Unix: Why you love (or don’t love) your job

The things that make you love a job or drive you to thinking about moving on may have less to do with how much you earn than whether you look forward to Monday morning.

Numerous surveys have been conducted regarding employee satisfaction in the IT industry and they all seem to point to a conclusion that surprises most managers – that IT staff care about a lot more issues than the size of their salaries and whether their titles impress their friends. After reading a number of these surveys and looking back at my decades of work in Unix systems administration and information security, I decided that the only way to properly assess job satisfaction is to first plug all the things that you care about into a job happiness category and then assign points to each job attribute in each category.

Creating the categories

The first step that I took was to spend some time thinking about the things that have mattered most to me in jobs past. I quickly realized that some of the items in my list fall into a “must have” category. No matter how much you pay me, I won’t take a job that doesn’t pay my bills and give me enough extra to pursue my hobbies and take a nice vacation now and then.

Must haves are non-negotiable. They’re the job attributes that you just can’t manage your life without.

The fair category includes job attributes that you ought to expect – things like fair treatment on the job, periodic feedback and a comfortable work space. Lacks in this category are likely to leave you feeling resentful.

Nice to haves are the icing on the cake. They are the work attributes that might make your workdays a little nicer, but could be traded off for things that are more important to you. You might, for example, trade a comfortable work setting for a sense that the work you do has significant value.

Highly desirable are the things you can do without, but could make a world of difference in your day-to-day activities. If you have flexible telecommuting as an option, for example, you will have less conflict trying to balance your work and personal lives.

The Priceless category includes the too good to be true job attributes -- the kind of things you are not likely to be offered except at the most well managed companies.

Using the categories

Once you’ve established the categories that make sense for you, give yourself some low stress time to think about the job attributes that matter to you and start plugging them into the appropriate categories. Your “must haves” might be altogether different than mine. So might the items you put into other categories.

Must haves

My must haves are all very practical. I’m willing to drive a long distance if it means that I can live in a quiet rural setting and if the commute is fairly low stress. I compensate for the long drives by subscribing to audible. Listening to books in my car gets to looking forward to my drives to and from work. Items in this category include:

  • manageable commute – For me, any commute that involves less than an hour of driving (one way) is acceptable. Much more than that and I’d need some inducement to make up for the extra time and expense. But not all commutes are created equal. An hour of stop and go on the local thoroughfare is not the same as an hour of driving past cornfields and lakes. My most enjoyable commute took just over an hour but involved a free bus to the ferry, a ferry across the bay and then a half mile walk from the ferry to my office. I quickly found myself sitting with a group of friends who shared coffee and conversation, but also found that the commute provided some of my best “think time”.
  • Good benefits – Good paid benefits (medical and leave) are essential.
  • Good salary – I need to earn enough to live comfortably and enjoy my leisure time. While more is always better, most of us would likely give us some salary for other options that make our jobs more rewarding.
  • Some degree of job security – I don’t believe that total job security is even possible, but I need to believe that my job is fairly secure.


For me, the fair category includes:

  • reasonable expectations – your employer should have reasonable expectations and should be clear about what those expectations are
  • clarity about expectations and what leads to success --- your employer should be clear about what constitutes success in their eyes and the criteria that you will be measured against
  • incentives to learn – your employer should invest in your skills development
  • sensible amount of pressure – your employer should exert a fair amount of pressure
  • sufficient autonomy – you should have enough autonomy that you don’t feel micromanaged
  • minimal office politics – you should not feel that you have to get wrapped up in office politics, other peoples’ turf wars
  • good communications -- including being informed about what's going on beyond your local group
  • honesty and trust – you should expect to be treated with honesty and to be trusted
  • good tools – you should expect to be provided with fairly up-to-date equipment -- laptops, phones and applications

Nice to Haves

The “nice to have” category for me includes:

  • an attractive workspace
  • free parking
  • pleasant office space with sunlight
  • opportunities to work on new projects
  • a boss who actually provides leadership and can maybe even teach you something (see http://www.itworld.com/management-amp-strategy/61142/unix-sysadmins-and-their-goodbad-bosses)
  • a sense that your skills bring add something to your team’s skill set. Years ago, someone tried to set me straight by telling me that no one is irreplaceable. Decades later, I’m convinced that they were right, but I’ve also seen many people who came really close. I’ve also noticed that being irreplaceable isn’t always a good thing. You might miss out on an opportunity to move into a more interesting and promising position because your company would have too much trouble trying to replace you.

Highly Desirable

The highly desirable category includes:

    flexible telecommuting encouraging fitness and well being good work-life balance feeling that your knowledge and skills matter believing that you are learning valuable skills training opportunities caring about and investing in your growth


The priceless category includes a number of items, many of which are hard to assess without an insider’s knowledge of the group you’d be working with. This group includes:

  • coworkers – a job that comes with honest, caring and supportive coworkers is a dream come true
  • effective teamwork – the group you work in should have functional ways to track work and “pass the batton”. There’s almost nothing that pleases me more than being able to confidently turn over a task to someone else when my plate is just too full and to know that my coworkers can depend on me to do the same for them.
  • a feeling that your work amounts to something beyond just profit for your company (e.g., believing that your company's work is of value in the grand scheme of things)
  • having a sense of purpose
  • getting recognition beyond the pay check
  • having a stake in your company's success -- options or profit sharing
  • respect
  • time to explore issues of particular interest to you – companies that allow you to spend some portion of your time pursuing issues that you are particularly interested in get an extra big check mark in my book. If you are allowed to innovate and are rewarded if your innovations turn into profit-making opportunities for your company,
  • encourage breaks (even naps) – only one place that I’ve worked cared enough about employee comfort enough to set up
  • a break room with dim lighting for staff to take naps. While there’s clearly a trust issue here, I’ve found that a ten minute mini-nap in the middle of the day can restore my energy level.

Before you jump

It’s a good idea to rank your current job even if you aren’t ready to move on. Review what works for you and what doesn’t work for you and take the time to determine whether your current job can be fixed before taking that leap into the job market.

Here’s a good survey that might get you thinking about the things that weigh you down or lift you up at work. While it doesn’t cover as much territory as I have in this post, it can provide you with a happiness score that might get you thinking about what you value at work and what is missing.

Have I overlooked anything? I’d love to hear your ideas about what you value about your current position and what you rank most highly when evaluating new opportunities.

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