In the tech world, the path to success is clear: Secure a software engineering job at Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, or Facebook. If you have a FAANG internship, then you’ve made it in the tech world. If you don’t have one… well, that’s obviously your ultimate goal, so keep grinding out that LeetCode and maybe you’ll make it someday.
Having a big-tech job on your resume or LinkedIn is like a shiny gold pass with even shinier golden shackles. If Google thinks you’re good enough for them, any humble startup should be groveling at your feet for your services. However, your peers will be dismayed if you “downgrade” from the privilege of working at a big tech company. Like I said before, gold pass. But even shinier golden shackles.
The world of tech is an impressive system that produces a herd of very excellent sheep. After all, despite the fact that the same type of software job can be found at hundreds of companies, everyone wants that same coveted software job at the same handful of places.
I didn’t grow up with Silicon Valley in my dreams. In fact, I didn’t know what coding was until a few years back. But the moment I was introduced to the world of tech, it was like I fell into a herd that was all running towards the same pile of food.
Everyone had the same single-minded goal: Get hired at a tech giant. The message was clear: If you get in, you’ll be wealthy, healthy, and wise. Your world will be golden.
The industry-wide obsession is so loud that it drowns out the voices of anyone with differing dreams. All you hear is “Google,” “Apple,” and “Facebook,” and the constant propaganda makes you feel as if you won’t amount to anything if you don’t achieve those goals.
Of course, some “rebel” against the system. Some students leave big tech to chase the money in Wall Street FinTech. They do quant work at Citadel or Jane Street. They “sell their souls” by trading their love of innovative technology for the big bucks in the business world.
I’m inclined to say that throwing every tech overachiever into the same five corporate social media conglomerates isn’t doing much for worldwide innovation either.
Let me make something clear: If you’re in it for the money, then go for it. Being a software developer at a big tech company brings in a ludicrous salary, and financial wealth might be your ultimate goal. And you know what? If that’s what you want, more power to you.
As much as I’d like to wish we lived in an idealistic world, I am not naive enough to think that everyone has the privilege to pursue whatever they want. The stark reality is that living is expensive. Sometimes you just need the financial security of a roof over your head and food on the table.
Furthermore, sometimes your career isn’t about your dreams. I think we live in a world where self-worth and happiness are too focused on career. Sometimes, a job is simply a job. Your job does not need to define who you are. For some people, work is where you make money so that you can enjoy the other parts of your life. And that’s great.
But I know so many people who go into software or technology with dreams of changing the world of tomorrow. They dream of innovating and building the next big thing. Then they get sucked into the obsessive world of getting hired by big tech companies. They put the blinders on.
It becomes so hard to get out.
Two months into my second year of university, I got a summer internship offer from Microsoft. People acted like I was a god. I’m not. They assumed I was a coding genius. Again, I’m not.
They figured I was ready to hit cruise control to the luxurious dream life. “You can probably leverage that into Google or Facebook next year,” one of my peers said while congratulating me.
He immediately assumed that my goal was to work at Google. Who could blame him? After all, I was a high-achieving software engineering student. What else could I possibly want?
Maybe I’d like to make my own decisions for a change instead of letting the world make them for me.
I’m not trying to rip on Microsoft. In fact, I really enjoyed my experience. Everyone was really nice and exceptionally smart. Full-time employees — including VPs and program directors — would happily hop on to virtual coffee chats with me, the lowly intern. I vividly remember a product manager making time in her schedule on a single day’s notice because someone suggested I chat with her in my last week.
The people at Microsoft were amazing. They were inspiring, encouraging, and made me believe that I could do anything I wanted. They convinced me to dream big, to make mistakes.
Essentially, they gave me the courage to throw away my safety net and try something else.
Rejecting my Microsoft return offer was one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. I turned my back on a lot of money, a fancy title, and a resume boost… all for nothing. There was no other job offer to fall back on. All I had was hope and blind faith.
I realize it was a privilege to take such a risk, but it is also a privilege to go to school and have a job.
Make no mistake, a choice in your career path is a privilege. But choosing a less luxurious career path is not irresponsible or a waste.
I think we have a misconception today that turning down a high-status job is an abuse of privilege — that it is equivalent to throwing away all your potential. This mindset is silly and the reason why elite students all gravitate towards the same handful of high-class, high-paying jobs.
A lower salary doesn’t mean you’re doing less for the world. It also doesn’t mean you’re failing to live up to your potential. Statistically, teachers make less than investment bankers. Social workers make less than software developers. But they are at least as — if not more — important to the wellbeing of society.
It might be a privilege to be able to choose where you work, but don’t let anyone guilt you into certain decisions.
You might get a pay cut if you take a leap of faith and follow the path to a less luxurious job, but success is not defined by your paycheck.
Tony Gaskins Jr. once said:
“If you don’t build your own dream, someone else will hire you to help build theirs.”
Maybe your dreams don’t revolve around your tech career. Maybe they lie around your family or your other hobbies.
But if you’re dreaming about building tech that goes outside the box, maybe loosen the leash that has you collared to the financial security and status of a job in big tech. It doesn’t have to be about quitting your job. It doesn’t have to involve turning away from the path you are on.
You just need to take off those blinders. There is a world out there that does not revolve around Google, Facebook, and Amazon. And you’re selling yourself short if you don’t at least take a look once in a while.
Disclaimer: This article was written by a contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here.