Why Try Something New? Because You Can Always Go Back. (And You'll Be Better For It.)
I think an end is in sight. The giant sucking sound that accompanied the flood of all the smartest quants, developers, and systems engineers being swept into the giant banks, hedge funds, VC/PE firms, and other financial institutions may finally be quieting down.
More and more talented programmers and engineers are bailing out, looking for better (not necessarily bigger) opportunities beyond the comforts and friendly confines of their current positions. And "confines" they really were. Turns out that once you actually got into that tantalizing temple of men and money, you'd quickly discover that no matter how much money you made and however well-appointed your digs were you were still a troll in the tunnel. And it wasn't exactly the Tunnel of Love.
Ironically, the new attitudes and behaviors driving some people to make alternative occupational choices are matched by the return of "business as usual" on Wall Street. You'd think nothing ever blew up; since no one with any true culpability was ever punished, it's like the whole deal happened to other guys and we all just read about it in the papers.
For the good guys, the job was never about the money anyway. It was about the work, the chance to tackle the really challenging problems that were fundamentally changing how the world's financial markets worked. They want to invent the Model T, not sweat how long the tailfins should be on this year's model.
So the smartest guys are heading for the door in droves, and if you don't want to be left behind in the new digital Gold Rush it might be time for you to do the same. Get going, get out there while the getting is good, and make sure you get yours.
Now I know that for many people this is easier said than done. Most developers and engineers are surprisingly conservative, whether they'd admit it or not. Structure and stability is a goal in their code and also a major virtue in their lives. That's why I’m going to share a little secret with you that should make the option a lot simpler, safer, and more comfortable.
Here's the secret: You can always go back. Better.
What exactly does that mean? It's simple. If you're not an obnoxious jerk when you leave, and you don’t leave anyone in the lurch, they'll take you back in a heartbeat if things don’t work out better for you out there in the "real" world.
Why? Because that round trip will make you a better trained, more experienced, more up-to-date candidate. The fact is that everyone gets stale and everyone gets a little lazy. If you've been in a job for years and you're working with the same code base and working on variations and tweaks of the same problem set, you're just not likely to also be the one guy in a thousand who spends his weekends making sure that he's current on everything new that's happening. And you're also not likely to be the guy who wakes up one morning with a ridiculous and counter-intuitive approach to handling some problem that's been staring your whole team in the face for months or years. Radical change and disruptive innovation come from outside the organizations, not from the people in charge or the ones maintaining the status quo.
So the fact that you joined a start-up trying to change the world, or spent a year or two learning a new set of mobile tools or some crazy new e-commerce platform, isn’t a bad thing. It's actually a career-booster, even at your old place of employment. I've seen it happen a million times already: If you're good and newly gung-ho to jump back in, only someone who's a complete management moron would hold a grudge and bar the door. If they’re smart, they'll ask you if you’ve stumbled across three other people who also have new skills, new strengths, and a new outlook on how to approach the key issues, and who want to join up. As long as your former employer isn't bitter, you're actually a better hire than anyone else because you know the ropes and the mess of legacy spaghetti that they call their code.
So what are you waiting for? There's a big wide world out there waiting for you to rattle a few cages and make some critical, game-changing innovations. And you can do it. Worst case, you can always go back. Better.
HOWARD A. TULLMAN is the CEO of 1871 – Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman
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