We, tech workers, have been fortunate. The technology industry has been rapidly expanding for decades with no foreseeable end in sight. The recent macroeconomic environment, I believe, is temporary. It has given us all a chance to pause and reflect on our careers and what we find meaningful. And, we already are starting to see new opportunities appear, especially in areas related to AI.
People often ask me for advice on careers in times like these. What fields of endeavor would be fruitful to pursue? How do you decide which job or role to take? What should you look for and stay away from? When is the right time to leave and take on something new?
While there are many axes to consider and no universal answer, a common theme that repeatedly emerges is one of learning and growth. My advice often boils down to how to look for and identify a place and opportunity where the people and environment will help you learn the most. Learning breeds passion and satisfaction. Money, title, prestige, fame, and other fruits are simply by-products.
My advice to look for exponential growth is not new. Eric Schmidt once famously told Sheryl Sandberg, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” Paul Graham also argues in “Startup = Growth” that exponential growth is essential for a business to be considered a startup. Although one can find growth outside of startups, startups are certainly a cauldron for learning.
Some Rules of Growth
So, how can an outsider tell whether there’s growth? In hindsight, it’s easy – start by talking to people on the inside. Over my career, I’ve accumulated some rules of thumb to help find your next exponential.
Growth is fun. There’s a healthy vibe in the air. People are optimistic. For example, when I interviewed with Google in 2004 and with AWS in 2014, I could tell that people were having fun. There was an atmosphere of chaotic optimism. People were busy and hustling, but they were never too busy to talk and relate the optimism.
Growth is obvious; it does not hide. It is not under the rug or just around the corner. It’s a Mack truck that hits you in the face. The data will tell you.
Startups will stretch the truth to make it appear as if they’re growing. For example, they’ll highlight the credentials of founders or the initial team. They’ll talk about a recent high-valuation funding round. Let’s be clear. While these are reasons to be optimistic, they are not evidence of growth. Sometimes, companies will exaggerate or decline to divulge data about users, customers, or revenue. It’s hard to know without some verifiable data.
So, as a proxy, I find it useful to get a sense of headcount growth. Fast growing places, especially startups, must hire behind need. A cute trick is to ask the people that you meet (e.g. interviewers) how long it's been since they started, and compute the average. Unless it’s early, the shorter the average, the faster the growth. For example, when I joined AWS in 2014, they were investing heavily in growing the Palo Alto office. The average tenure of people I met there was less than 4 weeks. In a couple months, I was a veteran. I later learned my division was growing at triple digit rates at that time.
Growth is divined, not engineered. Sometimes companies are early in their journey. They may not have a product or may still be tweaking the product to discover what customers want. So, by definition, they will not show fast growth. Looking for growth is like searching for oil. You have the right tools and know-how, but need to make educated guesses and dig in many places.
In this case, you should assess how well the company is searching for growth. While it’s important to have a long-term plan, people need to be working with customers, collecting feedback, and using both data and intuition to iterate fast. If customers are not using the product, the company needs to relentlessly try new angles of attack. Be wary of long development cycles with little to no customer interaction or feedback – it’s hard to engineer a product “from whole cloth” that will grow exponentially.
- Growth is not forever. Finally, every company or organization eventually slows down or plateaus. Either the market becomes saturated, or they hit some other internal bottleneck. So, if you’re experiencing growth, enjoy it while it lasts. When assessing a new opportunity, remember that reputation lags reality. Refer to the previous rules to search for and assess growth. If your current environment has lost its ability to grow, then that’s a sign to look for your next exponential.
The Thrills of Exponentials
I quickly found the pace to be exhilarating and addictive, and the growth necessitated an environment of trust and camaraderie. There’s so much to do that everyone can find real impactful opportunities. And because there’s so much open space, people are not territorial, which means no politics and more fun. If I wanted to work on something, I could simply join an existing effort. Or I could start something new and convince others to join. While people did not always agree with my ideas, no one stopped me from trying. Everyone started with trust, assumed good intentions, and had high expectations. With success, this cycle built on itself. By landing at a place with exponential growth, I learned so much and so quickly, and as a by-product my career also grew quickly.
Growth is for Community
I often remind people that growth’s purpose is to enrich and sustain our community and not collect wealth and power for individuals. Silicon Valley and the technology industry that it spawned is predicated on exponential growth, but not on growth at all costs. I started my career at HP, which was founded by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, two pioneers that set the standard for the valley. (Unfortunately, I joined too late to have met them.) Dave famously said that a company’s responsibility is to its employees, customers, and community first, and then its shareholders. A company is a collaborative effort by a group of people that want to make a contribution, and money is simply fuel to sustain their activities. I concur. Somewhere, Silicon Valley lost its way with the recent growth-at-all-cost behavior of some big tech firms and personalities. I hope the pendulum swings back, in this respect, to the old school ways.
Many wondered why I left AWS last year. Like others, I was amazed by the unprecedented advances in generative AI models. While their abilities to create images, audio, video, and natural language are remarkable, we felt that an essential ingredient was missing and needed exploration. We saw a larger opportunity outside of AWS that many did not agree with. So, I co-founded Aryn to seize that opportunity, find my next exponential, and make a contribution back to our community.
I thank Ben Sowell and Jon Fritz for feedback on drafts of this post.