Being a programmer vs a game developer. How much money is passion worth?

A week or so ago there was a thread on Twitter that caught my eye. It was a tweet asking people what they would pick: a job making 50K per year that they love or a job making 100K that they hate? Working for money versus passion is often the central question many people face in their career.

It was interesting to see the range of responses. I was expecting it to be a pretty mixed bag, but from scrolling through for a while a lot of people said they would choose making 50K per year at the job they love.

Maybe because I am jaded, or maybe because I live in a big city where programmer salaries start at 80K and the average 1 bedroom apartment costs 2K, but I was surprised at how enthusiastically and unflinchingly people said they would choose the 50K option.

As I mentioned in my last post, I started a new job recently. When I am in this state of transition, I always find myself considering my choices up until now in my career. Especially whether I am still happy with the path I am going down.

Usually what I end up wondering about the most is if I made the right choice avoiding game developer positions. Granted, even if I had applied to them, there was no guarantee I would get them. But I often didn’t even look very hard. It felt like I was almost deliberately denying my dream. Picking the cold and calculating approach to my career that made me feel like something akin to a career grinch. To be fair, I have been making games in my free time (which I talk about here and here), but it is not the same.

One reason I felt like I had to sacrifice my creative dreams was because I was born to immigrant parents who fought tooth and nail for everything they got in the United States. My mom especially ingrained in me a belief that money was really hard to get, and that pursuing my passion might leave me penniless and starving on a street corner.

Following your passion was risky business, and taking risks was dangerous (it didn’t help that I was an only child). To those of you who don’t have immigrant parents (or siblings) this might seem a bit extreme. Thing is, they were born in Soviet Russia where clementines were considered a spectacular Christmas gift. So a little bit of imagination is required.

I did see some that shared my cautious attitude about pursuing my passion in the twitter thread.

So did all these tweets change my mind about whether I made the right decision? Is there an answer to which one wins over in the working for money versus passion debate. Was I right to choose web development instead of game development? I wish I could offer a yes or no answer. Unfortunately, as some people also pointed out in their responses, the question is rarely so black and white. My greatest fear about taking a game development job was that I could end up taking a pay cut and also hating my job.

I wrote about what it is like for women in the game development industry in another post. From sexism to harassment, and even rape, there is a frightening amount of horrors women in the game industry experience. Naturally, I feared facing these same kind of experiences myself. To make things worse, if I didn’t like my game development job and then tried to go back to web development? I might never make the money I was making before.

To be clear, I always was seeking out creative coding opportunities, but those types of jobs were tricky to find and game development felt like the most creative option by a long shot. In my head, a game development job would be the dream. But in reality who knows what it would be really like? It’s hard to say whether a job will be one you love or hate until some time has passed. It’s also hard not to chase your dream when you’ve been raised your whole life to do that exact thing. My parents tried to implant a practical attitude. But I still got the same treatment at school as any other millennial. Teachers encouraged me to dream big and never give up. So naturally, it’s still hard to let go of the idea of being a game developer.

I am certain this is not a dilemma I face alone. Many people go into programming as a career from lower paying fields. I met a woman once at a meetup who wanted to get into coding because she was burnt out as a social service worker. I also have a friend who was a professional artist and became a programmer so they didn’t have to worry about paying their bills. There are many others like her who work in rewarding but taxing jobs that eventually become intolerable. Did they love the job when they started out and begin to hate it later? Maybe they didn’t realize how unpleasant the job might become until later. Or they told themselves they loved helping people, and that helping people should be their passion.

At the end of this post, it seems I don’t really have an answer to the question in my title. It’s almost impossible to put a dollar sign on passion. Not just because thats a good quote to put on an inspirational poster. It’s hard because our imagination is not the same as reality. A job involves more than just doing something you are passionate about. It involves coworkers you may or may not get along with. Benefits that may or may not be good, among other things. Bosses who may or may not see where you’re coming from. And you won’t know all of those things until you take that risk. For now I’ve taken the safer road and worked as a creative coder in my free time, but perhaps in the future I will change my mind.

Would you take the 50K job you love or the 100K job you hate? What does working for money versus passion mean to you as a tech worker? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts! I also highly recommend checking out the original thread on Twitter, or join in the discussion yourself.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door” in paperback or Kindle now.

How I’m Overcoming Anxiety After Starting a New Job

I am writing this after starting new job just last week that gave me the worst anxiety I’ve had since I first started working as a software engineer. To be clear, it had nothing to do with the job itself or how anyone treated me. In fact, I was pretty surprised to feel imposter syndrome at all because I’ve had a lot of different jobs in the past four years and have been pretty good at transitioning. Let me provide some context before I dig into what helped me overcome this syndrome.

In that first week the logical part of me knew that how I’m feeling is silly because I’ve proven myself many times and worked in multiple challenging environments. Still, the emotional part of me has not caught up yet. My first real coding job was at a startup that was growing rapidly but since then I’ve worked in more corporate environments where work was done at a slower pace and the stack was less than modern. That made my new environment seem more intimidating, which triggered feelings of insecurity. Of course, the other big cause of my imposter syndrome was my own lack of confidence, stemming from some negative experiences I had in the past.

In my first tech job I learned AngularJS, and there were plenty of other jobs available using that framework that I could apply for. Naturally, I did just that – and ended up with several years in a row of pure Angular experience. In retrospect, this was perhaps a more questionable decision, which I discuss in another blog post. Over the past few years I settled down into a role as a front end developer, leaning toward positions where I could find a creative coding niche. I had some interest in learning back-end or other areas of technology, but I was afraid of veering away from my strength (since I started out as a designer with a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, front end was easier than back end). What I didn’t know at the time was that front end developers and designers are sometimes looked down on by full stack and back end developers.

My non-traditional background combined with being a woman in tech were two of the reasons for my negative experiences in the past that led to my imposter syndrome. Often I felt like these things were counted against me the second I walked through the door. That is another reason why, for years I was applying for jobs with AngularJS. It felt like the safest and most secure path, because I knew that framework already and it was hard enough to prove myself without extra burdens. This is something I believe a lot of women and non-traditional programmers experience, and what holds many of us back.

Basically, we learn a technology stack when we enter the tech industry and stick to it because with every new job it already feels like we have an uphill battle to prove ourselves. Sometimes that means taking an extra coding test, because the hiring manager “just wants to be sure” you can handle it. Other times it might mean accepting a mid-level role when you applied for a senior one. Why add more stress and risk failure when it feels like the deck is already stacked against you? It is a big risk too, especially if you are the breadwinner in your family (as I was for three years while my husband was in law school). It also makes the new job imposter syndrome more intense.

A lot goes into the decision of accepting a new job, including the work environment, the coworkers, the location, and other factors. I think for underrepresented folks in tech we often feel the worst imposter syndrome when we are in a job that intimidates us, which sucks because that is also the kind of job where we grow the most. Even if we receive positive signals from our coworkers we might still feel insecure and insufficient. Maybe I decided to take the risk now because a subconscious part of me was aware that my husband was going to start working soon and therefore I could afford taking on a more intimidating job, because even if I failed I still had a financial safety net that didn’t exist before. All I can say for sure is that I’m here now, and that I’m glad I didn’t shy away from the challenge.

I want other women and underrepresented folks as well as nontraditional techies to also be willing to take on an intimidating job without fear, so I’m hoping I can offer some useful advice. One thing that has really helped me with imposter syndrome is reminding myself of everything that I have accomplished. It might seem cheesy, but making a master list of every cool thing you’ve ever done is a great confidence booster. I also think this is a great thing to do because while you can try to downplay your accomplishments, you can’t say you didn’t do the things that you did. These projects are completed, they’re in your portfolio, and they are part of your history.

The idea that our thoughts trigger our behavior and emotions is an important part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and can be applied to imposter syndrome.

Another useful thing you can try is a technique commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Start by making a two-column chart. Then list all of your negative thoughts about yourself on the left-hand side. Specifically, the ones related to work. An example might be “my coworkers gave me a ton of negative feedback on my last code review so they probably think I’m an idiot.”

After you’ve listed your most negative thoughts, try to challenge them on the right-hand side. If you’re thinking “well they are all reasonable thoughts so I can’t challenge them,” then I suggest for you to take a look at a list of common thought distortions.  In the one listed above, a thought distortion known as “mind reading” is being used. That is because in the example, the person is assuming that all of their coworkers think they are idiots. The problem with this line of thinking is that this person cannot possibly know what their coworkers are thinking, because that would be mind reading. So, that is something the person could write on the right-hand column.

Some more examples of mind reading. These are common for those experiencing new job imposter syndrome

One last thing that I recommend is searching “imposter syndrome” on Twitter. If you’re not on Twitter, I recommend getting an account, even if it’s just to follow other developers. It’s a quick and easy source for tech news, quick tips, and advice from experts. If you search “imposter syndrome” you will see that there are tons of people tweeting about imposter syndrome all the time and their experiences with it. Many of the people who experience imposter syndrome are accomplished and impressive professionals. They have no reason to feel the way they do. Hopefully that will help you see that imposter syndrome is not a reflection of who you are or how good you are at your job.

I know these are just three pieces of advice and there is much more I could say about this topic, but for now I am going to wrap up this post.. I do want to leave you with a book recommendation if you found the charting exercise helpful. It has many useful exercises and assessments, though it is more focused on anxiety and depression than specifically imposter syndrome. It’s called Feeling Good by David D Burns and its one of the best self-help books I’ve ever read. I hope you will feel less new job imposter syndrome after trying out some of these techniques.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door” in paperback or Kindle now.