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.