How to (and How Not to) Measure Value in Opportunities

My colleague T.K. Coleman says “If you want to be a developer at Google, don’t go be a developer for another company. Build your development portfolio on the side and do anything you can to get in with Google, even if it means sweeping the floors.”

There are two reasons why this is a valuable approach to take:

  1. It allows you to build relationships within the company. People hire and promote people they know and enjoy working with. The stronger your network, the stronger your potential for opportunity. In most cases this is a direct correlation.
  2. It allows you to better understand the company. When you’re on the inside, you’re constantly learning — about how the company functions, about the company’s philosophy and ideas, and ultimately, about its opportunities (which is what you’ll need to capitalize on in order to grow).

Here’s the key to this whole philosophy, though — sweeping the floors at Google isn’t just about doing time until you earn a spot on the development team (which in and of itself is a circuitous process, and will likely take a number of jumps from role to role before you make it to your final destination as a developer).

This is so important I’m going to say it twice — it’s not just about doing time.

Again, there are two important reasons why:

  1. “Doing time” implies that, if you fulfill your time commitment, there’s a guaranteed end result, which there’s not (you have to earn this stuff!)
  2. It implies that there’s only a payoff if you fulfill your time commitment and land the full-time offer. It implies you’re only getting something of value of you get the end result you’re looking for — and that’s a deeply limiting thing to believe.

Here’s the thing: both parties in this relationship are free agents, and that limits the potential for guarantees. There are so many variables at play. You might not do anything beyond sweeping floors to get attention, and therefore never open up opportunities for growth. Google might not need you. Google might have needs, but you might not be a good fit. You might sweep floors for six months (or even work your way up into a customer success or support position) and then realize that you don’t want to be a developer after all, or that you actually want to be a developer at a different company.

But, more importantly, this is a limited (and limiting!) mindset. It’s only counting the end result as a worthwhile measure of value — when really, that end result is a small piece of a very big puzzle, and a single source of value (out of a large number of sources).

Think about it: if you sweep the floors for six months and realize you don’t want to be someone else’s employee, but rather start your own company, is that wasted time?

It is if you only measure the value of outcomes based on a success/failure metric. You didn’t get the developer role you were shooting for. You failed.

But there are so many other forms of value you’re overlooking. In this scenario, you’re smarter than you were before. You have a better picture of how you want to move through life, and the things you want to be building. You’re better off (and better equipped for success) than you were six months prior when you started sweeping floors.

Might, then, this also fairly be measured as a success?

Even if you get let go (i.e. the opportunity ends, and it’s not on your terms), it can still be chalked up as a success. Maybe after six months Google goes through restructuring and lets go all of its floor sweepers. Might that also be measured as a success? You may not have landed an opportunity, but you have a better understanding about how a company like Google is structured internally. You’ve learned more about tech startups by being immersed in one. And you have some experience under your belt. You’re still better off than you were before you started.

Rather than thinking about success in terms of outcome, think about it in terms of internal value. If you’re smarter, or stronger, or faster, or more competent, or more skilled than you were before you started (even if it isn’t in the ways you initially intended) if you’re measurably different in a positive direction than you were when you started, then value has been derived from the experience.

This is a valuable way to analyze past experiences, but it’s also a valuable way of analyzing the opportunities in front of you.

I did an interview last week with Isaac Morehouse for his new podcast Career Crashers (episode should be releasing this week or next, so link coming soon). In the interview, we talked about my journey from college opt-out to career coach at Praxis — how I decided not to go to college in the first place, and how I built my way up to becoming the Apprenticeship Advisor and Community Manager at Praxis.

One of the points we talked about was my journey from intern (how I started working at Praxis in the first place) to full-time employee. The journey was a slow one — it took more than a year for me to ultimately land a full-time role. This is, in part, one of the realities of setting your sights on a small startup. The keyword in the last sentence is small — the staff isn’t substantial, opportunities are limited, and bringing on a new team member is a big deal (and a big investment). It isn’t something that’s done lightly, nor often.

I worked as an intern — and then as a contractor — for a long time before I was brought on into a full-time position, and throughout, the guarantees of a potential role were tenuous., and purely speculative I was never guaranteed a full-time offer, and it certainly wasn’t my reason for staying. I wasn’t busy holding out for a full-time offer. I was learning and growing in the role I was in.

Of course, I wanted the full-time position, so I could spend all of my time doing the work I loved. But the full-time role was never a measure of success in what I was doing. I was working for Praxis because it afforded me the opportunity to grow in ways I wanted to grow, gain experience working at a startup, gain proficiency and aptitude as an educator and a coach, be around my favorite thinkers writing about the alternative education space, and become a better and stronger employee and person. If things had turned out differently and I’d never ended up working full-time with Praxis, it still would’ve been time well spent, because it made me as an individual better.

Titles are an easy proxy for measuring value — that’s part of why we crave them. It’s a good thing to covet specific roles and jobs, especially as you grow in your career. But when you’re building towards something — especially if you’re in the early stages of your career, and have lots and lots of room to figure things out — don’t limit yourself by measuring the value of an opportunity based only on outcome, and don’t be afraid of taking a circuitous route to get you where you want to go.

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