A tale of Downshifting #1

So it’s been about a year and a half since I downshifted to 0.7 of a full time load. That is, 28 hours per week. To look at that statement written down, I can’t help thinking “how unimpressive”, but in fact it hasn’t been easy.

When I first entered the workforce, I worked part time. I was still studying, so part time seemed like the way to go. Plus, I lived in a succession of group houses, and generally had very low costs. It was the original affluence of the uni student.

That doesn’t last though, does it? Some years down the track (not many!), and Jodie and I found ourselves with a little one on the way. We married, and I continued to work part time, supporting the two of us, with a little help from the government in form of parenting allowance (thanks tax paying people).

And, you know, my career as a software developer took off, the money improved. With it came the spectre of full time work, because there is a social value that, above a certain level of responsibility, you’ve got to be full time. I wanted my career to go forward, I wanted us to live well, so I went for it.

From there, the story goes totally mainstream. Full time work, kids, bills, credit cards (!), responsibility. Or I should say Responsibility. Or possibly


replete with darth vader theme music.

It’s not really as bad as all that. But it’s a weird life, and it’s hard to notice that because you’re working so many hours (full time in IT is a ridiculous, demanding thing),  and everyone else is doing it. That second point is key. Everyone else is doing it so it must be normal.

Also, at the early stages of your career, if you want a career, you really have no choice. Part time workers are seen as less committed, even though there is no data to back this up.

So flash forward to a bit over ten years later. I’d worked in a bunch of jobs. I tried managerial responsibilities a couple of times (it’s the standard career path, hey), but to me, telling people what to do sucks. I prefer to do. Management destroys the brain, I am more and more certain of this. But I digress.The important point is, I was now senior wherever I was employed.

But my career trajectory had plateaued. Here I was, senior developer / architect, king monkey amongst the monkey tribes, great sage equal of heaven. You have arrived.

It sucked.

Well it was ok. I love to code. I love to make things. But commercial software development, as so much in the commercial world, is the pursuit of excellent mediocrity. What I mean by that is, there is a striving to be as professional as possible, but the parameters of this are to do an acceptable job with always limited time and resources. So rather than reaching for excellence in what you create, you aim to do it faster or cheaper but still produce acceptable output. I realised my personal myths of excellence weren’t “I made this thing and it was world class”, they were “I made this thing, which should have taken a year, in a month, and it’s ok!”

You can find pleasure in that, to be sure, and I did find some, and still do. But what of my immortal soul? Strange question for an atheist to ask, but the soul is the thing. In more prozaic language, what of my values? What of excellence?

And there was another problem, which is the asymmetry of the employee-employer relationship. Employees are supposed to love their jobs, go the extra mile, love the company, be doing it for love, the money is secondary, to live it. Employers need to watch the bottom line, to allocate resources as required, outsource, offshore, downsize, reorganize, and employees aren’t employees so much as human resources. Can you see the disconnect here? If it were a relationship between two people, it’d be a dreadfully disfunctional one. You’d wonder “why is he so clingy, seeking approval all the time, when she’s such a cold bitch? He’s setting himself up for a fall.”

And fall, people do. I’ve seen this in IT many times. You’ve just got to look at the cross section of people working with you, divide them up into age groups. The twenty somethings are keen, inexperienced, go getters, buying all the emotional stuff that the company is selling. The thirty somethings are becoming conservative, talk about house renovations, becoming senior, self impressed but also starting to look jaded. The forty somethings are sitting in middle management, the younger ones doing well and looking stressed but engaged, the older ones starting to struggle with a changing environment and a perception that they are behind it. The fifty somethings, well, they look stressed and bewildered, and spend a lot of time retrenched. And mostly there aren’t any sixty somethings.

What is missing from this picture, too, are the ones that broke. They do break. The ones that break are the ones who really love the company, throw themselves in headlong, buy the myth, and then expect to get the love back. People with the souls of friendly dogs. But the love doesn’t come back. So they look just for a bit of acknowledgement. But they also get bitter, and they communicate that too. People avoid them. They start to go a bit off the rails. And they work harder, but their emotional issues make them work worse. And the pressure starts to pile on, people start to hate them for their neediness and anger and passive aggression, information hoarding and hiding, in a desperate attempt to be irreplaceable. And then they get fired, and they break, or they break and get fired. And they’re gone to wherever the broken people go.

Wow this post has really rambled on. In summary, the corporate career world is a world dedicated to excellent mediocrity, and wants to consume your soul and throw the dry husk on the pile of husks. In my opinion. So you either ignore it and hope it’ll be ok for you, or you reconcile yourself to immanent huskification, or you do something else. I’m trying to do something else.

More on that in a future post.

A tale of Downshifting #1

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