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The worst career advice I ever received (hackernoon.com)
172 points by mji on Jan 27, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 56 comments

My synthesis: To get promoted fastest, join teams & businesses that will grow fast.

This makes sense to me. It's why we have 30-year-old CEOs of hypergrowth tech startups, but we don't have 30-year-old CEOs of mature companies.

It also makes sense from a career capital perspective. The skills & knowledge that are most valuable to learn are those that will be needed by fast-growing teams & businesses.

Of course, the obvious follow-up question is how do you identify which teams and businesses will grow fast?

> of course, the obvious follow-up question is how do you identify which teams and businesses will grow fast?

I think his point was: when you're certain that the current team isn't, find a new one. You can't reliably identify what will grow fast, but you can identify what won't

> You can't reliably identify what will grow fast, but you can identify what won't

This is a great insight that certainly rings true to me.

It this case it was even stronger, identifying not what won't grow fast, but what was failing.

And the new business being "interesting" improves the odds of growing fast.

It's like the old stock-picking joke: buy the ones that will go up, and if it doesn't, don't have bought it.

My takeaway from the article was a bit different: it's about being passive vs. being active in your career.

The author argues that you should not stay where you are hoping to passively benefit from a power vacuum, but instead actively seek out opportunities to advance your career. If your current position is not helping you move toward your goals you should find one that does.

Fundamentally this individual took a risk and it worked out. There was an equal chance that the new product he was working on could have floundered and he might not have gotten promoted. Survivorship bias is present here. Same as saying "I quit my job and started an amazing company and would never look back". The only useful piece of advice here is "take measured risks in your career and maybe some of them might pay off".

The "risk" he was taking was slight. Given that his goal was to be promoted, the status quo — remaining a line manager on a struggling team — was a failure, rather than being neutral.

Importantly, with the benefit of experience he's now in a position to identify that moving teams was less risky than he'd even assumed. This is not just survivor bias either — in management you aren't rewarded for keeping a floundering team afloat. You need to attach yourself to a team that is making your manager and their managers look good.

You need to attach yourself to a team that is making your manager and their managers look good.

Right, it’s the same business model as elite universities - find people who are likely to succeed anyway and take credit for their success. Except in the case of management, it’s exploitative of the Workers because the manager hoovers up the lions share of the financial rewards, not just a fuzzy boost to reputation and prestige.

I took the point of the article to be that you are taking a risk by leaving and you are taking a risk by staying. Either of them might work out or they might not. In either case you can't read the future, but at least one of those cases is more in your control and so win or lose it's a better bet to make because it's more predictable in some ironic sense than the sure-fire power-vacuum that's going to come along and Hoover you up to the upper echelons.

I think it's basically right.

In this case, the risk was the product would fail and more than likely he would be moved to another team or he could have easily gotten another job.

You'd be surprised how deep and ruthless organization politics can be in these cases.

New Kid on the block? All the best. Stack ranking means you are by far the most easy person to be down ranked fired because you are new, fairly less important, you don't have friends in the hierarchy. All this while people want to rank their friends well and protect them.

The only reason this person did well was because he got lucky. Most of the times people are not. I even know of people who make such jumps and get demoted. They go into a new structure and realize there is an entire ladder of people wanting to take your job with powerful friends up management. Most of the times you will be made to make way for them.

If you are having a bad time, no risk is small. Every change can likely trigger a bigger catastrophe than the hell you are already sitting on. Risk taking works only when you are winning well luck wise in your career. For everybody else risks are basically exposing yourself to a fairly powerful gravity well without a harness.

In this case though, if he was any good, the other option is to find another job at another company.

The narrative is what has issues. Its more like saying- I did X and then my career flew from there. People confuse this with saying doing X causes success.

In reality doing X was a small factor in making success happen. In terms of a risk management perspective, the old adage A bird in hand, is better than two in the bush is very sound advice to follow. Say his case would have gone the other way. Had he been demoted, it would have taken a few years to merely climb out of that mess.

If you believe this kind of risk taking. It will makes sense to also toss a coin a few times and make that decision. After all if you have to leave it chance, might as well let it be a little pure.

Don't quite understand this article. Seems to be looking through rose colored glasses. There's no indication that this guy would've radically changed his career by moving to the new position, but because he did, he now writes a medium post with a overly exaggerated, click-bait title about advice he deemed the worst ever which could've been the greatest ever if his new position was a dumpster fire with people he didn't get along with.

It seems like his current position was not going to work out if he stayed -- the team was losing good people, the situation was chaotic, etc.

When people leave a sinking ship, a person who gets promoted to fill the gap in management has an even tougher job than the manager who left. The team is smaller and a lot of the best people have moved on, morale is low, and the project is probably already behind on deadlines. The factors that caused the project to go wrong in the first place will still exist and may be entirely out of the manager's control.

If the author's new position turned out to be bad, he could have moved on from that as well. By leaving he had a chance to get out of a bad situation. By staying he would have guaranteed that his situation would remain bad. He didn't have much to lose.

Yes, the advice the rats are fleeing, soon you'll be king ignores why they are fleeing. Any non-sinking ship beats a sinking ship.

The new position he selected (after researching several) was "interesting" - a positive indicator. It was also still within Microsoft, so a baseline of safety.

tl;dr The "risk" was highly constrained; and things would likely be better, at least regress to the mean.

I joined a position that was much more interesting, with a much more established company that had much better resources, technology wise.

Turns out that the people that I was working with were very arrogant, played a lot of politics, and didn't care about providing help. Many of the work was heavily siloed to the individual and little training was provided. Granted, I accept that part of it was me not asking for help when I needed it, but the lack of interest and ease of frustration when doing so was apparent.

I was a contractor (to hire) there and I left after 1.5 years because I was basically having cold sweats everyday I came into the office from feeling like I was being scrutinized all the time. Funny enough, I actually tried to quit after a year and they agreed, but couldn't find anyone to replace me in 4 weeks, so they were ecstatic when I decided to stay on for them.

So, I'm much more weary of "positive" indicators. I know this is anecdotal evidence, but part of his claim was that "comfort is a beautiful garden where careers won't grow" which I disagree with because comfort often builds expertise due to constant, repeated exposure (aka. deliberate practice). Its different than climbing the corporate ladder, but it depends on what you value I guess.

> There's no indication that this guy would've radically changed his career by moving to the new position

Job interviews can offer plenty of indication regarding how different the new position is.

Article seems to have the same basic idea as https://xkcd.com/1768 - When in doubt it's better to leave.

Job interviews often hide the following: 1) What the people are like 2) What the benefits are 3) What your bosses like 4) What the company culture is like

Pretty much everything meaningful about a job is kept hidden because of the game of "you shouldn't look like your benefits shopping".

I haven't gone to a single job interview where those were discussed before hiring at a non-superficial level (I've interviewed about 5-6 times in my professional career) And you're actively discouraged from asking these questions when learning about interviewing techniques.

Not only XKCD's anecdotal evidence confirms it's good to change. A straight coin toss experiment says so too:


Also, personal, from a 28 year old: why would you work for 9 years straight on the same project? Sounds very boring.

On the flipside, back when Ottawa was the "Silicon Valley North" (I assume it's not called that any more -- that was a long time ago), I've had friends who took management roles in risky ventures, had the company crash and burn, and tried to find another management gig only to find that Ottawa was in a bit of a down turn. Finally they tried to get development roles, but couldn't land them because they had been in management for too long and nobody trusted their technical abilities.

It's easy to say in retrospect that a flip of the coin was successful or unsuccessful. Hard to say in advance. Having said that, I think it's sound advice to say that if you aren't getting the opportunities you want in you current situation, it might be a good idea to see if those opportunities exist elsewhere. Just be careful to weigh the risks and realise that survivor bias is a thing.

I think the Toronto-Waterloo corridor is more commonly referred to as "Silicon Valley North" than Ottowa now. Hopefully it doesn't become too similar to actually silicon valley though it's pretty nice as it is.

This post assumes that everyone wants to 'move up' in their career. Maybe, but what is wrong with not doing that? Is it the worst thing to keep doing what you like doing, being comfortable and enjoying life?

I know that many people are driven to reach a certain goal in their career, but that doesn't mean that everyone has to do that. Some people might want to just go to work, do their thing, and take home their salary. That isn't bad, it is just different.

To move up in your career you should get out of your comfort zone and take risks. I think this is what the author meant. It is fine if you are content with your position.

It’s not bad to not want to move up in your career, but it’s a horrible mistake to get complacent in tech. The chances are that either you will either get forced out or you’re going to want to leave. When that day comes, if you spent nine years stuck in a bubble doing the same thing - especially if that thing isn’t management of a successful product - you’re going to find it harder to find a job.

The article should be called “advice that didn’t end up being good in my case”. Power vacuums often are great times for people to find a new spot and a new opportunity. I’ve seen this happen many times at companies I’ve been at. For example certain people who previously were not the highest qualified person to be a manager ended up getting an opportunity to be one—they ended up doing a really good job and got promoted multiple times after that. So I would say if you are hoping to get into a position that you may not on paper look right for, sticking around during a power vacuum is not a bad idea at least for a while.

From a retired NASA engineer that worked on the Apollo program (and I greatly respected at the time): don't become a computer programmer, it's all going to India and there won't be any money in it.

For a lot of engineers this seems completely wrong but to many others in enterprise software this has become more true than false. Most of the old guard tech companies of decades past have moved the majority of their development opportunities offshore (Israel, Eastern Europe, India, Southeast Asia, Brazil, and many more), abuse H1Bs (both as persons and in terms of policy), or to lower cost living areas of the US. Heck, even NASA’s largest personnel presence is in Alabama and Florida last I checked rather than NYC, SF, or even DC. While there are exceptions the rationale is that unless you have a business reason to have top engineers paid top wages and specifically in a large US metro, you likely are going to shift your tech labor force elsewhere. I think the message from the market is pretty clear - average / below average programmers have little competitive advantage over overseas labor of comparable overall technical output even if their communication skills are pretty decent, and the sky’s the limit practically for the talented - this is the reality of opportunity gaps in the US and has been for a long, long time.

I'd offer a softer version of this. If you are capable of becoming a programmer, you're probably capable of entering a field with better prospects.

This is a slightly ambiguous claim, because a "programmer" can be such a wide range of things. You can read a book on PHP and MySql, or not read the book and say you did, and call yourself a programmer.

But if you're the sort of person who can enter a decent college (no, not elite, just a proper college), read and write well enough to get good grades in your humanities general coursework, do calculus through differential equations, and major in computer science or engineering, then I think you're probably capable of entering a field with better prospects than programming.

I don't feel quite as negative about programming as you do, in that I don't think it's necessarily a bad job or a dead end (though I do think these risks are very present in programming careers), and there are still great careers to be had in it. But yes, I do agree that people capable of doing this are probably capable of doing a lot of things, and many of those things may be better paths.

My current career started with clients burned by outsourcing their projects.

Wow that is bad advice.

The reality is quite the opposite.

There are plenty of opportunities here and most of the candidates are grossly incompetent. Many passably competent candidates confuse their status for greatness (Dunning-Kruger). As a result many companies persue visa sponsorship for immigrants at greater expense to supplement their hiring targets.

This level of incompetence should not be a surprise to anybody since software and software hiring are completely unregulated. There are no licensing, certification, or objective standard qualifications to define competence.

If in fact a candidate is objectively better than average they can go where ever they want. For these people the most challenging part of their career is finding a team/product that thinks like they do.

if taken at face value, this is sad. In fact, the entire field is moving in many directions at once. Some parts of some kinds of programming already did move to India from the US, but its not at all the whole story.

Seems like there is a hidden bit of advice about not becoming overly specialized or at the very least be nimble enough to be able to change your specialty quickly. Also seems like this will lead to "specialists" with shallow knowledge on average.

I see it as a bit of hidden advice of just because someone knows a shit ton about one thing, doesn't mean they known everything about everything, even if they sound like they do.

Anyone who’s read Ed Catmull’s experience looking after Toy Story 2 knows this adage: it’s not about the situation, it’s what you bring to it.

You’ll bring whatever you’re capable of bringing whether you stay in chaos or move on. It’s less about the environment and more about your attitude...even more than you may realize at the time.

In my experience, the greatest success in my career has happened when I stopped trying to figure out how to get ahead and just went about the business of doing and growing.

This is inspiring but it's worth noting (if not being put off by) the survivor bias at play here.

Not really, I had a friend at Nokia maintaining old code in a team. He was the go-to person for many years without getting promoted to even team leader position.

I told him to learn some new language that's used in the company that can be used as a leverage to switch companies as well if he isn't getting promoted, and try to switch. 1 year later he's working on writing new application load balancers in go, and he's loving it, and getting more money for it, and he can easily switch to other company if he wants to.

Of course the old team really misses him, but they didn't value him high enough, so they lost the best person on their team.

I don't consider your anecdote to be a valid argument against his claim that this is survivor bias. I appreciate you sharing that person's story but the fact is, there are many variables at play.

I think that in most cases, career advice is subjective and to brand advice as black and white, good or bad, is silly. Nobody can predict the future. A seemingly negative decision could potentially lead to other positive outcomes. That's why I find little value in this discussion: it's subjective and difficult to measure.

Sure, it really depends a lot on the situation. Jumping around is just as bad as rotting in a place, but I wanted to share my example because it was a clear cut case when my friend tried everything to fix the local situation first.

A lot of people are saying this is survivor bias, but consider the matrix of possibilities - stay, situation improves AND opportunity for promotion appears; stay, situation stagnates or deteriorates; leave, new project prospers; leave, new project bombs.

They're not all equally likely.

Staying on a lame duck project is a huge gamble. It achieved lame duckness for all kinds of reasons. To benefit you have to assume that those conditions will change AND that the changes will create opportunities for advancement OR that you will be able to force changes and advancement from your current position.

How likely is that?

Getting out and changing is a gamble, but if you're not completely clueless you have some prospect of assessing the likely success of a new project.

Bottom line: giving yourself more options is not a bad game move. You can interview without commitment until you're fairly sure you're going to make a good move, and that's much more likely to work out than staying on a project that's broken and going nowhere.

The article feels like a variation of survivor bias to me. I think his friend was right and the author got ‘lucky’ to land a role in a successful company. He could easily have landed in another toxic or stale company.

Alternatively, you could probably find another story about an engineer who left a similar situation and founded a unicorn company, so in comparison, would this author have ‘failed’ because he didn’t go down that road?

I don't agree. If anything, this seems to be a sampling bias- people who don't move on from situations they can't actively change will be sampled as relatively unsuccessful compared to those who will.

In other words: If author had moved to an unsuccessful team, he likely would have moved again until he found a team he could be successful with. Looking back and comparing with his friend who didn't move on will often result in a favorable comparison.

If we look at this from a buddhist's point of view, then there is no luck: the author did something in past that allowed him to use this opportunity and what he did could be completely unrelated to his work, e.g. he wrote a blogpost long time ago that he didn't consider important, but it really helped a few people.

Not agreeing or disagreeing, but one note: he didn't go to a different company, he went to a different division within Microsoft.

In a large enough organization, moving to a different team might as well be moving to a different company.

The problem with this article is that it could have gone either way. For instance, I could tell a story about how my company was going through a rough patch, and how my friend left and tried to recruit me away, but I stuck with it, and when we returned to growth, I was promoted and had responsibility for hiring and growing a team. I might throw in a bit there about how I call my job-hopping friend, who is still floating around in various dev roles after the hot startup he hopped over to went under, and how the conversation always makes me feel good about how much better I'm doing, and how I expect him to come sniffing around for a job any time now...

What would this signify, beyond how this particular decision worked out nicely for me? I'm not sure, other than that it is important to make good decisions about whether you stay or leave, and where you go next. Sometimes stay, sometimes leave, and it often won't be clear at the time which is the better call.

This really speaks to me. It can be so hard to give up the challenges you know and the comfort of the status quo to take on a new opportunity. I'd wager the recommended solution, "having a picture in mind of what you want to do", makes it a lot easier to recognize and grab those imperfect opportunities when they present themselves.

Few tips for working at any startup:

- Don't work with assholes (avoid detrimental execs and culture)

- Has plenty of growth opportunities (able to quickly expand skillset & learn new roles)

- Proven product/market fit & steady growth (avoid stagnant startups and sinking ships)

When a company goes bad, the best people go out first.

This is a force bigger and stronger than you are.

Technical people who are intrinsically motivated (typically the best and most productive people) often are the sort of people who find working with other high caliber people to be an important and highly valuable part of their work experience. When good people leave because the company isn't treating them well the result is a cascade effect, because every good person leaving makes the working environment worse. So more good people leave. Then for everyone left behind there's extra work and a struggle to reacquire lost institutional knowledge, and everybody finds that executing on projects is more difficult and results in less success.

Because of the nature of software development (no development cycle is ever really identical to the previous one) it can be difficult to conclusively or objectively say that the capabilities of the organization have been reduced, or that the working environment is poorer, because these things require subjective judgments. But many people have enough experience to make those judgments for themselves, to feel the organization getting worse and less capable, and this can create a kind of pressure for people to find other options elsewhere even if not everyone understands why on a conscious level.

Sometimes, but it can be a bit more complicated.

Perhaps it is accurate to say the most mobile, unattached people tend to go first.

Perhaps the more loyal people stick around longer -- this puts a positive spin on it.

But you could also say that the most opportunistic people go first -- putting a negative spin on it.

Also, I think it depends heavily on what you mean by "bad". As a company culture deteriorates, sometimes it is the people who have been there the longest that don't notice the decline (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog)

> No opportunity will be perfect [...]

Having trouble with this whole paragraph because it's essentially arguing in favor of the other extreme, which is just as bad: sucking up whatever you might not like about your new job and how bad the situation in it might be because it might help your career.

The solution to "staying stuck because it's comfortable" is not "suffer through something because it might help you".

One needs to measure the compromises.

"Follow your dreams", no follow what is practical and use your money to do what is good and fun because of that.

I'm at some cross roads my self. I couldn't have read this at a better time. Thanks

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