Career Advice

Treat Your Career Like You Are Surfing

In business, particularly in high tech, it’s not enough to be great at what you do, you have to catch at least one really big wave and ride it all the way in to shore. When people are right out of school, they tend to prioritize company first, then job, then industry. But at this point in their career that is exactly the wrong order. The right industry is paramount, because while you will likely switch companies several times in your career, it is much harder to switch industries. Think of the industry as the place you surf and the company as the wave you catch. You always want to be in the place with the biggest and best waves.

If you choose the wrong company or you have bad luck with an aggro boss who drops in on your first wave, you’ll still be in terrific shape if you’re surfing in an industry with big waves. Conversely, if you choose the wrong industry early in your career, then growth opportunities within your company will be limited. Your boss won’t move, and you’ll be stuck without much leverage when you’re ready to look for jobs at other companies.

Fortunately, the tectonic forces driving the Internet Century mean that A LOT of industries are great places to surf. It’s not just the Internet companies that have a big upside, but also energy, pharmaceuticals, high-tech manufacturing, advertising, media, entertainment, and consumer electronics. The most interesting industries are those where product cycle times are accelerating, because this creates more chances for disruption and so more opportunities for fresh talent. But even businesses like energy and pharmaceuticals, where product cycle times are long, are ripe for massive transformation and opportunity.

From a compensation standpoint, stock options and other forms of equity are quite limited early in your career, so it’s more lucrative to develop expertise in the right industry than to bet on a particular company. Later, as you gain experience, it becomes more important to pick the right wave. At that point you can start to earn compensation packages with much more equity, so the priority flips.

Always Listen for Those Who Get Technology

After you pick the industry, then it’s time to pick the company. When you do, listen for the people who truly get technology. These are the genius-level smart creatives who see, before the rest of us, where technology is going and how it will transform industries. Bill Gates and Paul Allen saw that chips and computers were getting cheap and that software would be the key to the future of computing, so they started Microsoft. Chad Hurley saw that cheap video cameras, bandwidth, and storage would transform how video entertainment is created and consumed, so he cofounded YouTube. Reid Hoffman knew that the connecting power of the web would be vital to professionals, so he started LinkedIn. Marc Benioff believed that powerful software would live in the cloud, so he based on that principle and didn’t waver during the dot-com meltdown. Steve Jobs foresaw computers as consumer accessories and it took over two decades for the technology and market to catch up to him.

These are the famous examples, but there are many others, people who may not be as well-known but brim with insights. These are the ones navigating the best waves in the best places. Find them, hook in, and hang on.

Plan Your Career

Career development takes effort and forethought—you need to plan it. This is such an obvious point, yet it’s astonishing how many people fail to do it. Here are some simple steps to creating a plan:

Think about your ideal job, not today but five years from now. Where do you want to be? What do you want to do? How much do you want to make? Write down the job description: If you saw this job on a website, what would the posting look like? Now fast forward four or five years and assume you are in that job. What does your five-years-from-now resume look like? What’s the path you took from now to then to get to your best place?

Keep thinking about that ideal job and assess your strengths and weaknesses in light of it. What do you need to improve to get there? This step requires external input, so talk to your manager or peers and get their take on it. Finally, how will you get there? What training do you need? What work experience?

By the way, if your conclusion is that you are ready for your ideal job today, then you aren’t thinking big enough. Start over and make that ideal job a stretch, not a gimme.

If you follow these steps, it will work. If you don’t follow them, you will likely prove Yogi Berra’s point that “You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going ‘cause you might not get there.”

Statistics is the New Plastics

Stats are sexy. Deal with it. The sexiest jobs in the Internet Century will involve statistics, and not just in a parallel geeky fantasy world. Hal Varian notes that it is always a good idea for individuals to build expertise in areas that complement things that are getting cheap, and data, along with computing power to crunch it, is definitely getting cheap. We are in the era of big data, and big data needs statisticians to make sense of it. The democratization of data means that those who can analyze it well will win. Data is the sword of the twenty-first century, those that wield it well, the samurai.

“But I’m not a numbers person!” Don’t worry, there is hope. Asking the questions and interpreting the answers is as important a skill as coming up with the answers themselves. No matter your business, learn how the right data, crunched the right way, will help you make better decisions. Learn which questions to ask the people who are good with numbers and how to make the best use of their replies. Even if you aren’t a numbers person, you can learn how to use the numbers to get smarter.


The web has a lot of written information, and while much of it is drivel, there is a lot of great stuff too. Figure out how to use the various tools at your disposal to tap into the sites and authors you respect. Create circles of other like-minded smart people and swap books and articles. One of the best, easiest ways to get ahead in a field is to know more about it. The best way to do that is to read. People always say they don’t have the time to read, but what they are really saying is that they aren’t making it a priority to learn as much as they can about their business. You know who reads a lot about their business? CEOs. So think like a CEO and read.

Know Your Elevator Pitch

Let’s say you run into your manager’s manager in the hallway and she asks you what you’re working on. Heck, let’s make it the CEO. What do you say? This isn’t a rhetorical question—try it out right now, out loud. Go ahead—you have 30 seconds.

Ugh, that didn’t sound great. You obviously haven’t practiced your elevator pitch. Work on it. Your pitch should explain what you are working on, the technical insight that’s driving it, how you are measuring your success (particularly customer benefit), and perhaps how it fits into the big picture. Know this and practice it so you can say it with conviction.

Job seekers should also have an elevator pitch. This shouldn’t be a condensed version of your resume, but should rather highlight its most interesting parts along with what you want to do and the impact you know you will have—the benefit to the customer and the company. What can you say that no one else can?

Go Abroad

Business, regardless of size or scope, is forever, permanently global, while humans are naturally provincial. So it doesn’t matter where you are or where you came from, get out of there whenever you have the chance. Go live and work somewhere else. If you’re at a big company, seek the international assignments. Your managers will love you for it, and you’ll be a much more valuable employee as a result.

If working overseas isn’t an option, then travel, and when you are out and about don’t forget to see the world as your customers do. If you’re in retail, walk through a store or two. If you’re in media, pick up a paper or turn on the radio. It’s amazing how often people come back from business trips to foreign lands with insights gleaned solely from their conversation with the taxi driver who took them from the airport to the hotel. If those drivers only knew how much power they have in shaping global business strategy!

Combine Passion with Contribution

Sheryl Sandberg said, “It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.” She couldn’t be more right. You will not be as successful as you could be if you only like what you do and don’t love it. Trite, perhaps, but true. Sheryl is also right in saying that combining passion and contribution is a luxury: not that it’s expensive, but just rare. It’s something that many people either can’t figure out (how many people truly know their passion at the outset of their careers?) or can’t afford (you may love whittling garden gnomes, but the world loves engineers and your spouse and children love a regular paycheck).

That’s why Eric and Jon make this their last career point and not first. Finding your passion isn’t always simple. Perhaps when you were starting out you were just happy to find a job, regardless of your passion. Then as your career progresses you find that it’s not the rocket ship you expected it to be. Perhaps you haven’t nailed both sides of the passion/contribution equation.

You could drop everything and start over. Or you could take a more deliberate approach. Adjust your course. Make your five-years-out ideal job closer to your “if-only-I-could” dream job, yet attainable from your current path. This simple act of setting the right goal can turn around people’s careers.