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I think like many other people here, I work on a meaningless pursuit: I develop high performance algorithmic trading software for an investment company.

Year over the year, I no longer care about what I used to care. I used to care about good software, like a carpenter cares for what he builds. I don't. Anymore. I just write it out. Test it. It ships. People made more money. I travel a bit with my bonus.

What I do is harmful to the world: it just takes money out of the market, put in some pocket. It's just gaming the rules to make it more like pre-SEC trading. Believe me, it sucks.

The question: I don't think there are many softwares or something else out there that helps the world to be a better place or, at least, don't suck that much. How to deal with this? With this lack of meaning?

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closed as not a real question by GrandmasterB, Aditya P, Rein Henrichs, vartec, Walter May 25 '11 at 11:58

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find a different job. you are obviously working for the wrong place. we are all carpenters, painters, or plumbers but that doesn't mean any of us would be happy constructing outhouses. –  SLoret May 25 '11 at 3:12
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@Sloret: outhouses serve a useful purpose; i would be unhappy producing office space for bureaucrats ;-) –  Steven A. Lowe May 25 '11 at 3:19
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@SLoret, or construct nuclear missile silos... –  user1249 May 25 '11 at 8:53
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In fact, it was during an interview with a HFT company, at around the 6 hour mark, when I decided I didn't really give a crap anymore. It was during a question on the architectural implications of two's complement and the IEEE representation of floating point numbers. I can't believe so many people waste that incredible brain power skimming pennies. –  red-dirt May 25 '11 at 11:23
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Because GrandmasterB, AdityaGameProgrammer, Rein Henrichs, vartec, Walter are in the Finance industry ;-) –  Pierre May 25 '11 at 12:28

17 Answers 17

I solved my burnout by quitting software as a profession (I remain active as an enthusiast hobbyist) and becoming a teacher. Your answer doesn't necessarily involve becoming a teacher, but probably will involve, in some way, a career change.

The key problem I faced was that I loved software. It wasn't a job, it was a calling. The compromises -- often idiotic compromises -- I had to make in a field I loved just so I could have some money weighed down on me to the point I couldn't take it any longer. The key was to unchain the golden handcuffs and step out of the career permanently.

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Thank you, this is a really interesting suggestion. Teaching is not my thing but I think it might be the time to take software only as a hobby. I've been doing it since I was six, I love it but I don't think it's the job for me. –  John Doe May 25 '11 at 4:25
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Teacher: one of the most wonderful job in the world. –  user2567 May 25 '11 at 6:23
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Well, with over a decade each in each field, Robusto, I can safely say that the frustrations of teaching pale in comparison to the frustrations of writing software for a living. –  JUST MY correct OPINION May 27 '11 at 3:37

Reading your post, all I could think was - ARE YOU ME SIX MONTHS AGO??? - I also burned out after working the last six years for a trading systems company.

If you check out my profile, you'll see some posts (and my blog) which are exactly about this. I quit in January and have taken this year off as a self-funded sabbatical, and the first four months have already given me some insights (but I still don't feel quite ready to start working again - although I'm teaching myself Ruby on Rails these days and regaining my interest in programming).

If you're suffering from an actual burnout (see: this), then you might need professional help and/or some serious time off. I don't know your situation in terms of responsibilities (wife, kids, etc), but a real burnout - once you're far gone enough - usually can't be cured without some serious time off and long term dedication. Just taking a vacation probably won't do much (and it can actually make things worse).

Post Burnout...

In terms of finding purpose in this field - it's tricky. As you said, most development jobs are essentially working on someone else's random boring business systems, with very little autonomy or intrinsic purpose. Development is for the most part a Craft. Maybe not as creative and free as an outright artistic field, but it's not some sterile mechanical assembly process either. Unfortunately, the typical corporate workplace (and management mindset) treats it as such. Most companies are managed like 19th century factories, instead of like the 21st century knowledge work studios that they should be.

Watch this clip: Think about what Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose mean. A lot of the dissatisfactions you feel about the typical office environment will come down to one of these, in some way.

Personally, I think the biggest struggle is Purpose (the other two can be compensated for more easily by a change in management style, upgrade of tools, etc). For example: I find it very hard to convince myself that working on stockmarket trading systems is a worthwhile Purpose. Rightly or wrongly, I think of most trading instruments as little better than legalized gambling - as something that's overall not a good purpose for the human condition - and no amount of rationalization could change that. Sometimes you just don't have an intrinsic Purpose for working in a given domain, and it's time to move on and find another one.

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I think will seek professional help. I just came back from vacation and couldn't stop crying at the airport when flying back home (ridiculous, isn't it?). –  John Doe May 25 '11 at 12:05

If you don't like the work, move. You have valuable skills proven in a relatively demanding environment, so you could get a job at most startups with no problems.

If you want a meaningful work experience, look for educational startups, or similar companies that actually do want to make a positive difference (non-profits, edu-startups, certain startups in the finance sector aiming to swing the focus to ease for the customers (banksimple is one example), development for the health sector)

There ARE software companies out to make a positive difference. You just need to look a bit harder to find them.

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+1 for being positive! –  jv42 May 25 '11 at 11:36

What I do is harmful to the world: it just takes money out of the market, put in some pocket. It's just gaming the rules to make it more like pre-SEC trading. Believe me, it sucks.

Amen, brother. In the early '90s, my wife and I wrote software for evaluating derivatives... and then, thanks to derivative speculation (but not our software) Orange County, California went bankrupt, Chile lost a quarter of its GDP one year, and Nick Leeson single-handedly brought down Barings Bank.

There's very little in life as soul-sucking as feeling like you're contributing to evil in the world. So find some other programming work, and give yourself a while to recover. If you look around, you'll be surprised at how much truly useful software needs to be written. It's by no means limited to non-profits, too.

We handed that derivatives code back to our client over fifteen years ago, and programming is still tons of fun. And I keep winding up doing coding "good deeds" by accident. For instance, one of my current clients is the leading purveyor of closed captioning software for TV and movies in the US, and I'm sure there are a lot of hearing-impaired folks whose lives are better for what I do.

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+1 Sound moral evaluation. I refused the headhunting of the banks when I left university, whilst many of my fellow students didn't. Many have gone on to tell me how sick they feel sometimes. I could say to them I told you so, but money calls them louder, or they would quit. –  Orbling May 25 '11 at 11:44

I've really noticed (and I'll be happy to admit this could be just how it is for me), that the times I get bored and burned out with my work is when I'm not longer learning or progressing and becoming better at what I'm doing. Its when I'm learning new things or developing new talents that things become exciting. I'm eager to get to work the next day and see what else I can learn or to continue to analyze or develop on what I learned the day before. But depending on the environment you're in this can only last so long. It sounds like to me the environment you described can't allow for very much flexibility and would be easy to get to the point where you know most of what you're likely to know about the job or problem.

I will end with an analogy... just because the electricity goes out, it wouldn't be wise to throw away any electric device you attempted to use because it didn't function. The real key is to find out why the electricity is out, then suddenly all those devices function properly again. Very likely a change of employment may be needed. But this doesn't necessarily mean you need to abandon programming all together. I would recommend finding a area in the field that will challenge you and require you to learn new things. There's so much to learn that this likely won't be an issue.

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Consider maybe your personal values (ethics) do not align with what you a doing every day. You have survived this for a time, however you have arrived at a state of perpetual unhappiness, as your internal morals clash with your day to day life. This kind of stress is sometimes mistaken for burnout, however is quite different, and really dangerous to you health.

If the above applies to you, the most important thing to do is get out, as no changes will alter the fact you do not believe what you are doing is right. Work out what you are doing that is clashing with your core values. Identify what exactly in the job it is, and look for a job in an organisation that does not have these attributes. Look for a corporate culture revolving around ethics and values (in action, not on paper).

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I once had a job interview for an hospital, to build a system that would help detect viral infections within the hospital and enable them to act on it before it caused any victims. I didn't take the job but it was a breath of fresh air, being able to work on a problem that would help save people, instead of just making someone richer.

Maybe you just need to look for something more fulfilling?

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Exactly what the small comments of your question say. Sounds like you are just burnt out, the passion is gone.

What language do you usually develop in? Maybe look for something in Web Development if you write software or vice versa.

I found myself in the same position, all I was doing was writing network diagnostic software and it just got dull and repetitive. Now I work in a school writing educational tools/software. That sort of thing.

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One option is to go back to university and join a new profession entirely. I took a MEng conversion course in petroleum engineering and am training to be a field engineer for a major oil service company (better pay, travel, excitement). You can do anything you set your mind to - but the sooner the better!

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@Oz123 True - not everyone is OK with working in oil and gas industry. For me I don't mind. The point I tried to make is that a big change of direction is possible –  rmx May 25 '11 at 11:37

There will always be aspects that get repetitive. There will always be corners that are cut because the deadline is too close or it is not worth the effort to do it right. Changing your profession is not going to stop this from existing, it's the nature of business.

What is more important is that you see no value in the work you are doing. Beyond that, you think the work you are doing is hurting more than it helps. This means you need to change jobs. You need to move to something else that at least has a chance to break even on the status quo.

Look to see what else is out there. You put value in helping the world. If you can afford it, see what kind of developement task as needed by non-profits. There are many great charities out there that could be even more powerful with the right technology behind it. They are not going to pay the fat checks you may be used to dealing with stock trading, but money is not everything.

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Having a higher "meaning" of what we do is a key ingredient for happiness so you are correct in questioning your current job if you don't find it fulfilling

I highly recommend you check out Gameful.org and the book "reality is broken" by Jane McGonigal if you want to put your talents to improving the world and having fun at the same time.

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I've been there, am there now and will (approx 3-6months after securing a new gig) be there again. I actually used to be a teacher and switched to a dev career at the end of the 90s. During the heady early years of the web life was exciting and every day felt like we were creatively trailblazing.

Then I worked for a large multinational oil/energy company for several years and felt pretty much as you do re: felt the whole thing to be a pointless exercise, lost my mojo for code and began to regret the decision to quit teaching.

Then I switched to contracting (freelancing) and slowly regained my love for development. I tend to get to do the work that permanent employees shun for one reason or another but its better paid than being a permie and there is always light at the end of the tunnel because contracts are finite. Perhaps you should think about going solo and doing jobs that interest you or are for organisations that are in some way worthwhile.

Hang in there. Coding isnt such a bad choice of career, but the soul-less, corporate world tends to drag everything down to its joyless, money-fixated level.

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I don't think software development is your problem.
From the way I see it, you don't hate software development at all.

Maybe you just just hate the industry you're in.
If that's the case, you can always try software development in other industries.

In Accenture, for example, they have 19 Industry groups, grouped as:
(1) Communications & High Tech
(2) Financial Services
(3) Products
(4) Resources
(5) Health & Public Service

Try to explore other areas, and see where your skills can find value or meaning.

More Info on Accenture's industries:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accenture#Operating_Groups

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I'm not a former employee but I know a lot of former and current employees. Accenture, or at least it's subsidiary in my country, is a slave ship and I wouldn't even come close to it in my life. Unfair working hours for little money. If I have to be a slave I at least try to be highly payed slave. –  John Doe May 25 '11 at 4:24
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@John Doe: I am not actually suggesting that people go to Accenture. In fact, I am disappointed in Accenture myself, but that's another story. The point of my post is show that there are plenty of options for software development, aside from the variety of technologies that are available to developers. –  geff_chang May 25 '11 at 4:36
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+1 for the slave-ship tag. There are so many many many such IT services companies. –  Nav May 25 '11 at 5:33

With this lack of meaning? To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, "Everything that we do is insignificant, but it is important that you do it."

As for the suggestions:

  • Go to a B school, if you have the time, money and inclination
  • Start a new company that does something meaningful.
  • Take a 3-4 month leave and work with a charity.
  • Switch to a different company in a different domain.

Any job can get boring/repetitive after a period of time. Irrespective of what you decide to, try to cultivate a hobby (music, painting, whatever) and/or try to spend some time every week with a charity/ngo that helps people in some way.

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achievement is biggest motivator while working.
At your current job, it seems the sense of achievement is way far from your current work.
Most successful people would not be led by others but lead themselves out of trouble.

  • Think what you want to do, keep in mind you capabilities, skills and interests, list down what matters most to you in a job.
  • Once you know what matters most, start searching for the right job. It may come as programming for another company or even starting a new career in a new field, all depandant on what you feel capable of and interested in.
  • Leaving your current job without any serious plan might not be the best option but staying there is also a very bad option.
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It may be as simple as switching jobs. I was in a similar situation 3 years ago, and had been fairly unmotivated for some time by then. Then I did the "impossible" - I switched jobs. Same profession, but different country and employer. It worked wonderfully for me, as it became the new adventure.

I think you should try switching employer at least. If that doesn't work out, then switch profession, or get a(nother) college degree, if you can afford it. You'd be amazed how much a change of environments can do for you.

Hang in there!

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This is exactly the thing I'm thinking about: computer sciences are so great, why don't we use them to just improve the world ?

I'm in a game programming school, and honestly I feel like shit...

My guess is that since everything is possible in computer sciences, you have to constantly invent stuff that could make people's life easier, but that's not the only way computers can make the world a better place.

Think about lack of information sharing, or sparse offer/demand that never meet. It happens.

Imagine 2 person doing the same car run, alone in their car: don't you think they could save money by both learning that they actually do the same route ? Why isn't there an app for that ?

Also, imagine you want to play ping pong in your city, but you have no idea where to play or who to play with.

Now imagine all those opportunities which are missed because we don't have any tool that specifically does this type of task: where is there offer, and where is the demand, and especially: where ? What stuff could you share to people, or for a small price ?

I have already stated that even with all the technologies we have, we are unable to properly communicate so we could be go out of our usual social bubble. This is not featured in facebook, but is featured by hundreds of sites, who won't shared they databases for business matters: you have to make something completely decentralized in order to make it work.

I find it nearly impossible to develop or to design, but I already have some clues, and to me even if it takes 10 or 20 years I would be very proud of bringing this service to people. People living in their bubbles are hurt not meeting other people or having new opportunities, and more importantly, it hurt the whole economy.

The internet is ready to be usable to a scale where it could serve us all, it just lacks good programmers like you who were just fatly paid by trading companies.

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