Sunday, April 13, 2008

I don't care about money (except when I do)

I walk and bike the same general paths on a regular basis, but every now and then I'll notice a really odd building or landmark and wonder how I went by it every day for months or years without noticing it, at which point I'll be struck by my ability to take something so obvious for granted.

I have the same reaction to reading - I'll read things and they'll resonate in a bizarre "how did you know I was thinking that" way.

One thing that programmers don’t care about

They don’t care about money, actually, unless you’re screwing up on the other things.

- Joel's Field Guide to Developers

I hadn't ever really thought about it, but when I read that a few years back, it really did strike a chord. When I got started developing professionally, I had to bike to work because I couldn't afford a car. That was OK. A few years later, people close to me told me that I needed to look for a new job because I was woefully underpaid (I was), but I still felt like I was learning so I never dusted off my resume.

Today I find myself in another awkward situation - I get paid more or less well but am completely unfulfilled by my job, but looking at the job market out there, I have to pick my jaw up off the ground. I see companies just outside of major metropolitan areas offering $45K-$65K for senior developers with 5+ years of experience. Normally I'd roll my eyes at another obvious H1B workaround, but these were genuine-sounding postings on developer-friendly spots (37 Signals/Joel on Software/The Daily WTF) and didn't have the laundry list of insane system experience for the lame salary they were offering. I take one look at those job postings and immediately swat that tab closed.

But hold on a second - I thought I told myself that I don't care about money?

Well, here's the thing - I don't care about money, but I do care about respect. I don't wake up sobbing each morning because the hundred thousand or so stock options I've been promised over the course of my career have been worth a total of 200 bucks (that's counting the plenty of options that are worth zero dollars because the companies went bust). I didn't even cash them in because what the fuck two hundred dollars.

The value you put on stock is a measure of your belief in the company.

- Rands in Repose*, The Business

Signing on to a start-up, you have no idea whether it'll go Google or go (and it could go way worse than, but if you don't believe that the options will be worth anything, it's already a sign that you should keep looking.

In the same way, I see salary as a measure of how much the company values its developers. Are they looking to hire an intelligent person? Will they be paying them enough money that it'd be borderline suicidally stupid for them to ignore their input into the product and process? Or are they just looking for a clerk who happens to speak a little C#? $45K-$65K fairly screams "dead-end clerk" to me, but it's no guarantee - you can make plenty more than that and still feel like a dead-end clerk.

I hate to sound like Joe Bitter or whatever, but when Jeff Atwood pondered why developers don't always use the best products that money can buy, instead opting for so-so free software, I knew the answer as soon as I saw the headline.

It's so nice to just download the thing that gets the job done without having to fill out forms, get permission, wait for a PO, or anything.

- malcontent**,

So, so very right. When it comes to doing what I do for myself, I'm A-OK with figuring out what's the best for the job and paying money for it if I need it. When it comes to work, I try to do the same, but how hard will I fight to get the resources bought for me that will make me more productive?

I've heard developers on forums talking about how they've bought their own licenses and that's just insane to me - why would I spend money to save my employers money? I tried to get them to put out cash to support developers doing good work and instead, they end up putting out cash in the form of my time to support developers (me!) cobbling together mediocre (just kidding; my stuff's all brilliant!) workarounds.

Money it is an excellent signifier for figuring out just how important things are to people. When gauging desire for features, it's the first thing I grab for - how many people will buy in because of this feature? If it's a custom build, how much are they willing to pay for this feature? Will they really walk if we don't deliver?

This is why open-source people get riled up when you ask how to do something trivial and will ask you where your patch is when you complain about "needed" features - you're implying that your time is more valuable than theirs. They've already given you something free, and now you're rifling through their wallet looking for a $20 on top of it.

For someone who claims to not care about money, I find myself thinking about it more than I should, when I should be spending my time thinking about carrots in the toaster or something.

* Man, Rands really has come a long way from his days in Jerkcity.

** How apropos a nickname is that?

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