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Greetings, Stack Overflow. My question today is, "How do I get from where I am at in my career and life to where I want to be?" Being unable to wander through every path in life, I seek heuristics (advice) from those who have or are travelling different paths.

The Initial Condition

I went to a technical school to become a video-game programmer, and did so professionally for three years. My wife and I felt strongly that we needed to move to a rural area where family is, and I am now employed as a system administrator in a school division; we have also recently purchased our first house and are not keen on moving. I am 28-years old, have two sons, and have payed off my student loans.

The Goal Condition

I would like to work at something meaningful and interesting1 where I am respected and able to maintain a good work/life balance2. My wife and I have a dream of living on a farm as self-sufficiently as possible3. The optimal situation would involved working nearby as a programmer, or, next up, would be to telecommute4.

1Meaningful/Interesting work. What makes working for this school division egregious is that I became a game programmer in the hope of making educational games--of creating a funnel whereby students, who will spend large amounts of time playing video games, actually get some benefit from it--stealth learning, if you will. Working here, we are so undermanned as to be unable to keep all of the computers running, students logging in, and software working, much less provide any significant benefit to the students' educations.

Interests of mine include robotics, artificial intelligence, computational linguistics (although I know so little about it), and, of course, game programming. I used to think that being a database administrator would be mind-numbingly boring, but now I think it could be rather interesting. Web development holds some appeal--things sure have changed since I wrote web-pages a decade ago. Management holds a rather limited appeal for me at this time, as does, say, starting a business, and yet these are the most common things that come up when one asks how to increase one's paycheck.

2A work/life balance to me chiefly includes spending evenings and weekends at home with my family and leaving work (with its attending stresses) at work. It also includes making enough money to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. When game programming, I commuted 1.5 hours each way from the suburbs to a city, and, come crunch time, spent many an hour working unpaid overtime. At my current job, the ratio of work-to-be-done per skilled practitioner is overwhelmingly high, and my employers really don't care so long as they don't get screamed at as much by unhappy teachers. My pay will cap off at a rate that will render me unable to pursue my dream of having a farm, and, indeed, may make raising a family difficult.

3A farm is really expensive and is well-nigh impossible to maintain through a farmer's income. Besides which, I want to program.

4I recognize that telecommuting is not the most effective way to do things, and that such employees are first on the chopping block and slow to be advanced. It is hard to be on a team when you are working alone. Unfortunately, farms are not usually proximate to good employment for programmers.

Successor Functions

I'm not sure where to go from here. If I do nothing, I guarantee the result that I do not want--being where I am now in 5 years. Edison said that "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." I am certainly willing to work.

Although I am loathe to go through a discontinuity, especially one wherein I go from earning money for my family to spending money to be educated, I think the Panda-Thumb Principal applies. [Basically, Pandas have a sub-optimal thumb that is evolutionarily at a local maximum. They can not get a better thumb without having a worse one first.]

I see these as my primary options.

I. I could look for different work.

  • There is a small city an hour away, and, despite worldwide economic conditions, I believe I am readily employable.
  • I could look into telecommuting work, or become a contractor.
  • I could turn my back on IT and look for something different.

II. I could supplement my education.

  • I could try to get a bachelor's degree. (Right now I have a diploma or certificate, and, frankly do not expect things to transfer well.) I am strongly considering a business programming degree at a technical school, but can't help but wonder if a Computer Science degree at a university is the way to go. [As an aside, is a job as a researcher a good one? It sure sounds nifty.]
  • And, I could also study books and things on the internet and expand my education in that way.

My suspicion is that going back for further education is the most viable way to get from where I am to where I want to be. I do love learning. It seems that I stand at a chasm in the dark and am just not sure if I really want to run up to it and jump for all I am worth.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and for your thoughtful consideration of it.

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Sounds to me like your best bet is to design and build the educational software you want to build, in your own time. Keep the day job, take less hours if you can, but make sure that every hour you can spare is spent making your dream. Getting more education, or even some programming job is not taking you closer to your goal of creating what you want to create. Only you can do that.

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The impression I come away with from your post is that your ideal situation would be splitting your day between farm work and programming in a home office. My overall impression is that the level of interest in full-time telecommuters is vanishingly small, so probably your best chance of accomodating that scenario is as an independent contractor. Helpfully, out of the paths in front of you, that one is the easiest to get your feet wet in and see if it suits you before committing heavily to it; I could suggest putting out your shingle as a gun-for-hire with a small portfolio website and trying the likes of rentacoder.com and elance.com, seeing if the style of doing business works for you. If it does, that may allow you to readily work on your educational software while supporting your lifestyle.

If the scenario I describe really is what you want, then the full-time job in the city may really not help that much in getting there; it's likely to amount to little more than a lengthy detour. On the other hand, you may find that independent work just doesn't suit you -- simply not enough income, the stress of the invoicing cycle drives you nuts, whatever -- and you need the mainstream job. In that case, I'd go for the bachelor's degree, but whether to seriously resume your education is a surprisingly independent question. If you want to, and can afford to, spend more time in classes, go for the CS degree. If you know what you're doing to your satisfaction, though, don't even waste the time and money with the tech school; use a program like Excelsior College or Thomas Edison where you can knock down a fully (regionally) accredited bachelor's degree in short order for very little money, mostly by equivalency tests.

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(Not sure this question is programming related but...)

Realistically, you can plant a garden and be somewhat "self-sufficient." You don't need an entire farm. (Depends on your definition of "farm." You're probably referring to what's known as a hobby farm.) BTW, properly taking care of a farm or even a hobby farm can take most of your time (and money.)

Realistically, you need to live in a somewhat populated area in order to maintain a job programming.

Realistically, your idealistic view is shared by many. You want to be "self-sufficient" but you lack the funds and you lack the location and you lack the education and... fill-in-the-blank.

Make a decision as to what's important to you and proceed down that path with the recoginition that you can't have your cake and eat it too.

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LOL! Sorry, but was it really "my wife and I" who wanted to move to a rural district, or just "my wife"? Because I see nothing in what you have said that in any way indicates that you have any sort of interest in farming or a rural life. You say you dream of having a farm, but when you list your real interests (robotic, etc), baling hay simply isn't one of them.

It's just the ole honey trap: sex -> marriage -> kids -> debt. Whose family, I wonder, did you move away from work you loved in order to be nearer to?

Sigh. I don't have good advice for you - it's all bad. You are right that farming is a hard dollar. Take six months off to work as a farm hand: live mainly on her income for a while. See if she is really interested in being with someone who makes less money than you currently do, and see if you really want to shovel shit for a living - albeit on a place that you own (not that you ever will - the bank will).

How about this for advice:

Try to find a way to incoroprate your real interests into a farming context. You like robotics? Cool - build some farming rural-type robots and sell 'em. The combine harvester is already done, but maybe you can think of something. Game programming? Why not simulate different planting shedules, to determine results. Grab data from google so as to accurately model the particular farmer's acreage. Model water runoff and all that.

Computational linguistics is a little tricker, I admit.