Friday, August 29, 2014

What makes a good job?

Lately I've been reflecting on previous positions I've held and thought about the good and bad of each. It's probably a good idea to think about what job traits lead to satisfaction or dissatisfaction. There seem to be a few common properties which effect me most.


I've pretty much always stayed in a team well after the expiration date because of great team members. I often find myself missing peers more than any other positive aspects of a job. Because of this I feel my peers are an extremely important factor in job satisfaction.

Good teammates turn into family friends and lifelong contacts. I recently had lunch with a guy I worked with over 3 years ago. It was the highlight of my week and I'd love to work with him again. If you want to know if you're in a cohesive team you only need to count the number of times team members have done things together away from work.


If I'm honest with myself I think I have to admit something: What I'm working on seems to be much more of a deciding factor when choosing the next job than contributing to actual happiness once there. I get caught up looking for the next shiny thing. However, there is some practicality in allowing technology to influence my next role. Usually, I try to choose a technology area that I believe will be most useful for my long term career. This is when I try to make sure I don't get stuck or pigeon holed into one area. I remember an engineer I worked with who was getting progressively bitter about always working on the same thing. He hated what he was being asked to work on but didn't seem to want to change positions. I suppose this is the most important reason to consider technology when choosing a job. You don't want to whither away as an expert of a dead-end technology.


My manager is probably the single most important influence on job satisfaction. Unfortunately, companies (and their managers) don't seem to understand this fact very often. I've worked in company cultures where the only way to grow was to enter management. This is horrible. It takes a company's most productive employees and mashes them into a completely different area of expertise -- one in which they most likely are not qualified. One great thing about Microsoft is the dual path they support. You can be a "people manager" or you can be an "individual contributor" (IC) and obtain the same compensation.

In my opinion, even worse than the employee who enters management because company culture doesn't permit IC growth is the employee who enters management for the prestige of it. These "prestige managers" seem to think being a boss is a more important role than being an IC. The reason this is the worst possible situation is these people don't understand a fundamental rule of leading: The leader works for the team.

Someone looking for prestige in a leadership role is under the impression the team works for the leader. Paradoxically, the only time the team truly will work for the leader is when the leader has won the respect and admiration of the team members. This does not happen through silly mandates, make-work meetings and tasks, managing appearances rather than results, or overbearing "guidance." It does not come from business buzzwords or MBA degrees. It comes from facilitating the team members. It comes from getting out of the way when you're a hindrance, proactively removing obstacles, and internalizing team member requirements. A bad leader will say, "I hope you're empowered to fix this." A good leader will not need to talk about empowerment because their ICs already are.

At one point I naively thought these misguided managers simply never had the benefit of an excellent manager mentor. I don't believe that's the case anymore. I've personally observed multiple examples of ICs with solid examples of good leadership turn into some of the worst prestige managers. They are incapable of observing what makes the solid leaders excellent. Since they are blind to these traits they are also incapable of applying the principles in their team. It's easy to spot these managers. Their teams bleed talent and whither. Team members who stick around are demoralized, have low job satisfaction, and through apathy eventually give up trying to make any positive change. A bad leader can poison a team or organization the way cancer moves through the body.

Partner teams

Much like the culture of a team, the culture of partner teams is extremely important. For the same reasons a bad manager introduces a cancer to the team partner teams do the same. Partner teams are by definition peers or customers. Nobody wants to work with a jerk and nobody wants a jerk for a customer. Talented ICs will eventually leave a team forced to deal with horrible partner teams.

Work-Life balance

"I don't live to work, I work to live." I believe a balanced personal life creates many more motivated employees and directly impacts the success of a company, organization, or team. For me, when work cuts into my personal time I end up despising work. More importantly, when work-life balance shifts too far toward work it's an indicator the team, organization, or company will eventually fail. ICs are asked to work too much because of scheduling / planning issues or staffing issues.

If a team, organization, or company has poor planning the quality of the final product will eventually suffer. Quality will suffer because bugs are not caught (or are caught too late to fix and reset testing to make a release date). Quality will also eventually suffer because the best employees will eventually leave. Common "fire drills" point to a process or cultural issue which the team, organization, or company cannot or is not motivated enough to change.

If a team, organization, or company has a staffing issue one must ask why. Do they suffer from high attrition? Do they not compensate properly? Do they expect too much of ICs? Can they not find qualified candidates? All of these are related to the simple fact that it's not a good place to work. Most of the issues behind the questions above are obvious, but what about the lack of qualified candidates? I believe there are quite a few extremely smart people out there looking for something new. If you can't entice quality candidates how do you expect to keep current talent?


I want to change the world. I want to work on something wonderful that makes the world a better place. I believe life is too short to not try to make the world better while we are here. There are many ways to make the world better. Entertainment, creating tools for others, basically anything that helps someone else. Someone also pointed out to me that developers typically want to work on things that ship. I fully agree -- it's pretty hard to have much impact on the world if your project doesn't ship.


I started writing this to help me decide what I value the most should I look for a change. It appears leadership is a top influence for me at this time. However, I think leadership is perhaps a proxy for general team, organization, or company culture. The leaders will dictate the culture of a workplace.

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