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How To Have A Successful Career

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    It is a truth universally acknowledged that every engineer in possession of a job must also be in want of tips to get ahead.

    Based on my experience in the tech industry, this article lays out what I wish I had known at the start of my career. By the end of this post/guide, you will have learned:

    1. How to pick / where to start
    2. What to do once you start
    3. What to do when you get stuck

     

    Pick the team and the company you join carefully

    A rising tide lifts all boats. I would go as far as to say picking the right team and company is more important than your actual abilities. 

    Picking the right team is a skill like any other. When picking a team inside a company, treat it as if you were picking a startup. 

    When analyzing startups/companies, look at the following:

    1. How they get revenue/plan to make revenue.
      1. The easiest way to do this is to figure out what happens when you buy a service from the startup. Back of the envelope math is fine. 
        1. With Google, when you click on an ad, Google gets paid 100%.
        2. With Uber when you take a ride, Uber keeps 25% of the revenue. So you need a lot of rides.
        3. Consider the case of fast.co that ran through $100m in a year or so. It’s fairly simple to do with this analysis.
          1. Payments is a tough business. If you spent $100 with fast.co, at best get to keep a dollar of it. 
          2. Spend a quarter of million per engineer per year. With 200 engineers, that’s $50 million per year in engineering costs right there.
    2. How competitive is their market?
      1. While competition is great for the consumer, it’s terrible for the employee and investor because competition leads to lower margins, lower salaries, and job insecurity. You want to find a company that has the ability to become a market leader so they will be able to withstand any economic downturn and provide you with opportunities to grow your career.
        1. For more on this, watch Peter Thiel’s SVIC interview.
    3. Does the startup have devoted users?
      1. It’s better to have 10 devoted users rather than 100 not-so-eager ones. Most startups fall into the trap of giving away their product for free to juice the user base, but as soon as those users are asked to pay for the service, they run. You want to work for a company that has devoted users that are able and willing to pay for its services.
    4. Look for both positive and negative media articles and speak to current and former employees.
      1. Some companies are media darlings and others are not liked by the media. You need to read stories from both perspectives to cut through the fog, but most importantly reach out to people on Linkeidn who work for the company.
        1. If you struggle with networking consider taking SVIC’s course geared to STEM professionals that want to become better networkers.
        2. If you don’t find anything negative, dig deeper. This is usually a sign that information is being hidden.
    5. It might be better to join a startup at a smaller valuation because higher valuations are probably not going to go up.
      1. Consider the case of Uber. They were valued at 48 billion in 2015. At best, they would have 2xed at the time of the IPO.
      2. Startups like Datadog/Coinbase that were valued in the $100 or $200 million range actually turned out to be 30 times better. 
      3. Stripe is already valued at $95 Billion and has recently had that valuation significantly reduced.

     

    Understand what is valued and expected

    Understand that it is unlikely you are going to be able to change what is valued. 

    Culture starts with the founders, and if they are great to each other and respect their employees, the company will develop a healthy culture, but if they are mean to each other and their employees, it’s best to go somewhere else.

    While every company has a beautiful mission statement with fantastic values, usually that’s a bit of PR spin. You really want to speak to people who work at the company to see what’s truly valued and expected, because if the company doesn’t incentivize the right behavior, no PR spin will be able to overcome that.

     

    Small Companies Vs. Big Companies OR Move fast & Break Things Vs. Move Slow & Check all the boxes

    At startups, typically code wins all arguments. You talk things over and implement. Prioritization and making quick decisions for rapid user feedback is key. You don’t have time to sit and hash things out for months because your funding is always in jeopardy and the market moves quickly. You are optimizing for upside potential and are ok with potential risk, because if you aren’t capitalizing on upside potential, you can’t gain new customers or secure an additional funding round.

    At big companies, typically there is some process in place because security, reliability and allocation of credit are important. It’s imperative to follow the process. Big companies have already secured their gold mine and now they want to slowly and steadily milk it while at the same time not doing anything silly that would place their gold mine in jeopardy. Big companies have a lot more to lose and tend to guard against it.

     

    Understand when the culture changes

    Organizations are living organisms that change and evolve and if you don’t change and evolve, you will be left behind. 

    For example with the benefit of hindsight, I never noticed that the culture at the company became a lot more document focussed than prototype and code focussed.

    Amazon at 1,000 folks is different from Amazon at 5,000, 20k, half a million etc.

    Sometimes the culture changes organically but at other times it happens by design.

    1. A new CTO/VP gets hired. Different leaders have different ways of working.
    2. There is a reorg where you now report to a new boss. 

     

    What’s critical about culture change is that you must remain flexible at all times. People who become inflexible are the first ones to suffer when the organization goes through culture change. 

    While we love change on our terms, we hate it when it’s forced upon us. You must embrace change in your organization or be willing to move on.

     

    Make an immediate impact

    There are a few activities that are high leverage that you can do right at the start. 

    In engineering teams these typically include:

    • Try out the product
      • Spend your own money if you have to. Usually people hesitate to do this but trust me, this will pay rich dividends.
      • Write your observations of using the product and share them. 
      • The tech stack of any product is complicated, but the product itself is usually simple enough to understand.

     

    • Write documentation
        • As you learn about the systems in play, write all the obvious stuff that you had to to get things to work. 
          1. By doing so you:
            1. Solidify your understanding of how the company operates.
            2. Become the go-to person who helps people out with the tech stack.

     

    • Add metrics and dashboards
      • There are primarily two types:
        1. Business metrics – Harder to capture but provide insight into what to do next and lead to actionable insights.
        2. System metrics – Usually analyze the system itself and helps the system become more efficient.
      • Everyone wants more metrics. Add them if you can. 


    In SVIC’s course: Managing Your Manager, it talks about the importance of your first 100 days at a company that will greatly impact the rest of your tenure at the firm. If you don’t rack up early wins at your new company, it can hurt your reputation and potential opportunities your manager is willing to share with you.

     

    When to jump versus when to stay

    There will come a time when you will find yourself in a situation where you have to decide between

    1. Staying on your current team even though you are not enjoying the work and a promotion seems in your grasp.
    2. Leaving the team for fresh shores for an interesting opportunity.

    Staying for anything more than six months tends to be a chore. If you find a great role and the next promotion seems to be more than six months out, go for the interesting work every time. 

    This is because, odds are, if the work is not interesting enough, you will be grinding it out, and if you don’t get promoted at the end of it, you will lose your sanity.

     

    Is your job to do the job or is it to get promoted

    It’s probably a combination of the two. But it’s surprising how much this varies between teams and organizations. Figure out what the mix is. 

    Typically to get promoted in most tech companies, you have to be performing at the next level while at the same time fulfilling your current responsibilities. Most importantly, you need to sustain this performance for quite some time. So if your performance is sporadic, don’t expect to get promoted any time soon.

     

    Who is in charge of your promotion?

    Contrary to what most people think, your work doesn’t set you free, you have to know how to properly market your work. 

    It’s not enough to do the work. You have to talk about it. You have to make sure other people can make a case for you. 

    No one is going to come and pluck you out of obscurity and say, “This person did an amazing job but didn’t talk about it and so let’s promote them.”

    Also, contrary to what you might believe, engineers are not as rational as they think they are. They have the same biases as the rest of the population.

     

    Enjoy your work

    It’s unlikely that you will be able to sustain grinding it out. Grinding will also build up resentment.

    If you are not able to enjoy your work on a day to day basis, try to place it in the proper context and understand why it’s valuable.

     

    Learn how to email/write better

    All you need to know is the following:

    • Make lists
    • Shorter is better
    • People read top down and left to right
    • Bold and italicize text that you want to call attention to
    • Add a diagram. Even a bad one is better than nothing. 

     

    Successful Career

    A lot of the information above will seem blindingly obvious and that doesn’t negate their usefulness. Implementing them might be simple but it’s not easy. I wish I had known them when I started and I hope these tips help you out.

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