Ashton’s plight, fight or flight

Joel Spolsky is a stellar writer and a fine storyteller. His latest, the apocryphal tale of Ashton, tells of the plight of a software developer stuck in a crummy job, surrounded by sycophants and half-wits, desperate to escape the inevitable resulting ennui.  To top it off, this miserable environment happens to exist in…Michigan.

Of course, there could only be one solution:

…it was fucking 24 degrees in that part of Michigan, and it was gray, and smelly, and his Honda was a piece of crap, and he didn’t have any friends in town, and nothing he did mattered.

[…Ashton] just kept driving until he got to the airport over in Grand Rapids, and he left his crappy old Honda out right in front of the terminal, knowing perfectly well it would be towed, and didn’t even close the car door, and he walked right up to the Frontier Airlines counter and he bought himself a ticket on the very next flight to San Francisco, which was leaving in 20 minutes, and he got on the plane, and he left Michigan forever.

It’s a sad story, but mostly because of the thread of self-righteous metropolitan exceptionalism running through it that is all-too-typical of parts of the programming and business of software circles in which I often circulate.  If Ashton hadn’t bought into that worldview, he might have left his disaster of a job with the cubicle manufacturer for any of the small software companies nearby, filled with talented, engaging people working on challenging and rewarding problems. Or, he could have started his own company, with potential to make a big impact in his town, in Michigan, and in the world.

Instead, he flies to San Fransisco, the Lake Wobegon of the software world: where the managers are sane, coworkers are friendly hacker geniuses, and everyone’s exit is above average. Of course, that’s apocryphal too. There are sycophants and half-wits everywhere, and chances are good our friend Ashton will be working on a backwoods project at Google/Facebook/eBay/Yahoo/etc, or at one of those earth-shattering startups you always hear about on TechCrunch (you can hear the pitch now: “it’s like Groupon for Facebook game assets!”). Maybe he’ll be happier, maybe he’ll be more satisfied, maybe he’ll be richer; or, not.

I love large cities dearly, and I wouldn’t mind living, working, or building a business in one. But, metropolitan life is not a salve for what ails you and your career, and not being in one certainly doesn’t doom you or your future prospects. In this age of decentralizing of work, people in more and more professions (perhaps software development in particular!) are uniquely positioned to work where and when and for whom they want regardless of geography. Opportunity is everywhere – and anywhere you are, if you’ve the talent and determination to thrive.

12 thoughts on “Ashton’s plight, fight or flight

    1. I was waiting for someone to say that!

      I hereby release the “Groupon for Facebook game assets” idea into the public domain. If anyone succeeds executing on that, I’ll not sue, but I do reserve the right to mock publicly. ;-)

  1. Absolutely agree. First of all, if a guy leaves when it’s 24 degrees he definitely wasn’t a “farm boy”. You have to at least make the character believable.

    Secondly, if Ashton was in this “armpit” of a company in a suckass part of the world where no one cared about good software and STILL never wrote a line of code that ran anywhere, he probably was one of those sucktacular programmers and wouldn’t know a good line of code from a hole in the wall. It’s funny how loud bad programmers are about writing good code when they can’t do it.

    I’ve been working from home in southwest Michigan for a couple years now after working around the midwest in big and medium sized cities and their suburbs. If I had to go back to one of those places it would be kicking and screaming. There is no more pleasant place in the world than this part of Michigan in the spring, fall and most of summer.

  2. Well, I don’t know about working in Michigan, but I can tell you anyone moving from almost any other state to the bay area of California is in for the shock of their life when they go to secure housing. The housing cost here is anywhere from 2-3x as much (at least) as many “mid-western” states.

    With that said, there are opportunities and experiences that you might have only by moving. You unfortunately won’t know if it’s worth moving from a place like Michigan until you try it.

  3. The nice thing about the “move to san francisco” advice is that it is an easy litmus test to distinguish between the people who know what they are doing and the BS artists that infest the startup community.

    IF you want to start a successful business, you need to maintain control, which means not taking venture capital, not having too many founders, not moving to the most expensive environment to start a company in a state whose government has no concept of responsible spending and sees the business community as an unending source of funds. Why compete for engineers and deal with the type-a, no-knowledge douchebags that inhabit the scene there?

    There really is no upside, other than being closer to VCs who you really shouldnt’ be wasting your time with anyway.

  4. I realise that it’s a fictional and dramatised account, but I do wonder how Spolsky would feel if one of his devs just skipped coming to work and headed straight to the airport instead, without giving any notice? :)

  5. What Joel wrote was a specific case and the whole thing with the weather was overplayed. I personally have experienced some of this and can say that when you get outside of the large and medium cities across the Midwest the percentage of good companies that hire software developers drops significantly. I am not sure why this is exactly.

    My opinion is that many of these smaller towns have only ever had manufacturing plants. They were great places to work 50 or even 30 years ago but as the manufacturing sector has left the US many of the companies have become sickly and poorly run. Which in turn causes them to be poor employment choices for technology people.

    Ashton could have definitely stayed around and found a great job but it would have taken him longer and he may have had to move.

  6. He can’t be sure of ridding himself of sycophants and half-wits at work, but the one thing he can absolutely control is where he chooses to live, and he chooses to go somewhere that will at least offer a mild climate throughout the year.

  7. Walton Fields: All good and well, IF you can find enough talent to execute your vision. If not, well, the unique thing California has that potentially counterbalances every negative thing you cited is that non-competes are unenforceable, resulting in the most liquid market for talent in the US if not the world. I was in the Boston area during the ’80s when Silicon Valley convincingly crushed Route 128 and I can assure that this was a major factor in the area’s decline and fall.

  8. I have to fly to both coasts every few weeks. From Chicago to New York or San Franscisco. I love the big city, I live near one myself, but I’m constantly surprised at how little people on the East Coast know about the Midwest. I don’t see metropolitan exceptionalism in this post as much as I see this general aversion to any city that isn’t on one of the coasts.

    If people knew how much easier it was to live in the Midwest, and how much cheaper it is, they’d probably flock here. For this reason, I vote that we continue to scare people like Spolsky away from the Midwest.

  9. While there are plenty of small to medium size cities that can support a decent technical/software community, there are certainly many backwaters that can be deadly to a career because they do not have the threshold of smart, talented people to stimulate each other.

    I think Spolsky is really guilty of bad writing. “Ashton” is the first person from Michigan I’ve ever heard of who drives a Honda.

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