Is Staying at One Company for 20 Years Even an Option?

I stayed at my first company for 12 years. I left that to do consulting, after feeling pretty undervalued. When I told my boss I was leaving, he made an effort to get me to stay, talking to several other department managers to try and find an option that would entice me to stay. I was flattered and very grateful, but in the end, I had already decided to leave, accepted the loss that would result and the excitement of something new. It’s difficult to convince someone to change their mind once they’ve already made a big decision.

Since then I’ve mostly consulted, but have worked full-time. I had visions of being a “lifer” at a recent company because I found the people, individual contributors and management, to be supportive and helpful. Over time that atmosphere changed somewhat, and it I deemed that job as a career dead-end. I accepted that people just don’t stay at jobs for 10+ years, at least not in silicon valley, and companies generally don’t want them to. It’s one of the reasons I originally got into consulting. I don’t pretend to love the company (although I can love my job) and the company doesn’t pretend to love me. Let’s just have some good times while it lasts.

There are typically exceptions; a core group that has been there forever. It seems they’ve been with the company early on, and established a solid role, such that it’s deemed difficult or risky to change. What’s interesting in this article is that this person has stayed at the company for 20 years, but didn’t hire on early in the company’s history, it’s a good-sized company, and it’s in silicon valley. He survived by finding new ways to be valuable, skirting layoffs long enough to get enough experience and exposure to key people, so that he eventually became valued by people who mattered.

A former boss of mine once shared a fictitious story about a couple who was fixing up their house to sell. Once they got done fixing it up, they decided it was a pretty nice house and decided to stay. His message was, instead of trying to find job satisfaction outside the company, try and find that satisfaction within. Find, and to some degree create, the job you want. That’s what the person in this article seems to have done. It’s not always possible, even the manager who told me this eventually left that same company, but it is a message to consider.

This article also focuses on the importance of having a diversified skill set. I’ve read various articles and books that promote becoming a “jack of all trades” versus a single-subject expert. Experts aren’t highly valued unless you’re a really good fit for what the company is trying to do today. It’s pretty specific, and if you’ve honed your skills for a company’s very specific focus, you may have little to offer other companies once that skill is no longer needed. I heard a story from someone who knew (sure they did) an engineer from NASA who specialized in the materials and manufacture of heat shields for the shuttle. When the shuttle program was terminated and he lost his job, he was very skilled in a technology nobody needed. Supposedly, he was pumping gas to make ends meet. This was 25 years ago; pumping gas was actually a job back then.

I like being technical, and like learning new technical things, but I realize that that is somewhat of a dead-end when it comes to career advancement, especially if those skills are not useful outside of that company. To keep growing and “moving up” in a company, I need to learn business and HR skills, how not to always tell people what I think (especially about them), and how to be political. It’s sad, but people are political creatures, and once you leave the world of science and engineering, you need to play that deceitful human game to some degree.

I like to think about engineering, how to design better code, how to be more confident that it works the way it’s expected to, and isn’t harboring a bunch of bugs despite the very limited resources allocated to verifying that. I like to think about how to shorten development time without sacrificing (much) quality. If I continue to invest my time to hone that skill, I won’t be as strong at stroking egos, understanding financials, and other “soft” skills. I have limited time; I have to pick a focus, or at least some balance.

Maybe I’ll start on the business skills side by learning to play golf. One step at a time.

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