A few days ago someone asked how long I've been at Microsoft and I was surprised to hear myself say about 7 years. I hadn't consciously thought about it for a while but my 7th anniversary at the company is coming up in a few weeks. I spent a few days afterwards wondering if I have a seven year itch and thinking about what I want to do next in my career.
I realized that I couldn't be happier right now. I get to build the core platform that powers the social software experience for half a billion users with a great product team (dev, test, ops) and very supportive management all the way up the chain. This hasn't always been the case.
I went through my seven year itch period about two years ago. I had always planned for my career at Microsoft to be short since I've never considered myself to be a big company person. Around that time, I looked around at a couple of places both within and outside Microsoft. I had some surprisingly good hiring experiences and some that were surprisingly bad (as bad as this thread makes the Google hiring process seem, trust me it is worse than that) then came away with a surprising conclusion. The best place to build the kind of software I wanted to build was at Microsoft. I started working in online services at Microsoft because I believed Social Software is the Platform of the Future and wanted to build social experiences that influence how millions of people connect with each other. What I realized after my quick look around at other opportunities is that no one has more potential in this space than Microsoft. Today when I read articles about our recent release, it validates my belief that Microsoft will be the company to watch when it comes to bringing "social" to software in a big way.
In my almost seven years in the software industry, I've had a number of friends go through the sense of needing change or career dissatisfaction which leads to the seven year itch. Both at Microsoft and elsewhere. Some of them have ended up dealing with this poorly and eventual became disgruntled and unhappy with their jobs which turns into a vicious cycle. On the other hand, I know a bunch of people that went from being unhappy or disgruntled about their jobs to becoming happy and productive employees who are more satisfied with their career choices. For the latter class of people, here are the three most successful, proactive steps I've seen them make
Change your perspective: Sometimes employees fall into situations where the reality for working on product X or team Y at company Z is different from their expectations. It could be a difference in development philosophy (e.g. the employee likes Agile practices like SCRUM and the product team does not practice them), technology choice (e.g. wanting to use the latest technologies whereas the product team has a legacy product in C++ with millions of customers) or one of many other differences in expectations versus reality.
The realization that leads to satisfaction in this case is that it isn't necessarily the case that what the organization is doing is wrong (e.g. rewriting an app from scratch just to use the latest technologies is never a good idea), it's just that what the employee would prefer isn't a realistic option for the organization or is just a matter of personal preference (e.g. the goal of the organization is to deliver a product on time and under budget not to use a specific development practice). Of course, these are contrived examples but the key point should be clear. If you're unhappy because your organization doesn't meet your expectations it could be that your expectations are what needs adjusting.
Change your organization: As the Mahatma Gandhi quote goes, Be the change you wish to see in the world. Every organization can be changed from within. After all, a lot of the most successful projects at Microsoft and around the software industry came about because a passionate person had a dream and did the leg work to convince enough people to share that dream. Where people often stumble is in underestimating the amount of leg work it takes to convince people to share their dream (and sometimes this leg work may mean writing a lot of code or doing a lot of research). .
For example, when you go from reading Harvard Business School articles like Microsoft vs. Open Source: Who Will Win? in 2005 to seeing an Open Source at Microsoft portal in 2008, you have to wonder what happens behind the scenes to cause that sort of change. It took the prodding of a number of passionate Open Source ambassadors at Microsoft as well as other influences to get this to happen.
Change your job: In some cases, there are irreconcilable differences between an employee and the organization they work for. The employee may have lost faith in the planned direction of the product, the product's management team or the entire company as a whole. In such cases the best thing to do is to part ways amicably before things go south.
Being on an H-1B visa I'd heard all sorts of horror stories about being the equivalent of an indentured servant when working for an American software company but this has proven to be far from the truth. There is an H-1B transfer process that allows you to switch employers without having to re-apply for a visa or even inform your current employer. If you work at a big company and are paper-work averse, you can stick to switching teams within the company. This is especially true for Microsoft where there are hundreds of very different products (operating systems, databases, Web search engines, video game console hardware, social networking software, IT, web design, billing software, etc) with very different cultures to choose from.
These are the steps that I've seen work for friends and coworkers who've been unhappy in their jobs who've successfully been able to change their circumstances. The people who don't figure out how to execute one of the steps above eventually become embittered and are never a joy to be around.
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