Twenty-five years in the software salt mines

Tomorrow it will have been 25 years since I started my career in the software industry.

It might seem odd that I remember the day only until you know that I started work on Monday, July 3, 1989, making my second day a paid holiday. The office was nearly deserted on my first day. My boss regretted not having me start on July 5 so he could have had an extra-long weekend too.

I was 21 years old when I joined that little software company in Terre Haute. I’m 46 now. I have worked more than half my life in and around the software industry.

I taught myself how to write computer programs when I was 15. When I was 16, my math teacher saw some of my programs and praised my work. He encouraged me to pursue software development as a career. He began to tell me about this tough engineering school in Terre Haute.

I graduated from that tough engineering school hoping to find work as a programmer. Jobs were hard to come by that year, so when a software company wanted to hire me as a technical writer I was thrilled just to work. And then it turned out I had a real knack for explaining software to people. I did it for twelve years, including a brief stint in technology publishing and five years managing writers.

I then returned to my technical roots, testing software and managing software testers. I learned to write automated functional and performance tests – code that tests code – and it has taken me places in my career that I could never have imagined.

My office at one of my career stops

I’ve worked for eight companies in 25 years. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere is five years. I left one company in which I was a poor fit after just 14 months. I’ve moved on voluntarily seven times, was laid off once, and was fired and un-fired once (which is quite a story; read it here). Changing jobs this often isn’t unusual in this industry and has given me rich experience I couldn’t have gained by staying with one company all this time.

I’ve worked on software that managed telephone networks, helped media buyers place advertising, helped manufacturers manage their business, run Medicare call centers, helped small banks make more money, enabled very large companies to more effectively market their products, and gave various medical verticals insight so they can improve their operations and their business.

Some of these companies were private and others were public; so far, I’ve liked private companies better. Some of them made lots of money, some of them had good and bad years, and one of them folded. Some of them were well run and others had cheats and liars at the helm. Some were very difficult places to work, but those were crucibles in which I learned the most. Others have brought successes beyond anything I could have hoped for a quarter century ago.

I did, however, hope for a good, long run in this industry, and I got it. But I’m also having a hard time envisioning another 25 years. It’s not just because I’d be 71 then. I really like to work, and – right now at least – I plan to do so for as long as I am able. But I’m starting to have trouble imagining what mountains I might yet climb in this career. Maybe that’s part of reaching middle age – indeed, many of my similarly aged colleagues, some with careers far beyond mine, have gone into other lines of work. I’m still having a lot of fun making software, though. I currently manage six software testers, one test-automation and performance-test developer, and one technical writer. I get to bring all of my experience to bear, and encourage my teams to reach and grow. I don’t want to stop just yet.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an update of a post from four years ago. Cross-posted to my other blog, Stories from the Software Salt Mines.


11 responses to “Twenty-five years in the software salt mines”

  1. hmunro Avatar

    Wow! Congratulations on your big milestone, Jim. You’ve had quite a rich and interesting career, by the sounds of it. I hope the next 25 years are even more rewarding — and a bit less tumultuous. (I’ll have to read your story about getting fired … and then un-fired. Yikes!)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You know what’s funny? I look back on it and yeah — it’s been an outstanding career. But day to day I’m usually annoyed, upset, unhappy, or frustrated with whatever is going wrong on the job at the moment. I need to work on applying my long-view attitude to today!!

  2. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Career paths are interesting things, sometimes curvy and sometimes a straight line. I always thought mine took wide curves. When I started working in radio, I could never imagine anything other than working in radio forever. Then, when I moved into television, I could never imagine anything other than working in television forever. Then, I got a job as a copywriter at an ad agency and when the creative director saw that I was better at writing radio and TV than print ads, I got promoted to a producer’s position. I’ve spent the rest of my life writing and producing radio and TV commercials. So while the road has felt all curvy, it’s pretty much followed a straight line. Many bumps along the way though :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I started as a software tech writer, but my second job was in technology publishing, editing those For Dummies books. I lasted there just 18 months and hightailed it back to software tech writing. But then I got a chance to move into management, and then into QA (software testing). I’ve learned a metric ton about how to successfully deliver software projects and that is now my superpower. It’s been fun.

      1. Steve Miller Avatar
        Steve Miller

        I always wondered how a line that insults its readers from first glance managed to be so wildly successful… but judging on most of today’s advertising they were merely ahead of the curve.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Because there are any number of people who feel secret shame over their lack of prowess. The title really spoke to them. I thought it was an at-best questionable approach myself until I went to work there and saw how people really responded to the series.

  3. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    Would you have chosen any other career path besides the software, programming or computer ?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Radio. Man, did I love being on the air. But I’m glad it didn’t go that way for me because radio has self-destructed over the past 20 years.

      1. Bernie Kasper Avatar

        I kinda thought you might say that lol !!

  4. Tom Klockau Avatar
    Tom Klockau

    Well, you’ve worked for far more companies than I. Until 2009 I worked at just two–my dad’s insurance company in administration (1995-2004) and a local bank in loan ops (2004-2009). Two weeks before Christmas 2009 said bank, having painted themselves into a financial corner due to the recession, downsized me and several others. Thus started a long journey of unemployment, a brief stint selling Fords, going back to my dad’s office for a spell, and finally landing a good job with the holding company of a local–and well-loved–restaurant chain. So now I am the primary accountant there, counting money, doing reconciliation reports and paying bills. I enjoy it a lot, and found out I have a knack for it, despite only working peripherally in accounting in the past. And it is a local company with no HR department–the owners themselves hired me, which is also a plus. During my long job search in 2010-13, I developed a poor opinion of most HR people. I should have left the bank earlier–I applied for other jobs there and always got shot down, despite my superiors always telling me what a great job I was doing. A friend of mine told me banks don’t pay anything unless you are at least a loan officer–he was right, but I felt safe at my little job–until the ax fell. One thing is for certain: no more working at banks!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve not been shy about moving on when I think it’s time. I’m not cavalier about it but I don’t stick around just for some sort of silly loyalty if my personal or career goals aren’t being met. It doesn’t hurt that I watched my dad put in 18 years at the Oliver factory and lose his pension when the company was bought and the fund drained of cash. It taught me to take care of myself because my company surely won’t.

      And I do hear that banks, like crime, do not pay.

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