Why I’m Leaving "Software Engineering"

Why I’m Leaving "Software Engineering"

I quit my day job.

In fact, I’m pursuing a pretty drastic career change. All of this after only one year of working as a software engineer.

It feels good to finally admit, but I also feel the need to explain myself.

First, some personal background:

  • Born and raised in Northern California.
  • Graduated with a degree in Computer Science from UC San Diego in June 2018.
  • Took a job at Okta, an SF-based security company.
  • Quit in September with the intent to focus for the coming months on writing, traveling, and general soul searching.

Soon, I’ll get into what led me to my decision to quit. Before that, it would be helpful for me to describe how I got into software engineering in the first place.

Career Beginnings

Let’s rewind back to my senior year of high school. The topic on all of our minds during this time was the future.

What would we do? Where would we go? University? Backpacking trip through Europe? The military?

My high school career could be described as mediocre at its best, and disastrous at its worst. Leading up to my senior year, I’d failed in high school in most ways imaginable. Socially, I had become an outcast. Academically, I had a dismal GPA. Generally, I was a depressed and anxious mess.

During my senior year, a shift occurred inside of me. It’s hard to say where it came from. Perhaps all the discussion around me about our future lives was a reality check.

I made the conscious decision from that point forward that my life would be a success. Whatever that meant. I would set a worthy trajectory and upgrade every dimension of my life I could think of.

This led me down a path of obsessing over various self-development materials. I started lifting weights, reading books, and began to think seriously about what I wanted my career to be.

When thinking about choosing a career, the advice I had gotten from family, friends, and career counselors was to pick something that I was passionate about; something that would fill me with enthusiasm should I attain it.

This advice was difficult for me to work with. I felt I had an equal amount of disdain for every academic subject. The closest thing I had to a passion was music.  Music had always been a dominant interest for me growing up. I played the guitar, piano, trombone, and flute on and off through the duration of my childhood.

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In thinking about the issues folks were having with student loans, and only a few years in the wake of the ’09 financial crisis, pursuing music felt like an irresponsible choice.

I felt the need to do something more practical, more lucrative.

The narrative of the college student pursuing their passion in Liberal Arts, and ending up working at Starbucks, drowning in student loan debt was prominently on my mind during this time.

In the wake of my failed high school experience, this was the last fate I wanted to choose.

So I began researching different possible careers. The main criteria in my research were careers that had a high potential for making money, had decent amounts of job security, and that I could conceive of myself being able to see success in.

I want to underscore here that my definition of success during this time of my life was linked to survival and security more than anything else.

After bouncing between a number of different options, I eventually landed on software engineering.

  • It had a huge projected growth of jobs for the foreseeable future.
  • There were stories all over the internet of students graduating and making over six figures in their first jobs.
  • Plus, I would define myself as very much a child of technology and the internet. From a young age, I was very familiar with computers.

It seemed like a decent fit for my personality, and a safe, yet lucrative option.

I was sold.

What I was doing was going against the conventional wisdom I was told.

You should never get into anything just for the money. You’ll burn out. You need to do what you’re passionate about.

I acknowledged this concept but also felt like I had no choice.

I had no passions that I deemed economically viable, or at least nothing that stuck out when compared to other options. Besides, I liked the internet and computers. I decided I’d continue forward, perhaps developing a passion for it if I worked hard enough at it.

Fast-forwarding through my college career, it seemed I had done just that.

I saw a lot of success during my time at university. I maintained a near-flawless GPA, scored multiple high-paying internships, and had earned respect amongst my peers.

It all culminated when I landed my dream job. The over six-figure compensated position at a Silicon Valley based startup. My vision as an 18-year-old high school senior had been realized.

I’d “made it.”

That brings us to a little over one year ago when I started my job.

So what changed from then to now?

Reasons for Quitting

Boredom and lack of purpose

To put it in its simplest (and probably most truthful) terms, I find the craft itself dry and uninspiring. The work involved simply doesn’t nourish my soul in the ways that I crave.

I can see and respect the beauty, creativity, and impact associated with software engineering. Computer science and the innovations we’ve made in technology are stunning.

Take Amazon Web Services as an example. They are composed of teams of engineers who can say their contributions are powering the infrastructure and existence of the internet as we know it; the same internet which is increasingly becoming synonymous with our reality. And it’s the same for their peers and competitors, large and small.

This is all to say that I am in awe and wonder by the results of software engineering and how it can be applied, but the technicalities of the work that goes into it are boring to me.

Software engineering is often compared metaphorically to construction. I’ve come to appreciate just how apt this metaphor is. Much of the work in being a competent software engineer comes in ensuring the robustness, quality, and potential to scale.

Just as there are important, detailed engineering processes that go into ensuring that a bridge won’t collapse under load, the same goes for today’s software.

This is to say, the work of a competent software engineer is stunningly critical and virtuous (though for me, incredibly dull).

Disdain for industry leaders

I also feel a certain amount of sadness and nostalgia for the earlier days of the internet. It breaks my heart to think about the transformation from a frontier of exploration and self-expression the internet was in the early 2000s, to the more corporate, functional, attention-hacking advertising platform it has become today.

I understand that I don’t have to work for a Big 4 tech company to be a software engineer. However, it seems to be increasingly the case that they are the leaders and definers of our modern technological age. I feel some moral guilt and contempt for being a complicit servant to their wills.

It’s not going anywhere

A final reason I feel emboldened to quit, is that I’m making a couple bets:

  • That the need for competent software engineers is going nowhere, and
  • That I’ll be able to easily retrain myself to fill that need, should I want to return.

We’re entering an age of automation. Automation made possible by the advancements in software. More and more, we’ll begin to see various professions fade into obscurity as they are automated. In this age, the last profession to go will be that of the automator itself.

As a young man, the way I see it is that I’ll have the rest of my life to work in software.

Do I really need to quadruple down in it right this moment?

If I was still defining my success in life by security and survival, the answer would undoubtedly be yes.

I now want to shift that definition of success to meaning and purpose.

In my case, I’m choosing now to pursue my career as a content creator and musician.

The scared, doubting part of myself that was speaking to me when I was 18, questions if this is a safe idea.

What if you fail? What if there’s a recession? What about your 401k?

However, there’s a different aspect of myself that’s more secure and evolved. It has experienced what it’s like to live life defined by fear; grasping for safety and security. And the deepest truth underlying everything is that safety can never be a guarantee. In the end, none of us can be ‘safe’ from our inevitable demise. What we can do is fight to be safe from the deathbed regret of a life un-lived.

Money can’t buy happiness.

It’s a saying that I always intellectually understood, but that I had to live out experientially to truly believe.

To be completely honest, I don’t exactly know how this will all translate to my livelihood going forward-and it terrifies me. However, I’m ready to make the leap of faith, and fight to make it work.

Until next time,