Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life in the Perpetual Motion Machine

For some reason, I've recently started to pay attention to the comings and goings of folks around me as they move from job to job (or even career to career). I've been talking privately with these people, asking them why they leave a place for another. What was wrong about the old job? What's appealing about the new one?

I even find myself wanting to ask (but definitely not asking) interview candidates why, if you sound enthusiastic about your current work, do you want to leave and make a change?

I think about my parents. How it used to be "normal" to find a job doing what you love (or like) and stay there forever. Get the gold watch, raise some kids and just peace out at 62 1/2.

I also have friends (of my generation) on the east coast who are also in tech jobs (and other areas) who treat their jobs as my parents did theirs. In it for the long haul, slowly ladder climbing, devastated at the loss of the job. The pattern seems to have carried over from the previous generation.

Then, I think about my friends and colleagues (especially in Silicon Valley) and how many of them change jobs every 2-4 years, get acquired by some other job, leave that job... Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

I have never witnessed so much career/job hopping in my life than when I moved from Atlanta to San Francisco and into the heart of the web. (To be fair, I never really sent text messages, either, much less blogged or tweeted or checked in anywhere. Heck, I wasn't even really sure what RSS was at the time. - eek, did I just admit that!?)

I wonder what the difference is here. What is it about the tech industry in the Valley (specifically) that inspires people to be so mobile in their careers? Does mobility imply promotion? Are we just more restless than, say, insurance salesmen?

I'm wondering about the departure emails... They read like a repetitious pop song: "This is the best job of my life/I'm so sad to let it go/It's made me who I am/I'm off to pursue other interests." - Perhaps people are taking "If you love something, set it free" a little too literally?

I've asked a lot of people. And here's my understanding:

There seem to be three types of people (in my experience).

  • The startup addiction
    People that feel oppressed by process and can only thrive in a "small team/startup like atmosphere," working for the thrill of the game. 
  • Big Company "lifers"
    People who gravitate toward big companies with established departments and processes, with big stable incomes and benefits. 
  • The well-off hobbyist
    People from the above two groups who made enough money that they leave tech and start doing what they really love (politics, crafting, furniture design). All those repressed tinkering desires come exploding out, enabled by positive cash flow. (You go, girl! Also? Tote jealous!)

As someone who has worked at both tiny startups & research labs and massive companies, I can honestly say that the intrepid individual can find niches of what they need anywhere. You make your career what you'd like it to be. Any reasonable employer would see that a worker who is happy and comfortable is far more productive and innovative than one who "feels" they are trapped in an uncomfortable situation.

With me, I've worked as employee #3 at a startup and it felt like a much, much larger company than Google. Even in it's infancy, this startup had more processes, templates, roadmaps and vision statements than any fortune 500 company to date, yet there were only 8 of us working away.

And at Google, already over 4,000 employees when I started, felt fast, easy, small and ultra-creative even on my first day. When a process needed to be followed, we first had to create it. And by "we," I mean the people that eventually had to follow said process. But as soon as we put something down "on paper," it became out of date. That is the pace of technology where I work (still).

And I've realised through these varied experiences that I much prefer working on a small, fast team, making a big impact... but I've been lucky enough to find just that within Google on the Reader team. I've found a startup within a huge company and I've been able to thrive and work my way.

I wonder about these folks who leave larger companies looking for "a smaller, faster environment" like a startup. Did they not try hard enough to create opportunities at the companies they once loved (and loved them)? Is it something else? Is it really about the external factors, or is there something within these folks that will keep them moving? Something that will keep these folks perpetually unsatisfied career jumpers?

What is it about working in silicon valley that creates this culture of career "perpetual motion?"

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