder if he has a mortgage and/or kids.

When you live in lousivillie and make six figures, having savings that can support that can last years!


Good on you! No sarcasm. Good on you for wanting a great job while still supporting a family. It's a tough balancing act.

Thanks. I find the need to support my family the reason I must push for a great job. I want to both provide the best I can for them, and also to love what I do, so I still have energy left to invest in them at the end of my day.

It's worse than that, he's mortgaged his children.

I got a killer interest rate, though.

I hope it works out for you. I deliberately took a year off for funemployment. I did some new things, learned some new things, and eventually wound up as a student at hackerschool.com. I found a nice gig through them, which I start in two weeks.

When I'm between jobs I tell my friends "I'm not unemployed. I'm a man of leisure". :-)

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