Finding the optimal tradeoff between career and art

Table of Contents

I enjoy creating high quality software - producing "art".

"High quality" is, of course, hard to define, and hard to identify, and mostly subjective. So I won't try to define it in depth. But, in my opinion, the highest quality software is open source, reuses existing high quality software, does not duplicate existing solutions, is thoroughly researched and informed by predecessors in both industry and academia, is a novel improvement on the state of the art, reduces the total sum complexity of the entire computational system, and is stable, reliable, and fast.

In general, the closer you get to the world of mathematics, logic, and pure computer science, the easier it is to build high quality software.1 The real world is complex, and any software that has to serve a "real world" purpose becomes unavoidably more complex. That's fine by me; because of this, I much prefer to build abstract, low-level software, like programming languages, compilers and operating systems.

I also enjoy material comforts such as "food" and "shelter". Fortunately, many organizations are willing to give me money in exchange for me creating software. Very convenient, since I enjoy creating software.

But such organizations typically (as dictated by competition and scarcity) don't care about making "high quality" software in and of itself. They want to perform some real world task, as soon as possible, to some bare minimum level of quality, in a way that is reasonably deployable and usable, often by non-technical users. The constraints of our society place so many constraints on the software created in such organizations that the software produced is generally quite low quality.

Different organizations, nevertheless, have different constraints, and are able to produce software of different quality levels. Most programmers can think of organizations which stereotypically produce abysmal software, and of organizations which produce (relatively) high quality software.

Different organizations will also give me different amounts of money. Again, most programmers can think of organizations which pay well, and organizations which pay poorly.

How much an organization pays me doesn't necessarily correlate or anticorrelate with my ability to pursue high quality software when working for them. An organization that has heavy constraints on their ability to pursue quality software might pay well or poorly. Similarly, an organization which allows pursuing high quality software in a (relatively) unconstrained way might pay well or poorly.

So, these are the objectives of the optimization problem: I want to be able to produce the highest possible quality software ("art"); and I also want to get paid the maximum possible number of dollarydoos ("career"). I don't care about anything else, at least for considering this optimization problem.

Maximizing "career" on its own has been discussed endlessly; I'm more interested in discussing maximizing "art", under the constraint of a minimum level of "career"; and on maximizing "career", under the constraint of a minimum level of "art". And, in general, determining the Pareto frontier of the art/career tradeoff.

I'm looking for more relevant information, or any suggestions. Feel free to send me an email (my address is on the main page), or make comments on this article on any social media site.

1 Options

Below are a few quick evaluations of some common, obvious options. Probably not all of these are actually on the Pareto frontier.

1.1 Personal open source work

  • Pros: Can do whatever I want
  • Cons: Near impossible to get funding, no resources

1.2 Academia (Get a PhD)

  • Pros: Can mostly do whatever I want, can get excellent technical advice from professors
  • Cons: Poorly paid, little resources, ultimately time-limited because there's so much competition for academic jobs

1.3 Academia (Past a PhD, on tenure-track jobs)

  • Pros: Paid well, can mostly do whatever I want, can get excellent technical advice from colleagues
  • Cons: Very difficult due to the heavy competition for academic jobs (though CS is better than other academic fields)

1.4 Research lab (Work at modern Bell Labs)

  • Pros: Will probably be working on technically excellent projects pushing boundaries
  • Cons: Hard to find (Do any of these even exist?) and hard to get in to (probably need a PhD first)

1.5 Work at a big company

  • Pros: Lots of resources, paid well
  • Cons: Little ability to choose technical direction, will be ultimately at the whims of product managers and customers

1.6 Work on open source at a big company

  • Pros: Decent resources, decent pay, being open source enforces higher-than-average standards
  • Cons: Such positions are rare, likely to be subject to the whims of tech industry trends and bad engineering practices

1.7 Become a manager or tech lead at a big company

  • Pros: Lots of resources, paid well, some authority to choose technical direction
  • Cons: Have to fight political fights to maintain technical excellence, will still be mostly at the whims of product managers and customers, will have substantially less time to write code

1.8 Work on research at a big company (ML/AI, PL, etc.)

  • Pros: Excellent pay, excellent resources, probably world-class
  • Cons: Such positions are rare, I personally am not really interested in ML/AI so the available positions are even narrower

1.9 Work at a startup or start my own business

  • Pros: Can choose whatever technical direction I want at the start
  • Cons: No time to do things well, little resources in general, risky pay structure

1.10 Work in quantitative finance (Proprietary trading firms, hedge funds, etc.)

  • Pros: Lots of resources in general, theoretically technical excellence directly translates into profits
  • Cons: In practice their tech might not actually be very good, they might not be willing to dedicate resources to technology



That doesn't mean that software created by mathematicians and logicians is necessarily, or even typically, going to be high quality. Just that it's easier.

Created: 2021-03-22 Mon 22:19