The possibility of being labeled a job hopper is still a concern for many in the technology world. This fear is often unreasonable and is primarily a function of traditional and antiquated employment concepts being extended into an economy where they likely don’t belong. In other words, don’t take career advice from your parents.
When I first started recruiting software engineers during the late 90’s dot-com boom, I was advised by more senior coworkers to avoid wasting time speaking with job hoppers. People who frequently switched employers were perceived as high risk for companies who needed to invest significant time and money into making new hires effective, only to lose them shortly thereafter. Recruiters were afraid a placement might not even reach their guarantee period.
The economy and workforce as a whole were undergoing rapid and dramatic changes, but long-established preconceptions about employment were somewhat slower to adapt. Linear career paths were the expectation, and the prevailing practice was still to promote our best engineers into management without regard for their leadership potential or soft skills. Company loyalty was still a strong emotional factor that resulted in long tenures.
This new well-funded software startup ecosystem siphoned talent from large and established companies, with engineers leaving behind stability and pensions for modest salaries and stock options that provided get-rich-quick possibilities. Once the big firm pool dried up, they cannibalized and created a class that appeared to many as mercenary startup engineers. This was a class of job hoppers, but their motivations (and subsequently their character) were often misrepresented or misunderstood.
Were they mercenaries?
There were (and still are) a fair share of individuals that chase short-term gains by making job decisions based almost exclusively on numbers. Accepting offers from the highest bidder every time will work for some, but to maximize lifetime earnings (ignoring job satisfaction here) the top offer may not always be the best path. Was this new class of startup job hoppers driven primarily by financial gain?
For most, I believe the answer was no.
Due to the competitive nature of the industry and basic economic principles of supply and demand, most job changes result in at least some small increase in compensation. It would be easy to assume that engineers accepted these offers based on the higher package, but for most the desire for change was probably attributed to the need to build new things.
It’s no coincidence that we find many of the startup job hoppers went on to become independent consultants and contractors, where there is no stigma attached to short stints. We could again make the argument that they were driven to consulting by high rates, and some certainly were, but many point to their preference to finish projects and then move along.
Engineers left many of their startup jobs after a year or two because they had built what they were hired to build, were drawn to the job based on the opportunity to create something, and were much less enthusiastic about maintaining it. This desire to build is a characteristic valued by managers who emphasize getting things done, so they can hardly fault them for leaving when there is little left to do.
Job hopping vs the alternative
Of course, the opposite of job hoppers are employees who remain in the same job for inordinate tenures. Most industries have historically interpreted a long stay with the same employer as a positive sign and an asset for one’s candidacy. In technology this is typically no longer the case. In recent years the adage “Do you have ten years of experience or one year of experience ten times?” has been applied to those who seem more driven by company loyalty and stability than career self-interest.
There was a time when it was more difficult to find new work without a highly stable work history. In today’s technology market, I would make the argument that a career characterized by one or two lengthy employment stints is actually less marketable to the majority of tech employers than your standard job hopper. Discrimination against those with long tenures is often wrongfully attributed to ageism or an overqualified candidate, where the root of the discrimination is a belief that work variety produces better engineers. As a recruiter, removing the appearance of dust or stagnation is a major challenge when working with candidates coming off a long tenure.
Positive vs negative hopping
It’s important to note that there are different kinds of job hoppers, and the picture painted thus far has been mostly of those viewed favorably by the industry. These are people who make self-interested decisions to move once they have maximized their career gain from an opportunity. Usually this meant the ability to gain a new experience, such as learning a skill or building a product. To lose any potential negative stigma associated with job hopping, one should have a list of accomplishments and projects that were seen to completion. That doesn’t mean there can’t be failings along the way, but successful job hoppers have a track record of being hired for a purpose and meeting or exceeding the expectations of the employer. They should also be able to explain the motivations behind each move and why it was right for their career at that time.
The job hoppers that are likely viewed in a negative light often lack both accomplishments and justifications for their transitions, and can often have résumé gaps that aren’t easily explained. They may have a history of abandoning efforts before completion, or are consistently wooed by new employers regardless of current project status. Unemployed job hoppers with these backgrounds eventually have a difficult time in job search.
Attitudes towards those that frequently change jobs have transitioned as the economy has changed, and companies have more realistic expectations about their employees acting in their own self-interests. The stigma around job hopping in technology has almost been eliminated at smaller companies, particularly for candidates who have a solid list of accomplishments and are able to articulate a history of positive career choices.