January 09, 2018

Space Fillers and Superstars: Silicon Valley's Divergent Career Arcs

Career Paths Are Often Circuitous Routes

My career in Silicon Valley started before I'd even graduated from college. Rather than plug away at Berkeley and try to get top grades, I split my time my senior year between going to classes and commuting across the Bay Bridge to Burlingame, working for a revenue light startup during the initial dot com boom. By the end of 2018, I will have completed twenty full years in the Valley.

In these twenty years, I've been laid off. I've been promoted. I've fought for raises and rejected stock offers. I've co-founded my own consulting business. I've worked at startups with three people, ten people and two hundred. And for the last six plus years, I've been at Google, which can hardly be called a startup.

In these two decades, I've seen companies lay everyone off firsthand, and had another acquired. I've pitched Sand Hill Road for venture capital funding, been part of corp dev talks about a possible acquisition, and even filed for IPO. I've worked with billionaires, millionaires, neighbors, and colleagues straight out of college, with debts to pay.

And while I've been lucky enough to accumulate 15 years of work at just two jobs, that is fairly unusual for the industry. Some estimate the average software engineer, used as a metric for the average employee in our tech-centric world, is only 1 to 3 years. (Source)

Underneath the headlines and noise of product announcements, and seeming get rich quick ideas, the reality is the overwhelming majority of Silicon Valley employees are role fillers, who just get things done. Some are living month to month, and others are more comfortable. But for each example of wunderkids who get lucky on their first try, you have cubicle dwellers whose LinkedIn history won't have you blinking an eye. And the Valley needs these people. Hundreds of thousands of them.

The Intersection of Skill, Luck and Loyalty

Marissa Mayer famously put together a rubric after completing a Symbolic Systems degree at Stanford to determine where she would take the leap from her 14 job offers, and Google was seen as having the greatest upside. Tough to argue against those results, and hindsight is 20/20. Yet a close friend of mine who graduated from the same school with the same major is as anonymous as they come, with a pedestrian career. There's no discounting Marissa's hard work and ambition, but not everyone gets lucky.

In 2009, I wrote about this magical intersection of skill and luck - where good people work incredibly hard at toxic companies, or doomed dinosaurs. There are tomes to be written about the worker bees of the Valley who come in and work hard for a full day's pay to make all the services go, but aren't job hopping for the latest startup du jour, instead hanging on with loyalty to the company even if the company doesn't return the favor.

Roll the Dice or Buy a Lotto Ticket

For every superstar like Marissa, there are thousands more stories like my friend and others who just missed. A decade plus ago, I had a roommate who passed up being one of the first 25 employees at Google, so he could instead finish his PhD. (He is now a professor at NYU)

The more cynical among us could say that aggressively enterprising workers should quickly hop from job to job and ride the rocket to financial happiness, and yet another group will say that if the current workplace isn't looking like a lottery ticket, you should quit and form your own startup. It certainly looks easy enough, with so many ideas landing venture funding.

Venture capitalists will tell you they are looking for that elite leader, the masterful person with unique product vision and market awareness - a founding team with impeccable credentials. But every decision is a bet. The VCs and companies make bets on the staff, and the staff makes bets on the companies each day they show up. Sometimes you win the jackpot, sometimes you push, and other times, you could lose it all and have to start over.

Among a world of aspiring superstars, a much more common, but also important, role played out daily amidst the rows of cubicles and open office spaces in the Silicon Valley is an army of people making it all run, quietly.

Disclosures: I briefly overlapped at Google with Marissa from 2011 to 2012. Also, if you must know, I attended UC Berkeley, a natural rival of Stanford. But that's not really super relevant.

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