Answer by John L. Miller:
I joined Microsoft in 1991, with a good allotment of stock options. I later calculated that if I'd stayed for 6 years, that initial stock would have been worth $2M, never mind the larger incentive stock that came later. Microsoft salary back then was below market, but still good. Total compensation wasn't investment banker money, but not bad for someone fresh out of university, either.
By late 1993 I'd burned out. My girlfriend became a PhD student, and I decided to leave Microsoft and Seattle to work at her university. I gave up most of my stock to do so, because I didn't realize how stock options worked (among other things). I left Microsoft with less total pay than I would have made making market rate salary somewhere else. The pay at CMU was good, but total comp was far less than Microsoft. Still, moving was a great decision.
The difference between being staff at a university and a software engineer at Microsoft was astonishing.
- At Microsoft I felt constant self- and peer-pressure to work overtime. An average week was 60 hours, my worst was 110, sleeping a few hours a night on my office floor. Any time I took off – say, a Sunday afternoon – I felt like I should be working.
- As facilities staff at CMU, I worked 40 hours a week, including time spent to take a class every now and then, and a half hour for lunch. There was no pressure to work more, and things took however long they took.
- At Microsoft, the review was all-important. It told you if you were passing or failing. It determined whether you got lots of stock or very little. It determined how quickly you were promoted, which in turn led to more money and more responsibilities.
- At CMU the review was done once a year because it had to be. It talked unambiguously about how you were doing, which was usually 'fine'. Financial incentives were minimal.
- At Microsoft I rarely did anything unrelated to work, period. An occasional movie with friends from work, a (very) occasional party.
- At CMU I had time to pursue all sorts of hobbies in and out of work. I took classes for fun, read an incredible amount, wrote two shareware apps, joined a great writer's group for a few years and started submitting stories to magazines, and so on. I felt like I was living.
I left Microsoft because – with the naive idealism of the young – I was afraid I was trading my youth for money. I chose to follow love and to get out of the grind. The love didn't work out, but the chance to catch my breath let me come back and work at a sustainable rate later. And, I got to work towards all the unfulfilled dreams I had at the time.
How does it feel to move from a high-pressure, high-paying job to a less stressful but lower paying one? It feels like a vacation, like a burden lifted from your shoulders. It's a breath of fresh air that gives you a chance to stand up straight and think about what you want out of life. And then you can decide whether you want to keep that freedom, or if you want to jump back into the shark tank. It's awesome.
What was it like quitting your high-paying job for a less stressful lower paying job?