Are You Really A Grown-Up Developer?

After working as a software engineer for five years – in both large transnational corporations and smaller studios – I came up with the following metaphor:

As a child, your parents (hopefully) bought you toys and treats and gave you pocket money. At that period of your life, you didn’t really realise where that money came from, or where it went.

Years go by, and you’re getting older, securing a job, making your first income and eventually moving out of your parents’ house. At the same moment, you realise the ugly truth about the outside world. Actually, that’s a pretty tasteless topic. Nothing to talk about here. We’ve all gone through this. But here goes the metaphor.

Working as an engineer in a large product company (with over 1,000 employees), you’re actually a child, to a certain degree. You solve technical problems, think about architecture and code quality metrics. Every day you talk to the same technical staff on the same technical topics and, occasionally, to the project manager on the topic of workflow organisation. A couple of times a year, you hear reports from the company’s top management on how the company is doing in general. But this doesn’t really affect your work in any way. Life is plain and simple.

As an engineer in a small company, you’re actually an engineer, a software architect, a technical director, a project manager, a sales manager and a member of the board involved in making strategic decisions. Of course, there are other people in the company responsible for all of those roles. You’re still 70 per cent engineer and only 30 per cent the others. But quite often it’s impossible to release you as an engineer from those non-technical responsibilities. That’s not the poor organisational skills; that’s the reality of the industry. Also, most of the time you’re completely autonomous – only you are responsible for making a decision on what to work on, how much time to give it and whether you should work at all or go out and enjoy a beautiful day on the beach.

How cool is that? Yes, it is! But with the great power comes great responsibility. Suddenly you realise how all that code you write and all those awesome technical solutions you make are converted into real money. And that is the really mind-blowing experience. That’s what you might call an actual adult life.

I’m not advocating for any of those two styles of work. As always, there are pros and cons to everything. But if you ask me, a smaller workplace is definitely an experience you should have at some point in your career path. The earlier, the better.