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Ask HN: Have you moved to a less technical role after failing as a developer?

After a few years of working as a frontend developer, I'm trying to come to terms with the realisation that I have very little aptitude for writing code.

I seem to lack any kind of problem solving ability. I can get stuff done when it fits standard patterns/boilerplate, but anything more difficult and I fail quickly and give up.

I seem to have got by for the last few years by being likeable enough that people are happy to pair with me and basically do the work for me.

I've realised it's affecting my self-esteem pretty badly. I almost never go home feeling like I've achieved anything. I'm scared of not being able to find work in the future. This is in contrast to the people I've worked with who always seem very optimistic about finding new roles etc. I'm not young either (approaching 40) and have no other skills.

I'm starting to think my best hope is to try to stay in this industry but move into something like business analysis or product management. I'm quite concerned about how such a move would be perceived. If I was hiring I'd run a mile from someone who wanted to change careers simply because they failed at their last one. Is there a way to spin this into something positive?

I would love to hear if anyone else has gone through what I described and managed to move into a different role, and how you managed to spin your situation and emphasise the positives.

12 pointsJ-dawg posted 3 months ago16 Comments
was_boring said 3 months ago:

Here's the secret -- a good team is built around people who are solidly dependable. What that means is you can give a reasonable estimate for the work, are a positive person, and aren't too much of a bother to anyone. The team is pushed forward in meaningful ways by the really ambitious and smart ones, but they tend to move on quickly after becoming bored. These people are great to have while they are there, but they leave so often that it feels like a revolving door.

But that employee who I can give work to and depend on to be there in a year plus time frame? That's the one a good manager goes to bat for during the tough times.

sevilo said 3 months ago:

Have you worked at more than one place in your Developer career? Sometimes it could just be you don’t enjoy what you’re doing on the current job. For instance, I previously did some DevOp-at/infrastructure work and I really questioned my technical ability, but once I got back to front end development again I felt energized by my work, my self confidence went up, and I have more genuine interests in learning more about it. It could also be you just don’t enjoy the type of development you’re doing. There are many paths to go even for technical roles.

badpun said 3 months ago:

Have you ever completed any sort of ambitious project on your own? Let’s 10-50k lines of code, that correctly does something nontrivial? If yes, then you’re suitable for the job. If not, you should perhaps try it (it will require leaving the job for a while). If you genuinely cannot complete it, then you have your answer, but if you can, it will give you lots of skills for the next role (you learn much more when doing things on your own vs being in a team) as well as a confidence boost.

muzani said 3 months ago:

I'm sort of going through this dilemma. I'm not a superstar level and probably do better in other roles.

One trick is to go into teaching. It requires considerably less problem solving skill. You just solve a set of problems once then reuse that solution for the next class. You'll still have enough industrial experience to teach better than most.

One thing I'm trying is to switch to similar but junior technical roles. Try game development maybe, or something like testing, system analysis, support.

growlist said 3 months ago:

There are plenty of tech roles where you don't have to be a superstar dev but can't still make out fine. Support is a good one - sneered at by many but actually incredibly important and can be really fulfilling in the right role (granted low level support roles can be horrendous). So many users get shit support that if you really put them first they will come to love you. There are also roles that combine support with a bit of sys admin, service engineer type roles. Can be well paid on the contract side of things.

If you are or can learn to be creative and enthusiastic and personable, presales can be fun. In most presales roles the emphasis is on broad rather than deep skills, so that might suit you. For me presales was brilliant because it forced me to confront my fear of public speaking.

Finally I've met loads of successful people in my career that cheerfully admit they couldn't hack the technology side of things. Chin up!

apohn said 3 months ago:

>I've met loads of successful people in my career that cheerfully admit they couldn't hack the technology side of things. Chin up!

I think one nuance is that some people don't have the interest/skills to be a developer, but a number of people are decent developers but they get tired of the environment developers exist in. So when they say "I coudn't hack it as a developer" it wasn't so much about skills as much as personality.

plondon514 said 3 months ago:

Is it possible to take on other kinds of tasks at your current company? No company is perfectly efficient, so figure out where they are struggling to perform and lend a helping hand. Best case scenario is you realize you're quite good at whatever you try doing, worst case scenario is you've helped out another team.

apohn said 3 months ago:

There are a lot of people who realized being an SWE/Developer was not the right choice for them. This is for lots of good reasons - not having enough interaction with other people, feeling too insulated from the outside world, not liking the day-to-day life of a developer, etc.

I've worked with ex engineers who are now in Sales, Marketing, Support, Management (Product and People), Education, etc. Some of them are amazing at what they do. One of the best developers and I know moved to the education team in their software company because they got tired of what it meant to be a developer. In that education team they can't release crap just because somebody decided to release something quickly - this was something they got disillusioned with as a developer.

You haven't "failed" as a software developer. You're probably just realizing that being a software developer may not be a fit. Nobody will fault you for changing to a different role. Anybody who has worked for longer than 5 years knows that after some point you need new and different challenges. Nobody will see you as a failure unless you say "I failed as a software developer so I want to do something else." Say "I've been doing this for a line and I want to do something different. Since I was a developer, these are the strengths I bring to the role versus somebody who has never developed anything in their life."

I say this for myself. I enjoy writing code and I think I'm a decent developer. But the thought of being behind the firewall (basically where I only interact with other people in Engineering, not users) of an Engineering Org just doesn't sit well with me. That's how I ended up in Data Science, where I interact with a lot of people and still write code.

A long time ago I took a career counseling course and the teacher (A PhD researcher in Career Counseling) said people typically change their careers 6 or 7 (don't remember the exact number) times in their life. It was hard for me to understand at the time, but after many years of working it makes sense. Some people change their career 5 times over 20 years at the same large company.

hluska said 3 months ago:

First off, this is a personal question so you don’t have to answer it, but I encourage you to think it over. How are you doing mentally/emotionally? I don’t know you so can’t make many guesses as to your writing style, but you sound really seriously down on yourself.

I bring that up because career transitions aren’t uncommon, but you need some confidence to make it happen in an interview. There is a huge difference between “I failed” and “I am better suited to something else.”

If you’re in the middle of it and feel like shit, it’s hard to see your gifts. But from an outsider’s point of view, being likeable enough that others will gladly help you is a major strength. Add in some above average technical skills and you’d be fucking dangerous in all kinds of roles. You’re even a good writer - it’s a tough subject but you conveyed emotion and a strong voice.

Best of luck and be safe.

J-dawg said 3 months ago:


Thanks for taking an interest in my question. It’s truly appreciated.

I had to laugh at your comment about being down on myself as I’ve heard the same thing from several people, including colleagues. I was trying to steer away from from that self-pitying tone but I guess it still came through!

So yes, confidence has been a huge problem for me, and probably the biggest barrier to overcome if I’m ever going to get a more “business facing” role.

I’m seeing a therapist and trying to do something about it, but changing an entire personality seems to be pretty tough.

Thanks again for taking the time to reply.

hluska said 3 months ago:

Thanks for writing me back!

I’m glad that you’re seeing a therapist and since you’re seeing someone, I’m quite concerned about contradicting you. However, I don’t agree that your post was self pitying. It was well written, balanced and showed a heck of a lot of insight into yourself. If that’s self pitying, I know a lot of people (myself included) who could use a good dose of self pity.

As far as confidence, it sounds like you’ve been through a heck of a lot. Thanks to my own meandering experience, I understand how job stress can sap away at your confidence.

Again, I don’t know you from Adam, so take this as you will, but I’m an outsider and can see a whole lot of strengths. As I mentioned, you’re an excellent writer. In a few hundred words, you have managed to convey some interesting parts of your personality. For one, you strike me as a heck of a nice person. Second, you have one heck of a lot of insight into yourself. Third, I have an immense amount of respect for how you don’t blame anyone or make excuses. That shows a tremendous strength of character.

Finally, you’re fucking brave. Seeing a therapist is damned hard. Coming on here and being as open as you have been is damned hard as well. At this point, courage will only serve you well.

Between those things, I honestly wonder if you’re perhaps better than you think. You strike me as one of those glue developers who may not be the strongest IC, but who multiplies your team’s performance.

But, assuming that you’re correct and you’re not as good as you would like, if I were in your shoes, I would focus on positive things and start writing some cover letters. If your personality shines on a cover letter as it does on this thread, I might be asking you for a job in a couple of years. :)

world32 said 3 months ago:

It really seems like every thread asking anything remotely personal (career, moving to another city, work/life balance etc.) is met with the answer "Sure you don't have depression? Go see a therapist."!

hluska said 3 months ago:

Where did I say anything about depression or about seeing a therapist?

silversconfused said 3 months ago:

I've been hearing more and more as time goes by that development skills don't always necessarily include actually writing code. Following a shared process, breaking problems down, collaborating to find potential solutions, and evaluating the merits of candidate solutions are all "software development" but not "coding". You're on a team. The team has diverse talents. It's totally different than sitting alone in your basement writing the next hit indie game where you are the only one that can or will do any of it.

Have you asked the good coders you've paired with if they enjoy coding with you? Maybe you're a lot more useful and talented then you think.

bobblywobbles said 3 months ago:

Honest question - how do you go 40 years and realize this now? I assume you've been doing this for your whole working life.

J-dawg said 3 months ago:

I came to programming pretty late, a few years ago. So I haven’t been doing this my whole working life.