Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Finding Time to Think

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:20 pm, April 30th, 2011

Audrey and I watched The Social Network a couple of weeks ago (good flick, by the way) and it was a reminder of what it was like to have the time and energy to focus on an idea and try to make it happen. Every software engineer that you’ve ever heard of became famous at a young age: Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds and Steve Jobs were all famous by the time they were in their mid-twenties, and a major reason for it was because it was at that point in their lives that they had the focus and available time to take a chance on a big idea. They were probably also all single, but for software engineers that’s a separate, and likely unrelated, issue.

One major reason why older software engineers tend to make less of a splash is the same as it is for many jobs that require creative energy – once you’re spending 8-10 hours a day in a cubicle working for a company it’s terribly hard to find motivation to devote any significant amount of outside time to a similar endeavor. At the same time, quitting a good-paying job to pursue an idea that likely won’t pan out doesn’t make a lot of sense when weighed against the risk-reward formula that scientific types are ever-so-good at calculating. The end result is that by the mid-twenties a good software engineer is probably employed in a well-paying job that sucks up vast amounts of motivation that might otherwise have been spent founding Microsoft or Facebook.

It’s also for this reason that many older software engineers aren’t in as much demand as some younger ones – if you aren’t constantly learning new things and experimenting with new ideas, it’s tough for a company to justify paying 2-3 times more than what a young engineer might garner. While there are some very notable exceptions, software engineering seems primarily to be the province of the under-forty crowd.

The struggle between pursuing personal projects and working steadily is one that I’m given a chance to revisit whenever a job ends or a contract comes up for renewal. While it would be naive to believe that every idea will grow into something incredible if just given enough time and energy (the dotcom era drove that lesson home hard), there are always a million little projects waiting to be explored that, like any great unknown, are likely to generate at least a handful of interesting results. As a result, and understanding that in my field of work complacence often replaces excitement and innovation, I’m looking at my current work situation and doing some evaluation. While the ability to pay rent and buy groceries cannot be under-appreciated, the prospect of having some time to work on my own projects and potentially produce something new is an exciting one. The next few months may be interesting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *