ProgrammersIs "needing a change" an acceptable reason to move on from a job?
[+25] [12] Bobby Tables
[2010-11-05 02:01:50]
[ jobs career burnout ]

I'm burned out with my job (and need a break from the cubicle world in general) and am going on a personal sabbatical next year. This got me thinking about something that I've experienced with several jobs in the past, and what really came to a head this time: is "needing a change of scenery" only human, or is it seen as a sign of lack of professional commitment? Furthermore, how does it sound to a hiring manager if this is given as the main reason for quitting a previous job?

Let me explain what I mean by "needing a change of scenery": I don't mean needing a new professional challenge. I'm talking purely about the sheer sameness of physical/organisational scenery. I find that, no matter how good a company and a job is, after about 2-3 years of the same office building, same organisational quirks, same cubicle, same desk, same general work, etc - things just start to feel stale and obnoxious. If the company is good, the people are good, and the work is interesting and varied, and there is interesting new technology to grow into and learn, this can stretch it out to MAYBE 4-5 years. But beyond that I start bouncing off the walls no matter how good and promising the work and environment is.

I'm surrounded by people who are real stability junkies. The type that would stay in the same cubicle till the day they die if they could. - This is making me feel like maybe there is something wrong with me. Like, if the work really is good, this "sameness of scenery" shouldn't get to me, but it does. And whenever I try to discuss it with people, some of them virtually accuse me of being uncommitted and unprofessional. To them, there needs to be something really "wrong with the job" - on a professional level - before one has a "good excuse to move on".

Can anyone relate to this? Or do I really have some kind of professional commitment deficit issue?

(BTW: I've recently become a big fan of Joel Spolsky's sabbatical formula [1]: "working for four years, and then taking one year off.". This really feels like it's what I should be aiming for, to stay at optimal mental health and motivation.)

(1) Acceptable to whom? - Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen
(2) @Thorbjørn: Acceptable as a general social impression. Like, "I have the flu" is an acceptable reason to take a sick day, while "I have a hangover" sounds flaky. I'm trying to guage what people think of a "pure needing of a change". If it sounds flaky and professional uncommitted, or is seen as a fact of life generally. - Bobby Tables
You may want to consider why you need the change and add the reason. - Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen
(1) I should not worry about what the social impression is; if you need a change, make the change - you only live once. +1 for being a fan of the sabbatical formula. Though I think it is better to find a job that allows you to take more holiday - 8 months on, 4 off is good. - Orbling
(1) YES IT IS!!! - Mild Fuzz
[+30] [2010-11-05 02:51:02] Tim Post [ACCEPTED]

I don't see anything wrong with it. I did the 'extreme' version of what you are discussing, with these steps (a short explanation under each)

  • Quit my job. I flat out quit. I could not take another day.

Work was not a place for me to learn any more, in fact it was getting in the way of learning. Instead of being programmers, we were basically slowly reduced to project managers that managed off shore programmers.

The idea looked good on a spread sheet, but left most of us miserable.

  • Can't beat em? Join em.

I sold everything I had, stashed my bonus in savings, cashed in some investments and moved to a country where that would last me a few years without having to worry about income. I basically turned the tables, I became the off shore programmer, but most of my time was unpaid. The research that I did, alone, is worth more to me now than four years at a university. I got up in the morning and worked on what I wanted to do, which was study virtualization technology and other emerging concepts.

  • Pay yourself first, not always in money.

To keep up my resume, I devoted a significant amount of time to working on various open source projects, most of them coincided with my work at the time. The mentors I found are worth their weight in gold. Smart people, first and foremost want to teach. I'm taking a bit of latitude in that statement, but I've found it to be true.

It is just now, after approximately five years that I'm returning to the conventional work force, I now have a job that pays me to do what I've been doing all along.

You go to work for two reasons, personal esteem and financial compensation. It is easier to work around a lack of the second, however if either are seriously lacking then you need to do something.

While I don't recommend that people go as extreme as I did, I find nothing wrong with taking whatever time you need to bring things back up to par, without making a knee jerk lateral move that results in the same problem.

If you want some time and can afford it, take some time. The more strategic you can make 're entry', the happier you'll be.

+1: I've done the "knee jerk lateral move" once before, and it didn't solve anything. This is why I'm doing a more extreme thing this time. :) - Bobby Tables
(4) Good for you, Tim. I always like a good 'living life by your own rules' story :-) - GrandmasterB
Update: This actually gives me an idea for a possibility which I hadn't considered until now: going back to my old country (in Eastern Europe) for a while. It has a lower cost of living so I could "do my own thing" for a while longer there than here in Australia. Hmmm, don't think I'll end up doing this, but it's one more possibility to think about. I have dual citizenship so this is always open - but easy to forget about when you're on the other end of the world and comfortable, hehe. :) - Bobby Tables
If you don't mind me asking, where did you move to, Tim? - Scott Whitlock
[+8] [2010-11-05 02:55:46] Tangurena

Is "needing a change" an acceptable reason to move on from a job?

Yes. To bend an analogy, some people can stay married for life, others can't stay with one person for more than a short time. If you are the sort of person who must move every few years, then you should know that about yourself and after about 2 years start looking for the next job (translation: pace yourself). One of my friends has been a consultant for the past 20+ years and only 1 job has lasted more than 1 year. Each year he tends to get 10-20 W2 and 1099 forms for his taxes. He knows he gets itchy feet after a few months.

Furthermore, how does it sound to a hiring manager if this is given as the main reason for quitting a previous job?

Generally, "it was time to move on" is a generic non-answer. It could mean anything at all and therefore means nothing.

+1 for "it was time to move on". I've used this in previous interviews. - Bruce Alderman
(1) I think I have this problem too (not being able to stay in the same place for long), but I'm concerned about how my resume will look if I change job every year; most employers want people for the long haul - Krelp
@kop, every year is too often to change for most hiring managers past the first three jobs. Every 2-5 years, not a problem. Rememebr it takes most of a year for an employee to be fully productive, would you waste your company's money on hiring people who will never get out of the trainee category? - HLGEM
@HLGEM: that's not me, been working 6 months and I'm already the star.. But it's difficult to convince people that I'm worth having even for a shorter period of time :S - Krelp
(1) @HLGEM: What do you think of ~4 years? I'm thinking of getting into contracting after my sabbatical, but failing that, I'll probably fall back on the Joel Spolsky formula (working 4 years, moving on). ~4 years are not considered too short stints, are they? (I think my main issue is really with open-endedness. I need a feeling of closure with what I do. Hence the attraction to contracting, and the burning out with being salaried and in the same context forever). - Bobby Tables
@Guizica, I don't consider 4 years to be a short time at all. In my experience, it is a long time to be someplace. My current office is an odd exception, where at 4 years I am the "short timer", as we have several developers who have been here 15+ years. - Tangurena
(1) @Guizica, I don't think anyone would consider 4 years to be too short. - HLGEM
[+5] [2010-11-05 03:40:40] SnOrfus

This isn't uncommon. I've heard of some large companies even expect/accept it and endorse moving around to different teams/buildings within the same company (Microsoft, and some banks are ones where I have direct knowledge of, but have heard stories about many others).

I have a friend who worked for Intel and he went to his manager and said "I want to move" because he was bored with where he lived. A few months later, he was with another division of the company, in a different country. They even paid a fair bit of moving expenses for him and his wife.

That's a good option: Work for a company with offices in different cities. Then you can have a change of scenery without having to look for a new employer. - Bruce Alderman
This is definitely something I'll be looking at. At the moment, my plan (when I come back from my sabbatical) is to first look into contracting - or maybe joining a startup. But if that doesn't go well, the next fallback will be to look for permanent positions with serious secondment prospects. The standard "sit in the same cubicle forever" jobs will be a dead last fallback. :) - Bobby Tables
[+4] [2010-11-05 02:28:54] Ken Henderson

I have some of the same problems/issues myself. I'm approaching the 3 year mark now myself and starting testing the waters to see what's available in my area. A week or so ago I was talking to a corporate recruiter and she wanted to know why I was interested in a different position, I told her I was bored and tired of doing the same things. (On a side note I didn't hear from the hiring manager on that one, the bored thing may have scared them but it might have been that is was a distributed computing development project and I didn't have an experience in that area.)

My take on the people that are really happy where they are don't tend to push the boundaries. Generally they don't seem interested in learning new techniques/technologies just for the sake of learning. (Actually they don't usually seem that excited about learning them to begin with.) They just seem to want to get through the day and collect a pay check at the end of the period.

Yeah, I agree with the "not pushing the boundaries" thing. This is 9/10 of the stability types in my experience. Then there are the rock stars who, for whatever reason, become very entrenched in a paritcular company and just stay there forever - perhaps wanting to continue making a big difference in a comfortable environment which they know. But this is much more rare. :) - Bobby Tables
[+3] [2010-11-05 08:15:27] NomadAlien

For what its are not alone in this regard! In the past I worked for a big multinational and there I solved the issue by changing jobs/countries inside the company. Eventually that didn't do it and lately I also find myself getting itchy every 2-3 years.

I'm also starting to worry on how this will look on my CV so I'm currently thinking of going into consulting/contracting, hopefully that will look more acceptable on my CV.

+1. Once I come back from the travel/relaxation portion of my sabbatical, going into contracting is the first thing I'll be looking into. Well, either that or a startup. In either case, something a bit more focused and less "open ended" and "standard" than a salaried 9-5er. :) - Bobby Tables
[+3] [2010-11-05 22:08:36] timday

One tip: when you do take a year out and a sabbatical, do advertise the fact on your CV (resume) when you head back into the job market. Someone with the guts and confidence to take a year out to pursue some crazy dream or whatever is pretty interesting (to me, as an occasional recruiter), and it's much better than someone who just leaves a weird one year gap in their employment record (yes people do actually do this; I just don't get it... do they really think I won't notice ? It just makes me think they were in prison or a coma or something).

+1. Thanks for the advice. :) At the moment the way I'm planning to do this is to take 2-3 months off to travel and chill out, and then see what inspires me - though definitely not look for a fulltime permy position at that point yet. Maybe pick up a new technology to learn, look into freelancing/contracting, or possibly finally start that mISV. At any rate, there'll be something there to talk about after those 12 months, not a blank mysterious resume gap. :) - Bobby Tables
+1 for that observation. Very true. - quickly_now
Why does it matter if there's gaps on the resume? - kirk.burleson
(2) To me, it looks like you're hiding something. If you think leaving the gap looks better than declaring what actually happened there, fine (but people will assume the worst). In the case of this question, I'd claim declaring you took time out to do something bold (even if unsuccessful) is better than leaving a gap. - timday
[+2] [2010-11-05 08:18:24] Tomas

Is "needing a change" an acceptable reason to move on from a job?

I think it is. In fact, in lots of interviews it's a common response to the "why" question.

I can feel myself kind of lucky in this matter. I work for an IT services company, in Spain, where the customers use to like having their IT providers working at customers office. So, I usually change my dayly scenery (building, coworkers, etc) every time I move from a project to other, without needing to change the company, and avoiding the monotony. I have rarely worked more than one year in the same project. And, believe me, the way the labour market goes in my country currently (more than 20% of the labor force is unemployed), this job statbility is kind of a bless.

As a conclusion, it depends a lot on the kind of work, the "environment" circumstances, your own spectactions and personality, etc., and it's a very personal decision, so, whatever your reasons to change job is, don't consider it as "uncommitment", and go ahead.

And about this kind of questions at the interviews, IMO it's much better being sincere than trying to hide your real reasons for fear to be considered "unprofessional".

Good luck!

[+2] [2010-11-05 22:03:33] DarenW

Some people are "farmers" and some are "buccaneers", as Wilson Harrell explains in "For Entrepreneurs Only" (a good read even for those with no interest in starting a business.)

I see a spectrum of restlessness - some itch for a major change of scenery after only a month, some in a year, some after five, etc. But we who like to keep active in new things, explore, are misfits in a mostly "farmer" world. Thom Hartmann has written about this - saying "hunter" not "buccaneer", and focused on ADD and stuff instead of desires for changes in general. But wanting a change of scenery after a few years maybe is a slow-motion type of ADD? Wikipedia:

[+2] [2010-11-27 00:20:51] MTR

I'm not an engineer, I just work with them for a living. I'm also in HR, which the sheer admission of the fact might incent you to not read further.

That said, perpetual job-hoppers - in any field - give the impression to potential employers that they have no staying power, that they get bored easily, and that they look at employment and their employers as means to whatever ends are current to you. But given that we spend at least a third of our lives at work, I encourage perpetual job hoppers to stop job hopping and do some soul searching. You are the common denominator in an endless string of short-term jobs.. and, like people who bounce from relationship to relationship, the thing that is missing is much more likely to reside in you vs. in the other person(s) or position(s).

What do you really want and need from a job? If you can't answer that question with a fairly high degree of certainty, you will likely spend many more years of your career bouncing around aimlessly vs. growing and finding satisfaction.

All of that said - I think your immediate plan - a sabbatical - is perfect. Take the time not to just do a bunch of contract work, but rather to determine what you really want. When you know what you really want, you'll start acting like it, and when you start acting like it, you'll probably achieve it. Someone who gets perpetually bored and bounces around has no idea what he really wants - he just hopes that one day he'll stumble upon it out of dumb luck. It rarely works out that way.

+1. Thanks for the HR perspective. :) This all makes sense. Just one question though: do you think there is still some acceptable limit on how long people can spend surrounded by the same scenery? Like, at what point is it "job hopping", and at what point is it acceptable to simply need a change? 5 years? 10 years? - Or do you believe that if a person really knows what they want and has a decent job doing it, they shouldn't mind staying in the same scenery for life - and never "need a change"? - Bobby Tables
Of course not - change is mandatory! But I think every employee owns their career. No company or manager should ever care more about your career than you do, you're the one who owns it. But there are ways to get that new scenery without just job hopping. My best advice is find a mentor - someone who knows you REALLY well, who will grill the heck out of you in a way that will help you learn better how to get more out of what you already have vs always hopping on to something new. Constant moving takes a toll on you, too. :) - MTR
Thanks. My father has been somewhat of a career mentor to me. Now that I think of it, that's probably part of the "problem" in a sense. He is a petrochemical project engineer - essentially designs oil rigs and such. All his work is project based, timeframe limited, and it's never a case of "sitting in the same cubicle forever". That is essentially what makes me jaded - the lack of closure. I thinkk my answer is to work on projects/contracts where there is a definitive goal. A beginning and an end. Anyway, the sabbatical will give me more time for soul searching. :) - Bobby Tables
[+1] [2010-11-05 22:52:13] JB King

I can relate as someone that after working on the same stuff for a few years can start to see more of the problems than the beauty of a system. After spending a couple of years to get it up, there are likely several minor bugs that while a perfectionist finds them annoying they aren't likely to be on the radar of someone that controls the budget and will spend $X,000 of dollars to fix these.

While I did stay at one company for a little over 6 years, there were numerous technology changes within the company over that time that made it a bit easier to swallow. For example, taking the website from a proprietary mark-up into classic ASP and then into ASP.Net was a sort of "rebirth" and thus the old problems got washed away in a sense.

[+1] [2010-11-06 02:32:22] quickly_now

I can related to this - to a point. I've got fed up with a few places, it just takes me about 7 to 10 years :)

However to answer this question:

Furthermore, how does it sound to a hiring manager if this is given as the main reason for quitting a previous job?

I can tell you point blank that it does not look good. Those doing the hiring have a pretty clear idea about three things:

  • hiring a new person is an investment by the company doing the hiring - getting Mr Newbie up to speed takes generally 3-6 months during which the new hire learns the business, the people, the tools, the methods, the code base, etc. During that time productivity is lower than after.

  • having made an investment in a person, do you want to get 18 months of productive output (before doing it all again because they move on), or more? All other things being equal, if faced with a butterfly who flits from flower to flower, or a stayer, there needs to be a really compelling reason to hire the butterfly.

  • It seems to be fairly common for the 2 year butterflies to come in, do stuff, and go before having to live with and fix the problems they create. I've worked with a few butterflies over the years - coming in behind them and fixing their mess while they've gone on to bigger and better things.

The above points all lead those doing the hiring to treat (not always, but often) the people with the endless CV of 2-year stints with some suspicion. Remember the description of the of the Seagull Manager: Comes in, makes a big flap, squawks a lot, eats the food, shits everywhere and then pisses off. Well, sadly, software developers can be like that too, and you don't want to get yourself a reputation like that.

So there is a difficult balancing act - but saying you needed a change is a pretty lame non-reason. Its better to come up with something more convincing. For example, if you are going stale doing the same old same old, and see no prospect for variety, growth, learning, improvement - then say so. That was after all your real reason for making a change. Likewise if you ended up working for a terrible manager, you are better off saying so - and saying what the problem was. This avoids mistakes and misundertandings later (imagine if the place you are applying to has the same management style - best finding that out early!)

+1. Yeah, that's understandable really. :) I wasn't ever going to actually say simply "I needed a change" to an interviewer or recruiter. That question was more rhetorical to get the discussion going. My current gig will be over 5 and a half years when I leave, so now I've got a nice longer stint on the ol' CV anyway. :) - Bobby Tables
[+1] [2010-11-09 21:15:45] community_owned

Heh, I could have written this post myself as it's exactly how I feel :) Be a developer at the same place for almost 5 years, which is the longest I've worked anywhere. On paper everything is good but I'm just.. bored of the place. I currently looking for lateral moves into other companies, but I'm wondering if what I really want is to pack up and go exploring.

+1. Yeah, everything is "good on paper" for me at the moment too. This is what makes it hard, and why I asked such an angsty question. :) If there was something obvious to point to as a problem (eg, "I'm stuck maintaining a dead end old MFC app!") things would be different. :) - Bobby Tables