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You Are a Startup

The talent market has changed drastically in the last decade, but career advice has not changed along with it. Not long ago (decades) there were often just a handful of companies in any given city employing the majority of working citizens, and picking up and moving to a new town with better opportunities was substantially harder to do. Now, you can wake up in New York, brew some coffee, and log in to work with a team in San Francisco without even leaving your kitchen. You are talent, and talent is a market. A vast, digitally connected and highly competitive market.

There are no longer clear rules that set a price for you. Your value as an employee is determined by how many others can do the same job equally as well and whether or not they’ll accept less pay than you. There is an oversaturated market of SaaS products that sell answers to the question “how much should I pay”. None of them come to the same figure for a given skillset. In fact, none of them even give a solid figure. They give a range. A bell curve. To be fair, there has always been a bell curve but in the last decade it has been stretched dramatically and the means of growing along that curve have changed. To understand why, we have to examine how work has changed. There are three words in particular that sum it up well.

The first word is SECURITY.

Job security was a mutual priority for both employers and employees after WWI. Workplace psychologists touted job security as a top ingredient for a motivated and productive workforce. Finding a good job out of college meant securing your future. Job security was central to how people thought of their career, and it shaped the language and culture of work for decades to come. “A fulfilling career with a great organization” is a sentence that somehow still sounds ordinary today, yet it should feel very foreign to a modern professional. Because today a fulfilling career spans multiple organizations.

The career built under one organization is extinct. By the 90’s, the nature of job security had seriously unraveled yet the language for discussing career advancement, and the mindset around it, never evolved with it. Today, everything is moving. No one accepts a job offer expecting to be with the same company ten years later. I once hired an office manager, Carrie, who told me about her mother’s reaction when she shared the news she had accepted the offer to join our team. Her mother responded with dramatic concern and not the expected congratulatory joy. “Again?! You’ve been working for four years, and this is your fourth job! You need to focus on building a career!”

Carrie’s story of her mother’s response is the perfect example of an outdated mental model for career building. Her mother’s concept of career building was centered around longevity with one organization. What she was completely missing is that Carrie actually was building a solid career. Far more solid than if she had stayed with the first company that hired her. She had added value on each team she joined in those four years, and she had a cause for growth each time she left - bigger challenges, and better pay. In a landscape that is constantly moving, she was starting her career with lucrative, diverse experience in multiple environments. In 1980, “security” literally meant job security. Today, security means options. And Carrie was leveraging her options.

The second word is GROWTH.

Not long ago in a monocompany career landscape, growth, like security, was anchored to tenure. Pay increases were awarded in small doses, and were spaced across large gaps of time. Promotions came after a set amount of time rather than achievement. This is largely still true in terms of growth within a single organization. It is another lingering artifact of outdated workforce psychology. Employers still have a hard time justifying sizable raises to current employees, despite the tremendous costs of recruiting outside talent. This slow and painful growth was tolerable when the comfort of security was a constant. But since the extinction of job security has forced employees to embrace options, individual growth has become catalyzed by movement.

At-will employment today is a mutually insecure relationship to enter into. When an employee can be terminated at any moment for reasons as elusive as “a new direction”, they would be foolish not to compare slow and painful internal growth against all the other options out there. Carrie may not have tripled her salary in four years, but she certainly grew much faster than she would have had she stayed for 3% raises. From Forbes to Fast Company, the data shows that those who change jobs every two years end up making 50% more in the long run than those who stay put, and that’s a conservative estimate. In a world where everything is moving, movement is the key to fast growth. Especially early on in a career.

The third word is STRUCTURE.

In an attempt to better solve problems at scale, organizations are shedding the hierarchical scaffolding of the premodern workplace and flat work structures are filling the void. A flat work structure is one in which titles are less meaningful, and theoretically anyone is empowered to contribute ideas or solve problems. There is an abundance of problems everywhere despite technology’s impact on work. In fact, it seems the more tech we adopt the more problems arise. It’s the pace at which we can solve these problems that has advanced exponentially. This is a gold mine for growth in a landscape that’s constantly moving. In the right environment, a flat work structure gives you closer proximity to leaders, more of a voice on any team, and more opportunity to reach out and solve problems - meaning more opportunity to add lucrative experience to your resume.

Fundamental change in the meaning of security, growth and structure in a career has transformed the talent market into what it is today. It is liquid like any other market, and if your goal is to grow fast and disrupt your market - you might be inclined to think like a startup. The rules of legacy enterprise (loyalty, longevity, rigidity) may not serve you.

The modern employer/employee relationship lacks security, but it revolves more efficiently than ever around solving problems. At the start of a career, the problems being solved are relatively small. This is why frequent movement is particularly lucrative in the first few years of your career. Each problem solved is value added. It is return on investment for the employer and experience gained for the employee. As a career progresses, the size of the problems being solved increases. As a result, greater value is added and therefore greater pay is warranted. As long as a young professional is adding value and solving problems in each role they take on, they should embrace movement early in their career. Bigger problems take more time to solve, so longer tenure in each role will naturally occur later on in a career at the manager or director level and beyond. You won’t be “jumpy” for long.

None of this insight is useful without a framework for identifying, understanding, and solving problems. This blog will provide a mental model for viewing your career through problems and solutions that will propel you to success and provide the tools to engineer a career that pays doing what you truly love.

Any field can be lucrative with the right approach to growth. Imagine two office managers in two similar work environments. “Office manager one” runs a tight ship. The coffee is always stocked and dishes in the shared kitchen never pile up. He’s always on top of conference room mixups, and never arrives a minute later that 8:30am to make sure he beats his boss to the office. “Office manager one” takes office management seriously, and he’s proud of how hard he works.

“Office manager two” isn’t always in the office because she needs quiet time, remote from home, a day or two each week to think. She’s a real data nerd and in the time she’s carved out to think, she’s able to crunch numbers. With data, she can easily track which coffee brands are most popular and plan to stock more of the office favorites. She’s discovered that even though healthy snacks are less popular, she can encourage healthy eating by experimenting with the placement of such snacks in relation to unhealthy ones - a solution particularly exciting to the CEO who values the productivity benefits of a healthy diet. As office space gets tight, she realizes not everyone spends all of their time at their designated desk so she develops a desk sharing program that frees up valuable space for new hires. “Office manager two” sees her role in relation to the big picture of the company. She considers her role to be much more than stocked coffee. For her, it’s about innovation enablement. It’s about engineering a work environment to achieve the highest possible productivity from the team she supports. It's about solving problems. Doesn’t that sound more valuable?

If I told you one of these office managers is paid 125% more than the other, which would you think it is? Both were hired into similar environments. They likely even had similar job descriptions. The difference is in how they perceive problems. “Office manager one” is never late and he works hard, but he defines the problems he’s solving as coffee inventory and conference room logistics. There is a relatively low cap to the value he can add to the business no matter how hard he works. “Office manager two” has a much broader and more abstract definition of the problems she faces. Even while staying home twice per week the value she can add to the business is an order of magnitude greater than “office manager one”. Her affinity for data gives her power not only to understand the bigger problems, but also to prove her value in retrospect. Equally as important, she joined a company that understands the potential value of her role and gives her the autonomy she needs to innovate. Anyone can innovate and make an outsized impact, even an office manager. It all starts with a way of thinking. You have to start thinking like a startup.

Like many of you reading this, I left college with a heap of student debt which left me with no choice but to grow fast - as fast as possible. Recruiting has deepened my belief that solving problems is the key to rapid growth, and nothing is more synonymous with problem-solving and rapid growth than “Startup”. I had come to realize in my own journey that the source of my stress - my student debt - was my seed money, living in Hawaii was my incubator, and I was a startup. This frame of thought is what has enabled my rapid career growth, and I believe it's becoming even more critical to young professionals entering the workforce today. That's why I'm excited to share my perspective with you through this blog.

From "knowing your worth, and asking for it" to "managing up and leading without authority" or "when to jump", be sure to subscribe for more insights from a recruiter in tech.

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