[Oftentimes throughout my life, I wished that I could time-travel and ask my future self for advice. I felt sure that in five or ten years, I would know exactly how to handle the thorny situation facing me. Usually, it was true. A handful of years later, I knew precisely how to address the issue, but I could not tell my younger self.
What a tragedy that this supply and demand could not be connected between my past and older self! Instead I will write out the advice I would've given myself, in hopes that other young people may find some benefit.
I am naming it after the book "Letters to a Young Poet", because I like that quaint title.]
Dear Younger Self,
Deciding where to work is a momentous decision. There are so many factors: the responsibilities of the role, the team you'd be working with, your manager, compensation, risk profile of the company.
Let's say you're deciding between several appealing companies. (I'll write a separate post about how to get yourself into a position of having multiple companies bidding after you.)
Here are the most important factors that I've boiled down:
1. Imagine that when you wake up tomorrow morning, you'll start work at this company. How do you feel? Excited and a little nervous? Dismayed and wishing you could postpone it indefinitely?
This is the first branch in the decision tree. If the answer is that you're not happy about going into work, you need to scratch that company off the list. It's a non-starter. I don't care if the company is super-popular or has 10 Nobel Prize winners that you revere. If you're not excited, you're not going to do your best work. Then those 10 Nobel Prize winners will see you as a non-phenomenal colleague, and that's the reputation which will spread about you.
When you think about companies in the abstract, it can be hard to differentiate between your feelings for them. But when you force yourself to think of the concrete reality of getting out of bed tomorrow to work for a certain company, your body will tell you how you feel. When I think of a happy company, I feel light, and my back straightens itself. When I think of a company that's not a good fit for me, my shoulders slump subconsciously.
There are a million factors that go into whether you'll enjoy working at this company. As stated in the book How to Decide, when trying to gauge an emotional matter, making a pro-con list is actually liable to lead to the wrong decision. Your brain can only handle six or seven variables. Your intuition can handle a lot more. Just let your intuition tell you how you really feel about working at this company.
2. How well do you align with the company's ideal candidate for your role?
This will determine how much you succeed at the company. If you are far off from the company's ideal, you will spend a lot of effort contorting yourself to fit that ideal. If the company expects solemn suit-wearing individuals, and you are a bouncy Tigger who loves pranks, you will waste a third of your mental power repressing your natural exuberance, so that you'll be taken seriously. You will waste another third attempting to learn how to be serious, but you will not be able to do it as well as the people who are naturally born that way. Now you only have one-third of your brainpower remaining to do your actual work. The people who are naturally serious will be able to outperform you, even if they are actually only 80% as good as you.
No fit is perfect, so it's to be expected that there are parts of you that don't mesh. But it should feel natural. It should not feel like you are trying every day to act like a vastly different person.
If you force yourself to contort, you will also grow increasingly resentful at the part of you that's being repressed. You'll grow depressed. Don't do it.
3. Fair compensation.
If you feel underpaid, it will be difficult to give the job your all. If it bothers you to the point where you're not able to do your best work, you end up with the same problem as in issue #1. If your compensation is fair, there won't be any obstacles, and you can fall completely in love with your work.
Note that I said "fair", not "the maximum". Since stock options have high variance, it's difficult to gauge which package out of a few companies will end up being the most valuable. If you over-optimize, you may end up being penny-wise and pound-foolish, like my former colleague who told me not to refer him to Google pre-IPO because he wanted to stay for his $20,000 bonus from Microsoft.
Since your projection of future value is likely to be inaccurate, it's better to optimize for the other factors, as long as your compensation is fair.4.The job should teach you things that you find valuable.
In a great job, you'll be growing quickly. You'll look back every year, and realize that you can now handle things that would have been very challenging for you a year ago. This will enable you to do increasingly amazing things.
Only you should decide what is valuable. Do not let any single person or set of people sway you on this. Some people will urge you to get an MBA and learn more about business. Others will hold MBAs in contempt and tell you to focus on scalability or mobile or programming languages or whatever their favorite subject is. You need to survey the land and learn enough to make up your own mind.
5. Appreciate the product.
This is what gets you past the rough patches, when you have to stay at work late again and your sweetie is annoyed, or you feel temporarily misunderstood by your manager. You need to have an appreciation for the product.
For me, it's very rewarding to help Minted's indie designers around the world. These are incredibly talented artists and graphic designers who find their voice through Minted, and are able to build a name for themselves as well as earn royalties. Last year when I was at a Career Fair, I was describing our community to a university student, and tears actually came into my eyes because I was so moved. It makes me laugh to think of it now. That student surely thought I was crazy.
You don't have to be as crazy I was, but it's good to feel appreciative of some aspect of the product. Sometimes people work on enterprise software despite feeling like they are just iterating on a boring product, or they guiltily work on toolbars that make revenue by tricking people into accidentally using a different search engine. Living with that cognitive dissonance is a high cost to pay every day.
You may have noticed that I put a lot of optimizing around finding an environment to do your best work. This is because I believe that world-class work has a way of reaping you unexpected rewards (fodder for another post).
I also didn't talk specifically about your manager or your colleagues. Those are very important, and they are covered by points 1, 2, and 4. If you enjoy your colleagues, that's one factor which will make you excited to go to work (#1). If they enjoy you, you will align closely to the ideal (#2). If they are stellar, you will learn a lot from them (#4).
If you do all these things, you will end up in a place that makes you happy and allows you to do your best work. This means that even if other aspects don't go as well as you planned, you will not regret this time, because you were happy and accepted.
To the young engineers reading this post, Minted is hiring! Email eng-jobs AT minted.com with your resume.
Or if you want to go for a super-early-stage startup with just a few people, email me and I can connect you with those too.