The Right Sized Company

The Right Sized Company

My first (professional) job out of college was at a startup. I was employee number 40, or thereabouts. While there I got to be part of seeing that company grow the normal way – hiring, as well as by acquisition. That pattern of small company to large company has repeated for me throughout my career.

I find that a smaller company has advantages that come from its size. A small company is hungry. You need to move aggressively to get new business and to grow. There’s an energy that comes with that that can be very exciting. Also, a small company typically doesn’t get hung up on hierarchy. If something needs to be done and someone can or will do it, a small company doesn’t have time to get stuck on whether that’s your job, it’s more important that it gets done rather who does it.

Small companies and, specifically, startups also come with equity. Typically you’re trading some stability and taking on increased risk against the hope that the company will get acquired or go public and your deferred investment – usually in the form of stock options, will become worth something.

I’ve heard that some relatively small number of companies get out of startup mode. Something like one in 10. So, I count myself lucky that out of the three startups I’ve been a part of, two of them had some form of payoff. The first was acquired and our stock options were bought out. This netted me enough for the downpayment on my first house, so that worked out well. The second was also purchased and the payout was less impressive, but I was getting paid well, so I didn’t care too much. The third was the sad case of a very cool technology trying to break out in what became a very tough economy and we ran out of money. The doors were shut with little warning and the technology was sold off for parts. That was a very sad day.

On the other side of the equation are the larger companies I’ve worked for. Often numbered in the hundreds to thousands of folks. These, too, have benefits. Stability is chief: Typically the company is profitable, there may be stock and/or bonuses, there is structure, people know what they’re supposed to do and they’ve done it before so it doesn’t have to be made up on the fly. Also, often times the benefits are better for a larger company as the buying ability of a larger company typically translates in to better insurance rates and coverage. All of those things are good, especially the latter when you are raising a family.

I could not have been more thankful for being part of a large, stable company when my son went through having cancer at 13. There were many things we had to be thankful including being in this city where we have amazing hospitals like Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and the Shriner’s Hospital for children. The Doctors were amazing. The Doctor who did my son’s operation to remove the tumor (and his lower leg) also did the reconstructive surgery using a technique he’d devised which was considered revolutionary at the time and resulted in my son having a better prosthetic experience than many people with similar issues. And, to bring it back to point, because we had very, very good insurance through my employer, I watched over a million dollars of bills go by and our portion of that was tiny in comparison. I cannot imagine dealing with a catastrophic medical problem like that without insurance. There’s no question, you do what you have to for your kids, but the financial impact on a family without insurance would be insurmountable! So, for that, and many other things, there are many benefits to be found in a large company.

Even knowing that, I’ve left the (relative) comfort of a large and stable company no fewer than three times to go to a smaller and riskier startup.

The reasons was pretty consistent and it was made up of two parts. The first part was some boredom at a large company – large companies, in my experience, tend to like having folks in clear roles and the preference would be to stay there because that meets the needs of the company. The second part was the belief that at a smaller company I could have a larger impact. Obviously the impact you can have as 1 of 25 is significantly larger than when you’re one of 4000. I don’t believe in any case did I go because I thought there would be a large payoff at the end. In my experience, if you’re not in the first ten, odds are your upside potential is significantly smaller. My current boss has a friend who measure upside in terms of the following:

  • Vacation-sized
  • car-sized
  • Down payment on a house-sized
  • House-sized
  • Retirement-sized

Those are reasonable groupings. Typically I’ve seen payoffs in the first three categories but any payoff is rare and those top two categories requires either being there very early or being very lucky in terms of the right company. And usually being at the company for a number of years will also help.

My current company is an interesting case that I’ve not experienced before. It was formed by carving off parts of two large (very large!) companies and forming a new company. It’s wholly owned, so privately held and not publicly available. I’m not spilling anything confidential since it was in the news, but GE invested in this new company and purchased a 10% share of the company for $100 million dollars. So this new company was evaluated at one billion (cue Dr. Evil: “One BILLION Dollars!) when it was formed, even before we sold a product. Now that’s some interesting potential. By some definitions, it’s a startup, but it’s a very well funded startup made up of over 1200 people. That size and still being a startup is a bit mind-boggling to me.

The upside of this is that we have some of the benefits of a large company: good benefits, good market pay. We also have some of the challenges of a startup: We start out burning through a fixed pot of money and we need to become both profitable and also grow our business aggressively in the next few years is we hope to become a stable and public company. It’s an interesting contrast and one I’m looking forward to experiencing. There is some upside potential and only time will tell which of the groups above that potential sits in. Till then, I’ll enjoy the challenge of a “small” company where I can have some influence in our success and see how far this ride goes!

First Jobs

My daughter is looking for her first professional job after graduating from University of Oregon with her Psychology degree. So, if you know of anyone looking for a freshly minted graduate with a Bachelor’s in Psychology, please send them my way.

That having been said, talking with her and hearing her enthusiasm for her first professional job has me reflecting on some of my first jobs.

I’ve been working since I sixteen and had my license. Before that it was primarily mowing lawns in the summer, shoveling walks in the winter and occasional babysitting gigs. There isn’t much to be said about finding jobs mowing or shoveling. Either someone needed the work done or they didn’t. If they needed it, either they planned on doing it themselves or they were willing to let me do it. Some rejection, but nothing personal.

My first job once I was sixteen was working for a large grocery chain. I bagged groceries, stocked shelves and helped customers out with their bags. Once in a while I’d have to go out and collect carts.

I got that job based on a connection my Dad had with a manager at the store. That got me the interview and, probably, the job. But, I was a hard worker, so I don’t think they ever regretted it. In fact, when I came back to town the first couple of years of college, I was able to go work that job during the summer by just showing up. The money was decent for the time ($3.75 an hour – due to our union, working Thanksgiving netted double time and a half which was GOOD pay).

The only excitement while working there was once when a shoplifter tried to make off with a 12 pack of beer. The manager had been watching him so told me to go out of the door to cut the guy off if he tried to bolt. The manager waited until the guy stepped outside the door (you had to wait for them to actually leave the store), approached the guy and asked him to step back inside and he bolted. He saw me and headed back the other way, right in to arms of the manager who tackled the guy. I recall the 12-pack of beer bursting open and cans of beer scattering all over the parking lot. The cops were called and I had to pick up the cans of beer.

During the last couple of years of college I worked at KMart. I’ve written about this job a bit, so there’s not much else to report. Well, I did have to help with a shoplifter there, too. There was a special code the security person would call that meant several of us guys were supposed to go out of the store and be prepared to hem in a shoplifter who might bolt when confronted. It didn’t happen often. Usually they just went back in the store to get their picture taken, read the riot act and be banned from the store. Occasionally the cops were called to come pick up the shoplifter. On this occasion we waited outside and the shoplifter bolted. He headed in one direction and spotted the guy waiting for him and veered off between me and another guy. I’m by no means a physical guy, so it probably surprised the guy as much as it surprised me when I paced him, got behind him, grabbed the shoulders of his coat and threw him down to the ground, scraping my own knee and putting a small tear in my slacks. But, the adrenaline was flowing and I felt like I’d saved a bus full of school kids from falling off a bridge.

When I graduated from college, I decided to move to Portland because, relative to Spokane, Portland was “the Big City” and certainly had more jobs in my field than where I was from.

I moved there without a job, so within a week or so I’d taken a job working in a food court in the mall which was walking distance from the apartment I was in. I applied for and took that job because of it’s convenience though I’d really never done much food service at that point.

This particular food court had seven or so “stations” where you could get different kinds of food from a grill to a baked potato to some other choices. I recall working the baked potato stand – we typically rotated from one to the other over the course of the evening to avoid too much boredom – when an older man approached and ordered his potato. As I was preparing it, he looked up at me and said “You don’t really want to be here, do you?” I didn’t know how to respond. The honest answer, of course, was No, I wanted to be doing something else, but that didn’t seem to be the right thing to say to the customer waiting for the baked potato I was making. But, it was a bit of a wakeup call that regardless of the job, I should try to do a good job. I ended up being an assistant manager there in three months because they had a need and I was 22 with a Bachelor’s Degree and I was trustworthy and showed up on time and didn’t steal.

While I was working that job, I was also madly applying for any and all jobs that seemed in my field. And meeting with little or no success.

In the end, on a whim, I applied for a job through a temp agency. They were looking for someone to do some data entry with an opportunity to convert in to a full time position.

This would have been late 1988 and the printer that I had at the time was a state of the art (for 1985) 8-pin dot matrix printer. An example of the quality can be found as the pic at the top of this. It was not good. The printers today have such an amazing resolution compared to what I had then. This was the same printer I had during college (which, to be clear, was a luxury!) and used to print multiple papers. And you had to tear the sides off the paper because the paper was fed with toothed wheels through the printer. Yes, it was the dark ages. Anyway, the letter was not a pretty letter. But, after a short interview with the temp agency, they put me through to the company and I did well in the interview there, as well. Obviously it helps to have a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering with a focus on Computer Science if you’re applying for a job that was largely data entry, but the data I was entering was actually related to discrete electrical components, so having some understanding of how to read a datasheet was obviously a benefit.

I did this job for a month or two and started to see that it was going to be mind numbing. I was doing data entry and, worse, there were actually two of us doing data entry on the same data and then we had to do a visual comparison between the data. This was not fun stuff. So, within a short period of time I was building scripts to do the comparison automatically and to aid in the data entry. The job got easier when I was building tools because that was interesting and I was producing more data as a result.

About six months after I started there, this was a company called Logic Automation, a small startup at the time, they had an opening for an engineer. I asked about it hoping that since they’d seen my work for the last six months, it might help me out. And it did. The folks I talked to didn’t know I had a BSEE so once they knew that and knowing that I was already a proven worker, my interview was fairly perfunctory. I knew all the interview questions and nailed them solidly and quickly. The job was mine! After only six months of working there as a temp…

That was what I consider to be my first professional job. Since then I’ve moved between jobs with larger and smaller companies, moved from more or less technical positions and eventually decided that I enjoy helping teams deliver products as a manager. The job suits me. I still get to leverage my experience and my technical side to help problem solve, but I also get to interact with my team and other groups to help everyone be more successful.

I’ve found when looking at a baby that it’s nearly impossible to look at the baby and imagine what the adult will look like. At least, I don’t possess that skill. Similarly, it would have been impossible for me to look forward in time from any of the jobs I had up to and including my first professional job and predict where I’d be today. Contrariwise, I can look at an adult and look at the baby picture and see how the one became the other. Likewise, I can look backwards from where I am now and see how all the jobs and positions lead backwards from where I am to where I started.

One interesting, at least to me, thing to note: In every case since that first job, all the jobs I’ve taken with the exception of one – and that didn’t last long and was a terrible fit – came about because of connections, because of networking. For me, at least, it’s been a truism that those relationships have been key to my progressing through my career. As a result, I’m a firm believer in not burning bridges and also a firm believer in always trying to leave on good terms because unless you pick up and move to an entirely different part of the country, odds are you’ll bump in to those folks again professionally. I still have lunch every few months with two of the guys that were in that first group I hired in to and that’s been mumble mumble 25 years ago, now.

I’m excited for my daughter. I’ve no better idea than I imagine my daughter does about what she’ll consider to be her first professional job but I’m certainly excited for her. She’s about to start a career. She’ll make all sorts of great decisions and some number of ones she’ll probably regret, but what a ride it’ll be for her!

The Care and Feeding of Introverts

This week I was thinking about Introverts and Extroverts. This came about because we hosted some family I hadn’t met before and my wife who knows me well by now made a point of thanking me for making time for the family visiting. I initially simply responded with “Of course!” because I would do that for her since family and visiting is very important to her but what I had to remind myself was that she was recognizing that that act was, for me, one that required energy, one that cost rather than recharged.

One of the classic examples that’s given to distinguish between extroverts and introverts is the example of a going to a party. For an Extrovert, going to the party charges their battery. They interact and meet people and are energized and come back from the party feeling wonderful and looking forward to the next one. For the Introvert, going to that same part drains their batteries. They will meet those same people, take part in those same interactions and at the end of the night likely be drained of energy.

“Telling an introvert to go to a party is like telling a saint to go to Hell.” – Criss Jami

Of course, as with all things, most people exist on a spectrum. My daughter certainly has aspects of both characteristics. She told me a story recently from a trip she took to France. One evening she went out on the town on her own (at 19 – unthinkable for me at that age) and met the French equivalent of homeless kids. She practiced her french, learned that she was misusing some French (for example, when expressing that she was excited about something, apparently the words she used added an implication of sexual excitement that she had not intended – whoops!) but generally just enjoyed an adventure that would have terrified me for any number of reasons. At the same time, that same daughter will pull back from friends or family and go off to her room to recharge and do her own thing occasionally, so she certainly possesses aspects of both.

I always knew I was an introvert. My brother and father are strong extroverts and have made their careers in fields that require them to interact with new people on a regular basis – sales. This is a job that gives me the creeping heeby-jeebies when I think about it. It involves talking. To strangers. And trying to make them want something they may not want. All of these things are anathema to what gives me joy.

I recharge my own batteries when I can play on the computer or in my office or on whatever project captures my fancy from painting to household projects to programming to writing or playing games. All of which are, largely, solitary pursuits.

“Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” – John Green

I don’t recall the source, but I remember hearing about a metaphor for the circles of friends and family we have around us. In the center is me. Out from that are the very few folks I let in to my life with few or any security measures. These are the folks who can hurt me the most because I trust them and I don’t have defenses against them. As a result, I’m very picky about who gets to enter that circle. The walls are high and moat is deep. The membership list is very short.

Farther out, the circles get bigger. Close family and close friends then perhaps broader groups of friends and extended family. In each circle the walls are less substantial because the ability for someone in that circle to hurt me is reduced by virtue of the distance. I’ve no clue if everyone thinks this way or its just me. I suspect as with most things I’m not unique in this. But, it is a true thing that when I’m tired, when my batteries are low, there is a short list of folks I want to have near me and sometimes it’s just me.

When I was told that we were going to have family visiting, I responded with a gruff approximation of a misanthrope who wants nothing to do with anyone. And while I laugh and it’s largely a joke, I know there’s some small part of me that thinks it really feels that way. I don’t really think that part of me would truly be happy just being left alone, at least not for long, but I also imagine that part is not entirely rational. Fortunately, it’s still in the minority.

Recently my wife took a trip to Vegas with a girlfriend and I had the house to myself for four entire days and I filled that time easily with projects and anything else I wanted to do – all solitary pursuits. But, I did miss her and was happy when she returned. I tell her that I really enjoy that time alone for about the first four hours. Then I get lonely and wander the house and start talking to the dogs. With that I know that not even I, the introvert and the misanthrope really want to be left alone for long.

I value that my wife encourages me to spend time with family and makes sure that I’m a part of time spent with family. It is good for me. In the end, I enjoy it and I enjoy the family time, even if it drains my batteries and I need to recharge by going off by myself and doing something introspective.

The saving grace is it’s not an either/or proposition. I can spend a weekend entertaining guests and know that it will drain my battery somewhat but all I really need is an evening or two to recharge and life is good – sometimes just a good night’s sleep. Part of what makes that so is being with someone who accepts me for who I am and isn’t trying to change me and part of it is me simply accepting who I am and being okay that I’m an introvert.

I’ve no clue what the challenges are for an extrovert, maybe it’s being okay being with yourself, by yourself, but, that’s just a guess. I know I face challenges. I used to feel like an alien watching people interact and feeling like an outsider who didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand, didn’t get the back and forth of body language and the basics of human interaction that seemed so easy for everyone else around me.

But, like with all things, if you practice, you get better. And I got better. I don’t know if I learned to fake it or just learned what I didn’t know before. Perhaps at this point, that’s a distinction without a difference. Perhaps this is a case of “Fake It Till You Make It” and then realizing that I’m not afraid any more, I’m not confused. I have the skills and can bring them out and apply them when I need them. Those interactions may not charge me like they do an extrovert, but I don’t believe that’s obvious to the people I’m interacting with so, at that point, it doesn’t really matter!

 

 

 

[box type=”shadow”] The title graphic, “How to Care for Introverts” is originally drawn from “On Introversion” by Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D., Gifted Development Center, Denver, Colorado, 1999[/box]

Parenthood

Parenthood is an amazing thing. You start off with this squalling ball of poop and crankiness, forced from a place of peace and comfort in to a world that is noisy and bright and smelly and foreign. And, if you are very, very lucky, you will take part in helping another person engage with the world and hopefully be happier and better prepared than you were when you did the same. It’s both the best thing and the hardest thing I will probably ever do.

I was thinking about parenting recently when I heard that a friend of a friend has someone in their family who is pregnant at 19 and my reaction initially was “Oh, I hope that goes well. Nineteen is so young…” And, of course, in many ways, it is.

But, as with all things, context matters. My own parents were young when they decided to have kids. My mom was 17 when she had me and my dad was 19. They both came from divorced homes and I think they looked to each other with an eye to creating the kind of family and home that they didn’t have themselves. Having said that, they were not particularly prepared to have kids. I suspect their only prior experience was their own recent stint as children, just a few short years before.

I love my children dearly, but thinking of them and imagining them having children at 17 or 19 is terrifying. They were still trying to figure out themselves, who they would be, hell, still who they will be.

I was 23 when my son was born and I recall thinking how much better prepared I thought I was than my own father had been. I had a college education, I was four years older. But, the reality is, I also barely knew who I was or who I wanted to become.

That didn’t stop me from starting down that path to have kids. I felt I was ready to provide from them, felt I was ready to parent them.

My kids will do what they choose to do, certainly. While I still have the ability to influence, I’ve lost the ability to affect them directly.

But, when I did, I know they heard me over and over again stress the importance of learning how to take care of themselves before they started to think about taking care of someone else. And I’m not and wasn’t talking about kids. I was simply talking about being in a serious relationship. I believe that an individual needs to know how to meet their own needs, take care of themselves, be self-sufficient and know they can stand on their own two feet before they should start thinking seriously about entering in to a relationship where, suddenly, another person’s needs and wants are at least of equal importance to your own. And that’s with someone you can talk to and negotiate with!

Kids, on the other hand, kids don’t get to choose to enter in to this new relationship. They simply get put in the middle of this family by virtue of birth, not choice. You can’t communicate with them, at least initially, then arguably again through the teenaged years. So, I’ve always believed, you have to have your own house in order before you are ready to start a long term relationship with someone.

And, in a perfect world, you’d have a few years with that person to figure out if this is someone you think you can live with, negotiate with, be happy with before you ever think about bringing another person in to that mix.

All of us who are parents understand this: Once you bring that child in to the world and in to the family, your priorities shift. No more can you be the selfish single person you were before you partnered with someone. No more can you just be the couple who loves to spend time together and can simply be happy when around the other. No, now your world revolves around that squalling ball of poop and crankiness because it’s your responsibility that that person is now in the world. It is your responsibility to provide everything for that child, both materially and emotionally. And, if you’re doing it right, there is no job you have or will have that is more important than raising that child.

So, you better have your own personal house in order because it may be 10-15 years before you get time to just think about yourself.

You better have a strong and resilient relationship with your partner, because it may be, depending on how much family you have and how close they are, six months to two years or more before you get a chance to get away as a couple for more than an hour or two. And, one way you’ll know you’re doing that right is that you’ll worry about that child you left with someone else the entire time you’re gone the first time or seven.

That job you used to put in sixty hours a week when things demanded may look a lot less critical, though it still remains important because it helps provide for your family and your child.

That relationship that you reveled in may take a backseat while you try to civilize the little feral child that you helped cause to come in to this world. Be sure to take that time to make sure that relationship can weather that kind of benign neglect because you will make that child the priority.

Now you get to balance all four of those worlds: The Children, the Job, The Relationship, yourself.

I don’t know if my parents were ready to have kids, aside from being biologically prepared and having the desire. Certainly I don’t believe they took any classes and they didn’t have great role models.

What other job can you take on with no prior experience and simply say, “Yeah, I think I’d like to do that!” There’s no test, there’s no entry exam, no pre-requisites. Hell, if you want to get a job in fast food, they’re going to want to know that you have some basic job skills. It’s terrifying to recognize that you can become a parent with even less.

That doesn’t mean that my parents were bad parents any more than I think I was a bad parent. I think we do the best we can with what we have.

I know I leaned on some books, especially during the teen years. (theirs, not mine). I know parents who refer to the Internet as “the Third Parent”. Hey, at least they’re not working in a vacuum. Though filtering the signal from the noise when it comes to asking the Internet can be its own challenge. But, at least it’s a form of community, which can make a huge difference because that means there are others out there to tell you that you’re over-reacting. Or you’re under-reacting or maybe you’re reacting just right. I don’t know where my parents went for that kind of advice or that kind of affirmation.

Frankly, there’s no guarantee that any of these things that I’m talking about are going to result in a better parent. Or, for that matter, a better child. Certainly there’s some sort of mix of nature and nurture, though I couldn’t begin to tell you how much of one versus the other.

But, I do believe in being prepared. I do believe in the value of being educated when it comes to solving a problem. And, to be clear, entering in to parenthood is a problem to be solved. There will be challenges the likes of which you may never have dealt with before. You will play a critical role in the development of a human being. That human being will go through a number of years where it can’t even tell you what’s wrong, though for that first year, it’s likely to be related to pooping or eating with some desire to be held tossed in with roughly equal measure. There will probably be unnecessary trips to the emergency room or to the doctor. There will probably be both over and under-reactions. My own mother thought I was constipated right up to the point where she finally took me in to the doctor, who then rushed me across the street to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy and the appendix burst as they were removing it. Pretty sure she felt guilty about that one for a while.

But, I lived. I had some bumps and bruises, but I made it. I got to grow up and look at my parents and choose things that I wanted to do just like they did and things I wanted to do differently. And that, I think, is one of the best legacies we give to our children. We try very hard. We mean very well. And, at the end of the day, they get to choose what they want to emulate and what they want to do completely differently and the carousel goes around and around once again.

 

 

 

[box type=”shadow”] Note: Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/kmk7702/ and licensed via Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/[/box]