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Ask HN: What else besides writing code or managing people?
56 points by jvogt on Feb 3, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments
Hey HN, long time lurker, hoping this awesome community can help me (and others like me) figure out the next step in my (thier) career(s).

I spent 2006-2012 on three self funded ventures that didn't come to fruition, which left me tapped for spending ability, several maxed credit cards, and a job in Seattle thats not advancing me career-wise.

I am starting to feel a slip in my creativity, which I think is attributed to some drop in self confidence / depression / anxiety that's been creeping up.

I'm in love with business strategy, project ideas / planning, budgeting, and architecting. I love prototyping, but that leaves me with a gap in mastery of any specific technology.

I'm starting to panic that I'm running out of time to "get my shit together."

I have a potential opportunity to work with an incubator vetting applicant's technology. I'd take that job in a heartbeat, but they are not running yet (probably 1yr+ away)

I would love to take my experience in business, engineering, and product / project management, and find a position where I am helping a growing company with a full pipeline of projects get focused and prioritized.

I'm concerned that as I get older it's harder to find an engineering job. I get bored where it's building and fixing things all day. Management-wise I struggle with giving critical feedback to people as their "boss".

My uncle used to be a manufacturing / process consultant. He had a constant flow of new challenges and companies to work with. This sounds highly interesting to me when applied to tech, but I have no idea where to start.

So, I'm interested to see the discussion about what those of us who are life long hackers (with a ton of varied experiences) can do besides keep writing code or moving into people management. And some advice on how to start down such a path.


> I'm starting to panic that I'm running out of time to "get my shit together."

There is no time limit on getting your shit together. Seriously.

Please don't buy into the valley hype of everybody-is-a-success-in-their-twenties. It's bullshit.

> So, I'm interested to see the discussion about what those of us who are life long hackers (with a ton of varied experiences) can do besides keep writing code or moving into people management.

Considering what you said about liking prototyping, product strategy, etc. you might want to consider looking at adding some UX-ish skills to your skill set. There's a lot of overlap in goal, if not necessarily technique, and from my perspective it's even harder to find good UX folk than it is good developers at the moment.

Also - pretty much any consulting or team lead job is - at some level - people management. Don't mix up people management skills with organisational hierarchy or "being the boss" or telling people what to do.

I'd imagine that if you go chat to your uncle about his consulting work he'll tell you that large chunks of it aren't figuring out what to do - but working with people to make sure that it gets done. Management is all about helping groups of people do stuff effectively together. It's hard to think of jobs that don't involve people management of one sort or the other.

I'd second the UX suggestion, it's always the role that is difficult to fill in teams and only going to grow in demand.

Please don't buy into the valley hype of everybody-is-a-success-in-their-twenties. It's bullshit.

VCs and in-crowd founders, not engineers, created that age discrimination culture. It's a way for the people who have made it already to put phony time pressure on the people coming up the ladder. The only way to get a highly talented person to throw 100 hours per week behind someone else's shitty idea is to convince him that he'll be yesterday's dogshit by age 40. When people are scared, they're less likely to challenge authority.

Back when the Valley was about technology (imagine that!) an age discrimination culture was untenable, just because ours is a field where it takes so long to get half-decent at it. Now that the marketing people and MBAs rule it and actual smart people are second-class citizens, age discrimination is much more prevalent.

"VCs and in-crowd founders, not engineers, created that age discrimination culture"

Just not true in my experience. I spend most of my time outside the valley/VC world. Seems to be common among twenty-something dev types everywhere. I've not noticed any change for the worse over the last twenty years (although now I'm in my forties I'm seeing more of the disadvantages of ageism ;-)

The most important thing you can do is relax.

Sure, life is pretty grim in the sense that you can't do whatever you want unless you're rich. On the other hand, your life as a coder is far, far higher quality than e.g. a construction worker's or (regrettably) a teacher's.

One thing you could do is try to grow a source of passive income. See patio11 for insights on achieving this.

Also, three failures isn't anything to worry about or lose confidence over. Just remember how many times Jobs failed. Most of the successful people on here have a similar background of failures. The path to success is usually through failure, as paradoxical as that sounds. Sometimes you'll just be unlucky multiple times in a row. That's just life. But that's also a reason to keep your spirits high, because it's far less likely you'll fail ten times in a row. So, keep trying.

The referenced patio11: http://www.kalzumeus.com/greatest-hits/

> because it's far less likely you'll fail ten times in a row. So, keep trying

Stated like that, that sounds like an example of a Monte Carlo fallacy. Sometimes "just keep trying" is not sound advice but wishful thinking.

The Monte Carlo fallacy is believing that if something happens more frequently than normal during some period, then it will happen less frequently in the future. This isn't an instance of that.

If the goal was to flip tails in a coin toss, and I said "Keep flipping! You're bound to get tails within ten flips," then there's only a 1 out of 1024 chance that I'd be mistaken.

Success isn't as simple as a coin toss, but sometimes the best strategy is to try all possibilities as quickly as possible. This was how Carmack succeeded, for example.

There is no alternative but to try; best get used to the idea of trying many times before succeeding.

Added to which we assume the OP is learning - improving his coin flipping ability - such as putting the heads on top before flipping anyway.

Other advice would be to put your failures up here and accept some (pretty painful) critques. Then OP could learn faster ...

Well, if you take lessons from your failures, you end up in a better position after each one. So it's definitely not like flipping a coin with independant outcomes.

You ask "what else besides writing code or managing people" and mention prototyping & creativity: have you considered moving into product design/UX or product management?

After working as a developer for a few years, I got a bit disillusioned with "building and fixing things all day" as you say. I now work as a User Experience architect and am still involved with building and fixing things, but in a very different way. I still write code, but mostly to prototype ideas and collaborate with developers.

A broad understanding of various technologies and lack of specialisation/investment in particular frameworks is a plus, as you can understand what's required, without getting bogged down in details. You can take a leading role, without having to be anyone's boss.

Not sure if this sounds attractive to you, but it works for me :)

Product management could be a great fit for the OP. However, PM means a lot of different things. Even within one company, day-to-day experiences of PMs can vary a lot depending on the nature of their product or product-area. Some PMs have very broad exposure to the company when bringing a product or feature to market. Other PMs are more marketing and sales leading, while still others focus on learning/developing requirements and writing specs.

My advice to the OP is to set titles aside for a moment and focus on what it is they like doing and where they want their career to go, then work from there to find a position that suits. It might be called product management, product marketing, or it might even be called lead architect or CTO.

The one piece of advice I'd give, though, is that for such broad ranging interests, I think one will need to relax and give up a modicum of direct control, particularly for larger more complex projects. What is it they say about product management? All of the responsibility and none of the authority? Or, more prescriptively, lead by influence.

I am old enough that there was only one way to go once you hit "team leader" and wanted to earn more -> "management".

About 3 years ago I said stuff it, took a pay cut and spent a long and happy time just coding all day. It seems however that no matter which way I turn people will not let me sit in a box and type, I have to help straighten out teams, talk to humans, navigate politics.

We use coding as if it was a real job - it is no more a job than writing or literacy. A few privileged, talented people will be paid for their writing skills. the rest will use coding in the same way as literacy, as part of their job

1. You won't ever escape "people management", but that's not a bad thing. People (especially highly skilled professionals) are like autonomous self-guided missiles, you just need to know how to guide them, and let them be guided by you.

Start with Google's 8 rules http://www.davidzinger.com/8-google-rules-improving-manageme...

Remember - you will not be making the tough decisions - your team / people will. You just get to guide which tough decisions get looked at.

2. Having a "constant flow of new challenges" is all about building and filling a sales pipeline. This is pretty brutal work. There is nothing other than knuckling down, calling people, building audiences, sales sales sales. To me this is the biggest cost of being in business for myself - and I am a long way from having got it right.

So the advice I have and am trying to live by is

* build an audience on a subject you are good at

* build a product related to what you are good at

* keep going

Lots of good options here but let me add one more: maybe you're completely fine and don't need to make any kind of career change.

I and many developers I know have been through a phase like you describe. This is especially true in tech, where most projects fail, and for people with wide interests like yourself. Some people would be happy writing nice code and leave it at that. But you're going to be bummed if the design is ugly, the marketing plan doesn't work, or if any of a dozen other things outside your control goes wrong. You are upset, anxious, and fearful. You attribute your feelings to objective things around you like business failures, etc. and guess that a new line of work might solve those feelings.

Let me suggest that maybe they won't. Those feelings are telling you something, but you can't trust your guesses about what will solve them, and you especially should not make large, life-changing decisions because of half-understood feelings of anxiety and depression.

Instead, try to engage with and resolve those feelings in smaller ways. Pick something small you will decide to do really well and just thoroughly engage in it. Make some new friends. Maybe go talk to a therapist or religious figure.

What I found out of this process was that I had made several career moves, some bad choices in my personal life, and a lot of stress by setting myself impossible goals and ignoring some longstanding things I disliked about myself. In the process, I learned that I wasn't really paying attention to the world around me and especially to close friends and family. After some reading, low-pressure work, and therapy, I understand my own feelings much better, and I derive much more satisfaction from my life outside work.

Of course, by no longer putting on my job the stress to define me and my value as a person, I get to approach it much more freely and joyfully. It ain't perfect, and it doesn't always work, but on a good day I can deal with setbacks and annoyances without them damaging my emotional state.

A therapist would call this cognitive therapy focused on mindfulness. Various religions would call it spiritual direction aimed at contemplation or present focus. There does appear to be actual evidence of its value, though I'm only qualified to say it works anecdotally. Good stuff.

Anyone who is interested, feel free to ask questions here or email me at username at gmail.

> Management-wise I struggle with giving critical feedback to people as their "boss".

Don't be a boss. Ask for "Lead [...]" in your job title, and get your colleagues to do what you tell them because of technical seniority, not hierarchical seniority.

As for your path: convince your company to let you develop a product with an Open Source license. Tell them it will provide them with free advertising, increase their notoriety in the industry, and mean they'll get other companies to work on their project for free.

Contact other companies and promote your project, this is simply a trojan horse for building a great contact list. This then leaves you free to move on to freelance down the road by charging for features, but fixes and support. It also allows you to find work really easily.

> I'm in love with business strategy, project ideas / planning, budgeting, and architecting.

So... do that?

If you tried 3 self-funded ventures you should know there's tons to do outside of coding. Maybe not when there's zero traction and just one person on the team, but as soon as there's more than that, there's plenty to do that's not coding. Managing systems, managing customers, managing finances, marketing, general office 'stuff'. And hell, no coder spends all their time actually coding.

One of my friends is just re-learning coding after being in startups for seven years simply because he was so busy doing all that other stuff for the startups he worked for.

Arguably, managing/dealing with people - not necessarily as their boss - is always going to be part of life, not to mention any business venture, so I'd say there's no getting away from that.

Write. I don't mean the standard documentation kind of stuff, but "XYZ For Hackers" articles and books. There's a serious lack of people doing that, because it requires both technical chops to understand the material plus a large time and skill-development commitment to do the actual writing. In an ideal world, you'd have the opportunity to do some serious tinkering with a couple of brand-new technologies a year, then be the first to write for a very hungry audience, then you'd move on. Combine that with some speaking and more speculative commentary, and it could even get pretty lucrative.

I've been in the same situation - now you are not in your best mental shape, so help can be obtained from a psychoanalyst or psychiatrist.

After 6 months on antidepressants I was again in top-notch condition and the effect continued after I stopped the medication.

To fight the boredom and anxiety you can use some medicine, widely used in the college, but I don't remember its name. A colleague of mine was using it responsibly and he was extremely productive and was more calm when communicating with our manager.

Good luck, man.

Valium. One of the commercial names of Diazepam. That's probably it.

It sounds like you like process and management, but doesn't have that authoritative leader streak. It sounds like you are technically capable, but you feel that you've missed the boat to be a top coder or engineer. It still sounds like you can be very useful, especially with your experience. Perhaps look at the new developments in the project or process management space and ride with it, or keep prototyping to try new business ideas on the side.

I was at a struggling startup and was going through some of the same issues. I decided to take a one year contract as a dev on a low stress project to give myself time to figure out what I wanted to do next without having to burn through savings. With a 9-5 schedule I'm doing some more traveling, relaxing, going to meetups, and doing some consulting projects. I also learned that I don't like working at a huge institution where no one is invested in the project. It helped me reinforce my passion for startups. You seem like you have some hard skills. You just seem depressed that you didn't succeed in the last few ventures. You've got to do it for the love of the game, not for the love or money/power/fame/whatever.

Sales might not be so bad for the right product---especially when you consider the "superpowers" you have relative to the average salesman. Who writes their own crawler to find potential clients? You can.

Is your requirements list compatible with classical "systems analyst" role, or if not, the details why would probably help narrow the field. Ditto "product manager" role.

Also you need to evaluate yourself by your own metrics. In the grand scheme of things over human history having a "career" and "advancement" is unusual, apparently temporary, and is going away, back to the way it was. Being born into a declining economic era is not a personal failure worth feeling stressfully responsible about. Work to live vs live to work and all that.

Become an expert in efficiency. Company processes are what separate great companies from good ones. The ability of having processes down, and duplicating those for scalability without foregoing quality. If you make yourself an expert on being able to see holes in efficiencies, then you create a lot of value for yourself.

This is just what I found when working, it would be the first thing people notice and reward, in companies.

1 possible route is to gather domain knowledge and move into the core business.

A common career path in finance for instance is start out as a developer, pick up the business side and later move to a function closer to the market (risk analyst, quant, structuring etc). Must be similar avenues for other domains. You need to be on top of the domain subject@hand anyway to be a good dev in my opinion...

You could argue that the mapping of manufacturing and processes into the technology world is ERP systems. If you find that kind of world interesting and also like software then you could do worse to look into that area - certainly there is no lack of work in that area and there a lot of technical issues around integration and a lot of opportunities for 3rd party products.

It sounds like you need to look at your situation with a detached perspective - when you are in the middle of something it is hard to know what to do.

My thought is you need to do something totally different for 6 to 12 months. It really does not matter what you do, but jobs that involves hard physical labor help separate what is important from what is not.

If you haven't red the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, run, don't walk to get it. He was basically writing the book to you.


This might sound like a focus issue? Three startups in six years?

Are you able to focus on only one thing and for more than 5 years? Almost nothing extraordinary can happen before 5 years. Even if you sell before.

Example: I am 99% sure I can make millions of dollars if I go on my yard and start making a hole in the floor. Although, here are the constraints: - working 18 hours a day. - every day and 7 days a week. No vacation.

Are you able to accept the constraints?

This come back to this: passion never fails.

I wish you the best luck on your next thing.

"passion never fails"... you are being incredibly optimistic and have heard way too many success stories i think. There's a massive amount of passionate people working incredibly hard for many years straight who haven't achieved even medium amount of success.

Do you know anyone who followed the 3 constraints and failed? I don't know any.

I just googled "startup persistence" and look what comes out in point 5 and 6: http://www.paulgraham.com/really.html

This kind of hyperbole only serves to reinforce the OCD some people in tech have about "working" long hours. What you described in your OP is lunacy, which will cause mental illness in many people. It is also fallacious, since it will be nearly impossible to find a statistically significant sample of people who have actually done this.

I'm an engineer, so I'm giving out the only thing I learned by observation.

As an engineer, my observation and pattern matching skills are pretty good, so I am only describing what I observed by analysing "successful" entrepreneurs. I'm probably different, because I arrived to the Bay Area only five years ago. It may not be clear to you if you always lived and worked here.

In any case, depends how you define success? The author of the thread is also an engineer that codes, so I am guessing his definition of "come to fruition" would be an exit where he can cash-in more than $10mm.

What's the aggregate number of engineers who made a satisfactory exit? Is it "statistically significant" to you?

I did that formula for the past year and was very lucky that it worked before 5 years. Although, I was planning to "exit" in 10 years.

"Every successful engineer I've observed wears socks. Thus, wearing socks is the cause of their success; if you wear socks you will be successful".

I hope the logical fallacies are clear when expressed like that. 1) sample size is too small to draw conclusions from. 2) correlation is not causation. 3) even if something is a factor in success it does not follow that it will determine success (necessary but not sufficient).

Besides, where did the OP express an interest in cashing out? S/he wants a job that is interesting to them.

Public scientific research?

To echo those who came before, consider the following:

- Technical Marketing

- Product Design

- Product Management

- UX


Did you even read the comment? This community only functions because people post constructive content.

Someone comes on HN, obviously in some emotional distress, and that's the best you can offer?

Shame on you.

Geez. In what world is that a sensible response?

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