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Ask HN: Where do you go for sound career advice?
49 points by soulbadguy on July 7, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments
As a professional dev, where do you get the best career advice ?

Is it a good idea to ask recruters what they are looking for ?

Any career coaching services tailors to dev/computer scientist out there ?

I think "career advice" is generally too narrow a category. Most people are unhappy with their careers because they don't know what their life priorities are. They have the career they have because of a bunch of "Well, that's what I'm supposed to do, I guess" decisions. So before career advice, get life advice.

My favorite question in the world is "What do you want?" It's an incredibly difficult question, and very few people can answer it with any honesty. Sit and chew on that question. What do you want? If it proves hard, try applying the Five Whys approach. When you think about something you want, ask yourself why you want it. Five layers deep. Then maybe you can start getting close to what you really want.

Best advice in this thread, hands down. I have some co-workers who are heading off to Google, Apple, etc. And while that's great, and I'm happy for them, I would never want anything like that. Why? I love work life balance too much. I love my side projects too much. I'll probably get a remote gig somewhere that pays the bills, gives me some spending money, and enjoy more time with my wife and dog. I could never do that at some big tech company.

Personally, I won't consider moving to the Valley because I value my work-life balance and standard of living more than the prestige of my job. It is also too far from both my and my wife's families.

It's a struggle, though, because what I can't seem to get what I want to do professionally either here in Texas or on the East Coast.

OOC, what do you want to do professionally?

I want to do firmware development, device driver development, and real-time embedded development. I'm particularly interested in doing this in the signal processing domain because I really like dealing with sensor systems and data.

My degree is electrical engineering, and I spent almost 10 years working a combination of hardware production support, test software development, signal processing algorithm development, and "big" real-time embedded code development. I left that world because of internal political issues (long-ish story).

Now I have spent 3 years in NLP R&D and that is what I get typecast as. Every "Who is hiring?" thread I see a bunch of companies with very interesting positions who might actually be willing to take a flier on me, but they are all in SF. In the past year I have only been able to get three companies to even talk to me about roles I actually want. One decided to pass because I was in Texas (they were in DC and very early stage) and I apparently wasn't strong enough to warrant relocation, and two I had to pass on because they hit me up at the exact wrong time (demo leadup crunch time).

I noticed on your linkedIn that you went to FAU - any interest in relocating back to the Boca Raton area? I'm hiring c# / .NET developers, which I know isn't exactly what you are looking for. We are a one year old start up working on making world-class cancer care accessible to more people and are finally bringing in our first full-time software dev. The first projects are going to be systems integration and internal tools work but we have the potential to move into some interesting data problems down the road (albeit still not within the lower-level realms you mention). My email is in my profile if you're interested.

Historically, there's been plenty of that in Texas...

The only issue with the "what do I want" framing is that if you end up with an answer something along the lines of "to fulfill my potential", then it can quickly be discarded in favor of "who am I" ("know thyself") + "do stuff".

According to the Cal Newport / Viktor Frankl philosophy of life, there's no a priori 'what you want', and what you want right now probably isn't 'what you want.' Finding mastery and meaning in life – which, for them, is the goal – is best achieved through throwing yourself into things, deliberate practice, ruthless introspection, and taking advantage of chance opportunities. Things like "work/life balance" can conflict with the process, and I often wonder if asking what you want at an early stage is premature optimization.

I used to be critical of people who jumped immediately into big commitments (i.e. PhDs, working at Google), thinking they were "drones" who hadn't properly reflected on life, but now I realize that at least some of them are consciously or unconsciously doing the job of finding out.

Speaking of which,

Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning: http://amzn.to/1UwCEy6 and

Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You: http://amzn.to/1fkHSNF (blog: http://calnewport.com/blog/about/)

have really helped me navigate these issues.

This is advice that is widely ignored, but incredibly important. Doing what you want in life is vastly more rewarding than doing something just because you're expected to.

> "What do you want?"

From E. Fromm, The Art of Loving, I will shorten and paraphrase:

"For humans the fundamental problem in life is doing something effective about feeling alone. The first recommended solution is a good romantic relationship."

That's a great book.

It's also the kind of question that this career-planning stuff smashes into. Do you want to get married? Have children? Believe me, those are tremendous commitments that will drastically interfere with your career (and vice versa). I've been married 22 years and raised two children to semi-adulthood. It has dominated a quarter to a third of my life.

So suppose I know what I want in an easily definable and describable sense. Where does one go to get advise about how the world works with respect to that goal and to bounce ideas for a plan of action off of? Self knowledge is super important, but the Sun Tzu quote about knowing yourself has another half: you also have to know what you're dealing with.

(In my specific case: getting myself into a good position to eventually apply to work in the UK 1-2 years from now, given a current background of 3 years in DevOps and Python web dev)

Start with people who have already done what you want to do. If you can meet them personally and ask, do so (and getting to meet them can itself be quite a task). If they're historical or inaccessible, learn about them. Heroes and role models really matter. Find "a man to be emulated and admired".

What you'll sometimes find is that they'll teach you to not do what they did. For example, I'm a guitarist, and a very good one. I work hard at it. I had the opportunity to have a few conversations with the greatest guitarist I've ever met, and extraordinary musician. What I found out is that he's a very small person in a lot of ways. He practices or gigs about 12 hours a day, every day. He can't talk about much other than playing music. At that, he's tremendously deep. At everything else in life, he's a wreck.

So "What do you want?" is "I want to live in the UK". I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that where you live trumps what you do here. It's probably worth asking yourself why you want to live there, but I presume there's a good answer (family, love the culture, etc).

So the next question is, "What kind of work skills will get me a job and a clean work visa in the UK?" This means the people you should be talking to are recruiters who bring people from your country to the UK to work in your field, to find out what they're looking for. You should also be talking to other programmers with a similar background to yours who made the transition you want to make, to find out what worked for them and what mistakes they made.

Unless you have a specific place you want to be (say, London), you should figure out where in the UK you want to be. It's a big place with a wide variety of culture and living conditions. From there, you can start looking at employers in the area, figure out what they're looking for.

Why do you need to wait?

I agree and I start here each time I realize that I need to make a life plan.

What makes that question hard for me is that - it results into a chain of questions that appear (but not) less practical, like 'What is this World', 'What is happiness' and what not? Don't you get into (what people call) the Philosophical Questions when you ask that question?

There's definitely a danger of Philosophical Questions. But what you want isn't necessarily philosophical.

I shamelessly stole the "What do you want?" question from the tv show Babylon 5. Here's the original, meaningful answer from that show, by Ambassador Londo Mollari:

"All right. Fine! You really want to know what I want? You really want to know the truth? I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again, and command the stars! I-I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power. I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to– to look back, or to look forward. I want us to be what we used to BE! I want…I want it all back, the way that it was! Does that answer your question?"

Of course, this leads to a gigantic galactic war and the deaths of billions, but that's another story.

Another one that comes to mind is Inigo Montoya, from Princess Bride. He knows exactly what he wants - he wants revenge for his father's murder. He may take odd jobs as a hired sword, but it's all in service of finding the six-fingered man and killing him.

So at a certain point, you don't have to keep asking philosophical questions. You just need to understand what motivates you, deep down. Inigo Montoya didn't have to ask why revenge mattered. He loved his father, and that was enough.

Philosophical Questions are good, you must engage with them! However, look at Wittgenstein, Lao Tzu, Nietzsche, and others who proposed compact solutions (or approaches) vs. the Kantian or analytical treatise style. You don't need to iteratively find Total Solutions, following every decision tree to its root. You just need working answers that you can revise as you go. Think agile vs. waterfall.

That's great advice. At some point, you need to ask the philosophical questions (or maybe we just can't help ourselves), but it doesn't require a philosophy degree to come up with a useful answer.

I discovered the /r/cscareerquestions subreddit recently, and its content has been really interesting so far: https://www.reddit.com/r/cscareerquestions

Another vote here for that sub. Helped me realise just how bad my junior developer job was, and gave me the knowledge and confidence to leave and find a pretty great new job.

They are a little... harsh there. It's hard to get through all the negativity, especially when you are looking for a job.

Harsh in what way? Some resume critiques have seemed a little rough to me, but generally speaking I haven't noticed too much negativity.

"It's easy to get a job in programming. If you are having problems you must be a moron. If you can't find a job, it must be your personality." ...But that's the whole point of asking for help. We want to be programmers and we want jobs, not to be treated like we're trying to take advantage of people. It's also a huge circlejerk, people are just gloating about how successful they are and picking on those who didn't get as lucky.

I've skimmed through the sub-reddit. He means that they are absolute in ways that are simply not true and could discourage a newbe.

That said, IMHO it's better to ask then to hold it to yourself. Here or on Reddit doesn't matter.

It's good to keep in mind that there are infinitely diversified ways through which people achieved "a successful career" (whatever that means).

Whenever I talk to successful people they just say it was easy for them so I must be stupid if I can't get things to work out for me. There doesn't seem to be any place for programmers to get actual advice on how to get jobs.

> Is it a good idea to ask recruiters what they are looking for?

No, the average bozo recruiter is a transactionally focused individual. He's a bounty hunter, looking to put butts in seats for a fee. Time is money to him, if he can't qualify you for a match he must move on quickly.

You may of course, run across a rare thoughtful, seasoned recruiter. His profile is that of a relationship builder, he'll likely have some life experience and will gently entertain your career path questions.

Better still, design your own path. Make a daily habit to read the books and blogs of successful people. An excellent place to start, Peter Drucker on Managing Oneself> http://academic.udayton.edu/lawrenceulrich/LeaderArticles/Dr...

Thank you. This is exactly the kind of information i was looking for.

So far my advice has come from people who I want to become - mentors who are currently CTOs, CXOs, and other self-starting entrepreneurs. Who better to give you advice than those who have already traveled the road you want to travel?

You're at point A. What is point B?

Come up with many possible point Bs where you'd like to end up. Find people in those positions, whether it be CTO, lead programmer, freelancer, or whatever and ask them what it took for them to reach that destination.

Plot your course from there.

Part of the difficulty is that if none of the people at point B has gotten there by going through point A, it is going to be hard for them to know your challenges.

For example, if a history major from a small liberal-arts college asks me how to get into DevOps, my answer is going into be affected by my having been able to spend several years hanging around SIPB, which is basically MIT's DevOps club. Maybe they can do the same, but it would be pretty expensive.

My response would be "Why DevOps?". That's it. Let them talk.

Then information can be found. Interesting responses and experiences. Find a winner.

Responses, motivations, and pointers, telling me far more than, that you did to your hypothetical applicant: plant into a well and expect them to be able to jump out by having a DevOps club experience at an 'expensive' (unclear if social, financial, or other cost) club. Grow people or crush people?

Doesn't have to be the same club or a formal club at all. The takeaway from you is to get involved with a group who enjoys what you want to get into. Good advice.

Can start at a devops meetup.


Them problems comes when all the people in those positions just got the job from their friends, are thankful for the jobs you helped get them, but just don't have any time for you.

Noone will give you a valid career advice if you don't know what is that you really want to do. If you are sure of your goals your brain will find a way to get there, if you are not sure, then you need a few "meetings with yourself"

ps: the majority of recruiters doesn't give a damn about your career just because they are busy building their own...and it makes sense.

True. Depending on what you really want to do, though, too much aimless wandering can lock you out. I think I have reached that point in my career. :/

[developer] Personally, my job right now is fairly solid with "full stack" mainly Java & JavaScript expertise. Getting experience in a lot of different stuff, and specialising in a couple also allows me to tailor my CV if I ever need a new job. Which has worked out really, really well for me in getting jobs.

I'd say dont focus too much on one technology or framework and make sure to spend time with the best colleagues you have, on projects. You can learn a LOT like this in no time at all.

This website is also a really good source for stuff you need to learn, if something is being posted on here for over a year and noone complains about it too much it's probably good. ( ie new-ish stuff like Docker, React, etc. )

Also you mention recruiters; I don't trust recruiters at all and have had enough bad experiences with them blatantly lying to me. They're just looking to do their job and make a lot of money, I wouldn't expect honest advice from them.

Most of the advice I've received in life has been misleading – most people did not know what they were doing, are probably unaware of what actually mattered, and are different from you in ways they are biased not to perceive – so recently I exclaimed in frustration: "no more advice."

Instead of seeking guidance, sit down with a piece of paper and try figuring it out for yourself. Make lists, weigh pros and cons, identify key questions. Don't be afraid to throw out your work and start again. Speaking with others is useful, but consider their stories merely data points for your own analysis.

Some of the more successful people I know have elaborate manifestos, codes of ethics, and spreadsheets that they use to organize and manage meaning in their lives.

IMO, the most important thing to realize is that you're not in control. If you think you're in control; it's merely an illusion.

Treat your career as a means to end; not as an end itself.

I come from the sysadmin side of things, and the best career advice I get is from LOPSA - www.lopsa.org. I've been a proper member since, oh, 2008 or so, but I've hung out on their IRC channel and attended their meetings well before that. They've been enormously helpful for me when seeking career advice, resume editing, technical help, etc, and I can't recommend them highly enough.

Nice meta question. HackerNews seems like a good choice.

Not really. It's very biased towards startups and high-energy startups. I don't know that you'd find many people giving the opinion that a career at Raytheon/IBM/BigCo can be very rewarding, and in fact might make more sense than startups. There's something to be said about relative stability and focusing on spending time with family & friends, saving into a 401k for a nice retirement and generally not worrying about the startup life which, despite the perks (free lunch, "unlimited" vacation time, etc), can be a lot more hectic.

As to the OP, I'd say try to find opinions of people you respect, even if they aren't in your field at all. Who are people you look up to? Friends, family, bosses, coworkers are all good sources. Generally I've found people older than me to be most useful, just because they've made similar choices and might have interesting insights into things. Ultimately, as others have said, it's really going to be up to you to decide what's right for you, but at least gather some information, and talk to people.

My only problem with HN as a source is that the advice is heavily biased towards someone who lives in a "hot" tech area and who is focused on web or mobile development.

Of course, that is because neither of those is true for me.

I find the best career advice comes from those who are where I'm trying to get to. Ideally, not too far ahead in their own career, that way the advice they'll impart will be fresh and relative to the current industry environment.

Re: recruiters, doesn't hurt to ask questions with recruiters for placement agencies; they get paid when you get placed so it's in their interest to get you hired.

Talk to the people in positions you'd aspire to in the future. If you'd like to be a technical leader in your company, talk to technical leaders in your company. If you'd like to be a leader in the Free Software community, talk to leaders in the Free Software community.

That will get you far better advice than any kind of "career coaching" service.

Disclaimer: I am not a programmer.

I found mentors in positions that I aspired to be in and would take them out for coffee or lunch once a year to check in and get input on particular problems.

I've also used Clarity.fm from time to time for specific questions.

Now at a bigger corporate I'm looking into executive coaching.

I'm surprised nobody has said friends and family. Those are the people who know you best, live with you, studied with you, worked with you.

Chances are that between those categories you've got it all covered: what you did, what you like, what you can do.

It's not that they are wrong. The problem with "friends and family" is that the last group you'll want to take advice from is a democracy.

If you reach specific people, carefully selected to ask specific questions, you'll get useful answers. If you go away asking people at random, you'll get answers that can not be used even as a popularity pool.

It's not like they get to vote. The point is friends and family are more likely to contain informed opinions than randoms.

The only sound career advice I can give is to go for a profession where experience is valued (law, management, ...) and avoid professions where experience is devalued (e.g. programming).

Do you work in law or management?

Are you certain experience is always valued in law and management?

What about consulting companies in the law and management spaces? Do they value experience or just billable hours from warm bodies?

Is experience more valuable simply because it is easily measured whereas skill is hard to measure?

Is there a correlation between experience and skill?

Is it good to seek out places where experience is valued so that you can acquire X years of experience and simply just coast?

Have you ever worked with a programmer who had 15 years of experience but was awful at their job? What about the inverse?

> Do you work in law or management?

No but I know some lawyers. If you specialize in one domain you can make a lot of money. The more experience you get the better. In contrast, programmers with lots of experience often have a hard time getting a new job. They are considered old farts who are overwhelmed by the 'new' over-hyped technology.

Law reality check:

My wife worked as a legal secretary for a long time and still has friends in various law offices. I have been told that corporate legal departments are reasonable pressure, but law offices (as in "Name, Name, & Name") typically are a dog-eat-dog climb the ladder pressure cooker nightmare with insane hours until you become a partner, if you become partner.

If you don't become partner, it means you need to find another company to work for... and it probably won't be a law office because all the law offices in the area know you didn't make partner.

If you do become partner, the hours go from insane to merely crazy. The dog-eat-dog ladder climb pressure cooker nightmare atmosphere remains unchanged.

Management reality check:

Managers climb the ladder, stagnate, or fall off. When they fall off, they have a hard time back on the management ladder because of of all the competition from other management (the ladder is pyramid shaped, not linear, so it gets narrower as you go up). Stagnation typically results in a layoff when hard times come around again, and hard times always come around again.

In my experience (big corporation), managers do not keep up with technology, so falling back to being technical is very difficult.


Law experience never gets outdated because law is moving slow. OTOH, experience matters. The more the better.


'I headed a department of xx people for nn years.' Sounds good. Experience matters - for managers.

I ask my mentor who is more senior than me.

What I'd wished I'd known and recommend that others realize these lessons now:

(1) ASAP quit being an employee and, instead, be a sole proprietor who owns his own business.


(A) Can't be fired due to office politics.

(B) Guaranteed to win in any office politics fights.

(C) Unless the business really is a total disaster, guaranteed to still have a job.

(2) Pick a business with a strong barrier to entry. The three best barriers:

(A) Geographical. Want a business where all competition is within 50 miles, that is, no business more than 50 miles away is a competitor.

So, Don't want to compete with Amazon, Dell, Cisco, Microsoft, Google, GE, Citi, Wal-Mart, some company in China, the Middle East, etc.

Examples: Fast food, gas station and convenience store, grass mowing and landscaping, roofing, kitchen/bath renovation, auto repair, auto body repair, pediatrics, dermatology, dentistry, some big-truck little truck businesses (buy merchandise in large quantities with a big truck and sell it in small quantities from little trucks -- may become increasingly vulnerable to Amazon, etc.), bakery selling fancy cakes, with customer decoration, maybe with a lot of whipped cream that doesn't ship well, Chinese carry-out, French bistro, Italian red sauce restaurant.

Doing well running four franchised fast food restaurants can be fine -- doing well with 10 can do still better.

E.g., I know a guy in NYS in the US running 4 Burger King locations; he's from Turkey, still doesn't speak English very well, needs a bath, a shave, and some clean, neat clothes, is great with people, and is doing well.

(B) Can't be Automated.

(C) Legally needs a professional license.

(3) Cross Section of Local Economy.

Want a business with many small customers across a large cross section of the local economy so that if the local economy is doing anything at all then can still have an okay business; this likely means no one customer provides more than 1% of the revenue.

(4) Small, Medium Town

Try to locate in a small or medium sized town.


(A) Real estate costs much less, and can buy and own a house in a rural location without too much driving to business locations.

(B) Easier to build the brand name you need.

(C) Taxes lower. Regulations fewer. To ease regulatory approvals, can know the people on the Town Council and the Zoning Board and the local people holding elective office.

(D) Usually better environment for having a family.

(E) If the economy gets really sick, can then just retire to rural house and get most of food from own garden.

(F) Have a shot at having nearly a local monopoly, say, dry cleaning, coin laundry.

(G) Can have spouse, kids help in the business -- big advantages here.

(H) Have various ways to save on taxes.

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