Disclaimer #1: for a change, this article does not aim to present an opinionated thesis - treat it more like an open question and an invitation for a discussion
Disclaimer #2: I do realize that I should be thankful for having such "dilemmas" - it's only because of the wicked IT job market that some of us may have such a "discomfort" (as described below), while in the same time people of many other industries struggle to get any offer to provide for their families - I don't mean any disrespect to them, quite the contrary
Let's try with an experiment. Think about ... your next (software engineering) job. What would be a good/great professional opportunity you'd be inclined to accept (as a reasonable next step in your career)? But there's a twist - we'll significantly limit the numbers of factors to consider.
Forget (for a moment) the technical aspects of work:
- what kind of technology you'll be using
- what kind of challenge lies ahead
- what range of responsibility you'd get
Just assume those would be exactly as you expect/wish for, so it's not something to bother yourself with (for now).
But wait, that's not all. Forget the financials, forget the organization's specifics (its culture, inertia, level of formalism/flexibility), its "logistics" (location, working hours, etc.), or the perks, ...
Damn, what's left then? :)
Imagine that you've completed the recruitment process at several different companies. All the offers look pretty much equally attractive (when evaluated in terms of the factors we've just discarded above), but each of those companies belongs to a different group - the split is defined by what kind of ethical/social value does the company produce:
- group A - companies with a mission to help people in desperate need of aid (e.g., working on vaccines for COVID-19, early cancer detection, or just widespread e-learning for the impoverished)
- group B - companies aiming to make a breakthrough that will solve/reduce some non-critical but still viable problems (e.g., reduce carbon emissions from transportation, eliminate car accidents by introducing autonomous cars, etc.)
- group C - companies that provide fair, demanded services for the sake of their customers; they are not changing the world we know, but they fulfill the essential needs of others (e.g., invoicing as a service, ERP, CRM, etc.)
- group D - companies that do not provide direct value (but there's a justification of their existence - and demand for their service): intermediaries, "thug-companies" (according to "Bullshit jobs"), etc.
- group E - companies that provide the services that are not unequivocally harmful, but it's hard to classify them as "beneficial" (to the society or anyone in particular): e.g., online casinos (and other kinds of gambling), porn brokers (who provide platforms for creators to share their content with ... consumers), etc.
- group F - companies that do something straightly illegal (e.g., drug marketplaces on the dark web, digital media piracy, etc.)
I realize that the split above may be highly subjective (e.g., there may be a debate on how to qualify gambling, micro-financing, or cryptocurrencies). For example, many companies are stuck somewhere between groups C & D. However, for the sake of illustration, it's enough to use an imperfect, simplified model (so no worries, amigo/a).
Some space for reflection
OK, since I presented the context, let me ask you some questions then:
- If you're looking for a new employer, are you actually looking primarily for one in group A or B? Does it make a difference to you (do you favor those groups)? Would you be determined to land such an offer (over the other ones)?
- Many companies from group C present themselves as ones from group B (they fool themselves they are doing something for the common good) - do you approach such statements critically and always make your own judgment? If you find that B is indeed C, does it matter to you?
- Would you have any ethical, moral problem with accepting an offer from group E company? To remind you: it offers stuff/services you probably wouldn't allow your kids to use. And you would discourage your friends/acquaintances from doing so if they asked you about it.
- What's the chance you'd accept an offer from group F? Does it make a difference to you that the shopping cart view you're developing will contain illegal substances? Or that the payment gateway integration will be used to pay for them?
I'm asking because I know that opinions vary:
- (regarding group F) some compare software to ... weaponry - according to them, it's not harmful itself but depends on who uses it and for what (and it's the user's responsibility for their actions and intentions)
- (regarding group E) some claim that they are not forcing anyone to use their products (e.g., gambling services) - if grown-up, mature people choose to do so, who are we to prevent them from doing that? if it's not us, someone else will offer such a service - as those are not prohibited by law
- (regarding groups C&D) some do state that the split between those can't be objective, so it's the market (and the demand for services) that should decide - if there's a demand for service, it is indeed valuable (so why bother?)
- (regarding groups A&B) people with a strict mercenary attitude aren't that much interested in the impact their software makes - they are focused on the technical excellence and positive feedback from whomever 'orders' work from them
When it comes to myself, I think I had some exposure to all the groups but the last one (group F). To be honest, I was never looking explicitly for group A companies - they are scarce and typically non-profit. In practice, it means that in 95% of cases, they won't be able to make an offer even approximately on par with what the market can (financially) provide.
However, a few years ago, I've realized I'm sort-of-allergic to companies from groups: D and (especially) E. I wasn't giving it much thought until last August when a company X has head-hunted me directly with an offer (I won't reveal their identity because this is not supposed to become a roast of them or any of their particular products).
To keep the long story short, they've offered me a very nice leadership position, hefty paycheck (backed up with a new, impressive round of funding), decent work environment, and non-trivial engineering challenges to tackle. It all sounded nearly too good - until I've checked their palette of products. It was a B2C mobile 'entertainment' offering, and it has left me nearly speechless ...
Those were some miserable time-burners that didn't require any brain cell involvement — neither any manual skill. No actual sense of progression, no authentic purpose, no learning, no real competition (to pump up some adrenaline, etc.).
Zero, null, nil, naught, nothing.
All of them were absolute time-wasters. Devoid of any value. Their sheer existence was an act of mockery of the collective intelligence of human society.
How about 'no'?
Yes I know what you're thinking - but I'm not THAAAT naive. Regardless of my judgment above, there are probably tens or hundreds of thousands of people mindlessly clicking this garbage on their phones every day. For zillion reasons: to forget about the shitty reality around them - empty bank account, cheating husband, troublesome kids, etc. Or simply because they are bored and well, don't have too sophisticated demands when it comes to fun & entertainment.
But I simply couldn't imagine myself committing to developing such a thing (even with my area of interest being mostly the non-visible back-end parts). I wouldn't be able to convince myself every day in the morning that my work would make someone better/happier - quite the contrary - it felt like I'd be harming those people (w/o them realizing that). I cannot even think about aligning with KPIs/goals like increasing the level of user engagement (attracting people to spend EVEN MORE time with that crap).
And just to be clear - it had nothing in common with the technical quality: the products looked polished and fancy. They were just boundlessly stupid and useless (as they served only one purpose - to keep the user longer in front of the screen to show her/him more ads ...).
So, that's was my story - but what about you? Did you face similar dilemmas in the past? What did you do? What would you do if you were in my place? What's your borderline you'd never cross (when it comes to the job offer)?