Don't Let Techno-Hedonism Waste Your Potential

This post is about the current insanity in Silicon Valley, but I don't mean the valuations - at least not the ones everyone is talking about. Instead, I want to talk about how you value something much more important than common stock: yourself. 

Over the course of thousands of overwhelmingly positive interactions with top CS students over the past few years, what's scared me the most is the tendency to think of your future job primarily as a vehicle for certain types of projects. This is, in fact, one of the worst possible reasons to take any job.

In many ways this line of thinking isn't so surprising. Perhaps because the long-theorized tech crash hasn't happened, and most companies (even relatively innovative ones) think of hiring as filling slots, our economy continues to promote skills over aptitude and ability. And even the best schools are much more effective at teaching subjects than synthesis. As a result, even in an age when software engineers are starting to be properly valued, there is a real risk of being commoditized - ironically, by yourself. 

Apart from an earnest desire to cultivate "valuable" skills, however, is something I'll call techno-hedonism. Besides just thinking of your job in terms of projects, this means evaluating projects by how pleasurable they are to you versus how much good you're creating in the world. As a result, topics that could be invaluable as part of a greater whole - especially things like machine learning - become playthings. And this is how young people who honestly thought they were going to change the world end up being paid too much to quit to serve ads more effectively.  In the degenerate case your employer becomes something to be agnostic about, merely a vehicle to work on a specific project of hedonistic desire.

Rather than deciding based principally on the project, I would suggest there are two questions that should inform everything else: Do you believe in the institution? And do you believe in yourself?

Evaluating the institution involves many more questions, but I'd argue these few are most important: Is there a real opportunity to make a positive impact? If so, is the team equal to the challenge, or (more likely) on the path to getting there? Is there a possibility of surviving as a standalone entity - this is almost impossible to know ex ante, but if the stated goal is to get acquired that should tell you something. Do they have a real mission and culture, or just hedonism and homogeneity? Do they invest in an individual's growth, or just increased productivity? 

By believing in yourself I don't mean projecting an arbitrary level of confidence - it requires a willingness to critically assess your strengths and weaknesses and reconcile them with an emerging and constantly evolving sense of purpose. This cannot happen overnight. If you're betting on your ability to do something important, you'll learn - piece by piece -  to intuitively subordinate the process to the goal, and separate the act of discovery from the procedural. By contrast, if you're betting on your ability to stay fulfilled by repeatedly doing a series of tasks, however pleasurable, you're actually shorting yourself. 

It's not so difficult to see the surface characteristics of an institution for what they are - when you become enamored of a slick office space, at least you know you're being shallow. Becoming enamored of projects, on the other hand, feels like investing in your most important assets when in fact you may be stunting them.

I want to emphasize that this is not happy talk. It is unbelievably hard work. Having it all figured out now is the unrealistic part - and if you actually do succeed in your design, that's when the reality often proves to be bleakest.

Engineering is fundamentally generative. Specific implementations may be highly deterministic, but the defining character of the work is possibility. It's understandable to want to cling to certainties, especially after hearing what a dark and chaotic world it is for most of your conscious life. I say: embrace conscious ambiguity. The alternative is a predetermined future - one that truly belongs to the robots. You are not a lottery ticket - but neither are you an algorithm.


Think Again About Sticking Around for a Masters Degree

Mark Twain was said to have remarked “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”, and whether the quote itself is apocryphal, the sentiment should be applauded.  True education is a beautiful thing. A master’s degree, on the other hand, is not only a waste of time (with a few exceptions I’ll get to), but often epitomizes that proverbial interference.  

As I spend a lot of time talking to college students I encounter many who are signing up for the increasingly popular one-year master’s degrees.  I understand the appeal from the student’s perspective and I understand the appeal from a parent’s perspective.  In fact, I pursued one myself.  I had just finished undergrad, I didn’t have a compelling opportunity, and more importantly I had somewhere to get to (Silicon Valley).  For many of today’s brightest engineers, I don’t think a master’s degree makes any sense, and that was exactly the advice I gave my brother who just graduated.  In order to appreciate why a master’s might not be such a wise idea after all, it’s worth considering what makes education meaningful to begin with.  

To begin with, education creates opportunity.  This has probably been drilled into your head from an early age, and for good reason.   If your parents were the first generation in your family to attend college (or you are) this needs no explanation, and it’s a tragedy that education is taken for granted by anyone, let alone so many.

There is also much to learn – much more than most people would ever guess.  When I went off to college, I certainly thought I knew more than I did.  Being disabused of this notion may seem like the first step in one’s education, and it often is, but it’s a really a lesson worth relearning at any stage.  Then there’s the process of learning how to learn, and this is one of the primary reasons you go to school, independent of your field of study.  There are countless dimensions: learning to make abstractions and conceptualize, to interrogate a problem, to work inductively and deductively, to separate first principles from careless assumptions.  You need to experience breadth, both to strengthen your foundation, and to find subjects worthy of exploring in depth.  

Education also provides a unique platform to gain impactful life experience in a low-risk environment.  School is a place to build formative relationships, explore different paths, be in charge of your own time and activities, even start something if you are so inclined.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s a time to learn about your strengths and weaknesses with high upside and low downside.  Of course, college is costly, and time itself is far from trivial, but it’s much easier to avoid loss aversion and do something truly experimental when you’re not deep into your career.   The phrase “do something” is the key here – “finding yourself” has become sort of a cliché of indolence, but it’s while moving forward that you truly find yourself, and college can be the perfect place to do this.

Finally, education validates that your best years really are ahead of you.  High school is certainly a valuable experience, and in the best case can lay the groundwork for the level of exploration that college makes possible.  At the same time, it’s a small pond both socially and in terms of what you’re asked to do.  However triumphant or painful it is, it’s not a place to remain.  College may feel like a time for reinvention, but it’s really a time for original discovery.  

 To understand why master’s degrees are superfluous and even counterproductive for engineering students, I like to use the framework of getting somewhere versus getting something.  You can also think of this as a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself.  Education provides many things of intrinsic value, but much as nine months, give or take, is enough to prepare you for the outside world, so is one degree.

The exceptions tend to fall into the category of getting somewhere: for example to Silicon Valley or to the United States.  A master’s degree can also be a good way to test the waters of academia.  You can take classes with doctoral students and get a feel for the academic life without having to commit to a dissertation or taking on a teaching schedule.  For some friends, a master’s has been an informative gateway to a promising academic career, whereas others consider it worth the price of admission to have been persuaded that doctoral studies aren’t for them after only a year.  I am not coming down on one side or the other, only advocating for informed choices.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to obtain something – experience, distinction, deeper cultivation of your superpower – it’s usually better to just get that thing in its pure form.  If you want entrepreneurial experience, go out and get some – don’t learn about it in an MBA course.  If you want to be a better software engineer, don’t sign on for an extra year of TAing - work on challenging, real-world problems in a production environment, with peers who force you to raise your game.  

I’ve said before that learning for its own sake is not necessarily valuable, and this is especially true of master’s degrees in the workplace, especially degrees in one pure subject (as opposed to MBAs and other first professional degrees).  There is a lot of misleading and unsubstantiated chatter that a master’s degree makes you a more valuable employee ipso facto, and this is just not the case, as many people find out the hard way.

It’s also worth acknowledging that there is often a socio-cultural bias towards more education, especially among generations who experienced firsthand the power of education to achieve an objectively better life.  This is not a perspective to be discounted, but at the same time you need to recognize when the preference for more higher education is no longer contextualized and ignores the question of somewhere versus something. 

Finally, and most importantly, don’t do a master’s because college is fun and it will never get better than this.  If you care about your future as much as I imagine you do, that simply won’t be true (regardless of whatever sentimental projections people offer you).  The fifth year isn’t like the fourth.  Everyone is gone, and you realize that what made college meaningful was the people who went through the experience with you, not the buildings and the campus.  Moving on is not always easy, especially when you strip away the structure and predictability of school, but it’s simply time to forge new experiences.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned since leaving school, it’s that they can all be the best years of your life when you get out there and Do Important Things.

Know Thyself

Doing what you’re good at is an obvious prescription – perhaps a little too obvious for the aspiring entrepreneur who most likely takes pride in discovering the hidden dimensions of everything!  It can’t be that simple, can it? I would argue that it really is simple - just not easy.  Discovering what you’re good at takes time, intellectual honesty, and an even greater awareness of what you’re not so good at.  Usually, some failure is required.  It’s also not a binary system – not everything fits into neat categories of what you should and shouldn’t be doing, and as discussed, starting something substantive inevitably requires you to do a little bit of everything.  That said, ascending to the next level will require you to leverage your strengths as never before.  


You have certain obvious strengths you already know about.  Getting into (and through) college requires a broad range of competencies that we often take for granted, and it’s easy to confuse competencies with real strengths, especially if you have the kind of work ethic that can compensate for subtle weaknesses.  Even so, you probably have a good idea where your major strengths lie, and they can all serve as a clue as to what you should be doing with your life.  


Within these strengths there is something you are so good at that it seems effortless – and because it’s so intuitive, you may assume others can do it too.  This sometimes manifests itself when working in teams - when something comes so easily it can be hard to appreciate how it could be a real struggle for someone else.  As a result, you may even undervalue this strength, which would be a shame, because this is your superpower - the key to making your greatest impact.  The common factor among every great entrepreneur I know is having a superpower and knowing how to use it (despite often being below average in many other facets).  “Well-balanced” individuals, by contrast, tend to be a hit at management consulting firms and other places where job titles actually include the word “generalist”.


Then, there are the things you aren’t good at, but would really like to be.  The problem is that early on, you define yourself in part by being good at these things, and this can be really hard on the ego.  It is a massive distraction from your true strength.  But it is really important to emotionally and intellectually learn to let go here.  And context matters as well – you might be perfectly adequate at one of these aspirational strengths in most people’s eyes, yet exist in an arena where you need to be among the best.  I eventually had to accept that I would never be the greatest programmer (as much as I wish that weren’t true!).   I could have continued to program for a living, but not if I wanted to someday work with the top software developers in the world (as I now do).  I don’t regret having tried, but really this was just part of my journey to really understanding my strengths.  


This is not to say that struggle isn’t valuable, but as with learning, people overestimate the value of struggle for its own sake.  It’s largely a matter of recognizing what’s worth struggling for and what isn’t.  Achieving your maximum impact isn’t just about identifying your talent and riding it to greatness.  Almost everyone has weaknesses that blunt the impact of their strengths, and while these weaknesses might never be banished, you can absolutely learn to control them.  


The final thing to remember is that this is largely a process of self-discovery.  Your mentors and colleagues can help you get there, and they will definitely have insights that only an outside vantage point can provide.  Ultimately, however, no one can do it for you – and that realization should excite and inspire you even more.



Start Something

There is something uniquely valuable and satisfying about starting something while you’re still in school.  The iconography of Silicon Valley is certainly rich with companies founded by students, Google and Yahoo being prime examples.  Having started a company as an undergraduate myself, I am a firm believer that it’s one of the most valuable things you can do –not because you will create the next Google, but because you will learn a great deal of things worth learning.

Of course, starting something does not have to mean starting a company – the experience of leading a substantive effort from scratch is the irreplaceable piece here.  It is all about the creativity and execution required to breath something to life. The good news is that universities can be great places to do this.  If you know where to look, you will almost definitely find like-minded students and supportive faculty.  You don’t necessarily have to create all the infrastructure yourself, either – there are many competitions and programs designed specifically to promote student inventions, such as the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless vehicle competition.   Starting an organization can be a great way to attract like-minded people to your goals, and catalyze further invention and innovation through the network effect.  A great example is Cornell University Sustainable Design, founded by Sam Sinensky as an offshoot of Cornell’s annual Solar Decathlon team and has since given rise to many exciting initiatives.

I took a leave of absence from Cornell to start my company, and I will be the first to tell you it didn’t actually work.  It was, however, an awesome experience, and not only in the sense that failure is a great teacher.   I’ve always felt that the best way to learn things is by doing, and win or lose, starting a company involves plenty of doing if you are serious about it.  As Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, famously quipped, “we have a strategic plan – it’s called doing things.”

The beauty of founding or co-founding something is that you do literally everything.  Some aspects of this are highly educational – getting to a working prototype, romancing prospective customers, fine-tuning your business model, and seeking financing are all subjects worthy of great minds.  Other aspects, such as paperwork, taxes, and yes, taking out the trash, merely build character.  However, character is something you will need a lot of, and here’s why:  execution is substantially harder than people think. 

To begin with, executing on anything at all is a radical departure from the comfort zone of toying with ideas, during which success seems assured and all sacrifice is theoretical.  Furthermore, most people severely underestimate the difficulty of simply owning your own schedule – there is no magic checklist for what constitutes a productive day, and you have to be able to forge ahead without constantly worrying if you’re doing it all wrong.  Starting a business, in particular, requires you to make judgment calls with real implications – who to align yourself with, how much funding you’ll need, and perhaps most significantly, who else should join your team.  Finally, you will have to execute in conditions of great uncertainty, without worrying that your projections are disintegrating before your eyes.  There is never enough information or unit testing to be comfortable, yet you also know that at a certain point, any more time spent gathering data or polishing your prototype will cost you momentum you may never get back.  Sooner or later, you have to do it live.

Starting something in school will teach you a lot about how the world really works, but it will also teach you a lot about something you probably thought you knew pretty well: yourself.  It will test you in a way that academics fundamentally can’t, and people invariably underestimate the struggle involved.  This is not just a function of iffy externalities, but also your own strengths and weaknesses.  Even if you have a sophisticated understanding of these (and few undergraduates really do – I know I didn’t and am still refining it), there is a tendency to believe that being a founder will hone your strengths and bolster your weaknesses in equal measure.  This sounds perfect in theory, but it’s simply not realistic – nor is it a recipe for doing truly important things.  In the next installment, I’ll be exploring why you must do something you’re great at before you can do something great.

Head West

One of the main emphases of the Your Future series is putting yourself in the best place to succeed.   You know by now that for me, this means Silicon Valley, but some of the particulars might surprise you.  My path here has given me a profound attachment to this wonderland of innovation, yet it has also deepened my engagement with the world at large in ways I never could have imagined.  The Valley has taken me, as Bilbo Baggins might have put it, there and back again.

Silicon Valley rocks…enough said?  Let’s start with the obvious:  Silicon Valley is the premier engineering area, and has been for longer than you might think.   If you want to change the world, you want to be among the best in the world, and no one even disputes that Silicon Valley is home to the top technical talent anywhere.  Likewise, as an aspiring difference-maker, the atmosphere of excellence should already excite you – whether your ultimate destination is Silicon Valley or elsewhere, it’s safe to assume you are not content with being a big fish in a small pond.  Living and working among the best poses numerous advantages and creates real opportunities – these are just a few that come to mind:

  • It improves your game.  I’ve always felt that Silicon Valley is unique in that your peer group extends far beyond your immediate colleagues, and the opportunity to interact with and learn from the best is unparalleled here.  Attend a SuperHappyDevHouse or Hacker Dojo event and you will see what I mean.
  • Silicon Valley is a place to get noticed.  The network effect is hard to overestimate, and Silicon Valley employers take a much more meritocratic and imaginative approach to recruitment than traditional industry.  More than anywhere else, ability trumps experience, and the operative question when considering young talent is usually not “why”, but “why not?”
  • Silicon Valley is a place to find the human catalysts for realizing your goals.  You can think of this not only in terms of employers and colleagues, but also co-founders, first hires, and mentors and advisors.
  • The access to capital is unmatched.  There are half a dozen cafes on University Avenue where you can’t order an espresso without rubbing shoulders with a top-tier venture capitalist or angel investor, and chances are they want to meet you as keenly as you want to meet them.


My Story: After family stints in Mumbai, Nigeria, and Orlando, I headed to Cornell.  I received a fantastic technical education, and this laid the groundwork – without a technical foundation, nothing that followed would have been possible.  Coming out of Cornell, New York and Washington, DC are the logical centers of mass.  I love the energy of New York, but the downside is that the top technical people gravitate to finance, not engineering – or if they remain engineers, they spend their time building robots for small groups within an investment bank.  DC does a great job of attracting talented people with an ethic of service, but it can be a very difficult place to do anything fundamentally disruptive.   Even worse, New York and DC don’t have a culture that treats engineers as first-class citizens, and if this is true in such vibrant cities, you can imagine how it is elsewhere.  Fortunately, this is starting to change – for example, I am watching Cornell’s new campus on Roosevelt Island with great excitement, and I’ve had a great time and met great people at Digital Capital Week.

As much as I enjoyed my time in Ithaca, there wasn’t much startup culture to speak of – at least not then.  For the top computer science students, Microsoft was a dream job, maybe Google if you were exceptionally adventurous.   There was no model for going to a startup after graduation, let alone going to school primarily as a means to immediately enter the entrepreneurial fray.  And this was exactly why I headed West, to Stanford, for graduate school.  It may sound crazy, but the degree actually was just a vehicle to become a part of the community. 

The plan worked.  After just a few months, I became employee #5 at a startup, and spent the next two and a half years traveling throughout Latin America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia building an online-to-offline payment processing network.  I may not have gotten rich, but I was given a ton of freedom (and responsibility), learned a great deal, and was exposed to a whole new universe of entrepreneurs, investors, and technology pioneers, forging relationships that will outlast any job.  When the time came to move on, I had a cornucopia of emerging companies to pick from, and enough insight into my own strengths, weaknesses, and passions to make an inspired choice. 

Beware the Bubble:  Silicon Valley unquestionably rocks, but as with any truly special environment, it can be too insular at times.  Of course, many entrepreneurs come here for exactly this reason – there are few distractions from the overarching goal of building something great.  That said, your awareness of what actually constitutes greatness can fossilize if it’s not challenged.  The spirit of innovation and improvement is not a sure immunization against group-think and self-congratulation, and even the most gifted people can fall prey to the sense that the rules of the road don’t apply to Silicon Valley.  However, it is still the epicenter of entrepreneurship and engineering culture, and the good easily dwarfs the bad.  The best antidote to insularity is an infusion of fresh talent and fresh perspectives, and this is where you come in.  Realistically, it is much easier to make your mark in Silicon Valley than to try to replicate it elsewhere.  Changing the world requires laser focus, and creating the infrastructure and pre-conditions for success from scratch will inevitably detract from that focus.

More importantly, the rest of the world needs Silicon Valley more than ever.   For too many companies and individuals, the model of success never requires them to step outside the Valley.   Yet, technology is an amazing lever for change, and in my experience the best way to fight insularity is to engage with broader scales of challenges.  My first job out of college took me to the world’s great cities and mud-walled villages alike, and I’ve been fortunate to continue venturing outward ever since.  I’m a firm believer that to change the world, you must first see the world, and Silicon Valley can be a tremendous catalyst for both.

Peace, Love, and Understanding: Expanding your way of thinking is essential, yet there is also something to be said for being around people who not only share your interests and passions, but also understand you on a fundamental level.  As motivating as it is to be told you’re crazy, it’s even better to find kindred spirits to join in the effort.  Silicon Valley is above all a community of passion, and it is difficult to convey the motivational power of such a community without experiencing it firsthand. 

We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim: “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”  I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t completely agree.  As much as I’ve enjoyed my time in Silicon Valley, I’ve never felt like I wasn’t working – for myself, for my teammates, and for a common goal.  And because I’ve always been working for something, I tend to think that work/life balance is a false dichotomy, and so I’ve made it a practice to seek out individuals who felt the same way.  Whether there’s a business opportunity or not, good things happen when people who share defining values find each other. 

In February of 2010, I had coffee with a computer scientist-turned-entrepreneur who had created a compelling prototype for a new educational technology, and was looking for office space and strategic advice.  Although our respective markets were worlds apart at first glance, I was captivated by how similarly we approached our work and how much we defined ourselves by our passions.  A few months later, we were engaged, and exactly one year from our second date, we got married, surrounded by many of the close friends we had made on each of our entrepreneurial journeys.  After a two-day honeymoon, she was off to a conference and I was off to visit my biggest international customer.  Since then, it’s been an incredible ride.  It hasn’t always been easy, but Pooja and I both came to Silicon Valley knowing we’d have to make an extra effort to live our dreams – all of them.

How to Get a Job

From Bloomberg Businessweek

At Palantir
By Alex Karp

 Illustration by Neal FoxCompanies typically look for well-rounded people. They want an A-plus in every category. We tend to think it’s better to have an A-triple-plus in one area, which presupposes an F in other areas. So maybe we end up with someone who solves problems very creatively but can’t interact with people. We look for people within uneven IQs, then we build a role around their strengths. I like to meet candidates with no data about them: no résumé, no preliminary discussions or job description, just the candidate and me in a room. I ask a fairly random question, one that is orthogonal to anything they would be doing at Palantir. I then watch how they disaggregate the question, if they appreciate how many different ways there are to see the same thing. I like to keep interviews short, about 10 minutes. Otherwise, people move into their learned responses and you don’t get a sense of who they really are.
Karp is CEO of Palantir Technologies, which mines data for intelligence and law enforcement communities.
— As told to Ashlee Vance 

Do Important Things

Do important things.  Work on big problems.  Change the world for the better.  You’ve probably heard countless variations on these themes, but how often have you considered that they might actually be possible, and what it would take to get there?  Even more radically, what if you could start working towards such lofty goals right now?  It’s certainly easy to get fired up about such possibilities in the abstract.  It’s equally easy to get discouraged when asking yourself the hard but vital question of how best to make it happen.  There are no step-by-step guides for how to make a massive impact, and that isn’t my goal here either.  Instead, what I want to give you is a framework for doing things that matter. 

As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned the hard way that plans are fragile – as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact.  However, frameworks can be extremely useful – especially when you have outsized goals.   Changing the world is a fine guiding principle, but without any further parameters, this can be pretty confusing.  The best engineers I know have adopted a fluid, but essential framework: Don’t be constrained by what your product can do now; do be constrained to dealing with current problems and current realities.  I would suggest a similar framework for making your biggest impact: Don’t be constrained by what you know now; do optimize on your chances for success in the real world.

1. Be in the right place.  To pre-empt the inevitable cries of protest, yes, there are people doing amazing things all over the world.  However, if you are realistic about making a transformative contribution in any field, you will find that field’s center of gravity.  Of course, certain cities transcend mere industries – New York and Washington, DC are very important cities if you want to do very important things, period.  Silicon Valley is widely acknowledged as the center of the computing world and a cradle of entrepreneurship in general, but not everyone realizes the full extent of what technology has to offer government, finance, and the international community.  Ideally, you want to be interacting with New York, DC, and Silicon Valley at once.  Counterintuitive as it may seem, if you want to accomplish this, Silicon Valley is still your best bet as home base.  The culture is conducive to disruption in a way that New York and DC fundamentally aren’t, and technology is actually the most leveraged way to effect change on a grand scale, even in the rarified realms of policy.  More on that in a future post. 

2. Don't join a company to be a minion.  Few people would admit to aspiring to be a minion, but this is exactly what you’re signing up for with many companies, however selective and prestigious they may appear.  Some of the trappings of a minion workforce are obvious – when interviewing, you will quickly develop radar for which companies prize conformity and prefer young employees to be seen and not heard.  This can be a purely cultural phenomenon, but the root cause usually lies with the nature of the work itself.  Sadly, some businesses are entirely predicated on doing things the way they’ve always been done, even if there is an outstanding opportunity to create more value.  If potentially transformative ideas from junior employees are not merely ignored, but viewed as a threat to business as usual, chances are that company is looking for minions.  

It’s often tempting to view a minion position as a necessary evil, simply the price you pay for the rewards and opportunities to come.  Don’t be fooled.  If you have to be a good minion to get in at the bottom, you will almost certainly have to remain a good minion to rise to the top.

Perhaps the most demoralizing part of being a minion is the sense that you’re fungible.  Many blue-chip companies, especially in management consulting and banking, successfully obscure this ugly realization by famously recruiting the most polished people from the most prestigious schools.  However, just because you possess elite qualifications doesn’t mean you’re not easily replaced.  Think of the Stormtroopers: they are recruited and trained as the best of the best of Imperial forces, and yes, their helmets are awesome, but as anyone who’s seen more than five minutes of “Star Wars” knows, they are ultimately disposable.

3.  Join – or start - a company that supports your ability to innovate and solve problems.  This can take many forms, but regardless of the details, a company that doesn’t care about innovation as a business probably won’t care about innovation as a junior employee.   Banks may find innovative ways to move and securitize assets, but are not in the business of creating value from scratch.  Consultants are too concerned with incremental improvements to do anything truly new.  Large government contractors are in the business of renting labor, not innovating.  A commitment to innovation is hardly sufficient, but it is certainly necessary.  Once you’ve determined a company’s level of commitment, the next key consideration here is how your abilities are supported:

- Do they give you meaningful work?  Granted, you won’t be handed the lead on negotiations for your company’s biggest contract to date, but will you be invited into the boardroom at any point in the process?  You might not have ownership of a major software release, but it would be nice to have ownership over a key section of the code if you’ve shown you’re up to the task.

- Is the company positioned to harness your most innovative work?  I know a talented but extremely frustrated systems engineer.  He’s worked for a major government contractor since college, and had half a dozen patents in his name at the age of 25.  Unfortunately, those patents are just sitting around collecting dust, because his company is 100% focused on operating costs and top line, and has no mechanism for monetizing or productizing new IP.  

- Do they hold you accountable for execution?  Many well-meaning managers think that they’re encouraging innovation, but don’t demand concrete deliverables or a viable action plan before lending their support to a project, leading it to inevitably die a quiet death.  As Ramit Sethi says, think in weeks, not years.  New ideas should be welcome, but only if the originator is allowed to take appropriate ownership right away.

- Are they open to criticism and self-improvement? If a company expects employees to be humble and driven to learn, it should certainly expect the same of itself and its leadership.  I’ll never forget my interview with Dave, one of my first business development hires.  Dave literally laughed in my face when I admitted I was unfamiliar with Getting Things Done!  Fortunately, I forgave his recklessness, Dave is now running one of our largest teams, and Getting Things Done is an essential part of our onboarding process and general approach to efficiency.

Of course, no one company has optimized on all of these facets equally.  There is no such thing as the perfect company - what matters is whether a company is open to being perfected.

4. Don’t join a company because you think you’ll learn a lot...  People will often tell you that you should spend a few years out of college working for a huge, highly hierarchical corporation – particularly in industries notorious for grinding down talented young people - because it’s a “great place to learn”.  This is just silly for many reasons:

- The best way to learn is still by doing things.  For this reason alone, you should go someplace where you can have an immediate and tangible impact. If you can find a workplace where your actions matter, I guarantee that you will learn a ton about your world, your profession, and yourself.

- You may learn a lot, but what will you be learning? Most likely, how to adapt to the processes, politics, and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the organization.  Joining an environment that doesn’t appeal to you so you can learn to succeed in that environment is a tragic, but all too common, form of unwitting circular reasoning. 

You may be told that if you put in a couple of years at Firm X, you can write your own ticket anywhere.  However, the skills you learn doing substantive, innovative work generally have far more carry-over to other fields than formulaic and anonymous work for a big-name firm.  In Silicon Valley, it’s not uncommon to see a serial entrepreneur leap from Internet to energy.  This is partly because Silicon Valley attracts people with diverse interests and ambitions, but it only works because the principles of agility, execution, and continuous learning and adaptation apply to any industry.  By contrast, my friends who went into banking and consulting and made it past the entry level are almost all still in banking and consulting. 

5.  …But never forget how much you have to learn.  Given the swagger and iconoclasm associated with entrepreneurship in most people’s minds (especially in the Valley), it might be tempting to conclude that you don’t have a lot to learn after all.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Actual innovation is an extremely humbling process of trial and error, all the more so if you aspire to any sort of lasting societal impact.  We all have a lot to learn, at any stage, and this is precisely what drew me and so many others to Silicon Valley in the first place.  Of course, the willingness to learn is only the beginning.  The willingness to do something is the true test.  More on that next time… 

Your Future

I've been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time this year with the bright minds graduating for universities this year (and many who still have several years to go).  As someone who travels a lot between Silicon Valley, DC, and New York, I've developed a stark appreciation of the cultural differences of each that ultimately manifest into the best and worst of each.  There is a similar parallel for students at University.  

A substantial amount of your education outside the classroom is influenced by the center of gravity of your school.  If you go to school in Virgina, the DC outlook and worldview greatly influences what you want to do and what you will be exposed to.  If you go to school at say, Cornell, my alma mater, then it is near impossible to escape the pull of New York.  One of the best things Stanford gives its computer scientists is a fluency of what it takes to start a company and an appeciation and basic literacy for those that are interested.  In fact, the entropy takes you there.  You have to be particularly disinterested in entrepreneurship to escape it.  

Now I'm hugely biased.  I headed to grad school at Stanford to create a vehicle to come to Silicon Valley. Within a few months of being in Palo Alto I was working fulltime at startup as the 5th employee and loving it. I knew I wanted to be the Valley, but what I didn't know is how my own journey would take my back to New York and DC in deeply substantive and fulfilling ways -- that's I'd be able to work with the best of all three cities.  

Now as I meet college students I find myself talking about the other two relevant perspectives they might not have ready access to.  And that inspires the series "Your Future" -- the posts that will follow.