Employer’s Blues: the flip side of today’s job portability paradise

Finding job satisfaction in today’s hot tech jobs market.

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How stressful is getting a new job? Popular wisdom says that it’s one of the most stressful events of a person’s life, right up there alongside divorce, relocation and a medical event. That may be true, but many who revel in the luxury of today’s technology industry regularly volunteer for it. In many red-hot technology fields like data science, Agile/Scrum and program management, the demand for talent so dwarfs the supply that employers are elbowing each other out of the way to lure employees with signing bonuses, flexible benefits and instant five-figure raises. 

On top of this imbalance, layer the mobility culture of top metropolitan areas that feature hundreds (if not thousands) of employers within each zip code using every recruiting tool in the book to find tech talent. The on-ramp to your next job is paved with cushy red carpet, a big raise and a helpful recruiter to hold your hand. You start to paint the idyllic picture of the new you in your dream job, even if you’re early in your career. And it works: employees switch jobs with high frequency, and it’s hard to imagine they would keep doing so if the job switch were as painful as a divorce or a medical issue. Millions of tech workers can’t be wrong: the grass is truly greener, right? It’s tempting to believe the next job is going to be the elusive dream job that transforms you into the person you want to become.

Let’s step back for a minute. This is what we’ve all sought for decades: an environment free of barriers that trap employees in sub-optimal cultures and organizations. For at least a century, the American worker has justifiably lamented the myriad obstacles to seeking a better workplace:  retirement plans tied to their company, insurance or doctors available with only one plan, embarrassment at circulating your resume, more embarrassment at having a resume full of short entries, and institutional knowledge that takes years to learn. Until one’s suffering exceeded the overwhelming benefits of inertia, no one would risk hurling themselves into the uncertain abyss of a job search. Even if the grass was greener, hopping all the barbed-wire fences was painful and risky.

That’s all changed now, at least in most parts of America’s tech industry.  Every one of those fences has melted away, and now that job searching can literally be done from your kitchen table, the cycle is complete: the advantage has shifted from the employer to the employee. We’ve entered the Era of Job Super-Portability.

This is not hyperbole: it requires more paperwork and stress to change vehicles than to change jobs.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for employees to keep a car (if they own one) longer than they keep their job. 

If this condition is great for technology employees, are there any unintended negative consequences?  Let me speak as an employer now. At Excella, we spend substantial resources onboarding and offboarding employees. Since we’ve never laid people off for redundancy or lack of work, our turnover is entirely attributable to voluntary employee departures (or in rare cases, inferior employee performance). Our recruiting team spends significant time building relationships (usually over months) with candidates to demonstrate our transparent culture, rich benefits, and impactful work. Virtually every Excella new hire holds multiple job offers from other employers.

Most every technology employer engages in the same game, and hiring can feel like one step forward, two steps back. If someone could view the entire system from 50,000 feet, you’d see employees moving back and forth between employers with greater frequency each year.  And yes, we’ve had several employees depart and return to Excella years later (which we love).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s our privilege to compete for the most talented, well-rounded, dedicated human beings in our field, and we love showcasing our culture, our work, and our leadership to potential employees. We also love how the technology job market forces us to invent unique new offerings and benefits for our employees. Most of our creative programs have been forged in the crucible of sharpening our competitive edge for new employees.

If there’s a downside, it’s that employees no longer need to tolerate a bad week, a bad deadline or a bad client. The super-portability of today’s technology jobs means there’s a keen temptation to throw in the towel on your current role and trade it in for a clean slate. One phone call (or text message) can net three job offers by dinnertime. Longevity in a technology job is like marriage in Hollywood. Overall, maybe that’s good: there’s no longer a stigma attached to job-hopping, and stories of workers trapped in bad tech jobs are becoming obsolete. 

But what about the work itself? What’s this all for? Elegant, world-changing technology is built by teams of people who care, people who hung in there when the road got bumpy. Amazing things get built when people see a problem at the beginning, invent a beautiful way to deploy technology toward it, and spend the months (or years) crafting a solution that changes lives. And solutions like that always need to evolve, from minimally viable product to robust version one to an intuitive mature solution. If its members remain in place, and don’t depart at the first stiff wind, a team can turn an ambitious dream into reality. And ironically, it’s that impact – and the associated satisfaction – that is every technologist’s most intense craving. Paradoxically, a pattern of impulsive job switching jeopardizes the achievement of impactful success, which is the elusive temptation that drives most technologists to seek the next job offer. The wise voice of experience knows that your true dream job is the job you make, not one that makes you.

Because of Super-Portability, technology is one industry where the advantage has shifted to the employee. That’s good for everyone. But along with the control that’s now vested with the employee comes the responsibility to recognize when the needs of the project, the team and the world should supersede the employee’s need to alleviate every career’s occasional rough patch of challenging deadlines, conflict and people. We’ve all faced a problem we thought was impossible and laid awake wondering how we could possibly get out of this mess, whether caused by a difficult person, an unattainable technology standard or byzantine business requirements. The satisfaction of working with your colleagues to find a way through it far exceeds the promise of a quick do-over at a new place. It’s also what builds an exceptional career. 

So even though the fences are gone, the grass isn’t always greener.

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