Think about your career risk budget

Dear new developer,

In certain areas of software operations, the concept of an error budget makes an appearance. An error budget is a way of tracking how often errors occur. When the budget is exceeded, you spend time and energy to decrease them.

Having a number like this is a good way to align different areas of the business with the reality that at a certain scale and complexity, issues will arise. When this happens, the question is always, should you spend time fixing the issue or working on new functionality? The error budget helps make the answer clearer. (There’s a lot more to this concept and the link above is worth digging into.)

In the same way, you have a career risk budget. You will work for approximately 40 years, give or take a decade. Each job and career move you make is important, because if you move jobs every three years (on average) you get only 14 different opportunities. These are complex decisions; how can you choose which job at any given time is the right fit? Here are three things I consider:

Goals

This is a very common one. Is this new job moving me toward my goals? Goals can differ for each person, but here are common questions I ask:

  • Is it the tech stack I want? (The older I get, the less this matters to me, but it still matters.)
  • Am I working in an interesting domain?
  • Is this the size of company I want?
  • Will I have opportunities to grow?
  • Will things like work life balance expectations and culture be in line with what I think I want or have enjoyed in the past?

These are all trying to get at an answer to the question: Can I see myself at this company for a while?

It’s always worth writing down your goals and seeing if the company can help you meet them. But it’s also tough to be really clear on goals a few years out sometimes. After all, if you’d asked me in 2016 if I wanted to work in DevRel, I’d have said “maybe??”. Another filter for considering a career move is comp.

Money

I love writing software. I do it for fun sometimes. But the fundamental employer employee relationship is through compensation. I give an employer my time, knowledge, experience and energy. They give me money.

So there’s nothing wrong with picking a job based on money. In fact, from my experience and the experience of others I’ve talked to and read about, switching jobs appears to be the best way to get solid salary raises, especially in the current market. Some of the numbers I’ve seen are eye popping, including double digit increases. You won’t get that at the same company, typically. (However, I did get some double digit raises early in my career, from 42k->55k at one company, so it isn’t out of the question.)

Make sure chasing a higher salary aligns with your career goals too. Funnily enough, jobs in software which are unpleasant, career limiting or otherwise less desirable often pay more (the free market at work). So when you see that junior engineer position using MUMPS which pays 10k more than other positions you’ve seen, find out why.

Money is important, but not the only thing to chase. There are risks to any job and it’s worth thinking about them.

Risk budget

Another approach to fold in is your risk budget. There are all kinds of risks, but you want to look at financial, emotional and career risks.

  • Is the company going to be able to pay you? Do they have a viable business model? Do you feel like buying a lottery ticket (equity) with your time?
  • How are you going to feel working at this company? A valued part of the team, or an expense to be managed (or, worse, minimized)?
  • Is this position, in terms of responsibility, technology, and growth opportunities, going to help or hinder your career?

You can’t, of course, quantify all of these precisely, but you can assign relative numbers to them. This can be helpful when comparing opportunities, either side by side or over time.

Risk budgets change as you age, as well. For example, your financial risk budget may decrease as you have more obligations. On the other hand, it may increase if you build up savings or have a cushion.

As I get older, the team I am a part of has become more important and the precise technology less important. But that’s me. You need to take some time and think about what matters to you.

Sometimes you have to take a job to have a job. I get that and have been in that position. But if you have the luxury to have some patience, consider the above three factors and don’t forget your risk budget.

Sincerely,

Dan