Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Stresses From Earning A Wage

Part of my move to Germany is a change from a freelancer contract for the company I work for to a regular contract. The freelancer contract was a good option earlier this year because a regular contract for an employee which does not live in the same country as the company he or she works for is a near-impossibility. This is one area where the European Union still needs to break down a lot of barriers. Switching to a regular contract has a few advantages for me, including automatically being part of the Krankenkasse, the universal social healthcare system for everyone who lives and works in Germany and of course having a fixed, infinite duration contract. For me it does bring with it a lot of stress too, though, mostly due to previous experiences.

At my previous job - in the Netherlands - the first disappointing thing was that although the job was specified as having a pre-taxes wage of 3,200 I'd only be getting 2,900 with no indication of when this might change. I started off with an initial 1-month contract as well during which time I had to prove myself. This left me with nearly 2,000 Euro a month after taxes, with which I had to pay for the apartment I was renting plus utilities for a cool 1,000 a month, leaving me with another thousand to feed myself and pay for anything else. Salient detail was also that I started with almost no money to my name, forcing me to borrow money from friends and acquaintances just so that I could work.

Even ignoring the stresses of living in the same apartment with a mentally unstable person, it wasn't a very pleasant time. It showed me just how much influence an employer can have over an employee, especially when the latter does not have any significant savings. Saying 'no' to anything means jeopardizing your job and thus risking having a place to live. That I decided to say 'no' to the year contract they unexpectedly wished to offer me at the end, after months of telling me that I needed to improve myself - even though I was severely struggling with everything life was throwing at me - was mostly due to longing for the freedom I felt I had lost.

Getting up while it's still dark outside, travelling to the office and only travelling back when it's already dark outside, feeling your life slipping away. Having to fight and struggle to schedule something resembling a life next to the #1 priority of work. It made me wonder whether I was working so that I could live, or that I was living so that I could work. I managed to make ends meet somehow every month, but could build up no savings. When I started at my current job at Synyx I had a negative balance on my primary bank account and with all of my meagre savings I had built up as a teenager already vaporized. I'm not sure how things would have gone if I had not gotten this job. In a sense it's saved my life.

And yet there's nothing I loathe more than to be dependent on someone else just to exist. In switching contract types such as now it galls me to have to negotiate the height of my wage, as I quite recall how it feels to negotiate from a position of no power. Accept what we offer you, or face the consequences, basically. Not that I'm saying that this is what will happen here, but as my mind works such that it will always consider and analyze every single possibility this all does cause me undue stress. It's why any form of uncertainty takes such a heavy toll on me.

Though I do not like 'certainty' in a job either. What I like about software engineering is the large amounts of creativity involved which naturally lead to irregular and hard to predict work schedules and outcomes. I thrive on engineering solutions to fundamental problems. R&D is something I have always been very interested in. Sadly R&D is generally also quite expensive. My FPGA hobby, for example, just isn't working out so far, as any decent FPGA kit is a few thousand Euro and building your own kit from scratch (PCB, FPGA and other components) together with all the required equipment (oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, etc.) isn't cheap either. Then there's the 'time' component. R&D rarely makes you money, and neither does a hobby, even if it does learn one valuable skills.

It's one reason why I intend to keep doing freelance work as well, as the projects I keep getting via that way often contain interesting challenges, such as one app I'm working on for a client which has to perform audio analysis using a Fourier Transform algorithm and the VST plug-ins for PC software which also do various types of DSP. The more challenging the work, the greater my motivation, you could say. Even as a child I could never be happy with doing anything small: where others built a small, leaky hut, I built a large shed with properly functioning windows, wind-proof and insulated where someone could comfortably live in. These days I'm aiming to develop a better-than-human artificial intelligence after first tackling speech synthesis and related subjects. I have many other big projects like that, all of which I'd love to work on.

It really makes me wonder whether it's actually possible in these times to combine the apparent need to make a living with the drive to be an inventor. In how far can boundless creativity sustain a person, or is it just a liability, dooming a person to feel forever unhappy? What I do know if there's one company where I can both earn a good wage and still be free to develop myself as a person, it's at a place such as Synyx; businesses which realize that employees are living, breathing beings with their own dreams and goals instead of mere cogs to be slotted into the machine. Here's to me getting over the bad job experiences I suffered so far in the Netherlands.


No comments: