By Collin Sebastian
This is an open letter to all the new, aspiring marketing professionals trying to make it in Silicon Valley.
I imagine if this speaks to you, the start of our stories will be very similar. I started my career in my early 20's. Like what seems to be most Silicon Valley residents, I moved to San Francisco, specifically from the East Coast. I made the move via a Kerouac-like cross-country road trip, reading the early 2000's equivalents of TechCrunch, LinkedIn, Quartz, and BusinessInsider, and feeling awe-inspired by the latest list of under-30 millionaires and five-year old startups heading toward multibillion dollar liquidity events. If this at all resonates with you, you're hopefully full of optimism, ambition, and inspiration, as you imagine what it will be like to make it big in San Francisco.
This is not a letter meant to discourage you from how you feel. In fact, this is a letter meant to never forget that sense of wonder and possibility as you write the story of your career.
It's a strange culture you're entering into. You will most certainly be told that the tech industry is the ultimate meritocracy, a proving ground for the best and brightest in our profession. And you will likely be told that in order to survive, you must learn to "fail fast" and outperform your peers.
I'm over a decade into my career now, and I've worked for some of the most profitable companies in the world and have led several startups to highly lucrative liquidity events. Most relevant to you, dear reader: I've hired many, many entry-level professionals, and I've started to notice something: you're being taught that the industry is all about making it on your own - that the weight of your individual accomplishments will almost exclusively determine how successful you are.
I recognize that many of you will thrive in that kind of environment - it's just your nature, and there's nothing wrong with it. But for those of you who will struggle in such an individualistic environment, I thought I'd offer some advice from someone who did, too:
1) Relationships matter: for some reason, nobody ever mentioned this during my four years of college! Yes, your boss will judge you on the quality of your work. But the best leaders in the company, whether C-suite execs or entry-level staffers, build strong relationships with the people around them. It's not just about making friends with the people you naturally click with - it's about learning how to build good relationships and find common ground with people you don't. You have a lot to learn, and you can learn from all over the place. Learn from experience, learn from research, but also learn from those around you - their failures and successes can be just as educational as your own if you really listen. Stories are a powerful medium for education, so please leverage them.
2) Understand what culture really is: having happy hours, a stocked beer fridge, a Ping-Pong table, or unlimited time off - these are all benefits that many startups use to paint a picture of a strong, healthy culture. But when you're assessing a company, look deeper than the perks. How does the team interact? Are they friendly, do they strike you as communicative, do they strike you, simply, as good people? What's your boss like? Will s/he take the time to develop you; will you be given opportunities to try new things; and most importantly, will you learn, not only from experience, but also from those around you? In such a data-driven environment, it seems weird to say, but your instinct on this matters - does it feel right to you? It should be an environment that you can be yourself in - nothing about those four walls of your office should change who you are as a person. If you have to become a different person when you show up to work, your job isn't in technology, it's in acting.
3) Be intentional: don't do something just for the sake of doing it. Don't do something while you're on autopilot. Be cognizant and conscious of how what you're doing impacts the bigger picture, and how it serves the team. I'm a marketer, and I see far too many younger professionals recycle the same jargon and clichés ("game-changing" and "disruptive" are two that come to mind - on that note, technology that disrupts the work environment doesn't seem all that appealing to me. I used to refer to Comcast Internet as "disruptive" technology). If you ever want to lead a company, you need to learn to think strategically, and in order to do that, you have to be very aware of the "why."
4) Have empathy: regardless of whether you’re an engineer, product manager, marketer, or sales guy, you're ultimately building something that serves an end-user, and that user's story and experience are incredibly important. Empathy for that story is even more so. Empathy for your colleagues, is perhaps the most important. Companies aren't made or broken on the back of a single person. As hokey as it may sound, the team's success is what will win the game. Having empathy for your colleagues helps you be a better friend when they fail; it helps you stay focused on solving the problem instead of focusing on assigning blame. I also think that it just generally makes the world a better place.
5) Find a mentor: the best lessons I ever learned were from mine, and it's a relationship that's all-to-often undervalued in the individual-driven meritocracy of Silicon Valley. I get my intellectual butt kicked every day by trusted mentors who have more experience than I do and are just flat-out smarter than I am. Being challenged by them makes me better, both at what I do, and as a person. You would be amazed how beneficial it can be just to have someone exponentially smarter than you who's invested in your success.
6) Finally, please don't forget that feeling of hope and wonder. If Silicon Valley teaches you anything, it's that everything is possible. If Silicon Valley fails to teach you one thing, it's that you can't do it alone.
The starts of our stories may be similar, but regardless of whether they progress through the same arc, I do hope they ultimately share a very happy ending.
Good luck, dear reader, in this new adventure. It will be hard, but it will be worth it. And perhaps instead of the "fail fast" meritocracy, you can be a part of a shift in our culture toward a "learn constantly, fail productively, succeed fast" community.