I'm at an interesting crossroads in my IT career so far and am seeking some genuine advice from people who bring a fresh perspective or who may have dealt with a similar situation in their own life. It all comes down to Money, or Experience? A dilemma I'm sure many professional people have faced before.

I just turned 23 two days ago, however I started my career in software programming when I was just 19 with no college experience. With only a few years of exposure to different programming languages during my high-school years and also as a long-term hobby, I landed my first coding gig developing Web applications and services in the Application Development division over at the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) HQ, one of only 3 national student loan servicers on behalf of the Department of Ed. While there, I racked up 2 years of straight Java programming experience in an enterprise environment along with 1 year as a technical analyst, catching and fixing errors occurring in live Production systems for end-users both internal (employees) and external (borrowers). These 2 positions have built a great foundation for me for what I do now.

After my 3 years of IT work at PHEAA, I've recently moved onto the private sector. 5 months ago I started as a Developer/Technician (really more of a general Systems Administrator) at a small contract furniture manufacturer. This company does everything in-house and from scratch; Wood milling to fabrics and upholstery, sales to shipping. This gig has been a big undertaking but is also very fulfilling as I oversee EVERYTHING 'IT' except for our company's ERP, which is handled by my colleague, who built the entire ERP over the last 2 decades. We're only a 2-man IT department who report directly to the company Controller. I was also just recently transitioned from a contractor to an actual employee from the staffing firm who found me this job. Here, I get free-reign over & massive experience in:

  • Windows Server administration, encompassing Active Directory, group policies, virtual machines, certificate management etc.
  • Database maintenance/administration as it relates to our CRM
  • Data backups, failovers, data redundancy
  • Network infrastructure maintenance/administration
  • Domain security, both for PC endpoints as well as our Cisco firewall and network
  • Repair/installation/purchasing of IT hardware, assets, and software

This company is a bit behind the curve as it has hardly changed at all over the last 20 years, so there's TONS of work that needs done to modernize all of its inefficient processes and antiquated systems. IT here has also had many hands in and out of the cookie jar over the years so to speak, so alot of things are badly setup, mis-configured, outdated, tossed to the wayside, etc. Everyday is different from the last and I have virtually unlimited opportunity to show what I can do, make things right, and blatantly contribute to this company's impending success. I look at the array of solutions, instead of the existing problems.

The father/son owners are genuine people and are both unadulterated entrepreneurs. My boss, the Controller, (we'll call "Mr. C") couldn't be any better of a boss to have. We're virtually the same person with vastly similar interests, mindsets, and beliefs. Mr. C has worked a huge portfolio of jobs thru the blue collar to white collar spectrum. He's owned his own businesses, and been at the executive level for many companies. He's an incredible mentor & leader, is very decisive and strategic which I really admire. He's only been with this company for a year and has already helped spark a lot of change in a good direction. Him and I talk endlessly after hours about all of our plans and ideas to fix everything wrong with the company and to change things for the much better. We both see the massive potential knocking at the door and are endlessly eager to seize all of it, one thing at a time.

The mentorship, personal growth, exposure and experience that I have direct-access to at this company is virtually invaluable for someone such as myself who has big entrepreneurial aspirations. I plan to retire earlier than most and on my own accord some day, as financial freedom to live the life I want to live the way I want to live it is my ultimate culmination and end-goal in life. Here, I'm literally learning front-to-back how a company is run, how to plan and strategize, and how to manage systems, which I feel will only help me later in life when I have my own streams of residual income.

Moving on, I recently was given a golden opportunity to pretty much make "f#@% you!" money at my young age. A friend I made when I started my coding career at PHEAA recommended me for a mid-level Java Developer position at this military contractor on behalf of the Navy. This company originally offered me a salary of $68,000 (said no), then $75,000 (still no), and now a whopping $80,000 is on the table for me. The offer is merely contingent on me obtaining secret clearance and gaining any 3 of CompTIA's IT professional certifications, both should be no problem. The friend who recommended me is a hot-shot there and they're totally going off his word for if I'm technically able to step-up to this level. My Java skill is somewhere between a Junior Dev & a Mid Dev, probably still closer to the Jr. end of the spectrum. This military contractor needs developers to hit the ground running in a slow-to-medium paced development cycle.

I'm sure if I live & breathed practicing and furthering my Java skill & knowledge every waking free moment I have I could surely rise to this opportunity and start to really succeed. But there's still that "What if.." factor of course. I'm confident, optimistic and driven, but I try not to let that cloud my ability to stay grounded and keep a realistic outlook. At my current company, Mr. C has already bought and paid-for various courses and trainings such as a Java Masterclass, Windows SysAdmin certification course, a 4-hour training with a Cisco networking genius, etc... He's fully willing to invest in me big-time and alot of his plans and future vision for the company's IT direction are being made with myself as an integral piece. Alternatively, at the military contractor, there will be none of that. No training, no courses, period. The company is paid by the Navy to build applications full-time, not dilly-dally on StackOverflow for hours on end trying to figure something out. There's virtually no personal growth to be had there in comparison to my present employer.

I originally accepted my current job at $50,000, which was only a $2k increase from when I left PHEAA. Once I had received the offer for $75k, Mr. C felt prompted to discuss the situation with one of the owners, and they developed a compensation plan for me based on performance/output, which is easily attainable on purpose. As part of the plan I was bumped up to $55k as of labor day, and will be at $60k by April (my 1-year) assuming a few stated projects I'm currently working on are completed and implemented by then. Then, based on future projects and accomplishments I have the opportunity to make $75k by April 2021, which will still be an awesome income for me at the age of 25, assuming I stay here.

So, I'm pretty torn, and I was even mentally torn about this at the offer for $68k... To add to the mix, I'm currently assuming my landlord's mortgage for the 28-year old townhouse I live in, it has the original water heater and heat pump running in it still... So I need to stay mindful of the incoming expensive responsibilities of a homeowner.

When I compare & contrast my situation, it looks something like this:

Navy Contractor - strictly a Java Developer

  • (+++) Be at $80,000 right now at only 23. Opening the door for even high income down the road. Affording a stress-free financial life as a young bachelor.
  • (++) Great PTO, weekly work-from-home some or most days.
  • (+) Turn into a wizard Java coder.
  • (+) Gain secret clearance, which I hear looks great on a resume.
  • (+) Get to work with a very good friend of mine again, directly.
  • (---) Be a small piece of the inherently corrupt and out-of-control Military-Industrial Complex. (I have a moral dilemma with this)
  • (-) Contracts run out, which can be iffy situations. Although, Fed law states newly won contracts must give incumbent workers a chance.

Stay as a SysAdmin at slow transforming Furniture company

  • (+++) Massive personal and career growth, potentially positioning me for my personal aspirations later down my career path.
  • (++) Awesome relationship with my boss. Access to his mentorship and experience. Always willing to invest in my skills and ability.
  • (+) Playing with servers, learning the ins-&-outs of networks, experimenting with different software & platforms, free-reign over IT decisions & direction in most cases.
  • (+) Building on my professional network with entrepreneurial colleagues. Strong believer in "It's not about what you know, but who you know."
  • (+) Steadily increasing pay over long period of time.
  • (-) 30-minute commute to work.
  • (-) PTO could be much better.
  • (-) Since I'm the on-site technician/IT guy, no WFH is possible. (Not a big deal at all)
  • (-) I only get to code very rarely. (May code much more in the future, as we're currently looking to switch to an entirely new ERP and a new CRM with programmable APIs)

So, to my objective readers who actually sat thru my wall of text (which I'm incredibly appreciative of), what is the wiser choice here? I can't help but feel like an idiot if I say no to eighty-grand. However, I can't help but feel I'm apart of something big and that we're working on huge things here at my current company that could potentially turn into big rewards down the road in one way or another. Any input will be valuable. Thanks so much for your time!

  • 2
    Right now your question is way too long and could benefit from some serious editing. Additionally, I believe your main question of which choice to take is off-topic here, as the specific advice will be unique for every person. We recommend asking these types of questions to family, friends, and colleagues who know you personally. – David K Sep 18 '19 at 17:54
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    Career advice is off topic, voting to close. – The Wandering Dev Manager Sep 18 '19 at 17:58
  • There are a couple of things you should know. First, in this day and age, a requirement for a SECRET clearance indicates that you will almost certainly be working with classified information from the moment the clearance comes through. Second, you WILL NOT get approval for working from home with classified information. At the very least, this is something you want to clarify BEFORE you make the decision. – John R. Strohm Sep 18 '19 at 23:10

I cannot tell you which choice to make, but I can give you pertinent insight.

  • The clearance doesn't just "look good on your resume". It makes you worth more money. Jobs that require clearances pay more.

  • The solution to contracts running out, if you go that route, is to keep six months in the bank. You assume that you will get laid off, and you use that money to float you until you can get a new position. That's fundamentally how being a contractor works.

  • The real downside to the Navy Contractor job is the moral one. If you think the job is morally corrupt, and you cannot bring yourself to think otherwise, you should not take it. It will be costly psychologically, it will damage your relations with your peers, and it will make it significantly less likely that you can qualify for a clearance. All of those things will damage you as an employee, and can reduce your productivity, leading to increased unhappiness with the position, etc, etc, etc.

  • If you cannot step to the level of the contractor position, then it won't just be you failing at your job. You'll also damage the position of your friend. That's potentially pertinent.

  • A really good boss is a rare and precious thing, and money isn't everything.

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    Upvoted for your last bullet point. You have all your life to make money. But you may only have a few truly awesome bosses (from whom you can learn many valuable lessons) - if you're lucky. I would take an awesome boss in a good learning environment at a smallish company with a live-able salary over being lost in a sea of government contractor drones getting money thrown at me - any day of the week. Money (eventually) gets spent. Lessons stay with you forever. – dwizum Sep 18 '19 at 18:49
  • What dwizum said. – John R. Strohm Sep 18 '19 at 23:05

You have to go with your gut. It’s a great labor market and those come and go. You sound bright talented and hard working.

One advantage to the current company is that you have a great relationship with the boss. You can learn a lot about IT and life. Yes you have some growing up to do still.

The disadvantage of the current company is who will be referrence for you going forward? It’s so small that you basically have to tell the entire company you are interviewing and want to leave. They might fire you on the spot if you tell them you are considering leaving. Extreme yes but it has happened.

As you get older you will realize that life is full of opportunities- and not every opportunity works out as planned. So don’t jump jobs just because you have an opportunity. There will be another great opportunity next year.

What type of IT work do you want to do in 10 years. Which job prepares you for that. That is what I would focus on.


Your post was way too long so I skipped to the end. Especially from your age, take the SysAdmin job. I'm 29 & 5 years into my career, and dude there's so much money to be had in our line of work for good people.

That means so much more than just being able to code. You're paid in direct proportion to the difficulty of problem you solve, and coding only gets so complex. The way harder problems are deep understanding of the issue your product solves and leading/coordinating groups of people.

11/10 take the mentorship and high-level decisions. Get to know your arena top to bottom, inside and out. If code can solve a problem, do it. If you don't have time during work, put some time in after work or on weekends.

You say you have big aspirations so I assume you realize that means more than in by 9/out by 5. "Most people" want the easy life and to do as little work as possible. You differentiate yourself from them by thinking critically, backing up your thoughts/decisions with data, and working on the business in the hours after you work in the business.

You sound hungry and I hope you get what you're after. I'll close by recommending the MFCEO Project Podcast by Andy Frisella, because he's the mentor that everybody needs. I'm a direct result of his advice and I'd love for you to see the same thing.



**disclaimer that there's no cost at any point. He's a legit dude putting his knowledge and experience out there so we can learn from it. He'll slam you with the truth and tell you how to rise above it all.

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