This is a long blog post. I did not want to split it up into two, because I wanted the whole topic to be read as a single unit. But I will not be posting tomorrow … so this one counts for two !
The title of this post is mostly stolen from an article I just saw in Forbes. The author admirably gives the students of Bentley University a list of 10 points to guide them through the upcoming university years. She very correctly points out that the present world is very different than the one of even a generation ago. More people should share such insights, especially if they feel that they have a unique perspective (on any topic). As time goes by, the “top 10 tips” will become more and more evident and thus be more helpful.
I have adapted the general topics of this Forbes article and I have extended them also to the working world and the start-up environment. I welcome your comments.
Have you ever actually seen curiosity kill a cat ?
Fear is a very powerful force. And it can subdue some of the greatest thoughts. It is truly frightening to face the “big world” as just another graduate (of whatever university, in whatever topic). In the high tech world, there are SO many start-ups and so many options, and so many changes in the technology landscape every few years, it reminds me of the quote from Through the Looking Glass, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that”.
Curiosity is probably the most powerful challenge to this fear. It is not some inherent chivalry (“For Queen and Country”, which I personally love saying), that pushes away fear. But when you are overwhelmed by your craving to know, and your opportunity to try, then your whole demeanor changes. In an interview, this curiosity comes across. The interviewer will see it in your eyes: this person is hungry – for knowledge, for the work, and for success.
No two students learn the same way
As much as many young people may resent the structure of high school, there was one thing very alluring about it. You showed up, they told you where to sit and what to learn, you wrote your exams and you went home. No options. No variation. For those students who could not learn the “standard” way, it was a major problem.
But in university and definitely out in the world, no two people will experience events in the same way. In university, you might take the same course as a friend. But if you take it a semester later, your TA (teaching assistant) might be someone else and that will change your whole experience. Or, you may be taking the same course at the same time with your friend, but you are taking a parallel course that gives you a whole different perspective on the your shared class.
This is ultimately where you find your uniqueness. In fact, you may even have to create it. You may have to take of your free time to learn other topics that enhance your class-taught information. If you are studying computers, you may continue to develop and then play with the game that you prepared as an assignment. There is no end to a program. It is one of the magical things about software
Interestingly, in medical school, the format is very much like in high school but even more so. Despite the advent of the iPad-augmented student who can double check everything the professor says, the style is still the same: come to class, memorize, and pass the test. You only need a 60 from 100 to pass (and so begin the jokes of the person who graduates last in medical school still being called “Doctor”).
Medical school does NOT encourage independent thinking or “breaking the rules”. In my own head, this is a dichotomy. The software development part of me might want to push forward while the medical side of me will say – just start with what you have. So far, the combination actually works to my advantage by allowing me to understand two very different perspectives of my clients.
In the end, the message is, push the envelope. How far? That you will have to discover for yourself.
A life without challenges is a challenge in and of itself
Many people want to reach a point in their lives where they no longer have to worry about anything of substance. They want to be financially comfortable, be in a healthy and loving relationship, have healthy and successful children, be satisfied with whatever projects they are involved in … you get the point.
Have you ever heard of a very successful person retiring, and then actually becoming depressed or at least withdrawn? There is something in our DNA that seeks out challenges to give us a reason to get up in the morning. Of course, there are different kinds of challenges. If G-d forbid, the challenge is one of health or severe financial difficulty, this is by no means welcome. Still, some people will state that “these are the tests that in the end, make us stronger”.
It is unlikely that any person will pass through life without at least one significant and even frightening challenge. It is far too easy to say “embrace this and move on”. But I will say that challenges are a fact of life. And if you develop a method of facing them, dealing with them and then overcoming them, you will be much better suited for any new challenges that come along.
Especially in the start-up world, you have to be willing to face, sometimes insurmountable, challenges. A first start-up may fail. And even a second and a third. And then suddenly, the fourth takes off. For every successful exit of a billion dollars, there are 10,000’s of start-ups that either totally fail or barely make it. If you cannot thrive in such a challenging environment, you will regret choosing such a life path.
Steal ideas … I mean ask for advice (which may NOT always be correct)
I will actually discuss this along with the advice point of “network, network, network“. The key is to build a resource map from which you can draw assistance and advice when you need it. In programming, there is often a solution already worked out, that appears in full on the Internet, for whatever problem you are facing.
I remember once when I was looking for a straight open source software solution for creating bar codes. I did NOT want to use a per-station licenced solution. It took me two weeks but I finally found one website that had the whole thing spelled out, both in VB6 and specifically in ACCESS VB. It was amazing. I could never have created this solution on my own (without taking a lot of time to learn the topic) and I managed to save my employer 10,000’s of dollars in licensing fees over time.
Also, I have a list of associates on my speed-email list. When I am really stuck, I email one of them and ask them what they think and if they even have a solution (and even for pay, sometimes). I have a personal business coach who is excellent. I have used a therapist in the past to help me make decisions about my work future. I have NO problem turning to people for assistance, and I get requests for advice and other help in return.
Sometimes, it is this knowledge base of human contacts and computer information sites that is worth more than anything else you have. Also, do not forget to cultivate your human contacts. Even if it is only to send a birthday and happy new year email, this already says that you remembered and that they are not JUST a resource. You may find it useful to even have a “get to know each other” meeting once every few months, to keep the human connection alive.
And, as Barney the dinosaur says, always, always, thank anyone who has helped you in any way !!
Easy on the social media
This is truly universal advice. Most people should probably be happy that the “older” generation is not that into using Facebook and Twitter to filter out problematic people for work opportunities. What may seem like an innocent picture of a fun time at the beach, may resonate negatively with a stern grandfatherly senior manager.Even on a website like LinkedIn, I have seen photos that are inappropriate for a business oriented site.
If I see a photo of a young man in a cropped off t-shirt that shows off his abdominal muscles, does that inspire confidence if I am looking for a serious hardworking young person? If a see a young lady in a tank top, who claims to be highly professional, does such a picture send that message?
These photos might be appropriate for a personal page on Facebook. But sorry, they can be hurtful on professional sites.Headhunters will look at these sites and try to build a profile of who you are. Anything you post online, ANYTHING, can contribute to or detract from your opportunities. Just choose wisely.
Ask for financial assistance early
From the moment you start making any income, you do need to think about how to use it or save it or invest it. It may be hard to imagine the need for such thoughts, especially if your parents have promised you the basement as your home until the end of time. But definitely, once you start earning, you have to think (not obsess) about every penny.
If you are beginning a start-up, then yes, you do have to obsess about every penny. Investors want to know that their money is being used wisely. One member of your team, whether or not he/she is formally trained in finance, must track the cash. I know of one start-up that burned through 8 million dollars in a couple of years. And they could not even say where the money went. The key point is that they had NO product to show for it. Nothing.
It is amazing how hiring a few staff and going oversees to a few meetings/conferences can burn through huge sums of money very quickly. Budgeting, financial planning, considering return on investment (ROI) – these often are the difference between a great idea becoming or failing to become a successful product.
I personally don’t abide by the following mind set, but there are alot of people out there who only believe in your work if they see you on site doing it. Nevertheless, if your job calls for a great deal of absenteeism (eg. travelling evangelist for a company), then find a way to keep your superiors abreast of your activities and especially your successes. If you are not top-of-mind when they think of their most productive employees, this may play badly for you in the future.
I personally have worked from home for a good part of my career. I have my “bat cave” with resources that are better than I would have at my previous longstanding place of employment. Specifically due to software I wrote, I was able to dedicate 3 of my 6 screens to keeping watch on the various activities amongst the multiple clinics I was previously responsible for.
I actually developed a good professional relationship with people that I had not physically met for multiple years of their employment. But I knew them, I knew of them, I had their stats in front of me, I knew when they were taking risks and not asking for help when they should. All of this was handled by software that let me track their productivity and safe practices.
And it is amazing how personal and close you can get, professionally, via email ! Perhaps a better way to say “Be there” is to say “Make your presence felt”. If people know that you are the go to person for all that is needed, then it really does not matter if you are on the same floor, another floor, another building or at home.
We live in a unique time. Not that long ago, a successful career was one that was based on a steady income and progression up the professional ladder. There was a time when saying “I am an IBM man”, meaning you were with IBM from graduation to retirement, was a dream. The idea of having passion at work was literally alien to most. Some would even (and did actually) call it subversive, but that is a WHOLE other topic.
Today, people speak about finding what you are passionate about. When you find that, follow it. Perhaps study it and even turn it into a source of income. And if you are passionate about it, then so what if your neighbor has a fancier car or bigger house. Does HE have passion in his life, or is he just a mindless automaton working for “the Man”. (I wasn’t at Woodstock so I am not sure why I am saying these things).
Passion unquestionably helps in building a start-up. It really can make your parent’s basement seem as cool as Superman’s fortress of solitude. The problem is that sometimes, it is very hard to find employees (or colleagues) who share that passion. They may be passionate about writing code but not specifically about your idea. They may be in it for the money. But they all may play a critical role.
In any case, passion helps and is a wonderful thing to have and maintain, if you can do it. But you must find the balance between passion and what you consider to be the mundane. I have met start-up teams that are so enamored of their own product, that they simply cannot agree to allowing a business person (who has no interest in their specific product) buy and sell their start-up like a bar of soap. You need to find a way to enjoy your passion over your product, while allowing the business people to do what they need to do, to keep your company going and paying salaries.
I hope this has been helpful. Much of what I wrote really does guide me on a day to day basis. But I am always learning. And others have had different experiences. I am sure that your list of tips is intriguing. Share them. In the meantime ….
Thank for listening