Who will take care of you? Building a resilient tech career Melanie Baker April 14, 2016 Columns, Featured, M-Theory Photo: A better look at the Unicorn and her rider by Byorgen Druffeldroff is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. Culturally, tech has some systemic issues. Hierarchies of value depending on what job you do. Manipulation and exploitation of young workers. Overreliance on other people’s money. How it can be pretty crappy if you’re not a white male. Yeah, yeah, #notalltech. I think there’s a deeper issue, though. It’s a fundamental result of how the corporate world works – and tech as an enhanced microcosm. Let’s call it a lack of resilience. Failing to build certain skills early in your career to help you understand how companies and people really work, and how to do your best while still covering your posterior. I went through the dot-com fairly early in my career. Heady times, but not fun when the bubble burst. Some lessons we learned fast, and some set in in ugly ways over time. Ugly because there was so much we didn’t know, or know to look out for. The moment of realizing “no company is going to take care of me” was seminal. Pity it was delivered with a layoff notice. But over the years it made me a lot better at building my jobs and life in ways that could weather some rainy days without too much drama. I think we should learn career management in school, alongside financial management. (Most things are easier to handle if you have some money.) Real world lessons; corporate literacy. Like that companies exist to make money, so 99.9 percent of people are not going to be changing the world in wondrous ways. (No matter what rah-rah startups tell you.) Or how to figure out what the real org chart looks like in terms of influence and perceived “core” value. Or what questions to ask and how to advocate for your interests when performance is getting reviewed, when you’re getting promoted, or when you’re laid off. All facets of life are guaranteed to have ups and downs. Resilience can be learned the gentler way through education and stable experience. Or it can be learned over the years as a jagged little pill, repeatedly swallowed. The list of potential side effects is long. Imagine preparing for your career the way astronauts prepare for a space mission, though somewhat less dramatic than, “How might this kill me?” When there’s an economic downturn, instead of freaking out you think, “Right, we learned about this. It’s likely to go on this long and the company is likely to shrink this much. These types of companies are most at risk of ‘correction’ and my odds of layoff are about this high. I’ll need this much money for this long to get by, and will need to update my network and get the inside track at companies I like. Right, let’s go.” In tech, lack of resilience can hit either end of the hierarchy of value. Perhaps you’re the sought-after type with a high salary, a million perks, and sheltering from as much of the real world as possible. Or the expendable “peripheral” type, paid much less and often contracted, lacking perks, and even geographically shunted off elsewhere. Those sought-after types are entering this cocoon of privilege right out of school, and there are a lot of life skills they’re not going to be learning. Like having no idea how corporate politics work, or how to recognize imminent downsizing. Sure, some of those unicorn riders might be fortunate enough to remain in the cocoon their entire careers, but there’s also a pretty good chance that the ride’s going to end at some point. When the sky falls, the most important thing to be able to do for yourself is think clearly and assess rationally. That’s really hard to do when inexperience is pounding the panic button. Maybe you can get a new job with one of those companies that bribes you. But without stability you’re just going to keep reliving that cycle. Stability is found at the companies that don’t play those games. They may appear a bit less sexy, but sexy can just mask lack of substance. Those companies recognize people with healthy resilience. But if your main role to date has been coddled dilettante… As for the “peripheral” tech workers, many of them start their careers being lied to (you’re selling stuff for someone else, not changing the world) and exploited (Nerf battles are not an adequate substitute for benefits and vacation). And boy, are they ever expendable. Revenue downturn? Commence jettisoning! What those folks will learn can seem like resilience, but it’s actually more of a hard, scaly shell of contempt and cynicism. But hey, they’ll be hard-working and lack entitlement… so I guess they might make good entrepreneurs? But what if a company puts in the effort to be sane and stable and develop their people to be cool, productive and resilient… and they leave? So they leave. There will always be reasons to move on. It’s that whole “What if we train them and they leave? What if we don’t and they stay?” issue. Doing business the right way, which is to a large degree about developing and treating your people well, actually does go a long way to encouraging loyalty. Those companies end up resilient because their people end up resilient. They know how to disagree and remain productive. How to negotiate and compromise. How to have realistic expectations. How to ask for help. And how to plan for rainy days, because they always happen eventually. That could be the core of tech culture. But, y’know, if having more kinds of Skittles on hand is what’s important to you, that’s cool, too. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.