Patterns for Success – I Picked the Wrong Career5 min read

Shutdown after shutdown comes, they start running into one another. Like wet runny paint on canvas, you can’t tell where one stroke of grey stops and another begins. Your will to continue wanes, your feelings are hurt and in a near constant state of depression, and one cold reality has hit you hard like a punch to the throat: I’m frustrated with my job. I picked the wrong career.

While this isn’t at all a rare phenomenon, or unique to autistic professionals, it may be more likely to hit us because the conditions under which we’re expected to work may remove all enjoyment out of responsibilities that we’re otherwise very capable of handling. I most recently heard this cry for help in a Reddit thread, and thought it would be worth a bit of exploration.

Personally, I’m a computer nerd. I’ve been one for a very, very long time. So long, in fact, that personal computers weren’t generally available when I wrote my first program. Homebrew computers were all the rage in the mid-to-late 1970’s, and I was fortunate enough to gain early exposure to programming several of them. My love for these early machines was so great that I’d taught myself to read and write before entering Kindergarten, just so I could make the turtle robot draw pictures.

I grew, and my love for computer science grew with me. I learned to network computers together long before it was cheap or practical. I ran a Bulletin Board System, a precursor to common availability of the Internet, as a means of socializing with other nerds without having to be in the same physical place. And this hobby of mine, this passion, was content to stay up long nights with me and sleep during the day.

So naturally as I squeaked through high school by a thread (and an extra year), I eventually got around to starting a career in the software industry. I was good at it right away, moving to very senior level responsibilities and pay in very short order. But so much of what I was doing, and what I was enduring, wasn’t part of the hobby that I loved. There was the pretentiousness of office environments, where it was at the time expected that I would wear a tie. They had horrible lights, loud noises, and social chaos everywhere. Bad design decisions were made from above, and implemented from below (and I was below). I’d come to realize after awhile that I just wasn’t happy. I didn’t enjoy using my technical skills to implement solutions by people who didn’t really understand the problem or the possibilities in the first place.

I’d become unhappy. I stopped tinkering with computers in my home. I just stopped moving forward and started treading water. And, in a way, my career was dead.

A few things happened after awhile. I’d become exposed to Agile practices, and applied myself to learning more about it. I became a Scrummaster, and then later an Agile coach (mentoring other Agile practitioners like Scrummasters and Product Owners). The patterns of human behaviors and collaborations and productivity started appearing like a complex system to me, one that I could understand, perceive the inputs and outputs around, and understand where to poke to make things work a little better. Before long, I realized some level of recognition for my work and started giving public talks on the subject (which I still do to this day).

This all led to me becoming a manager of a team, becoming known as someone who had intuitive understanding of organizational design issues and software development workflow. I’d perform value stream analysis and make changes to the workflow to improve productivity. The amount of actual engineering work that I do has shrunk quite a bit over the last few years, as I spend more time hacking the business for better efficiency. Nobody’s really tried to stick a name to this role, so I still have to do some engineering work. But by and large I get to focus my autistic super powers on seeking out flaws in the Engineering business unit that prevent it from working optimally, and I fix it. If there’s a good name for a role like this, I’d love to know. Personally, I’m keen on “CTO”, but I’ve not had luck making that happen yet.

Spending some time engaged in these newer non-technical responsibilities has helped me to realize that I’m no longer anxious or stimming when I’m engaged in this kind of work. I don’t feel socially awkward. If anything, I feel like I’m in the zone. I’ve found a good niche for me, and it’s not what I originally though I’d be doing when I got my first industry job 21 years ago.

The point is, it’s entirely possible or even likely that you’ll find dissatisfaction with your initial career choice. 

This isn’t unusual. Don’t let it shut you down. Hang around. Learn more about related roles, the roles of the people you have to interact with every day. See if any of them resonate with you. Work with your manager on career goals to pick up these new skills, perhaps through a mixture of training and expanded responsibilities, and have a plan together to move you into a role that fits your interests and skills better. While it’s entirely possible to jump from one role in one company to a completely different role in another company, it’s a very risky move. If you can transition within the organization you already work for, so much the better.

Don’t feel despondent if your career needs a course correction, and may success be yours!