Saturday, November 20, 2010

What the Average Person Doesn't Understand About High Paying Jobs

All this money that Google is throwing at their top people to make sure they don't go to Facebook has got me thinking.  The latest story is that Google offered one of its employees $6 million to stay.  Two things in particular have been crossing my mind: what kind of people get the good jobs in big corporations and what the superstars are really worth.

1.  People who get high paying jobs in big corporations
I remember back in university when I started my job search in my last year.  It was September, and I was to graduate the following April.  A good 8 months to find a job.  I applied to a bunch of companies.  In particular, I applied to a bunch of leadership development programs in various respected companies.  These are the programs where you bring in the cream of the crop from the next generation, and put them through a special career schedule that readies them for a management position in 2 to 5 years.  I also applied for interesting high-growth opportunities in smaller companies where I felt pull (i.e. they wanted me and it excited me).  I ended up getting 2 job offers, and took the one that excited me the most.  What interested me through the whole process watching my peers go through the same thing.

I know a lot of people who really want to get good jobs at big companies, but I think they don't understand several things.  This next sentence is going to sound bad.  It will sound mean.  But it will be the truth.  Frankly, looking at most people I know who want to work for big companies but don't, these people aren't cut out for big companies.  They don't work hard enough, they're not smart or creative enough, and they don't have enough mental toughness.  They only see the nice pay, benefits, and fancy reputations.  They don't see the ugly stuff from the outside.  If they did, maybe they would realize they're not a good fit.

Working Hard Enough
The work can be a tough grind, the hours can be long, and you'll be lucky to get OT pay for your efforts.  Normally, you get paid a salary by the year, not a wage by the hour.  This is made up for if you can get a nice bonus based on personal and corporate performance.  And if you can participate in a share plan or get share options.  But the fact is, getting OT pay isn't a normally expected thing (flex days are a different matter, depending on the company).  If you get put on a fantastic, high-profile, strategic project?  Hey, that's every corporate junkie's dream.  You can put something amazing on your track record, get recommendations galore, and make a real difference.  But then you also need to expect to put in 60 to 80 hour weeks.  I've been there.  The people who expect to do 9 to 5 with some water cooler chat can't hack it.  I've seen those people wither and die.  They can't pull their own weight.  And then they have to be kicked off because they're too much a risk to the project.  It's not pretty.  And if you're not working on a special project, but you still need to pull 60 hour weeks to get everything done?  Poor you.  Wah wah wah.  Get it done.  What do you think you're getting paid for?

Being Smart and Creative Enough
Update:  I want to be clear after some initial feedback that this section is not referring to innovation or product development creativity.  It is referring to having the intelligence and creativity to deal with crappy problems that can only exist in big companies, problems that should never exist in the first place.  Anyone who reads what I write will know my thoughts on creativity in big successful companies.  In fact, this entire post is just to demonstrate that the grass is greener on the other side.

You have to be smart to have a good job in a big company.  This isn't because the job requires intelligent or creative people.  Often enough, the job itself requires very little intelligence or creativity.  My friend at Google says with a hint of honesty that he and his co-workers feel like they are just janitors.  But this same friend interviewed an MIT PhD (everyone participates in interviews at Google) and rejected that guy for not being able to demonstrate a good level of intelligence.  I've been on both sides; I've rejected people and I've been rejected by people.  It always boiled down to level of potential that was demonstrated in the interview.  What is this person's potential to make a positive impact?  What is this person's potential to consistently deliver quality work?  What is this person's potential to rise in the company?  A new hire candidate needs to demonstrate potential in all of these areas to be seriously considered, and that requires intelligence and creativity.  Doing the work described in your job description is easy.  Everyone can do that, it's what they trained to do for many years.  Some jobs may have required more intellectually difficult training (chemical engineer) than others (insurance sales).  That doesn't matter, you need to compare yourself with people who have the same training.  Going above and beyond your job description is what differentiates you from the herd, and that's hard.

Intelligence and creativity are required when you're faced with a difficult and unexpected situation, and you need to make good decisions on the fly.  When there's risky groupthink, and someone needs to be able to step back, see the big picture, and convince the group that they're going down the wrong path.  When nobody agrees on anything, everyone has different opinions and data, and someone needs to have a light bulb moment that will identify the truth.  When the instructions and corporate strategy from above you are just plain wrong, and you need to figure out a solution that still meets the corporate goals without breaking the core strategy.  When a customer is complaining about something that is actually the customer's fault, the company has no ability or resources to fix the problem at hand, and management demands that the customer be satisfied because this customer in particular is really important.  Average people can't solve these problems on the fly, and ironically enough, these problems won't be listed in any job description for any job posting.

Having Enough Mental Toughness
Work in a big company can get ugly.  People build their fiefdoms and fight each other over capital budgets, resources, and visibility in the race to get to the top.  Or in particularly brutal and large organizations, just to survive and keep their jobs.  There are lots of reasons why large organizations are dysfunctional, but that's not important for this discussion; the important fact is that they generally are dysfunctional.  And to survive that environment, you need to demonstrate a particular mental toughness.  If you're lucky, you'll have a good manager who shields you from all the crap.  If you're not so lucky, you'll get to experience it all firsthand.  I have friends who even cried from just being blasted by a VP or director level person through email.  The successful ones could pick themselves up and get back at it.  The unsuccessful ones quit if they weren't somehow fired.  And the more you get promoted, the more you'll be right in the middle of it all.  This side of an organization can be hidden if things are going well; it will just happen behind the scenes at a higher level.  But if things are going poorly, you will experience hell.  But if you're a prodigy, you can control all the drama so that you're the calming influence to whom everyone will listen.  That kind of employee is worth their weight in gold.  I've both been that employee and not been that employee.  When you're not that employee, you are contributing to disaster in high pressure situations.

So people who dream about working a good job in a big corporation need to ask themselves these three things.  Do I work hard enough to take the grind?  Am I smart enough to figure out a solution for any problem?  Am I mentally tough enough to take any criticism and drama that comes my way?  If you are, chances are you'd be working for a big company already if you really wanted.  So if you're not yet working at a big company but you really want to, take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself these questions again.  Even in crappy economies, the truly good people will always have jobs.  Perhaps it's better to say that in crappy economies, only the truly good people will have jobs.

2.  The Superstars
In every company, you'll have your normal high quality people, and you'll have your superstars.  That $6 million offer isn't something that Google would give everyone.  It would have to be a really elite employee, although rumors say that this time it has to do with the employee being a female engineer.  Even if her gender was the catalyst for such a high offer, we can safely presume that if she weren't worth it, she wouldn't be getting the money.  Also consider that Facebook is trying to raid the cream of the crop from Google, so there's a second reason why we can presume she's pretty good at what she does.  So all things considered, is she really worth $6 million?

If she's a top 1% engineer, and a scarce female top 1% engineer at that, why not?  Let's put this into perspective.  How much do the top 1% athletes in this world make?  Millions.  How much do the top 1% musicians in this world make?  Millions.  How much do the top 1% salespeople in this world make?  Millions.  Top 1% real estate agents?  Top 1% academic researchers?  Top 1% authors?  Top 1% fashion designers?  Top 1% playwrights?  Top 1% chefs?  Top 1% journalists?  Even if some of these people don't make millions directly from their jobs, their jobs are the key to enabling them to have patents, book deals, etc, whereby they can get their millions.  And if these top 1% people can get millions, then why can't top 1% engineers?

I think people need to think about how hard it is to get a top 1% person.  Especially at Google, where a bottom 1% employee would likely be considered a top 1% employee at any smaller company.  The case is even more so at Facebook, who is trying to raid all the superstars from Google.  These people are scarce because there are so few of them.  And just like the Vancouver Whitecaps would never even consider me to play soccer for them, big companies are in search of those people who can make them better, not drag them down.  That means you have to be just as good as everyone already in the company, if not better.  And if you want to make the truly big money, you need to be top 1%.

But while finding a top 1% person is hard, becoming a top 1% person is just as hard.  It's easy to be great, but it's hard to be consistent.  The more you get paid, the more you're expected to deliver something amazing day in and day out.  Even lower level people are expected to deliver quality day in and day out.  It's why you get paid.  This never hit home harder for me than when I was working for the Olympics in Vancouver and received some feedback from the same senior guy who had interviewed me.  I was the youngest venue technology manager hired by far, and we were having a conversation about my reassignment to another venue.  He said when they hired me, they believed that I would be either amazing or a disaster, but that it turned out I was neither.  I was simply good enough to do what needed to be done so far, but I still had a lot to prove.  That conversation really opened my eyes.  I thought I was doing amazing.  To be told that I was just average made me realize how hard it was to be amazing in any context.  I still have that feeling today.  It's hard enough to be amazing, but it's much harder to be consistently amazing.

Watching at home on TV, we scream when a multi-million dollar athlete doesn't score points every single night to win our hometown team a championship.  And while we may not scream if the lowest paid player on the team doesn't score points, we do scream when the lowest paid player makes mistakes that cost us the game.  The highest paid people are paid to be consistently amazing, but even the lowest paid people are paid to be consistently reliable, if not amazing.  This goes for both professional sports and any corporation.  And as mentioned before, the problems that everyone faces in a big company aren't easy problems.  So while they might bring in the top 1% guy when things are in flames, they're depending on you to not screw it up to that point first.  If you experience difficulty and crap, you need to suck it up, because you're not volunteering your time; you're getting paid.  You can get all starry-eyed when you hear about the top 1% employee's new offer, but have some humility to remember why you're not that person right now, what you need to do to become that person, and that you have your own job to do right now.

I think that the attitude that many people have about working in big companies can be summarized by a LinkedIn status update I saw recently, written by Marcin Janowski:
"There are two kinds of people: those who want to go work for a company to make it successful, and those who want to go work for a successful company." I'm proud to be the former.
If you're not yet working for a big company but want to, this is probably what separates you from those people who got in.

Now of course, there is a separate set of people that is even above the top 1%.  These are the guys who have what it takes to be the top 1%, but choose to blaze their own path.  Some call them revolutionaries.  Some call them hackers.  They eventually become entrepreneurs.  These are the guys who aren't satisfied with how things are, turn our world upside down, and create a better new world in the process.  They take risks that corporate junkies would never imagine taking.  The sad thing is that there are too many people who think that they are better than they are, and not enough people who believe in themselves as much as they should.  In which group do you belong?  Having tried to go this route myself before, even though I could never be considered a top 1% guy (maybe a top 10%), I can testify that it's crazy risky.  The venture world is truly a meritocracy, and maybe that's what makes it so alluring: the opportunity to develop and prove that you are more than a job description.  Eventually, being a top guy in the corporate world is too bureaucratic, political, and constraining.  One might even argue dehumanizing.  But the average person on the outside looking in wouldn't understand this.


  1. A terrific post. What I needed to hear.

  2. You don't know who is not a top 1% person. You do know who is, but you don't know who's not.

  3. That's true, but nobody ever gets paid the big bucks compared to their peers until they prove themselves first.

  4. For a long time I didn't read such long blog post from beginning to the end. Wow, thanks!

  5. Sad post, if everyone has to be amazing to work for a company than the majority doesn't get hired. If you can prove yourself to be special you don't need to work for someone else.

    What I find particularly sad is a belief in absolutes. Sometimes you can just marry the daughter of an owner. Sometimes you may just have the right friends in right places. Sometimes is usually most of the time, its the outsiders who have to be exceptional to get in.

  6. I haven't really seen a good correlation between the pay and value at the top levels. Good engineers versus mediocre engineers, yes. But the great guy who makes $250k versus the great guy who gets a $3m retention? Often that has more to do with politics and situational good fortune than hard work, intelligence, etc.

    Who in management is willing to go to bat to get him that $3m offer? You usually need a champion or two. What exact skills does he have? It's best if you hit the right skill at the right time, becoming great at something just as it explodes, which is often as much luck as foresight. What competitors are trying to hire him away? It's best if they have a strong need for his particular skills at this moment, deep VC pockets, and perhaps a bit of desperation. You can add on more factors.

    Sometimes it really is a superstar. But in my experience it's more often situational and sometimes political, and it's very hard to plan to get yourself in that position. Sometimes you end up holding all the cards, and that's when you get the huge jackpot, because all the factors aligned: management champion, desperate competitor, exactly the hot skill that's hard to hire in right now, etc. You can try to predict all those things, but it's rare to get it right, though you can raise your chances over a career by making educated guesses.

  7. An excellent, thought provoking post. Really liked the analogies and your thoughts on the difference between amazing and consistently amazing. keep up the good work.


  8. @lushfun: Of course the majority don't get hired. These guys aren't interested in mediocre people. That's why there are so many rejections, even if there are a lot of spots open. I'd be part of teams where we'd regularly reject intelligent hard workers because we didn't think they had what it took. It's sad, but it's true.

    Yes, sometimes you can marry the daughter of a really senior level guy, director, or major shareholder. But let's be realistic. There are only so many single daughters of senior level guys, directors, and major shareholders out there. The vast majority cannot go this route.

    Agreed with Anonymous that the stars need to be aligned to get an exceptional payday. This $6 million is obviously one example. But a $1 million payday may not be so exceptional, only rational, so the stars wouldn't necessarily need to be as aligned.

  9. I work at a large company with many people that have the degrees and years of experience and will put in the hours for the job, but I do not think that they are really contributing to the success of the company. I think that when a company reaches a certain size (large), it just becomes hard to fill the seats with enough really motivated people. These B-team employees will do the drudge work for their whole careers and be fine and the company seems OK with that. I haven't worked at a small company, but I would hope that since the teams are smaller and need to be more cross-functional, that you'd get a better crop. I could be wrong about that though.

    On a side note, the economic downturn was a good excuse to weed out the C-team and a bunch of the B-team and move more of the B-level work offshore, but I don't think large companies are ever going to completely get rid of the people just looking for a stable career/paycheck.

  10. I am calling most of this BS, as some one who has worked at Google this post is consistently wrong.

  11. Simple truth behind all those words is:
    Believing that you are one of the best is allways wrong.

    #1 Simply because most successfull people believe they're not successfull. So they pull and push harder.

    #2 At a glance, we can say that estimating your own skills needs reasonable skills too. So, to estimate, if you're over- or underqualified for a job position needs more thought than expected.

    #3 Most believe they're the unique and untoppable. *Like I do* hahah :P *joking*, but honestly it's not that easy. Let's keep improving ourself and look if we fit into this world a decade later.

    cheers & beers

  12. I agree with Anonymous.

  13. As Anonymous #2 I also agree with Anonymous. I've had the same experience and still work there. 60-80 hours stuff is funny. If i had to work that with no added benefit I'd not be working here. THERE IS LIFE OUTSIDE WORK PEOPLE AND EVEN GOOGLE KNOWS THAT.

  14. Intelligence has nothing to do with income to a point. There's plenty of studies out there to back up that statement. In extreme cases it can have a negative.

    I know plenty of highly intelligent people who get passed by because they can't relate to regular people. Life is about being liked, not being the smartest.

  15. So when you said "large corporations", does that mean just software companies or include financial firms as well? I am working for a very large financial firm and I can tell you that being on the top is not always a pleasant experience.

  16. I don't know man. I worked at these big companies for years. The bigger they are the stupider the management and other employees are. Big companies attract big dullards and eventually are colonized by them. Eventually I gave up and founded my own company. The result was my efforts aren't wasted, product design and customer service is paramount, and I make 8 figures, which has always been my economic worth.

    If you are hot stuff, found a company and kick your competition's ass. If you can't do that, you weren't ever worth much.

    Big brand name companies are bastions of mediocrity and politics.

  17. This is probably the best blog post I've ever read. I'm going to re-read it every time I get bogged down in the corporate mire :-)

    I'm one of the 1% guys, and have been consistently over the past 20 years, but I still haven't seen the big payday yet. There's an ego/marketing component to the process that I still haven't mastered.

    I've helped a handful of people become extremely rich, but I have never marketed myself well enough to become one of the guys that shares in the big payout. I've gone the entrepreneur route a couple of times, but the ego thing makes that a bad fit, too.

    The thing that keeps me going is that I've mentored a lot of people over the years, and had a strong positive impact on their lives and careers, They have had a big, positive impact on mine as well. It doesn't pay the rent, but it does bring a whole different kind of contentment.

    I'd love to have a big bag of money so I could pay folks to help implement all the ideas floating around in my head, but so would the other 99% of the people :-)

  18. From someone who worked for big companies for about 15 years, very entertaining read and I would agree with mostly everything.
    Amount of politics and fight for the top 1% spot varies, but I definitely met more than enough people who could never, ever be successful in a corporate setting. I was thinking it's their inability to blend in that made their actions seem stupid and out of line, leading to a quick divorce, but your points are valid - not everybody can tolerate the pressure and grind.
    And also not everyone can act as part of a team - seen some of the brightest solo engineers who were just complete disasters (100% code reverted & person fired) in a team project.

  19. I think your assumption that the "big companies" are where all the best people want to work is mistaken. If you think about it, big companies start out as small companies, and small companies would not become big companies unless they had very talented employees.

    Also, the assumption that any great software developer would want to work for Google or Facebook is wrong. Both of these are somewhat ethically challenged companies whose major profits come from selling advertising, or from selling information about their users. Some of us would rather work elsewhere.

  20. Great post. But frankly, people, if you want to be successful, be successful to something that is worth it.
    Cure cancer. Open the eyes of a child. Make safer cars. Sell good stuff without lying....

    but if you're working 60-80 hours per week just for a big title, a big watch or a boat, you're utterly stupid -- and I don't want to work with whoever hires you.

  21. I agree with Scott. My experience is that big companies are often bastions of competent incompetence.

    Other than that, yes it's a jungle out there, always has been, probably always will be.

  22. Hahaha. It sounds like my corrupt, dehumanizing and inert law firm. That's one of two reasons why I left, the other being that I desperately wanted to return home permanently. I have to say though that I learned more about human relations at the firm than I ever did at my previous places. If you can survive a law firm environment, you can survive in any organization. I managed to resign after putting in my dues for one year and two months. Most people don't make the one-year mark.

  23. Working in a large company is easy if you have people skills and learn what the organization truly values from employees. Generally speaking, keep your nose clean and don't pick fights. Find friends. Don't antagonize.

    The easiest time I've ever had has been in a big company. It's far easier than a startup, but you're a soulless tool of the man.

  24. Sounds like propaganda. Some people are going to be in the 1% and most are not.

  25. Interesting post.

    It's important to note however that when you're going on about the top 1%, it's a bit of a tautology.

    A lot of those you list are in the "top 1%" based on how much money they earn.

    Just for example: musicians. The top 1% you are thinking of (pop stars) are in the top 1% of record you're essentially saying "The top 1% of money earners earn big money!" which is silly.

    Whether those people are actually in the top 1% based on skill or artistry is highly arguable, and I would say there are at least a few who definitely are not.

  26. He nails it. If you dont believe it, you are in the B team or worse. Sorry.

    A subtle hint: The people just below the rank of VP are the most dangerous in any company: They want the brass ring. They don't yet have the moral responsibility to that comes with it.

    It's this lot and their hangers on that are the most dangerous, everywhere.

  27. For the Googlers, I will agree that Google is special. However, I think it would be naive to say that Google doesn't experience any of this.

    I have a couple of friends who work at Google, especially a particularly close one; while they will passionately argue why Google is best in class, they're also objective enough to admit where Google is succumbing to some of this stuff. As an organization grows larger, it naturally experiences problems that didn't exist when the organization was smaller.

    There are some excellent blog posts on the subject as well:

    Please note this isn't out of disrespect for Google. It's just an observation that they're probably starting to experience what every large corporation experiences. Fortunately for Google employees, Google REALLY makes it worth one's while, even for junior-level employees.

  28. Oh please. The majority of people in big companies do little more than sitting in meetings and playing politics. If you're hard working and creative, you'll be looking for start ups.

  29. I don't get it. Does nobody read anymore? All of you guys talking about startups and smaller high growth companies need to read this again. Especially my last paragraph.

    That being said, it's true that the majority of people in big companies don't add significant value. But they do add value. They're the grinders that need to be consistently reliable. They may not score the big goals, but they do prevent the other team from scoring.

    Regarding the top 1% that add the significant value, if you think they don't exist in big companies, you don't have much experience in the top echelon. If they didn't exist, then publicly traded corporations would never turn a profit.

    Most people who know what they're doing in startups also understand that the end game is an exit. More often than not, that means an acquisition by a big company these days. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

  30. Unfortunately, I have spent way too much time of my life working on an incredible platform for a certain business, which helped them survive, and get a lot of business.
    I was never recognized (well hardly), did not get any monetary compensation, and wasn't even promoted, as there was nothing to promote to. The last thing is exactly the single biggest problem:
    * The company is relatively small (40 empl.)
    * The company is old (64 years)
    * There was just 1 IT manager, who did understand the potential, but he didn't have a budget nor people to manage
    * Management were all non-it savvy, and doesn't understand e-business

  31. The super class is a strange sort of system of intellectual and emotional nepotism. You are not rewarded for being good. You are rewarded for talking-the-talk and looking the part.

    You need to spout the type of stuff in this post in order to be "of merit".

    Big companies are safe havens for mediocrity and pay-for-failure--Especially at the executive levels. Once inducted into the club, as long as these new executives don't do anything to upset this order, they are taken care of.

    Golden parachutes abound. Mutual fund and hedge fund managers usually don't beat the market, but get paid ridiculous money. Meritocracy, my-butt.

    The main criteria is not having a soul, and being willing to take money for doing a poor job, as long as you don't upset the order of things.

  32. It is funny that incentives supposedly for these 1%-ers.

    Research has shown that incentives have little or often adverse effects for the solutions of difficult creative problems. Incentives do, however, work really well for improving the time-to-solution for really easy problems.

    Does that mean these 1%-ers only solve easy problems really quickly? If this is the case, it seems we should be looking for way to automate these jobs. Automated CEO--sounds about right.

    Or are these ridiculous incentives rather meaningless or getting in the way of the creativity of the 1%-ers?

  33. Part of the subset of mental toughness is the ability to really look at what is required to get higher pay and do it. In some cases, that involves being willing and able to survive internal politics.

    In some situations, it means buckling your belt and budgeting to drive a nice car or wear nice suits so you'll look like you fit the role you want to be in, unfortunately. It depends on what the culture is at the organization.

  34. In My experience big companies are often bastions of competent incompetence.

    Other than that, yes it's a jungle out there, always has been, probably always will be.

  35. What i have learnt after years of job is that your college degree can get your foot through the door but after that how you manage through office politics determines your growth in the organization.

  36. A very useful and inspiring post i must say! A real self -check as to whether one fits in the top 1% and what the deficiencies are! The three things i.e. whether one works really hard, is really smart and mentally tough form the pillar of the whole discussion. Kudos and keep going!