Discussing anything on THWACK even tangentially related to time-travel is tricky, because there are many members with both strong opinions on temporal mechanics, and passion to defend them. Add in the loose confederation of Back to the Future timeline wonks, and things get really interesting. But throwing caution to the wind, both for comments and unintended butterfly effects, I’ll state for the record I would go back in time and pay a visit to my younger self. I’d step into a portal and go back to sophomore high school me with one simple bit of advice: don’t get stuck in the friend zone.

I’m assuming I’m not the only now-grownup technologist who back in the day hung out with co-ed peers, was regularly introduced to their friends, and got invited to a decent number of parties. But while I was generally conforming near the safe-middle of the normative social curve, I also encountered a disproportionate tendency to end up a cherished and irreplaceable platonic best friend. Apparently speaking the way I wrote the previous sentence did not automatically stir romance, and further steered budding relationships into the friend zone. Also not helpful? The express route to what’s now known as ghosting, the parental kiss of death: “He’s so nice, when will you two go out again?” After a couple of years, that became pretty confusing and disappointing. How could offering me—my best, open, and excited by the world of ideas me—not magically result in hearts, flowers, and unicorns?

Open the Time-Portal

If I could go back, I’d offer specific advice which has turned out to be also surprisingly valuable in a technology career.

“Hey me,” I’d say to myself.

“OMG dude, will I really become that that old?! Ugh,” I’d reply to myself, genuinely curious.

“Hopefully you’re going to get a lot older than this… but listen. I’m here to get you out of the friend zone.”

“You mean get US out of the friend zone. Your motives here, though technically external, are actually selfish,” he’d sarcastically reply.

“First,” I began, “you need to back off the dictionary, professor. Adults eat that up, but it makes you look like a dork.” Young me would grimace while conceding that point, and I’d continue, “And second, when you get friendzoned…”

If I get friendzoned,” he’d interrupt.

“Sure. On those incredibly rare occasions you might get friendzoned… you must be honest that you really want to date your friend, or the inevitable dissatisfaction is on you.”

“But she says I’m her very best friend, that I’m like her brother and she can’t afford to lose me. She said that might happen if we go on a date-date,” he’d admit, with big, earnest, say-it-ain’t-so eyes.

“Yeah, that’s the thing. She’s saying that because she does mean it. She really, really likes you, but what you don’t know yet is she likes you so much that if offered a choice between certainly losing you now as a friend because the relationship is unequal, or taking a risk and perhaps building something more… she’ll likely take the risk. And yes, they’ll be some nervous and sad moments, but in general, that gnawing feeling of unfairness, of inequity considering your interest and effort will go away,” I’d conclude. At that point, young me would need a pocket knife, LEGO motor, LEDs, or some other tactile distraction to run some analytic CPU cycles and burn down the work queue. It would have been a lot to hear, especially from a gray-haired version of your future self.

“I’ll take it under advisement,” he’d finally say after a long sigh. “And, you should get on the SPF, so we don’t get wrinkled.”

“Is that how timelines work?” I’d ask over my shoulder, turning to step back into the portal.

“Ugh, that’s on me too??”

“Yep, but if you must choose only one, don’t get stuck in unequal relationships. You can do better than the friend zone,” I’d reply, and disappear into a puff of un-smoke.

Returning to This Timeline

Thinking of this logic exercise now, perhaps I’m projecting current career advice back into my adolescence. Because while the friend zone seems to be a frequent hazard as geeks come of age, it’s relatively harmless compared with its adult analog: the dutiful admin stuck in IT. The job friend zone is real, with serious side effects like a seven-digit lifetime income deficit, stress related illnesses, and worse, enormous missed opportunity cost.

So how does that happen to grown-up, otherwise logical humans? Despite the warm fuzzies paranoia and conspiracy theory brings to social media, businesses are not actually out to get you. Bosses don’t wake up thinking of new ways to torture us. We are not in the Good Place. But even though good management is (usually) trying to find work-life balance, or at least intends to when there’s time, how often do we find ourselves being offered the job friend zone?

Instead, IT might be one of the last careers that remember pensions. Maybe if we just work hard enough, if we’re loyal enough, if we can just hold out... everything will naturally work out. Management will notice we haven’t seen a real raise in five years, training budget will magically be released, or we’ll go on vacation and not get a call about the network. And it may well be that the job friend zone is our own creation—an unfortunate byproduct of striving to be good and believing that everyone else will too. Fortunately, realizing you’re in the job friend zone isn’t too difficult.

How many times have you heard one of these?

  • “You’re the strongest member of our team, but we can’t promote you now because you’re too valuable in your current role.”
  • “Love your enthusiasm – so many great ideas! We don’t have budget for that, but let’s see at the end of the year.”
  • “I hear you, but how’s your team development coming along? You need to demonstrate great management skills to take on that technical role.”


My advice for admins in that situation now is the same as it would have been to me as a high school sophomore:

“I know you like me, and don’t want to lose me. But if you don’t help me follow my interest to be the best I can be, then I’m walking out the door, and you’ll lose me for sure.” But don’t take my word for it—ask around. Especially in this job market, you’ll find lots of tech pros who broke through their managers’ reluctance to get back to delivering their best work, having the greatest impact on the businesses, and often getting seriously better comp.

We’re drawn to IT because we honestly want to please, to fix the unfixable, to keep the lights on no matter what, to know we’re heroic while eschewing accolades. It’s a calling. And it’s easy for management to mistake our significant flexibility and patience for submission or at least advantageous resignation. So sometimes we have to sit ourselves down to receive difficult advice: “Same age me, don’t get stuck in the job friend zone.”

  • I'm in this situation right now!  It's hard to say what the outcome will be but I totally get where you're coming from Patrick.  Part of the problem for me is we're thousands of miles apart.  She lives in DC and I live in the Valley of the Sun in AZ.  Neither of us can or really wants to move right now.  After living in the desert the thought of moving back to where there's much snow at all gives me the chills.  So, like it's been for a few years now, I'll visit but I'm not staying.

  • The work one is so true.  After University I worked for a major computer manufacturer.  I got great annual reviews, saved and made the company millions and always got double digit pay rises (ok 10% of not very much still isn't very much).  After 7 years it all came to a grinding halt.  New management were inept and tried to change stuff we knew worked and made us good money.  They wouldn't listen and things started to go very wrong.  Naturally we got blamed and there was no money for pay rises, training etc.  I saw the light and left.  Move forward 20+ years and I was working somewhere where management were very toxic, gave themselves big pay rises but there was nothing for us.  They even tried downgrading job descriptions (which were tied to pay grades) so we would get a pay cut and tried extending working hours.  I left and took my current job for a £20,000 pay rise and where it seems I am appreciated.  The two contractors who were brought in to replace me at my last role have subsequently left too.

    Sometimes you really do have to look out for yourself.

  • conversely - as a manager its important to not be "that guy" that people keep leaving

  • Like many of my fellow decent guys, I have been in the friendzone several times. Most of those times were because I was too scared to ask that hardest of questions; "Will you go out with me?" Six of the toughest words in the English language when you don't want to hurt anyone. Sometime you just have to make the leap and live with the consequences. That applies to many things in life...