Monday, May 9, 2011

Keep swimming or die

Tonight we had two Silicon Valley veterans come talk to SJSU business honors students about how to maintain and develop their careers. Last fall, I heard these same speakers — Matt Ready (BSBA, San Jose State) and Steve Erickson (BSEE, New Mexico State) — give solid advice on building a startup management team.

Both speakers emphasized to the graduating seniors the importance of (as Matt said), being a “self-motivated team player that will be a leader rather than a follower.” Or as Steve said, “If you show initiative, you will be rewarded with more work and more responsibility.”

The lessons of high-performance SV tech companies resonated with my own experience in San Diego-area tech companies.

The culmination was Matt’s observation that “once you're in your comfort zone, you’re stagnant.” His signs of being stagnant:

  • “only doing what is asked of you”
  • “not learning anything new”
  • “no initiative to help others outside your job scope”
He advised students: "make sure you're leaning forward, not sitting back.”

Two of my older management honors students offered related observations. One said it‘s time to leave when you dread going to work. The other said that if you try to solve a problem of the company, it will be recognized in a future round of promotions or layoffs.

Together, the speakers supported two of our faculty insights from last week regarding the nature of Silicon Valley — its dynamism and the vibrant corporate culture of the most successful firms. Or as Matt said, “the dynamic in this valley is change.”

To which Steve added two pieces of advice to students: “Those that adapt to change quicker will move up quicker” and that students should "pick the opportunity that fits you: you have to like what you do."

This resonated not only with our faculty discussion last week, but also with my own career. This philosophy described my first decade of work experience, before I started my own company — including the restlessness that caused me to quit a good well-paying job because I felt blocked for promotion.

This also brings to mind the familiar metaphor that “Sharks have to keep moving forward or else they will die.” Apparently this is not strictly true*, but it does capture the image of a restless, ambitious innovator who seeks continuous improvement.

Or, as the old HP ad campaign claimed: “We never stop asking ‘What if?’ ”

* Apparently some sharks must swim forward or they will drown, while others can breath just fine.

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