January 10th, 2015
I’ve had a number of conversations with current students looking for their first job out of college, and I find myself sharing the same advice. These points are particularly applicable to new grads but are worth keeping in mind throughout one’s career. I’ve had these discussions in the context of tech and startups, but this advice isn’t necessarily specific to that industry.
Always be learning
You should always be a student of your trade. If you’re not learning something new, you should be doing something else. Learning isn’t always about the nuts and bolts of your day-to-day work, though. As a few examples, you can learn about:
- Best practices for developing software, including doing code reviews well and testing properly.
- Being responsible for a service that’s already seeing traffic and addressing stressful issues once it’s live.
- Effective project management and prioritization, getting the most out of a team.
- Organizational politics and figuring out how to get things done while meeting the needs of potentially many stakeholders.
The best way to learn is to join a company that has problems you can learn from and to surround yourself with the most-talented people you can. As with music or sports, when you play with people who are better than you, you’ll perform above your ability level. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’ll never learn anything.
Keep in mind that big companies aren’t the only ones with these sorts of problems. There are plenty of small companies with smart people that have them, too. Better yet, they may be just figuring out to solve these issues, which means you can be a part of the discussions and decisions.
Wherever you work, even if you ultimately disagree with how products are built, people are managed, or how a company communicates at a particular workplace, you’ll have opinions on how they might be done better, which is arguably more-valuable. If you don’t have the opportunity to experience these things done at all, much less correctly, you won’t have an opinion or the chance to form one.
Put yourself in the way of opportunity
If you want to grow your career, the best way to do this is to join a growing company. When a company is successful, it often can’t hire people fast enough to fill new roles that are needed. If you’re performing well and the company needs something done, you may be called upon to do something that otherwise wouldn’t be given to someone with the amount of experience you have. Such “battlefield promotions” are the fastest way to get new responsibilities and advance your career.
Optimize for your career trajectory. It’s much easier to put yourself in the way of opportunity than to seek it out at a company that isn’t growing or doing new things.
Get to the center of things
When you start your career, it’s important to feel the pulse of your company and industry. For tech, this means that you should find ways to be in and around San Francisco if you can. You don’t necessarily have to move there, but attending conferences and making friends in the city will give you a sense of the buzz. You may have your own opinions on San Francisco and the tech scene, but you need to be there to experience it in some fashion.
Similarly, it’s important to be as close to the decision making at whatever company you work. Starting a career at a remote office won’t give you an accurate impression of how decisions are made or how people feel about various happenings in a company. You’ll learn faster and have more opportunities at headquarters because you’ll be top of mind. If you can’t work at headquarters, find ways to be there as often as you can. Insert yourself in discussions and find opportunities so you’re not forgotten.
Don’t start a company… yet
Startups are sexy. There are reality TV shows, sitcoms, and news articles about them everywhere. The glory to be had from selling your company for a billion dollars is on par with those of rock stars. It’s tempting to find a way to roll the dice in hopes of joining such an illustrious group of founders. But startups are hard. They almost invariably fail, and you’ll likely stress your network and personal life along the way.
If you have a great idea and a strong cofounder, by all means, go for it. But don’t start a startup for the sake of doing so.
Instead, join a small company that’s growing quickly. Get yourself involved in solving the problems it has as it grows. Experience its shortcomings. Learn from the best people you can. Form opinions. Meet people in your industry. When it’s time to do your own startup, you’ll be much better equipped than you are straight out of school.