Changing Career Path

It’s that time again - the time where I have been bored and lacking challenge at work for long enough and procrastinated on making changes for long enough due to decision paralysis, that I had to take the time, go into myself for a while and make a decision on what I want to do for work in the future.

Now, one might be inclined to suggest I simply switch jobs, join another company, maybe even switch to a different software engineering field away from what I’m currently doing (web). I had these thoughts too and I explored them quite deeply and for a long time, I even looked for and applied to other companies. However, after having been offered a role at a cool company working in open source, in a different field, which in general seemed like exactly what I was searching for, I felt…nothing. No excitement, no happiness - nothing.

So I decided to stay, made a couple of changes with my manager and the team and things improved, but the root problem, of course, persisted.

To be clear, my current job is amazing. I have tons of autonomy, a wide range of responsibilities and a fantastic team. I wouldn’t say Timeular’s products solve any problems I have, but I can see how they solve other people’s problems and help them improve their work experience.

At the end of the day, although the job is, by all metrics relevant to me, fantastic, I’m just bored. I’m not excited, I’m not challenged, I feel like I’m wasting my time. I’ve had this feeling for a while and for a long time, I thought I could improve the situation by working on myself.

I tried this approach for quite a while. If you’re unhappy with your work, or some other life situation, it’s always worth reflecting why that is and for me, in the past, it often was related to expectations - external and internal ones. I’m not talking about expectations from other people, but expectations from myself, injected by society (you need to be rich, successful etc. etc.). Identifying these and managing them has been a long and stony road, but I found that stoic philosophy helped me quite a bit in this regard.

So again, I asked myself if I simply expect too much from a job, or from myself, or from life in general. And while I did notice, that I had fallen back into old behaviours and thinking patterns around “making an impact” and “being more successful”, after working on that and balancing out again, I still felt like something’s missing and that it wasn’t that I craved more money, or more notoriety, but simply enjoyment during the time spent working. Is it too much to ask, to, for at least a majority of the time spent, enjoy work?

I don’t need to earn lots of money, nor am I interested in status points for where I work, or for my job title. What I do care about is to be intellectually challenged and optimally, to also work on something I personally believe in. This doesn’t mean, that I expect every hour, every, day, or even every week of whatever I’m doing to match these high expectations, but more than “very rarely, or never” would be nice.

So with these constraints in mind, I asked myself what I could do to improve my work situation to align it more with the attributes I crave. I looked at many companies, talked to lots of people, but at the end of the day, I always ended up in the same general situation.

Thinking more and more about it, the whole concept of working as an employee didn’t seem to be a model that works for me in the long term. I worked as a freelancer for a stretch as well in the past and while I enjoyed some aspects of it, especially the autonomy and freedom, I’m not a big fan of consulting - it’s just too easy to talk, if you have no skin in the game and don’t have to carry the decisions you make, or influence, forward.

In terms of options that came to mind, that left me with research / academia or entrepreneurship. I originally intended to do my PhD right after finishing my master’s degree, but opted against it, because I felt like I needed some practical exposure first. However, it was still in the back of my mind as something I want to come back and do at some point.

Starting a company is not something I spent a whole lot of time thinking about. I worked as a freelancer before and I dislike it when administrative and management stuff takes up a lot of my time, so it doesn’t seem like a good fit right now, or in general.

This leaves academia, which at least from an outside perspective, seems to offer many of the attributes I’m looking for. Obviously, I can’t really judge if research is a good fit for me, until I actually tried it, which is what I’m planning to do next. Fortunately, Austria, the wonderful country I live in, has a great social system and there is the option to take a paid sabbatical for up to one year every five years of employment.

During this time, one has the option to receive financial support, which is approximately the same amount as unemployment benefits (roughly 60% of your salary, up to a threshold) in Austria, which is certainly high enough to live off for me. If you can deal with the hit in income, this is a fantastic opportunity to explore new areas and to educate yourself.

I plan to use this year to get a good sense of where I want to go next and to start walking that path, figuring out a sustainable way to finance the whole operation after the sabbatical runs out, which, being a privileged software engineer in central europe without dependants, isn’t too hard a problem to solve.

It’s easy to forget the immense privilege one enjoys in a country such as Austria, with a well functioning social system and to take it for granted. Would there be a way to walk this new path without it? Sure. But the barriers when it comes to changing your career and to try something entirely new are high enough as it is and programs such as the educational sabbatical massively lower the financial barrier.

There are some conditions when it comes to the educational sabbatical in the form of having to provide proof that you actually did something educational worth a certain amount of “credits”, or “time”. This mandatory limit is low enough, however, that any type of university curriculum will be way above it, including a PhD program.

The next step is to pinpoint a topic I want to start researching and dive deeper on. This turns out to be a bit difficult while working full time - at least for me.

My problem isn’t finding a topic, as much as only finding one area, or topic, as there are quite a few things I find interesting and could see myself exploring more deeply.

I’m planning to take some time off at the beginning of the sabbatical to really get away from everything and to re-focus. In the past, clearing my mind in this way has helped me find the right path.

So after this long, frustrating journey of figuring out what’s next, I finally arrived at a point where I’m really looking forward to this new path.

Conclusion

I’m very happy with my decision and excited for what comes next. It took a while to get there, but at the end of the day, it has to feel right.

As to how it’ll work out and if this will be something that captures my interest for a long time, we will see. For now I’m excited for the new journey!