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I am currently stuck in a rut in my career. I am a very experienced web developer who is finding his work increasingly repetitive and even a little facile.

Unfortunately, changing jobs doesn’t seem a reliable remedy: the last three posts I’ve had have been much the same. Employers talk enthusiastically about having great work to do and many challenges to overcome, but I find that most work is shuffling strings from a database to UI and back again.

My current post started well - working as a solo developer, managing his own project, and doing some interesting R&D in 3D graphics - but the commercial project folded and I have been pulled into a “Scrum” team where I have fewer responsibilities.

My manager is sympathetic but unable to directly help. He accepts that the work might be simple for someone with my background, and suggests I either pursue a PhD programme or a different line of work.

Before doing something drastic, though, how can I find / identify work that I’m qualified to do, but will still stretch me intellectually? I just don’t want to spend my career architecting CRUD applications.

For context, I am a full time, senior software engineer in a London startup.

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A Ph.D. is necessary if you think you want to move into research in academia. Because a Ph.D. is about deep research, its not a good option if you are trying to learn new skills and stay within industry. A masters degree may be a better option in that case.

As for switching to law, make sure you really believe you will be passionate about moving to law and not just looking at it as a way out of software development. Talk to people in law about what you need to know if you could be passionate You may be able to stay in software development and have a much more rewarding career if you change industry you work in.

What kind of software developer are you? Most software developers are at one end of the following spectrum:

  • Coders who like to code. They enjoy writing beautiful idiomatic code in a language which suites there sensibilities about expressiveness, safety, readability, etc. They like to solve algorithmic problems with code. They are mistrustful of libraries and tools unless they take the time to understand how they work. Often then find it more efficient to write their own code than take the time to trust a library or tool.
  • Hackers who like to hack together things. The don’t like to get bogged down in writing a lot of code and would ranter put something together with libraries and tools. Getting something work is what matters. Hard algorithmic problems don’t hold their attention and they throw away the problem and look for an alternative solution.

Most of software development is somewhere in the middle. Most software developed are line-of-business applications and are mostly "shuffling strings from a database to UI and back again”. This is true even if you work in a not-for-profit or government. These roles don’t suite coders because they the software can typical be delivered with code which assemblies libraries and tools together with little challenging algorithmic work. These systems often have difficult problems but they are about of the complexity of understanding and maintaining code which has been modified by many different people to achieve different goals over time. These also don’t interest hackers because building an application shuffling strings around is not very exciting.

You need to ask your self, are you a coder or a hacker? Which ever answer you come up with you should look for industries which need people with you temperament. I suggest looking for an industry rather than looking at particular jobs because job descriptions and even interviews don’t give you a good sense of what opportunities there will be over multiple years.

If you are a coder look for industries where people have hard problems where code can help. Examples include:

  • Image processing for scientific or medical research
  • Finical technology such as automated trading
  • Development of software platforms, e.g. build database management systems or message queues systems.

If you are a hacker then steer away form developing to software and into industries where people use code to help them do other jobs. Examples include:

  • Financial anylitics
  • Data Science roles supporting decision making in organizations
  • Software tools development in a internet-of-things start-up.
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    Only two kinds, huh? – Mawg says reinstate Monica Aug 5 '18 at 17:15
  • @Mawg Of course not, but it might be a useful simplification. – Ben Mz Aug 5 '18 at 17:31
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the last three posts I’ve had have been much the same.

Most jobs are, normally you don't invest in highly skilled people with the intent of stretching their minds, you're interested in the skills they already have, not new ones.

As you progress in any industry you often reach a point where things become routine for you although still challenging for others below you.

The best remedy I have found assuming you don't change industries is to fine tune your salary earning skills and get your intellectual satisfaction on personal projects or outside work activities.

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It's quite normal to feel like this after reaching a certain level of experience, to the point where any additional financial compensation won't make you happy.

Step out of your (close) comfort zone, software is a very broad subject and can span over a large amount of other businesses so you will still be qualified to do this job.

To find challenging work, look for a whole software company that revolves around a subject that you like. That way you won't be limited to a particular job that might go haywire - there will a whole spectrum of things to do/help/show your true potential.

If you are not sure what the subject is, have a chat with someone willing to help using questions but not biased to suggest things - that is what professional coaches do. Consider visiting one if none of your friends fits this description.

To motivate you: I have always liked driving cars as a hobby, although programming is my passion. Finding one SQL table containing rented cars data in previous job could keep me occupied for a very long time :) After being accepted to a company that designs autonomous cars I have kept 200% motivation all the time effortlessly.

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If you believe you can make something better, create your own job by creating your own business. I do not think too highly about residing in academia, because the value you provide to society is negligible compared to what you can do by actually providing products or services through innovation (or just recognizing a demand).

This view may be dabatable, but I value entrepreneurs higher than professors (in general). It's better to fix a general but concrete problem than to teach about it peripherally without actually solving it, and leave it to others to fix it. There are indeed studies which are basically just self-perpetuating (teachers teach future teachers) or plain useless, without ever bringing any (noteworthy) value to society. And the question is not if it is the case, but to what degree. Remember, that the (remnants) of the free market is based on voluntarism - people voluntary trade with you - whereas engaging in academia means you engage in areas paid by tax payers, meaning: You get your pay even if nobody is interested in what you do. And the justification of getting a PhD being "hard" is not a good argument - becoming a mafia boss or dictator is hard as well. Lifting a 1-ton rock with bare hands is hard, but proves no value.

So if you are bored in the boundaries of your expertise and work, expand the boundaries. I am sure there are things which could be worked on around your domain of skills and interests. It is indeed risky, but the pay-off can be significant.

Otherwise challenge yourself by applying to more demanding jobs in which you only have a part of the necessary skills, but clarify that you are indeed capable to grow into the needs of your work. Find a good way to phrase your boredom with previous jobs. Something about not having reached your boundaries or the work not having being challenging enough. Be reluctant to mention that repetitiveness was an issue - this may be the case for the very most types of work, and may lead the employer to believe that you'll get bored if he doesn't entertain you with wildly shifting types of work, and that you'll be likely to leave sooner than later.

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    This is a poorly argued criticism of academia with little particle advice on the question at hand. – Ben Mz Aug 6 '18 at 15:53
  • It is not widely argued (even though I brought up a few arguments because I can't leave my claim entirely unsubstantiated) because it has a focus on the question (even though you don't like that answer which provides 2 options). If you have issues with my answer, point them out directly. The way you complained indicates to me that you rather feel emotionally affected by my criticism of academia and felt the need to vent off a bit by just writing something in spite. – Battle Aug 7 '18 at 5:17

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