10x Career Discovery
How to discover a your true north and have a fulfilling career
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” - Steve Jobs
“Which job offer should I accept?”, “Should I pursue an MBA?”, “What kind of career should I pursue?” - I’ve been asked this question many times, sometimes in different flavors, “Should I continue being an IC or should I transition to management?”, or “Should I consider product management?” For a while, I didn’t quite know how to answer them adequately, and it’s only when I had sufficiently diverse experiences and a benefit of hindsight, I was able to connect the dots and develop this framework I wish to share with you.
We will start with the basics, of course, and that’s the biggest question of all. Of all the jobs and careers available to you - according to careerplanner, there are more than 12,000 career options out there - what is it that you should work on? Most people, especially early career professionals, treat this question like they’d treat a question from their school test - having a single answer, and knowing that answer readily based on their prep. Neither is anywhere close to the reality, fortunately. And I say, fortunately, because the quest to discover Northstar, like any journey, is rewarding by itself, irrespective of the destination (or a series of destinations) you may find along the way.
There are several approaches you can try to find out what you’re good at. Ranging from science and psychology based approaches - like a personality test. Ray Dailo’s PrinciplesYou, probably is the best one out there. It’s trying to help you understand yourself, and others, and also help others understand you - this is the foundation of any teamwork. While I do like this test a lot, and find it quite valuable, I do believe that any attempt to put people into “buckets” is doomed to fail for “All people are different people” [Ted Lasso reference]. I’d advocate for complementing it with what I call “Practical Career Experiments” (next section). It’s only when you actually do what you wanted to do, will you realize whether that’s something of a hobby, a gig, or a lifelong passion that could be translated into a rewarding career.
Practical Career Experiments
The problem with a lot of pop culture heroes is that they know exactly what they’re made of, and are able to channel their strengths at the exact opportune moments. Makes for a romanticized fiction, not a career blueprint. Early in your career, you should make a few assumptions about what you’re good at and start on a journey to test out those assumptions. Along the way feel free to (a) revise your assumptions, (b) prune out or at least put on hold some of the options, and most importantly (c) keep an open mind to reevaluate some options you never considered were on the table.
Looking backwards, I’d like to share here some of the examples and lessons from my early career experiments.
Work != Education. In my college, I was fascinated with computer science theory. I tried to read everything there was on the subject, and I really believe it was the pinnacle of human thought. So much so, I decided to pursue a PhD in CS Theory. To get an early start, I enrolled myself in a 6-month internship at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and pursued work in CS theory in the area of automatic theorem proving, and I hated pretty much every minute of it. It turns out, while I enjoyed intellectual knowledge gathering, I didn’t quite enjoy the work that was needed to push the envelope in this area. It felt, well, rather dry. I did an immediate, and rather bold pivot, to pursue a PhD in Computer Architecture.
Good bosses enable you to grow, Best bosses give you wings! By all means, University of Wisconsin is a great school, and Dr. Mark Hill is unquestionably one of the best in the industry ever! When I had the good fortune of pursuing my PhD with Dr. Hill as my advisor, my professional path appeared all but set, until one fateful afternoon in our weekly 1:1s, he asked me, “Bhavesh, have you ever worked outside of a research lab?”. Six months later, I dropped out of my PhD program, taking my MS degree with me, and working at VMware, at that time part of EMC, a 1500 people company, where I started working with some of the smartest brains on the planet, creating magic on the interface of processor and firmware.
Big companies are great “learning playgrounds”!. I started my career at VMware in 2005, and over the 6 years tenure there, I worked on embedded systems, application measurements, advanced technology products, and for 6-months rotation product management. The very first job also teaches you how to effectively work with a diverse set of individuals - not that research environments are not diverse - but with actual money and careers at stake, the complexities are an order of magnitude higher. Needless to say, I learned a lot. A lot about what I’m good at, a lot more about what I’m not good at. And that’s essentially the point - career experiments should feel like a process of elimination. The goal is not to get down to 1, in fact, you should never get down to 1 (else you may risk being obsolete), but a rather relatively smaller set of options that you can further deep dive on.
Startups are fun and games, but also gloom and doom, and everything in between! Right after VMware, after collecting a variety of software building and team building experiences, I was ready (itching!) to enter the startup world of Silicon Valley. Ended up joining ioTurbine which (very) soon got acquired by Fusion-io. About a year later, I joined Springpath, which took a scenic route to acquisition about 5 and half years later. Both the startups look like success on paper, and to a great extent they were - to me. But the path was rarely straight forward. The first startup, ioTurbine had a potential to turn around hardware centric Fusion-io to turn into a subscription software business, and boy did we fail miserably! The product itself had a limited shelf life, and a few years post acquisition, hardly any customer had a need. Tech moves fast! At Springpath, I got an opportunity to build something big, from scratch, many times. Nothing else comes close. Our success in product development was evenly matched with our failures in independent sales. Cisco partnership (and later acquisition) greatly aided the sales efforts. The storage tech climate suddenly turned negative resulting in a steep haircut in acquisition price. Post acquisition, I got an opportunity to bootstrap a team in Bangalore, India, and also refine my management skills to drive velocity in the face of bureaucracy.
Strengths and Weaknesses
As in sports, early in your training/career, you should absolutely work in developing your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses. After you develop a sufficient level of self-awareness about the career path you wish to pursue based on the strengths you’ve identified through “practical career experiments”, it’s time to change the strategy. Minimizing weaknesses now have diminishing returns. Instead, identify opportunities that consistently play to your strengths and double down on them. This not only enables you to do your best work, but also puts you in “flow” like state mentally resulting in an overall happy and fulfilled life.
[Disclaimer: I recognize this approach of experiments assume a certain level of “privilege” and my intention is to guide a process and not imply exclusion. My hope is for every professional to find something here that they can find interesting enough to incorporate in their own journeys.]