I was astounded, reading your post, how amazingly similar your background is to mine. What amazed me even more is that such an experience as mine could be duplicated seventeen years later (I'm 40). After all, I went through it during the "bad, old days" before there was much in the way of formalized programming discipline.
I, too, majored in Engineering (in my case, Electrical), and, like you, eschewed finishing school in favor of making money; to wit, I was working as a Junior Electrical Engineer when I discovered programming and quit my engineering job (and degree program) to take a job doing just that. My first job? Writing 6502 assembly language for Apple ][, Commodore 64, and Atari machines. Eventually, this led to Pascal, then C, then Windows (version 1.04!), and the rest.
Another similarity: I have been a contract programmer for most of this time (fourteen years now), except for one or two dry spells when I had to take full-time jobs just to work.
This is rather a long-winded lead-in to my point, which is that every couple of years or so, I find myself with exactly the same dilemma as you've described. I feel that there is nothing new compelling enough to get involved in. And every time this happens (poof!), something comes along which brings back the excitement of learning again.
As a result, I've (so far) been able to remain pretty much a pure programmer. I attribute this, in part, to a combination of luck and perhaps instincts in choosing which technologies to focus on (know any successful IBM OS/2 programmers? Amiga? Gupta SQL Windows? Not many, I'd wager).
Several years ago, as a so-called C++ "expert" (mainly in Windows-based systems), I had an opportunity to start working with perl. A long-time "structured" programming proponent, I found perl to be a bit quirky and idiosyncratic (unlike now, where I know it is entirely quirky and idiosyncratic -- I love those quirks and idiosyncracies -- but I digress), but I was able to become reasonably handy with it.
At the time, the only place to go with C++ on Windows was to delve into COM (then called OLE2).
I was trying to decide whether the potential returns of programming COM seemed to justify devoting my energies for the next two years, when Java started appearing on the scene, to much media hoopla.
I agonized over the OLE <=> Java decision for the better part of a year before I realized that I was really enjoying programming in perl. Perl 5 had just started taking hold and it offered enough of an improvement in readability over its predecessor that its utility seemed to jump by an order of magnitude or so in comparison. So, I did an end-run around the COM-Java decision and started looking for perl work.
Lo and behold! Suddenly, almost everywhere I looked were potential clients who needed perl expertise comingled with C++ and database. Of course, if you've worked with perl with databases (Sybase, DBI, etc) for any length of time, you know that perl only makes it easier to manipulate data, so I found myself becoming pretty handy in Sybase too (not Oracle, you say? The NYC financial community exists in its own little world).
My point is that every couple of years some new (or not so new) paradigm takes hold and makes life as a programmer interesting (for me) again. Perhaps the trick is finding something you actually like doing in the meantime, so you can ride it out.
Just call me the Anti-Gates ...
In reply to Re: Advancing oneself personally and professionally as a programmer (discussion)