Computer contractor….good pay, but I want to do something more worthwhile

Where should I start?…well, I’m really not employed at the moment, but my last job was as a contractor working in Munich, Germany. I worked for a really large computer company there helping to troubleshoot problems with their Electronic Commerce systems. I must say that it was a rather nice job in a lot of ways. First, it paid well. The cost of labor in Germany is rather high, so when you work as a contractor, all those benefits get translated to cash. You can make a rather large sum and still be cheaper than normal employees with half the salary who can’t be fired, get 6 weeks of vacation, an endless string of bank holidays, government protection on working too many hours, etc….

Munich is an awfully nice city too. There are a lot of expatriates and I got to go out a lot. Indeed, an amazing amount of my pay went towards alcohol consumption. Before I did this, I worked in New York doing programming work, but it wasn’t the most fulfilling of things. Still, I was young and nobody was going to pay me a whole lot to do anything other than computer work, so if I was going to do computer work, I might as well do it abroad. That’s the nice thing about computer work, there is enough demand that one can do such things.

I got my job through an agency ad on a web site. The agency made a percentage (I’m guessing about 20%, but I’m not sure) of my earnings from the company. It was quite intruiging how they interviewed me on the phone and gave me the job without seeing me, but I suppose that is the nature of the high tech industry these days (1999).

I worked there for almost a year, basically for the money and the fun of living in Munich (lots of skiing and beer). It was an enjoyable year and the job itself wasn’t so hard. Life in Europe is a bit slower paced, and so work tends to be a bit more relaxed as well. It is fairly easy for most Americans to seem like really hard workers in comparison. The job was also a lot less technical than one might have thought. Since I was troubleshooting support problems, the main issue was pinpointing the problem through asking the correct questions of the correct people. Fixing things was usually either trivial, or one contacted another group (ie. the Database guys, the hard core programmers) in which case the most important part of the job was to be personable to the people who were inconvenienced while the work was underway.

A large part of the time, things wouldn’t go wrong and so one would spend one’s time getting things in order or documenting things or just catching up on the latest news from the US. I suppose we were working on issues that meant millions of dollars (ie. an order for 20,000 computers comes in and gets lost), so it is worth having us around for that issue, even if we aren’t particularly busy during the rest of the day. My supervisor was always understanding of this and really had a good head on his shoulders. As long as the people using our services were happy (and they were), he was happy.

Another good thing is that support work gives one an immediate sense of satisfaction .Unlike programming where success is measured every 3 months when a release is done, support work has daily affirmation as you have people who call with problems and you solve them. It’s kind of like being the pizza guy who delivers to hungry college students….they are always grateful.

Still, I quit the job for a reason. Something about working with computers makes one naturally question the value of what you do. It’s not like building a chair where you create something from nothing. Since you aren’t creating anything tangible, it’s easy to wonder why one spends so much time on it.

This is my problem in general. I’m always wondering why I’m doing something. For example, a lot of people would have stayed at that last job as there were a lot of great things about it. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people as I’m always wondering how I’m going to make my mark on the world. Making money is ok, but I feel like I’ve been given so much and would love to use it to help others. It’s not like I worked so hard for what I have and so I feel a responsibility to make something of it. If I stuck with that job, it would be the equivalent of having been given 100 points by my parents andfinishing the game with the same 100 points. Even if everyone else has fewer points, Istill don’t feel like I’ve played the game very well.

My parents, on the other hand, played the game very well and that is perhaps where I get my need to make something more of myself. They both came from poorer countries and created a life in the US through academic achievement. I was born in the US already and was given every academic opportunity, so I really ought to be able to do better.

So what now? Well, I’m back in the US and working on a few ventures from which I hope to strike it rich. It isn’t so much the riches I need, so much as freedom to have more of an impact on the world and not be caught up in the daily grind. I’m also trying to do lots of volunteer work. Still, I hear the call of those contract programmer dollars and could easily see myself going to some other country and repeating the Munich experience on days when my goals seem out of reach. Not a bad way to live, but I at least have to take my shot at the moon….stay tuned….