An argument against the intangibility of the software engineers work

Or why reality does not matter as we are all sacks of bits and bytes.

An argument against the intangibility of the software engineers work

The following exchange on the “r/cscareerquestions” subreddit motivated me to write this post as I could identify myself with the tone and the frustration one can feel especially with the layoffs going around forcing the average Joe to compete for promising career opportunities with ex-FANG employees armed with thick severance packages and CV’s so impressive one would consider to put them on platin plates.

The exchange as seen on Reddit for a better context of this post.

The Question by u/yeahdude78:

Has anyone ever said "fuck it" and left engineering completely for something else?

Maybe left for something that is non-engineering but still in the tech space, like product management, project manager, etc.. or something else even outside of tech entirely?

Not sure how many would still even be on this sub in that case, but interested to hear your stories of why you left.

The Answer by u/Dealoite:

It's painfully common, more than you could ever imagine. I've been stuck in this industry for what feels like an eternity, and let me tell you, the number of people who escape the clutches of software engineering is mind-bogglingly high.

Just think about it for a moment. This job is the epitome of abstraction. Day after day, I find myself trapped in front of a soul-sucking screen, whether it's the cold walls of a cubicle or the suffocating isolation of my room. I mechanically type away at an IDE that's supposed to be fancy with its vibrant colors, but it's all just smoke and mirrors. I'm essentially begging computers to shuffle meaningless data from one place to another.

Nobody outside the tech world understands what the hell I do, and even most of my colleagues are clueless. How can anyone truly feel satisfied when they spend their days invisible, creating intangible nothingness? There's no real sense of accomplishment like building something tangible with your bare hands, something that people can actually see and appreciate. Instead, I'm nothing more than a cog in a gargantuan machine, churning out code for insignificant services that the general public doesn't even know exist, let alone care about. And on the rare occasion someone does interact with what I've slaved over, they remain blissfully ignorant of the blood, sweat, and tears poured into its creation.

But it's not just the abstract nature of the work that eats away at my soul. Oh no, it's far worse. It's the relentless deadlines that hang over my head like a dark cloud, ready to crush me at any moment. Most of these deadlines are utterly insane, imposed by people who wouldn't know a line of code from a coffee stain. And let's not forget the daily status reports. Every damn day, I'm expected to justify my existence, to explain what I did yesterday and what I plan to do today. It's like living under a microscope, constantly scrutinized and judged. When will it be done? That's the question that haunts me, and the answer never seems to satisfy anyone.

And let me tell you, the pointlessness of it all is suffocating. I can't help but question the purpose of my existence every damn day. They try to sell us the idea that software engineering has the power to make a positive impact, to revolutionize industries and transform lives. But let's face the harsh reality: my work doesn't amount to much in the grand scheme of things. I'm just a cog, a tiny insignificant piece in this vast machinery.

In fact, when I look at the top companies in the industry, the so-called FAANGs, I can't help but see them as a detriment to society. They create addictive social media platforms that exploit our vulnerabilities, manipulate our behavior, and erode the very fabric of human connection. They encourage shallow interactions, fuel misinformation, and amplify division in our already fragmented world. Is this the impact I'm supposed to be proud of? Is this the legacy I want to leave behind?

My work, buried within the codebase, feels like a drop in the ocean of technological mediocrity. I'm not creating life-saving software or solving pressing global issues. No, I'm just contributing to the never-ending cycle of consumerism and virtual distractions. It's disheartening to think that my skills, my potential, are wasted on building products that offer little more than fleeting entertainment or superficial conveniences.

The weight of this knowledge gnaws at my soul, eroding any sense of motivation or purpose. How can I find fulfillment when my talents are channeled towards perpetuating a system that values profit over the well-being of individuals and society as a whole? It's a disheartening realization, a constant reminder that my efforts, no matter how much I pour into them, ultimately fall short of creating meaningful change.

So, in the face of this bleak reality, I'm left grappling with the existential question: What's the damn point? How can I find purpose in an industry that often seems to prioritize exploitation and contribute to the very problems we face? These thoughts haunt me, leaving me adrift in a sea of disillusionment, yearning for a path that aligns with my values and allows me to make a genuine positive impact on the world.

Depression, that's what this profession breeds. It's a black hole that swallows your dreams, leaving you hollow and broken. So many of us yearn for something more, for a chance to escape this digital prison and find meaning in the real world. Whether it's embracing a hands-on craft, pursuing interdisciplinary projects, or abandoning this wretched career altogether, the desire to break free from the chains of software engineering is a desperate cry for salvation.

Buildings that have stood for millennia and works that have persisted for hundreds of years are impressive and admirable, but they represent survivorship bias, a persona non grata if went to use this argument to evaluate the human effort and what profession leaves which legacy. I recognise that much of the beautiful art, works, people, journals, lives, and histories have been lost in the wheel of time, their tangibility offering them no protection.

We now build houses for 10 years, cars that last 7 years and household appliances which break down after 2. We prepare dinners and dishes that endure for an hour at best, and drinks that last a few seconds at worst.

But the things that make all of this seem rustic and real compared to an email you read once and will never look back at, are the memories and experiences we have and create. In other words, it's the information, the bits and bytes we've harnessed by channelling electricity into circuits, racing along pathways we've built, hastily inscribing 0s and 1s into the fabric of the digital world.

If we speed up the gears and perhaps loosen them a bit, we arrive at the information theory of the cosmos. We observe how our reality behaves like a simulation and how, beneath the quarks and bosons, shining through qubits and multidimensional shadow casts, there may be a pure information layer of blueprints and ideas - timeless and endless, swirling around in the timeframe we inhabit. These are invoked as ideas, realisations, and inspirations that turn into prototypes, projects, and eventually, products.

As a Software Engineer, you are a miner and processor of the rawest and most vital resource we may know. It may not provide you with shelter or satisfy your hunger, but it will be the force that imparts meaning to everything else when all is said and done.

If we were in a fantasy novel, we wouldn't be talking about information but rather mana, an intangible force around us ready to be manipulated and shaped. We might choose the path of rune-makers, enchanters, and spell-craftsman, being wizards, mages, and witches at heart. We strive to help the people around us ignite their sparks with the tools we create, so they too can become powerful masters of magic.

Embrace the data. Work on becoming better at shuffling it, using the right tools, and building new ones until you can create spells so bewitching and captivating that they will improve the lives of the people who matter to you. Don't fixate on the abstract mana behind the smoke and mirrors, but focus on the experiences you create and the memories you can share.

Now, let's discuss the real mental health killer: deadlines and status reports. The term "deadline" is an abomination, only appropriate in the medical sector for patients in the emergency room with less than 24 hours to live.

You don't have to use deadlines, and you shouldn't. Instead, set goals and milestones, strive to meet them, and if you fail, look for ways to improve. At the end of the day, after the work is done and the customer is satisfied, no one will care about deadlines.

Use status reports to track your progress, ask for help, or just pat yourself on the back for maintaining your workload, staying on schedule, or having a productive day.

If management attempts to impose deadlines and status reports on you as tools to control and apply pressure, discuss this with your team and management. It should be understood that your responsibility is to work the time you are paid at a level of productivity you can maintain until retirement. If management cannot meet timelines or keep the project on schedule, then they have oversold, underplanned, or understaffed - all factors generally beyond your control. In factories, people convene an emergency meeting if they realise this is the case, for example, due to external factors like missing supplies, and they have to plan anew how to meet the customers' orders.

If all else fails, leave and look for work elsewhere. I may speak from a position of privilege, as I enjoy a safety net in Germany in case of unemployment, but this is something everyone should strive to have, be it made available by the state or through private effort.

There will be no greater superpower in your career than the ability to say no.

Let's talk about the invisibility of one's work. It's an illusion people create or develop due to the distance to their customers or market, regardless of the profession. I learned this through conducting user interviews and getting involved with the target group. I was shocked to find that there were real fans of the product I worked on who thanked me in person for fixing niche bugs I thought no one even noticed.

Understand your niche, build for it, converse with it, and find your fans. People obsess over the strangest things - there are individuals making paintings in Excel, so I believe everyone will find at least one true fan to appreciate their work. That seems more than enough visibility for me.

We all know the shadows of capitalism - how it creates monopolies that, after years of dancing around laws, tend to become self-regulating.

But there have also been monopolies in the past. While an empire has its advantages, with time it corrupts and sinks into bureaucracy, process, and the pursuit of control, marking its downfall.

In our history, there have been plenty of people challenging empires, monopolies, and conglomerates and winning. Find passionate and skilled people trying to bring the change that so many desire and become the next line of heroes winning their challenge.

Mental health is a complex topic, with a lot of research still seeking to answer even more questions. I believe one should focus on the actions one can take and the habits one can build. For example, even though I love my career as a developer and dream about a future where I can program fabricators, replicators, and entire terraforming space-travelling systems with the help of a personal android assistant, I know that at the end of the day, I am still human.

With a lot of effort and the help of Pokemon Go, I managed to develop a habit of jogging to and from work, 10km a day, over two years. I started walking to work in 2019 and during the Corona quarantine, I increased the amount I walked from 40km a week to 80km, and then jogged twice a week, trying each week to jog one day more and taking breaks when it became overwhelming.

Besides maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise, one should strive to spend at least two hours a week in nature to allow oneself time to unwind from the mental demands our modern world produces.

By at least aiming for these goals, you give your mental health a fighting chance in the war for our attention and against the daily attempts to exploit our desires.

After sharing my thoughts and ramblings I want you to ask yourself this simple question when moving forward in your career and being part of the force that is digitalizing our world.

Do you want to become a wizard or a mere cog in the machine of someone else's factory?