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I Got Fired Last Week. That’s a Good Thing. Here’s Why (alexgivesup.com)
140 points by nRike 1417 days ago | hide | past | web | 82 comments | favorite

So this is going to sound mean when I don't mean for it too, but I sort of doubt the reality of being fired for being a generalist. I just don't buy it. I totally believe that's what they /told/ him, I just don't think it's the actual truth.

So far I've made a career out of being a generalist. In my experience, companies of any size love having people like that. Specialists are valuable of course, but most of the time managers end up with a broad spectrum of problems and if they can throw problems to you without wondering if you can handle it, and feel confident it's going to get done, they probably don't care that you're only 70% as efficient as the specialist.

I think there's an intermediate size where being a generalist is bad. I'm a generalist, and I experienced a similar situation -- I was extremely useful at the beginning because I could do a fair job of the responsibilities of three or four specialists, but after a year and a half, there were three or four specialists who could collectively do a far better job than me. The amount of tasks which made sense for me to take on dwindled, and I wasn't really needed anymore. I don't regret it or hold a grudge, it was my intent to help build a team that was better than me alone, and I succeeded in that professional goal. I trained most of them to be able to do my job, and am proud of that accomplishment. But I suspect that once the company is at 100 people instead of 20, the budget and flexibility of positions will be such to allow generalists to be more practical again.

Does that make sense? I think for a 10 person team, generalists are very useful, and for a 1000 person team, generalists can be tolerated and be very versatile members who can quickly switch between roles. But I think there is an intermediate point where the company goals are still very narrow but the team is big enough that generalists are only useful in a high level management role.

Interesting. I see the framework of your point and I mostly agree, but I still think that even in this sort of awkward middle period, if you're legit good, they're not even going to consider getting rid of you as a generalist. For one thing, they're going to need someone to be able to jump in and help the specialists out with the larger picture. Not to mention that often your generalists end up becoming the specialists, after dealing with certain domains long enough.

If we're talking about a startup of <100 people that is healthy, they're usually in "expand" mode. You don't get rid of useful people when you're in your expand mode unless they're a problem.

they're going to need someone to be able to jump in and help the specialists out with the larger picture

Problem is, if you are a generalist (say) with <5 yes experience in total and 8 months at this firm? I'm not sure that works for anyone...in that situation.

Although, I don't doubt there is more to the story. Just would be hesitant to jump to character over other consideratiosn without knowing (any, real) details.

Who is this straw man generalist? If you are even a moderately capable at many things that makes you a connector and a power broker. Without agency inside a larger organization, a generalist without enough situational acumen will fail to see their opportunities.

The straw man is not the generalist being replaced; it is the "emeritus" advisor to the ceo job that is created out of thin air. Many young companies have execs that just don't scale as quickly as the company (for whatever reason...)[1]. Sometimes its just not teneble politically or practically for them to exert further influence, especially at the C-level. Co-founders and ex CEOs are often different, in that regards. Compare the trajectory of Jack Dorsey at Twitter to the engineer that did the original code, but was never promoted to CTO.

(1) ie, You still can be a very effective "early employee" without being C-level material in your current compan. That doesn't imply lack fo competence in the work you did do; and frankly thats a reason many do change jobs.

For many popular technologies I think 5 years is pretty extreme. Most of them haven't even existed that long.

That's fair. Mine was certainly an odd case, no question.

Hi there - I wrote the article. This closely describes what what happened to me, although we didn't yet have the specialists to fill those roles (we did use agencies however).

The two most notable points I left out of the post are that the company needed to cut costs (read between the lines there), and that there was meaningful blowback from the rest of the team when the CEO announced that I was being let go.

I don't agree with this, because even if you determine the generalist to be less efficient than a specialist for a given task, you still have to hire the specialist for that position, which takes time. So unless the generalist is simply incompetent -- which is a separate issue -- firing someone for being a "generalist" (which is kind of a meaningless term, anyway) in order to hire a specialist wouldn't make more sense than simply training up the generalist short of a flood of specialist applicants that could start fairly immediately.

Agreed; generalists are often limited in growth and cannot command the premiums of a top-of-field specialist, but I've never heard of being a generalist considered as a bad thing, the sort of thing that gets you fired. Now, if instead of a Jack-of-all-Trades you were, say, a Three-of-Spades-of-all-Trades, then yes, because you're really just equally bad at everything.

I agree with you.

I've seen generalists with a culture and personality fit be transitioned into highly valued specialists with accessory skill sets that greatly benefited the organization.

Either somebody up top didn't think this transition could happen by ignorance or by potential difficulty or there was a culture or personality mismatch.

I see that but I think the problem is that some generalists don't want to specialize in anything. They hired a VP of Marketing to do the marketing yet the generalist wants to continue to help do the marketing along with a bunch of other roles they hired more specialized people for.

As mentioned above, I wrote the article. The most perplexing thing was that they hadn't yet hired specialists to fill those roles. Presumably, the new VP of Marketing (she started after I was let go) would have filled those specializations which seems like replacing a bandaid with a more robust bandage.

I was perfectly happy to specialize - in fact, I had spent the last few months digging deep in landing page optimization and email marketing specifically. I know there's more to the story. I just haven't figured out what it is yet.

Screwing you for your founding / very early stock options? Might be worth checking with a lawyer?

I'm guessing you had a 12-month vesting cliff.

Exactly my thoughts. First, I doubt all companies need the best coders and designers to the point of getting rid of those who are just "average" but totally able to deliver. There would be no point in getting rid of a highly motivated employee just because he doesn't have a specialization.

The worst case would be to have a chat with him and ask him to chose an area of specialization and work to improve his skills there.

It's possible that you're both right. According to the author they had hired new management spots. It could be that this new management decided they needed certain specialists positions filled, but didn't have the budget to do so unless, of course, they could free up budget by letting others go. And that's often the problem with generalists; if they can't place you into a specific 'need' spot on the org chart then you often have a target on your head instead.

In other words, maybe he didn't get fired for being a generalist, but instead was fired in favour of a hiring a specialist.

People don't usually get fired for just one reason, unless it is for something egregious like stealing.

However, lots of good people get fired all the time so you can't assume one of the other reasons he got fired-- besides being generalist-- was something very bad.

I agree. I'm not quite as much a generalist as that guy, as I'm primarily a coder, but I code anything. Recruiters prefer more specialized coders (they just want front-enders, back-enders, Java specialists, Ruby specialists), but I'm all of those things. But my skillset works very well for more technically inclined companies; I've been despite not knowing the main language I was supposed to program in, and have learned at least one new language at every job, and one new framework at every freelance gig.

Lately I've noticed I'm getting better at taking on non-coding responsibilities, and I'm not seeing that hurting my hireability at all.

Myself as well. I feel that if they have to hire specialists to work alongside me, I'm not good enough as a generalist.

One could imagine a company with a young single-digit employee, who is very good at what they do but difficult to slot into a traditional org chart, hiring an older industry veteran for a role which will be very well defined. There might be, hypothetically, political dimensions there: "report to a 25 year old" might be a non-starter for the new VP, who may have connections or gravitas perceived as key to the future growth of the business in strategic directions. Conversely, re-shuffling such that the guy who built things from the ground up ends up reporting to the new guy might also be a bit on the awkward side.

I'm not discussing any particular company here, but be aware that this has been known to happen before, and it will probably happen again. I hate to make age a factor [+], but in particular, if one is in one's mid-twenties, one identifies with this guy, one works for a company with enterprise software ambitions, and one's company has recently taken investment and hired the requisite team of industry veteran executives/VPs... well, I hope you're a founder. If you're not, consolation prizes are a) you're in the best hiring market for your skillset in the history of ever and b) you've probably got what it takes to me a founder next time.

[+] i.e. This is a description of the world, not the world I would like to be living in.

Yeah, I think this pretty much screams of "unfortunate political decision."

I wonder if some of them would be good big company CEOs or even middle managers, given they are generalists.

I think most generalists are bound to end up in management roles, as they are most qualified to understand the skills of widely varying technical employees as well as their own gaps in understanding such that everything fits together in a diverse project.

They did do you a favor, but not only for the reasons you think. They got you off the sinking ship early. Seriously, what kind of bumbling fuckwit fires a highly productive employee for not being a specialist? Broad-based problem solvers are a serious value.

If other employees of that company are rational they should start expecting the same thing to happen to them. And desert. So yes, the likelihood of that ship to sink should go up quite a bit. But it is not guarantied. The company can succeed regardless, or change, or fail for a completely different reason.

Applaud your can-do attitude, but I don't agree that makes getting fired a good thing. I hope you get to keep your equity.

Also, I'm a little skeptical. It's very rare that people get fired while doing a really great job and being well liked. It's not impossible, but it definite smells a little unusual to my bs detector.

Nope - no equity. Was a few months away from my one year cliff.

I still haven't figured it out yet. I haven't spoken with the CEO since it happened. I do know that there was meaningful blowback within the team, but that's about it.

Apologies for the cynicism:

A 'one year cliff' creates incentive for a sacking just inside a year. Employees should consider whether it's in their best interest.

Best wishes for the future.

"Was a few months away from my one year cliff."

Money. That's the reason. Had it happen to me a couple of times in the Web 1.0 days. Greed ruined some great products, a few companies and not a few friendships.

Nope - no equity. Was a few months away from my one year cliff.

You are surprisingly restrained for someone who got cliffed.

Did you get a severance, at least? An Agreement of Introduction? (That is, the CEO agrees to a positive reference and to introduce you to investors on favorable terms, preferably in a legally binding document.) If not, you should have burned the company down. AoI is the absolute minimum you should take after getting cliffed like that.

If you have savings, it can sometimes be wise to let them go on severance (they're cash-strapped) and take the AoI, because a good reference (+ intros) from a CEO can do a lot for your career. On the other hand, if you got no equity, no severance, and no AoI and you didn't blow the company up, then you're a pussy (no offense).

Nope, none of those. I did get about 18 days of severance pay. The CEO did offer to make introductions, but nothing legally binding. I still like the company and the team - no use burning bridges. I like to leave on good terms.

You are mindblowingly naive.

So he helped three engineers who were busy coding some product find some engineers, set up a campaign that worked due to the product interest, and then the pros come in. In this industry, you need to have some product skill pre financing.

"But get this through your head: if you’re not the best at something, you’re replaceable."

I disagree. I theory this might be true, but in practice, it's not. I'm often not the best X for a particular job/role/etc, but I'm the best they're going to find.

Perhaps especially in software, THE BEST in their field are already turning down work and forging their own paths. THE BEST developer in tech XYZ is not going to close down their startup or leave MS or Google or Amazon to come work for your company's 'agile' team.

I feel pretty strong that generalists have the edge in most cases, because they generally have a broader background and can see bigger picture stuff, often can see patterns of how different areas connect (code areas, business areas, etc). You certainly need specialists at some point, but rarely are those specialists the best in their field.

I've had a few phone calls with potential clients (and earlier, job negotiations) where people pulled this "we only look for the best XYZ people". At one point during a conversation I told someone (politely, I think) that I happened to know some of 'the best' people in the field they were looking for, and there was no way they were going to move across the country, take an 80% pay cut, and uproot their entire family to come work in some mid-level corporate dev team. On the other hand, I happened to be pretty good and would be interested in stopping by the next day in person to see if I could help solve their problem.

Actually, I've used that 'line' (not always the same words, but the same gist) on a few occasions, and in one case got me a foot in the door. It's more about delivery with a bit of humor, catches people off guard I think.

This is useful insight, thank you.

I enjoyed the blog post and your writing style. I don't have any info aside from what you wrote about, but it sounds strange that you were fired when you were doing things like improving conversions by 400%. My gut instinct, which could very well be wrong, is that either there is a "behind the scenes" reason for you being let go, or the company is doing something seriously wrong. If you have any reason to suspect that it might be the former, you should ask your former teammates. It will help you out in the long run. Anyway, best of luck to you!

People are way to literal here,actually believing what comes out of the mouth of people who fire one of the founding team 13 days before christmas out of the blue. This has nothing to do with generalist/specialist of any of the other assorted lying bullshit they mentioned.

I will propose two theories. The board required a more experienced hire, the directors bent over. They are growing and got greedy,this is an equity grab.

The attitude displayed by Alex is healthy for his own psyche however this is not in anyway a good thing. Effectively he was cheated out of his startup investment.

There's something fishy about this story. Either you're not telling all of it, or...

You joined before money was raised, and possibly got an oversized equity stake that is being clawed back. If you were supposed to have more than 1%, I'd consider it possible. If you were supposed to have 5%, I'd consider it a certainty.

If my guess is correct, you should talk to a lawyer. You may have options.

Nope, my equity would have vested at less than 1%. I was still a few months away from my one year cliff.

Lawyer would have been nice, but I already signed an Employer Termination Contract, so what's done is done.

Lawyer would have been nice, but I already signed an Employer Termination Contract, so what's done is done.

You signed it without a lawyer? Dear God...

What was in the contract? Did you get anything? Given that they clawed back a bunch of equity, you better have gotten 3 months' severance or a legally binding agreement to positive reference and introductions (at your demand) to present and future investors. An AoI (Agreement of Introduction) can make it worth it to go gently into the good night because those intros can make you a founder in your next gig.

If you got two weeks severance and no AoI, then you're an idiot and you should stop blogging about this before you embarrass yourself more. (I'm being blunt because people like you get screwed over every day and the only way to stop it is to fight harder when it happens.)

From pure math perspective that 1-yr cliff + 4-yr vesting function should be imperfect for employees AND for companies. Because of uncertainty of stocks ownership and a potential to create sharp conflicts of interests, lawsuits, etc. at the discontinuity. It is fine to have decelerated of accelerated vesting schedule. But there should be no discontinuities.

On the other hand, from a human perspective maybe having such conflict of interests is actually good. It gives a chance for CEO to show his true colors earlier and consequently for employees to take note and re-estimate the risk of having the same experience at some later time or even during the exit.

Look at the comments to the article, links to another blog post that is likely the reason why IMO

It's certainly brave to write about that subject under your own name.

I agree with the commenter that it'd make me more likely to hire him, not less, but other people might disagree.

Still, I don't think that was the reason (it's an October post). The vesting cliff is a more likely trigger.

Out of curiosity, what might those options be? It seems like part of the point of vesting schedules is so that the company can get rid of you if they want to before you vest.

>3. I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

I have to commend you on the brutal honesty. I thought you weren't going to revisit what they said, but you did.

You also mentioned you were fired from another job but didn't provide details... just make sure you examine what happened in each case and there's not a pattern. All I mean is I've seen people have to leave a job for certain behavior, exhibit the same behavior in the next job, and remain in denial about it when confronted.

I really wouldn't put much weight behind what's said at an exit interview. Those things are lawsuit minefields.

The important thing is not that what was said, or the firing, the important thing is that he's turning down offers.

Offers are what matter and give you leverage through every employment related negotiation.

Why the urgency to get rid of you 12 days before Christmas? You would think that someone that is a valued employee and someone who contributed to the growth of the company would get treated a lot better than that. They could have waited until the New Year, or even given the employee an option to move to a different role. To get him out after 8 months, 12 days before Christmas certainly doesn't sound like someone who was really appreciated.

The timing is likely related to the business cycle. Why communicate next year's plans to people it doesn't involve?

I can't say why the plans wouldn't involve him in some way. I don't speculate based on the content of a blog post, and it proves prudent not to believe rationalizations so close relatively to the event. If he didn't see it coming, something was wrong, right?

It sounds like he was laid off and not fired. The CEO did not mention that his performance was subpar, or that he violated some company policy or law. The difference, at least in California, is that collecting unemployment is no problem when you are laid off through no fault of your own, but if you we're fired, EDD will need to check with your employer as to whether you we're fired for just cause, and maybe a hold hearing where both sides present their case.

Like others, i'm equally skeptical, and would love to argue that being a generalist is bad if you are equally good in anything it has tough sustainability. In working for companies as a dev, this could you in a position of stagnation. It's really tough to keep up with technology these days and making the right choices.

Which brings me to the point that you're telling you've built a successful new website, which boosted revenue. Now that the website is built and launched 2 days before, they are letting you go 14 days before Christmas.

I for one would be pretty upset and demand an explanation other than "a generalist". It seems like a rather rude and insensible act. To do that probably means they did not see anything in your skill set that you would be able to add more value to the company, and so they replaced you with a marketeer...

I must therefor conclude that your website was a one-page infograph with a sign-up button.

Sorry but the missing bits of information are frustrating, and given that I don't see why you shouldn't be pissed off. I would most likely lawyer up. There are some important bits of information missing to be able to make sense of your blog.

He was not a developer. Not sure where you got that. He is a marketer.

I'm a generalist myself. I'm lucky to see this hasn't happened to me. The best possible solution for this according to me is when you have a clue that the company has outgrown you and you are not visible in the big picture, you should choose to opt out & start finding a better opportunity and be very confident that you would get one, being a generalist. I had a somewhat similar situation, it was new year of 2012 that i had to cope up with a failure of a startup and the CEO handed my cheque with some extra bucks + salary and said "Good bye" and i didn't know what to do, confused but confident. This is no where related to the story above but i was employed one week from the time, that is because i'm a generalist. But i have now concentrated more onto one area and it utterly sucks being specialist keeping in mind that you were a generalist before and you got many toys to play with and now its only one toy. But hey, Cheers! Change is awesome!

Is there any guarantee that your (about to be former) employer tell you the truth about why you're being canned? I don't believe so. They may just be giving you what they think is a safe answer. The real reasons for ending your employment with them could be anything (good, bad, silly, or even non-reasons). Nothing to take personally.

You will almost never be told the truth about why you're fired, unless it's for an absolutely clear-cut policy violation or other similar reason.

Being fired is very different from being laid off. In the latter case, there's no reason not to tell you that say your job is being outsourced.

Only because the true answer is subjective.

The key is to be jack of all trades, master of some. Go super deep on one topic, then switch to another, then another. Now you are the best at two or three things, while still competent at another dozen or more.

I also agree that the generalist/specialist saying from the CEO was in poor form and should not be taken too literally.

did you get screwed by the 1 year vesting cliff?

Tangential to the story but the most obvious question is what company fired Alex - it was Somawater ... drinksoma.com

> if you’re not the best at something, you’re replaceable

Bullshit. Maybe this is true for like, an insanely competitive NFL team with limited slots and deep pockets, but for a growing startup, this is simply illogical. I hardly believe there's any expectation for all employees to be the best in their field. Sure, everyone wants the best.. but at the end of the day, they'll settle for pretty good. Especially if they're already hired, on-boarded, well-liked and an integral part of the company (which it sounds like OP was).

It's all about what you're measuring too. I would wager that OP was the best business/tech domain expert for that company that one could find, simply because he was there from the beginning and had a hand in building a lot of stuff. No one else coming in is as good at knowing the history of the tech at that company. So, he was 'the best', but they didn't care about that knowledge.

That was a very good article. The writing style is very "conversational", like a friend relating a story to you. I have never been fired before but friends always tell me that after being fired a lot more opportunities opened up for them. It's like being fired provides them with more impetus to seek a quick bounce back.

As a high school student looking into the Hacker/Startup scene, I was pretty scared about the nature of unpredictability and instability of startups. But this post really changed the view on the whole idea (failure isn't necessarily bad), now I feel more confident to work on making stuff!

That's awesome and very cool to here (I wrote the article by the way). Wish I had this mentality in high school. You're young - take risks! Work with interesting people. Work on cool projects. The rest will work itself out.

I think being a generalist is somehow better (or safer?) than a specialist.

Although you may not be able to find a position in a large company, small companies really need this kind of people. Maybe the salary isn't high, but it's relatively easier for a generalist to find a job. This can be important especially in the technology world where everything changes very fast. Imagine if you were a specialist in Blackberry making the best mobile hardware keyboard in the world ten years ago, you would not expect everyone uses touchscreen now, it would be difficult for you to find another similar job. Even if you are willing to give up on the aspect you are good at, and learn something new to chase the trend, it takes time as well.

I think you can shorten it to "You are expendable" without any qualifiers. Unless, perhaps, you have dug yourself in so deep that nobody else can do your job - not because of lack of expertise but because only you know how it works (bad practices).

When I read this "I ran a viral email campaign that signed up a person a minute for the week preceding launch, and then generated a firestorm of media coverage when the product opened for business. Shit, I had just released a new version of our website two days prior that improved on-site conversions by 400%.", I was wondering if the OP did all these alone? Not giving credit as it is due will definitely cause friction once the team grows.

Being a generalist is never an issue, as long as that role contributes value to the team. Taking oneself too seriously, however, will be.

Blog posts like this make me feel concerned that I'm becoming a generalist right now and I'm not sure I can avoid it. I'm on a really small team doing development of both front end (Javascript/HTML/CSS) and backend (PHP for our back end, SQL db, node server for websocket updates and some other stuff). I feel like I don't spend enough time doing any one thing in order to be considered a specialist at any of it, just passable enough to get done whatever needs to be done at the time.

That's called "full-stack web developer".

And lots of companies specifically advertise that they want you to be able to work across the stack: if they only ever have front-end and back-end engineers, how will they fight problems that develop at the intersection of the two?

Being a generalist can be a specialty. In a lot of respects, that's what a PM is, too.

by talking to eachother?

They need to have enough experience in the other side of things to know the language. I can talk at someone all day long, but if I only speak English and they only speak Dutch, it's going to take a hell of a lot longer to get anything done.

Since you're determined to be a specialist at your next job, what are you planning on specializing in? I always like to hear about skills people are excited about.

this guy is blowing his own trumpet all the time, and possibly the reason why he got fired. If this was the case, it was totally justified.

a VP of marketing with 25 years experience is a generalist.

Its not like a senior marketing person is going to be in the trenches and detailed knowledge of all the marketing disciplines.

Sounds a bit fishy to me maybe the incoming marketing guy was best mates with some one eh?

Adding a comment as someone who knows the author: You should hire this guy. Find a way to interview him at least. You won't regret taking the time to get coffee with him, at least.

I am not sure that if you’re not the best at something, you’re replaceable. I think that both specialists and generalist are important at any stage of a company.

Am I missing something?

People who don't code are normally replaceable.

Don't kid yourself, there are lots of companies all over the world that has specialized in taking over your coding-job at a fraction of the cost and you only have to pay per hour, not hire them for eternity. Some of them even talk english without using google translate.

True. So everyone is replaceable.

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