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How do I explain to a potential employer that my reason for leaving my last job was being moved around too often to gain any in-depth knowledge of any product/area?

I am looking for a long term position where I can take ownership of systems / areas of systems as I have done previously. To this end one needs to spend time in an area, which I (and other developers) have difficulty doing as we are "allocated" based purely on availability (rather than skill/experience in an area). We may spend two weeks in one small area of a large legacy system then be moved to a completely different area / system / project for a few weeks to add a feature before being moved again. Often the technology is completely different as well from very old to very new. We rely on two/three long-term (10 years) developers to try and remember how to make the changes with varying results.

I have been at the company almost two years. Other "new" developers have been there between two and three years, and feel similarly that we don't have enough expertise.

I feel strongly about doing a good job and offering extra value, but my time is taken up with trying to understand the code I am looking at (without getting a brief on the business logic most of the time) to make the changes asked for before being moved someplace else never to return.

I have suggested a few times to other developers and management that assigning developers to systems / areas for much longer would give us a chance to build knowledge in these old systems to then be able to build Unit Tests, refactor and reduce code complexity. But they feel it better all the new devs have a little bit of knowledge of everything rather than in-depth knowledge.

For me this is frustrating. I would like to understand an area to then be able to use my skills & experience to enhance it, be the company expert in that area (to work with stakeholders on new features), clean it up then hand it over to go on to the next area.

How can I concisely explain this to a potential employer?

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    What's wrong with how you explained it to us? Do you need it to be different? If so, in which way? – nvoigt Jan 3 at 9:17
  • After several drafts for this question I wondered if it might be ok! But I am wondering if there is a more concise way to convey this. – VictorySaber Jan 3 at 9:35
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    It's possible management is doing this on purpose. Perhaps the bus factor is too low. "We rely on two/three long-term.." Exactly what they are trying to avoid in the future, by having all developers work on all systems – dustytrash Jan 3 at 13:40
  • Just to add to my last comment, I'd suggest starting by mentioning it, give the managers/supervisors a chance to explain their reasoning (if any) first. Then you can try to revise your concerns with some alternate solutions – dustytrash Jan 3 at 13:41
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    @dustytrash That can work in some places but in this instance there is so much moving around between complicated old system that if I were to be asked to revisit the same area I was on 18 months ago for two weeks I'd be starting from scratch again... – VictorySaber Jan 5 at 10:29
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In general, this is a good reason to change jobs and if stated right is attractive to employers.

I have to disagree with Joe that ownership is a bad word somehow - in my tech management circles we strongly look for people that will demonstrate ownership. There's always the people that take it too far and become toxic fiefdom guardians, but the vast majority of folks are "just working" and not really caring so much about being proactive and taking charge of a given product. The people who really care and demonstrate that sense of ownership are the key tentpoles in our departments.

I'd go into the interview and say "I feel like I've grown in expertise and leadership over the last X years and it's time for me to move into having more ownership in a product or service, so I can really invest in making something successful. My current position doesn't have opportunities for that at the moment, and I move from engagement to engagement constantly. This has given me a lot of opportunity to learn a wide variety of technology, as well as troubleshooting and forensics skills, but I feel like I could contribute more to the success of a product if I could stay with it, invest, and specialize for a while."

People that know what they want is good. People who want something that is in me, the hiring manager's, best interest is great. That spiel above plus a resume that backs it up will for sure get deep into the hiring funnel (mine at least).

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I would like to understand an area to then be able to use my skills & experience to enhance it, be the company expert in that area (to work with stakeholders on new features), clean it up then hand it over to go on to the next area.

How can I concisely explain this to a potential employer?

This is a reasonable way to express your desires.

Make sure you don't use the term "own" as you did in the title though. Ownership has some negative connotations in this context. You will never actually own parts of the business. And you always want to be a team player. Use terms like "depth" or "expertise" instead.

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  • I've had this called SME for Subject Matter Expert. – JazzmanJim Jan 3 at 15:44
  • @JazzmanJim I don't think SME would be right here. SME would be the area you are writing software about - so if you were writing accounting software the SME would be a person who knew about accounting. – DJClayworth Jan 3 at 15:59
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Unit Tests, Refactoring and Code complexity mean nothing to management. This is 100% fine! Why do you care? These improve product quality! Code quality is a means to product quality, so argue this way.

When you concentrate on a few subsystems, you gain:

  • fewer defects
  • higher development speed
  • ability to advise non-technical people on good future solutions
  • increased speed of making new people self reliant

What's the downside?

  • Reduced flexibilty in a developer allotment.
  • Possibilty of a "bad luck" team, which got all the really horrible subsystems assigned. And thus all the other teams shine, this one doesn't, nobody wants to be in it, etc...

So this is a trade-off. If you phrase it like that, maybe you can persuade management in your current company. In my old company, we achieved this shift. It just took years.

In Interviews for new jobs, ask about their development process, team and department structure. This way, you decide!

If you want to phrase it, talk about depth vs. width. Something like: I like a mix of depth and width in my knowledge acquiring, this way I know a lot about several systems. I don't like spreading myself to thin by knowing a little about everything...

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Instead of thinking of it as a negative that you have to explain, look at it as a positive that makes you more appealing.

I too like to be part of a solid team that stays together for a long time and would consider that trait in a potential colleague to be appealing. When the inevitable "why are you leaving your current position?" question comes up, explain that you are looking for a position where you can stick with a project/team for a longer period of time. Explain why you think it's a good thing, what you would enjoy about it. There's no need to dwell on what your current employer doesn't offer, focus on what your new employer will offer.

This of course relies on you doing your homework first and ensuring the company you're interviewing at works in that way!

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  • Some excellent points there especially on what the new employer can offer and not dwelling on the current employer. Thank you. – VictorySaber Jan 5 at 10:30
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I see nothing wrong in the way you described it to us.

When asked about "why you want to change jobs", tell them this. Or, tell them this in your self introduction. A potential employer will likely use this opportunity to ask you more about this experience, what technologies you worked with etc.

While at the conversion, it is also a good chance to ask what systems the potential employer have, and how their teams are structured, so you can evaluate for yourself whether you like the place.

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