A corporate career may take you places

Fame and fortune, in smooth ascent from line employment to richly compensated CEO, is what so many find appealing in working for global corporations. While not in vogue among the hordes of eager entrepreneurs and freelancers we have these days, for many people it remains a perfectly valid career choice. Success depends on how soon you’ll realize that this path is not smooth at all, often times surprising, and always comes with a price tag.

Big companies differ from smaller ones, or start-ups, in that they offer plenty of space. With thousands of employees worldwide, there is a broad selection of positions situated vertically and horizontally from yours, matching your ambitions and talents. They also offer greater liquidity (to borrow the investing term), in that at any given moment there will always be positions open somewhere. Maybe a person got promoted, leaving her past desk vacant, or maybe it’s a whole new opportunity—a new division being built or branch getting expanded.

Those windows are yours to take, providing you accept the conditions.

Since these companies operate around the world, your perfect opportunity might pop up somewhere far away from whatever you consider home now. Perhaps you live in Warsaw while a new office opens up in Singapore and needs someone experienced with the business to go set it up. You’re being offered the position, since you’ve been doing a great job so far and demonstrated competence beyond your current role. Here’s your airplane ticket and we’ll take care of shipping your belongings. What say you?

Dilbert sent to Elbonia

Make your decision

An eye-opening lesson I received a while ago from Garry Marsh, participating in his training, was that at all such crossroads one needs to determine:

What do I really want, what is the price and am I prepared to pay it?

Garry Marsh

Moving always means leaving behind pretty much everything you’ve built up so far. You know your town so well, how to move around, the friends you have here, your lovingly arranged apartment, even your favorite hairdresser who always has these great ideas for hairdos—all gone, you’ll start again from scratch. You may not even like the place you’re being offered. Singapore is nice, but what if it’s some poor, underdeveloped country, or a remote place with nothing but stretches of dust around?

Of course you can always say “no”, because you have your family and friends here, and everything you know and love—we understand, no hard feelings. But the next time a great opportunity appears, you might not be considered anymore, having been labeled as the “stay at home” type of person. Which is fine if staying close to home is your priority, but again, “home” is a much smaller pond than the world and so many fewer chances to win this lottery.

Make sure you set your values straight before an opportunity pops up, and choose accordingly. In the end, you’re in pursuit of happiness, so if you’re finding it at home, stay right there and look out for local options. If you do, however, decide to move around a bit, some preparations will save you from a ton of headaches.

Stay light

Certain decisions—like marriage, kids and buying real-estate—will impact your mobility, and need to be made thoughtfully. This isn’t to say you should stay single and live in hotels, but it does mean you’ll need a spouse willing to follow you, and that renting will likely be preferred to owning.

Case in point: a friend of mine was buying his own condo, where he was planning to move in together with his girlfriend. He signed the letter of intent and paid a small advance. Soon after they went separate ways, and he started to work remotely and travel at the same time. Needless to say, the apartment purchase was broken off and he lost some money on that—a cost he was willing to carry, and much better than falling for the sunk cost fallacy, but still avoidable, had he inspected his values earlier.

Make your everyday decisions mindfully—small and large things you acquire: furniture, kitchen appliances, decor, clothing. Would you really want to drag ten pairs of shoes across the world? Or this beautiful, gigantic picture from your living room? There are companies that make a lot of money offering “temporary” storage for people on the move, and you’re about to entrust them with all the stuff you never use but still keep “just in case”. Whatever you decide to store with them is probably what you don’t need at all. Get rid of it. And don’t assume you’ll come back. Maybe so, maybe not.

A radical, efficient way of cleansing your belongings comes from Paul Klipp:

A week ago I put everything I own into boxes. My closet was empty. I resolved to remove what I needed from the boxes, when I needed it, and to put it in the closet when I’d finished using it. In that way, as time goes on, my closet will become filled with only those things I really use. What’s still in boxes can be recycled, sold, or given away.

Paul Klipp, Stuff

A conscious decision and a light lifestyle. Certainly not for everyone, but if you think it’s for you, start practicing today. Talk to your spouse—that might be the toughest step, but providing you chose a life companion who shares your values, you should be fine. Review and purge your household of things you don’t use. Then do what you’re already doing—deliver excellent work, stay connected to a network of resourceful people and look out for your opportunity.

Searching for geek heaven

We’d love to love our jobs. To the point where we can’t stand how long a weekend is, before we may go back to work on Monday. Utopia? Not at all. I know people who genuinely love their jobs, who found their geek and non-geek heavens. And I have my own criteria for evaluating companies I would consider joining.

There are three qualities that combined would make a company a Geek Heaven:

  1. IT is central to business,
  2. everybody has someone else to learn from, and
  3. there’s a non-monetary reason for the company to do what it does.

IT is central to business

Has your department ever been called a “cost center”? That’s another way of saying “we will outsource your work to <insert cheap labor country> as soon as you start asking too much money.” You are disposable. A cog in the machine. But the ramifications here are so much broader, because if IT isn’t the driver of business, then all IT decisions will be monetary decisions.

  • there’s no point replacing a stone-age era technology, as long as it works,
  • there’s no point speaking at a conference, because that’s a cost that doesn’t contribute to business,
  • there’s no point contributing to open-source projects, because again it’s a cost with no return (oh, but we’re happy to use free, open-source software),
  • and so on.

On the other hand, we can easily name companies that heavily rely on their IT for business success. Google, GitHub, Etsy, Netflix, Spotify… We know them, because they’re very active members of our community. They speak, share, collaborate, contribute, while internally, each one of them is pushing the boundaries of their technology.

You want to be at one of those places, where each and every day IT people ask themselves “how can we make this better?“, and the business people answer by asking “how can we help you?

Everybody has someone else to learn from

I was never the smartest guy in the room. From the first person I hired, I was never the smartest guy in the room. And that’s a big deal. And if you’re going to be a leader – if you’re a leader and you’re the smartest guy in the world – in the room, you’ve got real problems.

Jack Welch, interview at Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN, June 2011

Jack’s right, and his words apply to everyone – not only “leaders”. You always want to be around people who are better than you. If you dig through the stories of most successful people, they always reference somebody who inspired them, who they learned tons from.

You want to work for a company that has a diverse set of top-notch specialists. People passionate about their work, who continuously pursue mastery. People who’s contributions will inspire and motivate you to develop your own skills. People who will be happy to share their knowledge.

Non-monetary reason for the company to do what it does

The “why are we doing this?” is perhaps the single most important question that is barely ever asked in a work environment. And when the answer mentions “shareholder value” or “sales increase”, it’s a dead end. Money is very uninspiring. Sure, it’s motivating, but for all the wrong reasons:

The goal is not just to hire people who need a job; it’s to hire people who believe what you believe. I always say that, you know, if you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money, but if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears. [emphasis mine]

Simon Sinek, TED Talk: How great leaders inspire action

Simon’s talk is well worth watching to understand how much the “why” we do things matters. You should also grab his book “Start with Why” to dive deeper into the matter.

Too many times important initiatives are explained in monetary terms, which don’t mean anything to most people working on them. If the company makes an extra million, are we actually going to receive any of it? Not likely.

What you want instead is a business pursuit you can believe in – big or small, like getting the world rid of malaria, or making awesome tools for developers. You want to be part of something good being done for others, where money comes back almost as a side effect.

If you look at Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the three qualities above align precisely with the top two layers of Esteem and Self-actualization:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

It goes without saying, that in order for a company to become a Geek Heaven, the bottom layers need already to be catered for. You certainly won’t feel any good working at a place, where you may get fired any minute, you’re getting peanuts for your work or which is physically unsafe.

A lot of companies these days do very good on the bottom layers of the pyramid, but very few succeed in the upper ones.

Why does it all matter?

Our work as geeks relies on creativity – finding novel ways of tackling problems in a world that’s impossible to describe in ones and zeros. Every single day we’re fitting square pegs into round holes. Creativity is a shy creature though, that only shows up when we’re comfortable and content, at what psychology calls “cognitive ease”:

[G]ood mood, intuition, creativity, gullibility, and increased reliance on System 1 [intuitive, automated thinking] form a cluster. At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together. A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 [analytic, logical thinking] over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors. (…) A good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down. A bad mood indicates that things are not going very well, there may be a threat, and vigilance is required. Cognitive ease is both a cause and a consequence of a pleasant feeling. [emphasis, explanations mine]

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

There’s a clear business case for building companies, where geeks are happy.

You’re a geek. You’re doing a job that’s highly in demand these days and will remain so for the nearest future. Use that to your advantage and “vote with your feet” for companies that you truly feel great working for. Find the criteria for what makes your very own Geek Heaven, and if you haven’t found it yet, move on.

(Maslov’s pyramid image by J. Finkelstein on Wikipedia)

You don’t need permission, you need to act

I came up to a coworker and asked how long it would take him to complete a task for me and whether he’d be able to do it within a few days. “Sure, that’ll be quick and I can probably do it. But I need to ask by team leader.” Excuse me? I would expect that answer from a 7-year old, having to consult his mom for allowance to go out and play, but a tall man in his late twenties is something completely different. Why aren’t you in charge of your own work?

If you’re dreaming of making any sort of career beyond line employment, then you need to start thinking for yourself. Of course you report to someone and of course he or she will be handing you over assignments, tasks and projects. But you have a mind of your own and perhaps an agenda for yourself as well. Ask your team leader, manager or whoever else is above you for goals – descriptions of areas you should head with your work towards, and don’t accept tasks or todo lists. Obviously you can’t tell your manager to go to hell with his orders, but what you can do is to analyze what you received, come up with your own way of getting there and propose that back.

The difference is profound. It’s not about rejecting orders, but about making your own plan. “Boss, I’d like to do it this way. It’ll let me achieve A, B and C on time. And there’s this other task a colleague asked me for. I’d like to do this tomorrow and shouldn’t impact any other goal and deadline I have. Is that fine?” Of course it is.

If you read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, then the above should remind you of habit 1: be proactive. Very true so, because that’s the very same thing. I just can’t stand the whining of people who are continuously dissatisfied with their work assignments, yet when asked about what they do to change their situation, claim they have no influence on what’s coming at them.

You do. The sooner you understand it the quicker your career will take off. Don’t ask for permission. Act.