Meaning-driven Development

In which I explain why I decide to leave a stack of bills on the table every month.

A while back I had the perfect job. I was the lead developer at a budding NYC-based startup, a conference. I was hired to build the company website and I had full freedom to choose the technology it was built in. My team was cool and fun. I got to routinely go to NYC, and to Vegas for the show. The pay was good. I had flexible schedules, and I could work uninterrupted in the mornings while NYC was still asleep. I was living the Developer Life™.

It wasn’t working for me.

A big part of me was never satisfied. I was devoting my most productive time (and energy) to a company whose mission was pretty much misaligned with my core values. Here was an organization that perpetuated the privatization and commodification of healthcare, while I stood for universal, public and accessible healthcare, across the social spectrum. You should be entitled to top notch care regardless of what you have in the bank.

This lasted for three years, but then I began to crack. It didn’t help that the relationships within the organization were not as fun as in the early days. I began to feel jaded, and felt other people becoming jaded with my contribution to the team.

COVID came, and it was a great opportunity to stop. I had to, I was already nursing a pre-burnout. For months after I quit I didn’t want to go anywhere near a console. Later on, while I was slowly recovering and started paying attention to potential next projects, I saw a retweet of this tweet (remember those?):

A tweet from Ricardo asks whether anyone has leads for a person who can assist with their WordPress installation on a part-time basis
Ricardo, co-founder of Fumaça, asks whether anyone has leads for a person who can assist with their WordPress installation on a part-time basis. I was listening.

This felt good. Fumaça (an independent investigative podcast focused on non-mainstream stories) was at the intersection of journalism, activism and open source web work (their website was built using WordPress). I sent a DM, and a brief pitch after that, in which I state at some point “[…] I would like to take part in a project that is more focused on people, and less on profit.” The dice were cast!

It turns out it was a good fit, and I am still going strong with Fumaça, having moved from 20 to 50% part-time with them. I have since taken a more active role in the internal decision making process, which is how the project is run. Fumaça is an horizontal structure, with no bosses, where everyone has the same say as everyone else. I was very curious to understand how this was feasible with a team of ~8. But Fumaça are hardcore and uncompromising in everything we do, and so this parity also extends to salaries. Web developers and IT professionals in general are a spoiled bunch, usually making quite the sum, and with lavish perks. Here, I was another team member.

So if I was going to take this job I would have to level my salary to that of the rest of the team. Journalists at Fumaça earn a considerable amount above the Portuguese average (we decide our own salaries), but that does not translate to other roles in the team (not only development, but also sound expert and designer / multimedia creator). If I was to start working with Fumaça I would lose money twice; by working for a Portuguese company (as opposed to a wealthier, international crew), and give up on my web developer golden cage.

I had learned my lesson, though. I was not going back to spending my best hours doing something I didn’t feel was contributing to the betterment of the world around me, nor of myself. I wanted to feed my Ikigai.

My doubts were quickly cleared when we started doing actual work; the team is kind and generous, they work hard and are super-professionals, there is an impressive amount of recognition for the journalistic work done (the supporting community is 1800 people-strong, with an average contribution of ~5€), my schedule is still very flexible (I don’t set an alarm in years) and the work done is remote-first (When I brought up that I would work for a whole year from Rennes, France, Joana — pictured below — replied “the only thing that matters is that you are happy about it.”).

The author and Joana have fun in a work video call, both are smiling and making funny faces.
Join a team that will bring this kind of smile to your face. I’m in France, Joana is in Portugal.

The team was also kind enough to agree to pay for some of my yearly product expenses, as a perk (Pocket, Nova (a text editor for development, for macOS), Feedly).

The rest of the time I am working I dedicate to building a strong online presence for people / organizations that wouldn’t otherwise be online. I learned (the hard way) that also when freelancing it’s important to be selective with who you work with. I always make sure these projects are relevant and align with my worldview + relate to subjects I am interested in (music, theater, cinema, ecology), and that people aren’t assholes, before I commit to building a website with them.

So, consider whether your current job aligns with your guiding principles and values, or take them into account next time you apply for a new one. Start practicing Meaning-driven Development. You might have to give up on those fancy holidays or early retirement, but you’ll know that your best youth was well spent, and you’ll be pumped to go to work every (late) morning.

In case you’re curious, here are some more of my ideas on working (on the web). For instance, here I expand on the idea that you should follow your “Happy Path” when picking a tech stack, the path that feels natural and pleasant to you.

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6 Responses to “Meaning-driven Development”

  1. Madalena

    Que maravilha de texto! Escorreito, bem escrito e articulado. Fui levada por um sopro narrativo. 🥂

  2. Nicolau

    Stou! I hear how the congruence of your personal values and your work values have brought you greater peace(?), joy(?), congruence(?), integration(?). I would be curious to know what word you use for that, or words, or maybe there aren’t words(or maybe all the words are above ^^). Coming from a country that puts values last and money first, often, it takes a lot of work to find companies with values that you discuss Fumaça has above: even in Portugal, a more “socially” skewed country, I think it is hard to find those values. And like you said, we work a lot of our lives, and our jobs take some of our best hours, so it makes sense to work somewhere that it feels good to be at. Bravo, faz bem, abracos.

  3. Fred Rocha

    Thanks for your kind reply, Nicolau. “Peace”, “joy” and “purpose” are definitely words that reflect my day-to-day feeling of putting the work into something I care for. Even if one can’t initially find a work place that fully reflects one’s ideals and desires, it’s always possible to move to a better place, and be demanding of others. It’s an iterative process, and not necessarily something you can do in the early stages of your career. Abraço!


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