Saturday, April 28, 2012

Letters to a Young Engineer: How to Decide Where to Work

[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.

Good luck.


To the young engineers reading this post, Minted is hiring! Email eng-jobs AT 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.


Anonymous said...

I am a Caltech alum and your advice here is so incredibly relevant & HONEST that I wish I had read it years ago. Fit is such an individual thing, and an environment/culture/group that makes one individual happy can make another individual insane....and inner happiness has such a drastic effect on one's productivity and creativity.

Anonymous said...

I am a Caltech alum and your advice here is so incredibly relevant & HONEST that I wish I had read it years ago. Fit is such an individual thing, and an environment/culture/group that makes one individual happy can make another individual insane....and inner happiness has such a drastic effect on one's productivity and creativity.

N said...

woot Caltech alum! Thanks for the support, fellow Techer! :)

thispartyisnsfw said...

Even though I'm not an engineer, I think this post has great relevance for someone considering career options in any field! That was enjoyable Niniane!

Anonymous said...

Waiting eagerly for your next post on how to become a wanted player.

Jeremy said...

I would also add that it's good to work at some place where you are neither the "dumbest" nor the "smartest" person there. You want to be challenged by your peers, but not overwhelmed or overawed by them; you want to stand our for your accomplishments, but you don't want to have to carry the company on your shoulders.

When I give interviews, I'll always tell the interviewees to look around and ask if they could see themselves working here with these people.

I guess all of the above could be folded into your "fit" category.

I also found that your manager can make or break your working environment.

Amwrit Puri said...

exactly :)

toddbeau said...

Interesting! I have been thinking about what makes me happy in a role recently, and I came up with the following "4 C's":

1. Competence. Will I be competent? Will I be challenged without feeling like I'm struggling to keep my head above water?

2. Compelling (Product). Am I passionate about the product/mission.

3. Camaradarie. Great teams matter a lot.

4. Compensation. Intentionally last on the list.

Anonymous said...

I will say once you have a spouse and family, it's not up to you anymore - you pick the best job for your family. No choice to pick that fun startup job with little pay, got to go for that big behemoth company that's somewhat stable and pays more. I just wish the economy would turn around, so consulting would pay more again :-).

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting question.

People with family...their dreams stop, opportunities cease, possibilities narrow. I've seen it over and over again - super talented people stuck at a job because it's the most secure for their young family. Mortgage comes, followed by college cost and retirement. Hence the lock in for the next 25 years is complete.

Througout life, but even more intensely at at the end of life, there's the unbelivable and undeniable pleasure of having raised a family, and having the security of a family who will look out for you when you're feeble. Plus a family is people who have known you for decades, which is a priceless gift that is worth more than anything you can buy. Having a family lets you grow old and older in security, comfort, family bliss. The young replaces and encourages the old which makes life and death bearable. All in all, it is down-to-the-bone goodness. I cannot extol family values and virtues anymore than what I already feel.

But I have a sneaky suspicion that something ain't right. I can't help but feel like there is a minority of people at the top, leaders of our time and resources, who created a world where, for the price you pay for this family, you're locked into a employment pattern for 25 years. You are incentivized by the tax codes to by a house and carry a mortgage for 30 years. You are incentized to keep working for the government so you can get the pension. You are incentivized to keep working for Private Company Terrible so you can have health insurance. Etc. You have 'no choice' but to carry a mortgage, save for college funds, save for retirement, and work for someone else for your life. At the end of life, you haven't built anything that's your own on paper.

Even if you hate your job or your industry, you stay because it's the best for your family. So you work hard during the week, and amuse yourself on the weekend with little treats, like shopping, activities, hobbies, as a way of recuperating, numbing, and encouraging yourself to keep on going. Of course all of these distracting hobbies and activities cost more money so you have to make more of it to sustain this lifestyle.

Governments, corporations, businesses need a stable work force so many things are created and built into the system to create that stability. Students obligate themselves with huge student debt so they 'have' to get a job in their field to pay it off.

How information technology will transform the world into a more mobile and freeing place that opens up all kinds of exchange of information and possibilities will transform everything. I'm excited to see how things will unfold.

Coachability Inc said...

Niniane, I'm glad you bring up the points about fit. So many people consider only compensation or status and end up unhappy. Great advice.

Jim Cooper said...

Quality of colleagues is paramount, IMHO, for two reasons. One, all work these days is in teams, and you want your name to go on products and services that other topnotch people helped ship. Two, they're the cadre from which your future career will derive: references for your next gig; potential co-founders when you go out on your own; clients and teammates and bosses in future jobs. Anybody you work with NOW who is dishonest or even simply doesn't get it will slow you down in years to come. Better a C job in an A company...

Irena said...

I really liked your post. At this moment i am deciding on my summer job and it really helped a lot. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Greetings from Dublin, Ireland. Great advice, loved it. Thanks.

Aweber9 said...

Great post! Who is the author of the book you mention (How To Decide)?

Aweber9 said...

Great post!

Who's the author of the book you mention (How To Decide)?

Anonymous said...

Dear Niniane,

I am the CTO of a startup and recently stumbled upon your blog and I must say you have got really inspiring pieces here especially this

"Letters to a Young Engineer: How to Decide Where to Work" which relates directly to my situation.
Being so young (25) and inexperienced with the role of CTO for a startup is a very challenging task and would really appreciate it if I could get any advice from you on how to go about it.
I am constantly faced with the insecurity of lack of work experience in the real business world which makes me feel like it could affect my competence to carry out the job description.
I would really appreciate your take on this as I feel that you understand the system more from your experience and how it works.
Again, many thanks and look forward to hearing from you.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog. Would love to read about your experiences at the different places you've worked at. You seem to have worked at google during their rapid growth years. Any growing pains and office politics which became frustrating for you as the company matured? Was working at a smaller startup world more enjoyable? Cheers.