North American For Life

Last modified on August 13th, 2009

I had a call yesterday from a good friend of mine who lives overseas. We used to work together in Vancouver, so it was good to catch up. He actually lives in a little small town in the middle of Serbia, a place where glasses of wine go for about 50 cents, and people spend a lot more time hanging out and socializing than over here. Prior to moving to Serbia, my friend lived in both Kelowna and Vancouver.

I spent most of my 20s working 60 hour weeks, all for the promise of that golden carrot. Looking back, I’m thankful I had many of the experiences I ended up having, but regret the amount of time I spent in the office. It’s been about 7 months now since I’ve been out of the daily grind of the workforce, and I can honestly say that things have changed quite a bit since those days, both in terms of my quality of life, and in terms of my happiness.

My eyes first started opening back in 2007. I ended up going on a business trip over to Finland to spend a week working at Nokia, and eventually flew up to a little town called Oulu right in the middle of nowhere. A typical work day at Nokia starts around 8:30am I believe. People arrive all at roughly the same time, then spend the day working, taking a few minutes here and there to grab a coffee (which was about 25% of the size as a North American coffee), and of course, taking 30 minutes or so off at lunch for some food.

At 4:30, most people started to leave the office. By about 4:35, the place was a ghost town. The thing is, if I were to compare how much work people got done during the day there compared to businesses I’ve worked at in North America, I’d have to say the Nokia workers were more dedicated and efficient. I could theorize all I wanted, but they would just be theories. Maybe because they left at 4:30 every day, they spent more time at home relaxing, and ended up more rested. Maybe they had more time for doing things outside with their families, so they came to work looking forward to the day instead of loathing it. Or maybe at the end of the day they realized it’s just a job, and treated it as such. Oh, and vacation in Finland — standard vacations start at six weeks per year. In fact, most companies shut down in July so people can go explore Europe in the summer.

I flew back home from that trip trying to figure out if it was all of North America that was crazy, or just my little corner of it. I’m pretty sure the work ethic everywhere on this continent is pretty messed up.

Looking back, I’d offer the following advice to anywhere entering the workforce for the first time:

  1. Stock options are worthless. Repeat that phrase over and over until you believe it. Everyone wants that big payoff that will set them up for the rest of their lives. Statistically though, it never comes. And in fact, unless you know the management team personally, chances are they’re gonna screw you over anyways when the time comes. I’ve seen it many times in my career — despite promises being made, greed always takes over. Unless you have something in writing that says your options will never be diluted, or that management simply can’t start that golden printing press up whenever they want, your options are always at the mercy of the people above you. In a perfect world you would be able to negotiate some of these terms up front, but as a new grad you have no street credibility to even attempt to ask for these things. So my advice is don’t bother.
  2. Keep your eye on the ball. The best way to get ahead isn’t to kiss ass, it’s to do your job the best you can.
  3. Big companies promote incompetence. You’ll learn this the hard way too. I’ve walked the halls many times at places like Yahoo! and Google, and in general the higher up the food chain you go, the more full of crap the person is. This generally occurs due to the countless numbers of mergers and acquisitions that occur prior to a company getting large (companies try to find a place for that guy who never did anything before, but you know, maybe he’ll do something now), but the end result is a big company that starts to stink because it is rotting from the top down. And unfortunately, the only people doing any work that makes money are the hard working guys and gals at the bottom — that’s right, it’s you. And you can’t promote those people — I mean, somebody has to do the work. So instead, get to know that guy or girl playing solitaire all day next to you — one day soon, you’ll be working for them.
  4. When you do a good job, make sure someone knows. This is a piece of advice I received nearly ten years ago from a guy I was working with, and I think it’s turned out to be great advice. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally popping into work once and a while and fixing something at 10pm, but if you do, make sure someone knows you did. Even if it’s a CC on an email saying “hey, that problem is fixed”, you’ll have a paper trail of you putting in the extra effort, something that always comes in handy during performance reviews or yearly raises.
  5. Get paid what you are worth. If you stop caring about options and the golden carrot, then you can focus on getting paid what you are really worth. I understand many start ups try to pay people with equity (in the form of options or private stock), but I suggest you stay away from that, as per my points above. Something like 95% of all new companies fail, and of those 5% that succeed, none will achieve a big enough home run to make you rich. So live for today instead of tomorrow. And the first step in doing that is to make sure you get paid what you are worth. Even if you negotiated an extra $5,000 a year, that would be almost $80,000 ten years later if you simply tossed it into a high-interest savings account. Know anyone that cashed out over $80k worth of stock options at a company?

I’m not advocating treating every company like a 9-5 job — there’s nothing wrong with loving what you do and putting in the extra mile for the company or their clients. But that extra time should be on your terms, not the company’s. With stock options, there’s always the thought hanging over your head that if you work extra long every day and contribute to the company that the stock will go up accordingly. Unfortunately, the stock rarely tracks the actual progress of the company and is in a lot of cases completely speculative based on other market conditions or whatever massive marketing effort is underway.

Most managers treat time as the only variable they can control. When things go bad, they simply toss more employee man-hours at the problem, which unfortunately doesn’t work very well. In fact, in software engineering I’ve read several reports that show the actual productivity is approximately proportional to the square root of the people involved. So a 16 person team is only twice as productive as a 4 person team, mainly due to the extra burden of communication. If you remove time as a variable that you can change (and instead, base every week on 40 hours), you’ll find that you start to play with other knobs to solve hard problems, things like improving efficiencies and encouraging everyone on your team to come up with outside-the-box solutions.

I’m actually going to start doing a small business series based on my experiences with leaving the 9-9 workforce and venturing out with BraveNewCode. I’ll talk mostly about how things work under the hood, and the things we’ve learned the hard way (such as being penalized by CRA and what-not).