But with long hours, considerable stress, and no guarantees, the obvious question is whether it's even worth trying to make it big. I believe the answer is unequivocally yes. The most compelling reason is that, in most cases, you have to show up to the office and work like a lunatic anyway—it's really not optional (if you want to eat). So if the difference between being a midlevel career programmer and making it big is an incremental strategic investment of time and energy, then it's more than worth it for you and for your family. In the long run, the benefits are significant: a more satisfying career, greater influence and impact within your company and the industry, more fun, and more money. And while there may not be less "crap" to do, at least it's strategic work rather than "grunt" work. How much more money is there really, after all that effort? According to data at PayScale.com and the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2007, the lowest-paid software engineers earned approximately $38,000, while senior architects earned more than $211,000, a difference of 5.55 times. If you add to this the benefits from bonuses, preferred stock, and stock options that are always dolled out more generously to the senior staff, the variance in compensation between the ends of the job performance spectrum can be pretty astounding.
Plus, making it big gives you the freedom to work on what you want to. That broad statement is true in degrees, depending on just how big you make it. The higher up the totem pole of technology you climb, the more freedom you can have in what you work on. The late computer scientist Jim Gray, who was one of the founders of modern database systems and a leader in scalable computing before his mysterious disappearance in a boating accident on a clear, calm day in 2007, was a great example. Before recruiting Gray, Microsoft had always resisted the pressure to establish R&D sites outside of their core location in Redmond, Washington. Gray just wasn't interested in living there. No problem. In 1995, they built their new laboratory, called the Microsoft Bay Area Research Center (BARC), around him. Some may believe that Microsoft had decided to finally tap into the incredible pool of software talent and dynamism in the Bay area, but in truth, the move to open BARC was motivated heavily by a desire to attract Gray to Microsoft. According to Senior Vice President of Microsoft Research Rick Rashid, "If Jim had wanted a lab in Monte Carlo, we would have built a lab in Monte Carlo." That's the freedom to work not only on what you want, but where you want! Why does this happen? This kind of freedom comes with the value you provide through your creativity, insight, and industrial influence.
Big shots in technology have more "eureka moments" per unit time than the little shots. They are leaders and connectors. They are the charismatic inspirations for new ideas who build consensus to forge ahead on new technology initiatives. They have the ideas that create and shape the technology of the future. This makes them sensationally valuable assets to any enterprise. The more valuable you are, the more control you have over your destiny. Your employer, colleagues, and industrial associates will do more for you and give you that freedom, to keep you happy and focused on what you have excelled at. Notice that I said "freedom to work on what you want," but I did not say the freedom to work the amount you want. In software, successful people generally work hard. The climb to fame and fortune in software generally exacerbates this fate until you decide you have climbed enough, done enough, and earned enough, that you're willing to let your contributions plateau.
Fame awaits those who make it big. When eWeek, TechWorld, and other magazines want to get the inside scoop on emerging technology, they turn to the technical gurus. Big shots in software write the books, publish the papers, present the lectures, and are interviewed for columns that present technology to the world. Fame isn't all it's cracked up to be, but whatever it is, the big shots get a larger share.
Finally, I contend that those who make it big have more meaningful and fulfilling jobs. More satisfying work means you'll have more enthusiasm for what you do. Enthusiasm means you'll work harder and be more profoundly inspired. As a result, you'll not only be more successful, but you'll have a good time doing it. Why is that?
- The most successful people have larger degrees of control on what they work on, so they can bias their work toward the things they enjoy. Perhaps just as important, when you work on the things you enjoy, your enthusiasm will rub off on others, and that's a kind of leadership, too.
- Big shots don't do grunt work. The least pleasant and lower-skilled tasks are delegated to the junior employees, while senior folks focus on the strategic items. This is a gross oversimplification. After all, senior staff also gets involved in decisions to cancel technology projects, meetings to lay off staff (possibly including co-workers they have known for years), and painful arguments over technical strategy. It's definitely not all fun and games. Some of these responsibilities include miserable experiences you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, even after he'd stabbed you in the back, kicked your dog, stolen your life savings, and burned down your home. As miserable as some of the tasks of senior staff can be, they tend to be strategic in nature. Their influence is large and profound. The process of executing these tasks can be gut-wrenching, but there's a concomitant sense of accomplishment of having made a radical and profound difference. Okay, it's hell, but it's hell that matters. In contrast, some of the miserable tasks relegated to junior staff are more likely described as just plain miserable.
One constant runs throughout: Nobody makes it big without a large and sustained outlay of effort. Success in achieving your long-term goals always means hard work for several years.