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After reading through a few "job hopping" related threads recently, I've been thinking how the opposite of job hopping can also be a problem.

I've known many people (especially in large, relatively sluggish companies) who got comfortable in a cushy and unchallenging role and stayed around for a very long time - say 10 or 15 years or even more. They might have moved around internally a little, but it was mostly a case of "one year of experience 15 times over" as seasoned hiring managers would say. Or to put it another way, they were "Special Projects" cases. Just sitting in a comfortable role where no more learning is going on, but that might look okay on paper (on their CV) if the various stuff they were involved with is embellished a bit.

What really got me thinking about this is that the longest role on my CV (almost 6 years) fits into this category somewhat, at least mildly. If I was being completely intellectually honest, I'd say I really only got 3 solid years of learning experience from it. The last 2-3 years were cushy maintenance mode. So I know first hand that it's quite possible than many "seniors" with 15 years experience (if they were in a job like that the whole time) might not be as broadly experienced and "senior" (in terms of having 15 years of quality experience) as they look on paper.

So my question is - does hanging around in the same job for very long raise any red flags? For example: if you see a CV which has only one 15 year job on it after college, as opposed to an equally experienced person who has several 4-5 year stints instead, does the single-job guy look like a possible "Special Projects" case for only having had one very long job? My experience suggests that it's quite likely. Or at least that the guy with several 5 year stints is probably more dynamic and adaptable, from having experienced a variety of roles, environments and technologies (and different uses even if using the same technologies across all jobs).

EDIT: Note that I am not personally worried that my history looks like this. My longest role above just serves as a mini example of what can happen with cushy long term roles, which got me thinking about this in general terms (If anything, my actual employment history (except for that longest role) leans more towards being a bit too job hoppy).

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closed as primarily opinion-based by gbjbaanb, MichaelT, gnat, Giorgio, World Engineer Mar 17 at 13:17

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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i am working at my first job for 2 months now. But let me tell you i am already making a list of other good companies in my city, diff types of stuff i could do , etc. i do not want to see myself in this same place more than 3 years. and why shud i ? there is a world full of opportunities out there !! –  Wildling May 8 '11 at 14:26
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Depends od the size of employer as well .If you stay, let's say at Microsoft for 15 years, but you can switch a team every year. –  lukas May 8 '11 at 19:57
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I recently read a blog article "How To Keep Your Best Programmers" by Erik Dietrich, of which your question reminds me. The author argues that jobs don't have to degrade into boring routine work. I won't explain the article; go read it. :) It might give some insight applying to the present question. –  stakx Aug 24 '13 at 14:45

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up vote 30 down vote accepted

Red flags? No. Yellow flags? Yes.

It is something I'm going to pry about in the interview, but there are plenty of good answers that I'll accept. I've been worrying that I'm heading up to 5 years in my current job but then I look back at it and I've spent 2 years as a senior developer, followed by 3 as a team leader (under three different managers from whom I've learned different skills).

And there is talk about a completely different role that I might be interested in filling soon. I'm not too worried if I'm there for 20 years, as long as I keep getting variety. Or as you say, as long as I don't keep feeling that I'm repeating the same year of experience.

However, in the same company, I know a good half-a-dozen lifers. They're there for as long as the company will keep them and they will never progress beyond a certain role. And they are absolutely people you do not want to hire.

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Its a sad indictment of the software industry where we are only concerned about getting more learning of new stuff out of a job, nowhere did you mention satisfying your customers or providing a good service!

Those "seniors" you criticise have gone past this short-term view of always running to keep up with the so-called latest technology.

It is better to stick with a job for 15 years than to hop between 15 jobs, even when you're stuck in one place you'll find you do learn new stuff all the time - without necessarily realising it. Not all learning experiences are about explicit training and/or completely new technologies - for example, at the moment I'm learning more about change control techniques!

So anyway, if you're really dissatisfied with your role, then change it - either internally (probably the best way) or get a new job. When I recruit the guy who doesn't have long, or relatively long stays with a job always looks poor - its like they can't stick with a job for long and thus won't stay with us too (and the 2 we did hire with that history turned out that they couldn't hack it after all)

I'm not sure about the lifers who do just stick it out until retirement (remember how many years you have in this industry too - when you're 40, you'll still need to work for another 25 years!) so you will have to settle down somewhere eventually. Perhaps now's the time to evaluate just what you are getting out of this industry.

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+1 for a good alternative view. But I was specifically talking about the mediocre "false seniors", who simply stick it out without getting quality experience. I've seen it often enough to think that they are a potential hazard when you see a CV with nothing but a 15 year job after university. Note: I also fulyl recognise great genuine seniors who have stuck it out. This isn't an "us and them" binary indictment on my part. :) –  Bobby Tables May 8 '11 at 22:48
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Some people get 15 years' experience. Others get 1 year's experience 15 times over. The former is better than the latter. –  Donal Fellows Oct 30 '11 at 16:49
    
The seniors I respect may have stayed at one company for twenty years, but they certainly didn't stay in one role for twenty years. They started as Grunt I, worked up to Grunt V, moved over to Grunt Planner, worked up to Grunt Planner III, decided to be a Grunt Director for a while... they showed longevity within the organization but were not content to answer the phone for their entire adult life. "Accounts payable, Nina speaking!" comes to mind. –  syrion Jan 6 '13 at 3:57
    
"only concerned about getting more learning of new stuff out of a job, nowhere did you mention satisfying your customers" Isn't it part of the managements remit to make sure you (as a developer) are doing work that pleases the customer and is up to standard? –  AndyBursh Aug 24 '13 at 13:03

You can either program or you can't. I want to know your story fits with the position I need to fill and does it show your capabilities. There's a difference between working 15 years at a 15 year old company (improving technologies to handle increases in users and new business challenges) and 15 years at a 100 year old company (SOS).

Then there are the job hoppers. Why has this person changed jobs? Did they provide progressive challenges or does this person keep thinking the 'grass is always greener' so I'll keep changing jobs because they don't know what they want.

Is it better to be someone who has stayed in a developer position for a long period of time because that's what she wants or someone who tried being a manager, but wants to return to programming because they didn't like it?

There may not be any candidates that have worked in the domain for the job. One applicant's experience in many industries may be a sign they can adapt, but for another it's a string of failures.

Applicants either need to have the specific skill set I'm looking for or they need to show a capacity to learn them. Past behaviors are pretty good predictors. There will always be red flags in a CV. What you thought was a sign of danger may turn out to be a victory.

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Yes.

A good argument as to why this is true is in Bruce Webster's The Dead Sea Effect:

But in my experience, that’s not what happens. Instead, what happens is that the more talented and effective IT engineers are the ones most likely to leave — to evaporate, if you will. They are the ones least likely to put up with the frequent stupidities and workplace problems that plague large organizations; they are also the ones most likely to have other opportunities that they can readily move to.

What tends to remain behind is the ‘residue’ — the least talented and effective IT engineers. They tend to be grateful they have a job and make fewer demands on management; even if they find the workplace unpleasant, they are the least likely to be able to find a job elsewhere. They tend to entrench themselves, becoming maintenance experts on critical systems, assuming responsibilities that no one else wants so that the organization can’t afford to let them go.

I also think it is interesting that you mention the three year mark as a value apex, to borrow a term from Alex Papadimoulis of The Daily WTF. He mentions a two to three year time span, and my personal experience has been that around three years does seem be a point at which both the employee and employer have gotten their maximum value from the relationship. Note this doesn't mean the value will go down -- it will likely plateau. But it won't likely move up.

However, once an employee shares all of his external knowledge, learns all that there is to know about the business, and applies all of his past experiences, the growth stops. That employee, in that particular job, has become all that he can be. He has reached the value apex.

Both interesting reads.

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I think it boils down to a few things:

  1. Are you worried about staying for too long because you're not being challenged enough? Or is it because it'll just not look good on a resume? If you think that your long-lasting gig is stopping you from advancing in your career, it may be a time to move on.
  2. During that long tenure(s), did you advance from position to position (or take more responsibilities), or did you perform the same tasks?
  3. When you're interviewing for the new position, and if you're well qualified for it, I don't think there'll be a problem. If you're not qualified, your prior jobs wouldn't make a difference.
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Speaking from experience: yes. I was in a company for 10 years (originally hired for a 6 week contract). I moved from programmer grunt to team leader in the first few months. I worked on many totally different projects as a programmer, TL and/or architect. I wore many hats during my time and had a very nicely rounded CV with the latest technologies. I even structured my CV to look like a number of different position, but just in the same company.

When it came time to find a new job (thanks GFC), my 10 years at the company was seen as a negative. There are two aspects to this:

  1. jobs are still largely advertised via head hunters. This means you have to get your CV through a pimp who does not understand the work you've actually done. A long tenure in a single company stands out and can mean the CV never even gets passed along to the client.

  2. the client (should they get your CV) has their own set of prejudices.

I never came across a pimp or client who was happy about my loyalty to my old company but I did come across a few who openly expressed surprise (in a negative way) in how long I'd been there.

I do not know what you do with this information. Do you leave a job you've been happy with just because you've been there 5 years?

PS: You used to read a lot of CVs in my role in the company and do a lot of hiring - I had/have the same issues with people staying in one place too long.

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So, what are the issues that you have with people staying in one place for too long? –  Anna Lear May 9 '11 at 4:16
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People can get stale, I know I did. Even if you move around the company, you rarely get thrown in the deep end. There is usually too much pressure to do what has already been done before. You do not have to experience the philosphical change of moving between radically different companies with different ways of doing things. IMHO, companies also get stale when they do not get new blood coming through. Not much science here, just lots of experience in seeing people stagnate. BTW: I knew I was stale but the company paid good money and was very close to home - important things when you spawn. –  dave May 9 '11 at 4:45

It used to be a sign of loyalty if you stayed with the same company for 10, 15, or even 20 years or longer. In the day, people began a career with IBM EXPECTING to retire with a great pension and a gold watch. Today, however, staying anywhere more than 10 years, ESPECIALLY IF IT'S YOUR FIRST AND ONLY JOB, is seen as being mediocre at best and complacent and risk averse at worst (unless you have continually risen through the ranks, which means you are in some executive level position -- like Head Of Software Development). I believe that if you've been in the same position for longer than 3 years without a promotion it's time to leave. Having 3 or 4 jobs within a 10-15 year period is the norm these days.

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I"m not sure about the "not a promotion". Certainly if you have not had some variety. In most places there is a limit to the amount of "promotion" thats available. It's more important to be stretched, doing a few different things. –  quickly_now May 8 '11 at 5:05
    
I've worked in a medium size enterprise (this is that "longest stint" I was talking about) where you could find both kinds of people. Those who stuck it out by moving around teams, becoming team leads, etc. And those who essentially sat in the same cubicle doing the same "junior level" grunt work for over 10 years. With a bit of CV embellishment it can be hard to tell the difference. This is really what got me thinking. –  Bobby Tables May 8 '11 at 22:52
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It's fairly easy for me at interview time to tell the difference between a 'lifer' and someone who had many roles over a few years at the same company. Sideways moves (to other teams/projects using different tools etc) are just as OK (often preferable) as vertical moves (junior->senior->architect->team lead...). –  mattnz May 9 '11 at 8:32

People who stay on a job for too long(depending on what your definition of too long is) fall into two categories:

  • good folks who work well and are getting rewarded for their work and see no need to look elsewhere
  • lousy folks who are just dragging along in the same company regardless of their rewards because they know they may not stand a chance at a new interivew/workplace .

If you fall in the first category (I'm not suggesting that you dont' :-)) then you may hve many reasons to stay in one place. And it may not necessarily be the pay. Maybe the environment is good. Maybe you like the timings. Its all up to your needs. Why look around if you dont need to?

W.r.t to your query as to how potential employees may see it. Well you can't prevent people from thinking the way they do but if you are questioned you can definietly give your reasons.

I recently read a book on intierview questions which presented another point of view. If you change jobs frequently saying that you are not getting enough chalenges or learning experience, it means that the company can only hope to keep you when there is something to learn. You wont stay around for the maintainance period. That will be seen as a negtive.

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I have interviewed a guy how openly stated that he though 1 year was a too long time to be doing the same job. Not a good look. The main thing is to be able to show you stayed on for a reason (hopefully valid) and that you keep up with the times by changing roles and adopting approitae, newer methodoligoies and tools. i.e. "I was there for 10 years, I/we introduced version control in 1995, We had CMM and ISO certification by 1997, Had gone Agile by 2000. In 2002 we refactored the older legacy code using Java and JUnit. By then we have moved from Windows based to Web based arhetectures.... –  mattnz May 9 '11 at 8:42

Each time I see a question about this topic "how long should a software engineer stay in a job" I always think back to an article that I read about a year ago that discussed staff turnover, the reasons for it, and why it is not actually such a bad thing. I've tried looking for the article a number of times, but today I finally found it: Up or Out: Solving the IT Turnover Crisis.

The summary at the top of the articles begins:

If you’ve worked at enough companies in the IT industry, you’ve probably noticed that the most talented software developers tend to not stick around at one place for too long. The least talented folks, on the other hand, entrench themselves deep within the organization, often building beachheads of bad code that no sane developer would dare go near, all the while ensuring their own job security and screwing up just enough times not to get fired.

Earlier this month, Bruce F. Webster aptly named this phenomenon the Dead Sea Effect.

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You are safe if

  • You are constantly aware of The Peter Principle
  • You consciously keep dragging external elements (new opinions/views/ideas, customer feedback, competitor news) into your work environment, and effectively use them to challenge yourself
  • You never get complacent

These things may not be possible especially if you are in a big corporation. In which case, there is the danger of sliding into the comfort zone and the subsequent slide into mediocrity.

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