Big Co. vs Small Co. & Job vs. Career Stability

Credit: @pwnela
Credit: @pwnela

I gave a talk at Self.Conference the other week called “Some Things I’ve Learned About Color”. There’s no video, and I haven’t shared the transcript – I will eventually share this content, because people have connected with it and because I think it’s important. But I’ve yet to figure out how to do that. It’s a special talk, and I don’t think a blog post or two is the right format. For now, you can see the live tweets in the Storify.

The first half is a lightly refreshed version of the talk I closed the first day of JSConfEU 2015 with. About how there are 5 causes of burnout that are not overwork, how these 5 things seem like things that side projects can actually help with, and how that might influence the way we try and involve people in side projects. Through it I refer a really miserable project that I worked on (and the worst manager I ever had), and the side project (that turned into Show and Hide) that helped me survive.

The second half, I looked at how these five things are likely to be worse for underrepresented minorities in tech, and talked about how I personally left the tech industry, after predicting I would. I talked about rehabilitation – about rediscovering joy in making, about building confidence, the work of learning not to be afraid anymore. And I talked about coming back. The most interesting part of it being the unknown unknowns.

Since giving it, it occurs to me that this topic ties to another one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about since I went to work for a startup. The difference between job security and career security. That as part of leaving a job that was “secure” I built up something better – the ability to be confident that I can get another job. Career security.

Job security means that you know you will keep getting a paycheck from $company. Career security means that you know you can get another job, and develop yourself and your career in the way that is meaningful to you.

One thing I’m grateful to from my time at the Conglomerate is that my fear of disappearing – again – keeps me pushing to make sure I stay visible. Women are only as good as their last, most recent, achievement, after all. So I get up at 6am so that I have an hour or so to write code on my side project before my first meeting. I spend Saturday morning in a coffee shop writing. I limited myself to six talks this year, but still – six is quite a lot. I choose this even though it sometimes means harassment, because the alternative – disappearing – is mostly, usually, much more terrifying.

A big company can offer job security in a way that a startup can’t. But, I think that it’s much harder to have career security there. Firstly, because external visibility is often explicitly discouraged. Secondly, because big companies are incredibly complex systems where most people who exist in them have very little control. Of the six projects I worked on at the Conglomerate, three were relocated to other offices, two were outright killed. The reasons for this were sometimes political, and sometimes the product of poor execution. I look back on these and I could give you a list of things that went wrong, but I could not tell you how I could have had any influence to change those things.

An extreme example, but on the terrible project that burned me out, we missed a deadline – in my opinion because of poor project management. I said to my manager, the worst manager I ever had, “I’m worried that we missed this deadline”. He replied, “What deadline? There was no deadline.”

There was a deadline. His refusal to acknowledge failure, to hold the person who was supposed to be running the project accountable, made it clear to me that nothing was going to change. I could bang my head against a brick wall trying to get someone to listen whilst being told that I was being “negative” or “not a team player”, or I could leave. I left. Everything I predicted came to pass. The project was cut down and moved a year later, three people who had remained on the team messaged me to tell me that I’d been right.

In a large organisation with limited power and constant re-orgs, it’s hard to have career security. One of the reasons why this situation of seeing a project failing and being unable to do anything about it was so stressful to me, was that I knew it would hit reset on my getting promoted, and that as a woman I would be subject to what I always had been – prove it again. That because of entrenched sexism and power dynamics it was much more dangerous to my career to be on a failing project than it was to the manager who presided over it. He, of course, got a more important project when that one failed. Failing upwards in the way that cis-white men so often do. I wonder what he took from that experience.

At a startup it’s just accepted that you do not have job security. This is the kind of thing that employment laws in Europe in general but particularly in France cause that the startup scene is less vibrant. It’s very hard to legislate job security at the level of uncertainty that startups operate, and this also inhibits the possibilities of 1-person businesses to expand because the risks are so great. I’m a proud European, and very much in favour of robust employment law. But this is one of the consequences of it.

But, if you are not a cis-white-man failing upwards in the valley, how do you create career security? Some ideas.

  • It’s not enough to be good at what you do, you have to document and prove that you are good at what you do.
  • Be strategic about visibility. I get plenty of Token Women invitations, and I get myself uninvited from almost all of them. People want to talk about “diversity” but very few want to do the hard work of inclusivity. Being known for being a woman in tech and not for my technical achievements does not take my career in the direction that I want it to go in. (Note: I haven’t done the best job of this, but it’s something I’m very aware of).
  • Build your network before you need it. Not cynically – genuinely connect with awesome people over the things you have in common.
  • In the long term, no-one is going to look out for you, but you. Consider what options you are creating for yourself… and what you are shutting down.

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