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Hank's Career Advice

I had a couple of jobs in college. They were both computing related; one was in the data center as a user consultant. I was terrible at helping people, really awful, I would insult the users and tell them to look things up in the manual themselves so they'd remember it better, and wouldn't have to ask next time. But I needed the extra privs and quota on the VAX to write my game and I knew my stuff so they kept me around.

My other job was as a VAX sysadmin for a market research firm in Chicago. My boss there, Hank, was a witty guy and he gave me all sorts of startup advice that I still think back on to this day. I asked him how he became the owner of a little survey firm in Chicago and he said "bad career move." Heh.

One thing he said really stuck with me. He said that, even if I wanted to start my own company, I should first go work in a really big place, to learn how they do things. They'll teach you all the industry knowledge that you'll need later. He also said if I didn't work in a big place, I would never be able to comprehend how completely messed up on the inside they can be. And that knowledge would be useful if I was a little company trying to compete with big fish later on.

I didn't work for big fish for a just a little while, I spent about 15 years there. Commodore, AT&T's Unix System Labs, Sun Microsystems, and the whole Netscape-AOL-Time/Warner slow motion train wreck. Sun had 30k employees when I was there. Netscape was 2500 heads in 1998 but after the AOLTW merger there were over 200k employees company-wide. I think of my 4 years at AOL as my MBA. I did stuff outside of work too, I ran a commercial game on the side, released a lot of open source software, I had a T1 into my house in New Jersey and was running a little ISP hosting thing. But the corporate education was uniquely valuable.

For one thing you're exposed to the breadth of industry best, and worst, practices. You don't have time in a startup to stop and take an internal 2-day Managing Within the Law class. That kind of training is routine for new managers at big places though. What does ISO 9001 accreditation involve, what kinds of terms are standard in an SLA, how do you deal with vendors, how are deals done, why is the QA manager always so pissed off. Good things to know. :-) Plus the opportunity to work with a large number of people and form contacts that can be useful later.

You need to spend time in the belly of one of these whales to develop an understanding of how big companies "think". Beyond little cliches of wisdom, it's a more general kind of knowledge that lets you empathize with and predict the way big companies behave. Groups of people have emergent behavior separate from any of the individuals. You have to be able to understand the drives and patterns of how this emergent group "thinks" to understand its actions.

VCs need to be especially vigilant, if they haven't logged time inside a product org. They get a vast store of knowledge and wisdom from having a great vantage point to see so many deals and follow so many business, from start to whatever end they come to. But if you haven't spent time trying to turn gears in the belly of the beast, it can be like trying to coach without ever having played the game.

Sometimes we see job candidates come in, bizdev, sales, programmers, across the board, who have never worked in a really big place, and you can tell. Of course if they're good we want to pitch them to work here and figure we can train them and they'll learn, but a lot of times what they really need to do is go soak in a big place for a while to develop their game.

So if you're starting your career, make sure you spend some time in a top quality bigco. Pick one where your profession is front and center. If you're a programmer don't do it at a company that isn't about software tech. That means don't be in the back office at a trading firm in NY. Other guys are the stars there. Get yourself to the mecca of your industry, wherever that is, and get hired by a biggie. Don't be a consultant. You don't learn to live inside an org on an hourly clock. You need skin in the game. (If you're still in college, don't wait tables or deliver pizzas. Get a job related to your career.) Soak it up and then you can move up, or move on. :-)

Comments (7)

One of the other interesting things about working in a big company is learning about "lifers" or people who are there for the lifetime. Sometimes these are really good smart people who never had the courage or opportunity to go out on their own. At the other end of the spectrum are people who crave the stability, safety, and security a big company can offer.

Lifers usually don't worry about productivity, changing the world, or building a better mousetrap, they just want to get through day to day doing what has to be done. I worked for one company where about 70% of the people were lifers, the average employees had 10+ years with the company, and convincing them to do things differently than the way they doing things for the past umpteen years, was fascinatingly frustrating.

So I'm glad for the experience but I'm also glad one of the lifers kicked me in the ass and helped me find the courage to walk out the door.

That's a really good point. Bigco's are full of folks who are simply driven by a different set of values than people in startups or little companies. It weirds me out to think about all of the people I still know at all of the previous places I've worked, who are still there.

I am afraid that I have to disagree.After reading these interviews I felt all that BigCo Experience will not be much useful if you decide to "move on" instead of "moving up". On my defense, I always think "How much BigCo Experience Google Guys had before starting Google ?" !!

Founder at Work is a fantastic book. Yeah Larry and Sergey were fresh out of school, but the VCs surrounded them with some very experienced people. That happens when you take $25M of their money, whether you want it to or not. :-) But of course the team they got -- Omid, Marissa, Eric, etc. -- were really amazing and gelled and so it worked great.

It didn't work out quite so well for some of founders in the book though.

Although they all have good stories, and have been successful by and large, for some of them you say "Given what I know, I wouldn't have made that particular choice..." But of course it's easy to armchair quaterback.

This is sort of the whole point of Hank's comment, and my post. You have this young guy, bristling to get out of school and go start something, and, bright as they are, they know *nothing*. It's hard to know what you don't know. So Hank told me to go work in a big shop for a little while at least. That way you at least know what you don't know, and can then decide if you need to learn it or not. ;-)

I agree with the bigco experience but come at it from a slightly different angle. After working in marketing as a consultant, freelancer and eventually owner of a web marketing company, I recently landed in a position as a Director in a mid-sized ad agency. This has been an incredible learning experience because these guys are really good at making money- they work with clients that pay what to me seemed huge amounts of money for the work. When I launch my next business I'm going to set much higher thresholds for customers. It is no more work to find customers with deep pockets and who value what you do than it is to find the opposite (no money, timewasters). In fact it is easier because they don't want low quotes, they want value.
Working in this 'traditional' environment is already radically changing my understanding of my field (online marketing).

Jim McCoy:

Wow. Find a pointer to your blog and one of the first few bits I read is a nostalgia trip about the good old days at ACNS. My mind suddenly tripped back to RIFLES, priv wars, the various characters wandering around vogelback, and some late night parties at the tech lab.

Ah, the memories...



I think I have always generally agreed with your point on this, but have given some specific guidance to young people who have asked me:

1. Don't stay in the big company world too long. 5 years maybe 10, longer than that and you are going to have a problem unlearning behaviors.

2. Don't acquire a big company lifestyle and personal burn rate. (it limits your options)

3. Pick the right big company. As much as I liked the guys at Union Pacific that I worked with, not a great training ground.

4. Always be experimenting on the side with new ideas.

On another note, I have to let you know that bumped into your post the other day when someone brought it up as something that was used to discourage a young kid from taking risk and making shit happen. You point was taken way out of context, I think... but it was interesting when this guy says this guy sent me a post from this guy Skrenta to tell me I needed to go work at a big company so I could understand how things were done. The kids response was something like...you mean I should join facebook ?

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