Influence of Your Work on the World

As I was finishing school, I had a dream – I wanted my job to maximize my influence. I wanted the product of my craft to touch, in a meaningful way, as many people as possible, helping them in small and large ways. It’s mostly pride and desire to maximize the control over your environment: isn’t it awesome when everyone around you knows what you’ve been working on?

“You work on the search engine at Google? Wow, I use that every day!”

“You’re at Boeing developing the new 787? So many people are going to fly on that!”

A beautiful quote from a Microsoft engineer on this subject:

Very few projects at Microsoft have “small” impact. Everywhere you turn, the projects people are working on are likely to be used by thousands or millions of people. You have the opportunity to earn, save, or cost the company millions of dollars through your work. It’s an awesome responsibility, but an awesome chance to create widely influential software.

I’ve found a hole in this logic: it’s missing a key variable. It’s not just about the number of lives you touch. It’s also about the number of people that are working on this same product. The logic is simple: if there are thousands of people working side by side with you, your individual contribution will be lower. You will own and contribute to a smaller part of the puzzle.

Moreover, for technology projects, I’d argue the number of engineers working on the product has an even stronger, quadratic effect on each person’s influence. Ancient, yet so contemporary book Mythical Man Month makes this point well.

Here’s my attempt at quantitatively measuring your work influence number as an engineer in a high-tech company:

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Microsoft Office is one of the world’s most used products; yet there are quite a few engineers touching it. Spread-out, shared ecosystem of Office Shared services that own cross-product components and installation, as well as groups that own localization and documentation, makes the denominator in the equation above quite high.
  • Facebook is famous for having a restriction on the number of engineers that can work on a given product; I can’t find references to the exact number, but anecdotally, it’s under 10. So let’s say 10. Let’s look at the example of the Timeline: with Facebook’s 900M users, influence of an engineer working on that team is 900M/100 = 900K.
  • At Wetpaint, there are 3 engineers working on the wetpaint.com website. Last month, we had 12 million readers. Influence of each engineer = 12M / 9 = 1.3M.

If you’re looking for your job to have influence – right out of the gate – work in a small, isolated team that has full control over its destiny. Startups are by definition structured this way.

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Bet on Yourself

How comfortable are you with the idea of relinquishing control over something important to you to someone who doesn’t really wish you well? How about relinquishing control over your career? Over your family’s livelihood?

Whenever alignment of interests isn’t present at the workplace, that’s exactly what employees are doing – they’re relinquishing control to the manager who has completely different incentives. If you’re working in a big company, your career success – your next years’ bonus, your promotion – are in the hands of someone who has no rational reason to wish you well.

Don’t give me the empathy argument. Don’t tell me that your manager wants to help you because it will make him/her feel good inside.

Incentives rule the world. People optimize for the way they are rewarded. The manager will optimize for what will make them get their next promotion. When it costs them nothing, they might even invest in you – if they’re what we consider a “good manager.” But do not kid yourself – there’s no incentive for them to systematically make you better off. You’re just a cog in the machine. A stepping stone.

… How comfortable are you with the idea of gambling? Of betting something valuable to you on a phenomenon with relatively unpredictable outcome? 

I’m not much of a gambler; the idea of having zero control over the spinning wheel of the roulette gives me a heartache. Someone else throwing the ball… Someone else programmed the roulette… Just standing there with my fingers crossed makes me feel powerless. A victim of the odds. A fool that disrespects the probability theory.

But what if you could change the game? What if you could be the one throwing the ball, programming the roulette, training for hours on how to beat the odds? What if after months of training, you were presented with a chance to make a bet – on yourself, on your own skill – and be the one playing your own game, with so much under your control?

That’s what startups are about.

You’re gambling – yes. You’re playing against the odds – most startups fail. But you’re betting on yourself – your own skill, your training, your intellectual horsepower. You’re creating a new world – every day. Your hunger inspires you to do more than humanly possible. You’re riding a roller-coaster – but it’s your own path.

Moreover, people around you – your manager, your peers – are all in exactly the same boat. If you don’t pull your weight, you will hear about it; others will jump in to make you better. If you’re doing well, your leaders have a purely logical incentive to get you the recognition you deserve – because it will make THEM succeed. Because it improves the odds of the startup succeeding. Because you personally are contributing a big, noticeable chunk to the bottom line of the value of the startup.

The most important factor here, of course, is the ability of every employee to make a meaningful difference on the company’s bottom line and having a share of the gains. This is what changes the incentives for everyone.

The wise Glenn Kelman says that “startups are the most intense way to live.” I couldn’t agree more. The thrill of a bet on myself – combined with the responsibility that it brings – is making me feel alive more than ever.

Manufactured Happiness and Stockholm Syndrome

A very curious effect happens to people in bad situations. They tend to rationalize that the world around them is actually not bad at all. Moreover, they will honestly, authentically believe that they’re better off because of the adverse position they’re in. There’s a fascinating TED talk about this concept of “manufactured happiness”: a true sense of satisfaction in a situation that any outsider will call straight-up terrible.

For example, someone who’s been on a powerful senator for 30 years, got publicly discredited in a scandal and lost it all, and now lives a quiet life. Or, someone who lost all their limbs in an accident. Someone who spent most of their life in jail unjustly, only to be released in old age with an apology. They all proclaim – in a very honest, deep way – that they’re truly happy that these events happened to them.

You can argue that all of these are examples of nature’s coping mechanisms that are hard-wired into our brains. When we feel that there’s no choice, no exit from a bad position, we give up and start truly believing that it’s all good.

Here’s a problem, though: the world is not black and white. Particularly at the workplace, there is no single situation that is so unchangeable that you have to put up with it. Your brain, however, will be tempted to play that same trick: it’ll try to convince you that it’s all good.

Wait. That person that just yelled at you for an hour – that’s objectively not so good. The fact that your startup sank millions in VC money and still has no idea how to make money – that’s not quite so good. All your coworkers left – hmmm… The product captured 10 times less market share than you expected.

You’ll be tempted to rationalize, every single time. You’ll keep telling yourself that this is just a part of life, and it’ll all get better.

Stop.

There’s time to press on, and there’s time to step back and think. Ideally, your thinking will be reinforced by an external mentor, someone who isn’t intimately involved in your day-to-day tactics. Evaluate the crap you see at your workplace in objective terms. Not in the context of subjective spin created by “intellectually shallow PowerPoint BS artists” (hat goes off to WhoDaPunk for this expression).

My brilliant friend and mentor once likened the “stuck in a crappy work environment” situation to the Stockholm Syndrome: the victim of a kidnapping falls in love with the kidnappers. You fall in love with the crap that’s falling on you. It’s normal, that’s how it’s supposed to be… And then, three years later, you look back at that mess and think: “why did I put up with all that? Why didn’t I put up a good fight, or find a better place to work?”

Another great mind suggested that it’s very difficult to objectively judge whether the situation you’re in is good – tolerable – and temporary, or not. All you know is where you are now. You also have a few experiences from your prior life. You know that switching to another line of work, another company, whatever – that has cost, too. You start from scratch, and like any optimization algorithm that employs random jumps to get rid of the possible local maximums, you risk to wander forever.

Don’t sacrifice a moment of your life. Take some time to reflect regularly – and do it with an outsider friend.

Take the Job Where You’re Really Wanted

I’ve been making this exact mistake for the vast majority of my life. Reading the job description, coming to an interview, listening to what the interviewer wants, and then carefully reciting the story about their dream candidate – me, that is – in a way that makes them feel like I really am the manifestation of the perfect candidate on Earth. I’m Plato’s Form of the dream employee.

You want someone to do project management? I LOVE PROJECT MANAGEMENT! I’m anal retentive!! You want someone who’ll be a visionary?? I’m the most creative technologist ever! And of course I’m also detail-oriented,  because I’m a special kind of creative guy that isn’t like all the other fluffy creative dudes. Ha.

It’s such an easy temptation – and a fight that’s so easy to win and lose at the same time. It goes approximately like this in my head: “You can force yourself to be anything! Just get the damned job and then you’ll think about whether you want it!..”

What a pile of crap. A typical example of a short-term win (yay! got a job!) leading to medium-term disasters (hate every moment at the job and work performance is terrible as a result).

My dear friend and mentor once gave me an amazing advice: “Wear your heart on your sleeve… People that you want to associate with will immediately be attracted to the true you… People that you don’t want to be around will be repelled by your true self – and that’s a good thing.” There is just not enough time in life to waste a moment of your life on doing something that you deep down inside don’t enjoy.

Instead, I lately go with a radically opposite approach. You know what? I’m not perfect. I passionately hate project management. I’m a technologist and an efficiency junkie. I hate process for the sake of process. I love passionate people and can’t stand mindless, political drones. Note how truth is polarizing: some will be repelled; others will say “wow, this guy is actually authentic and is in touch with his true self.” And those are the people that I want to connect with.

Let me take that thought even further: don’t fight to get any job. Yes, times are tough, this might not be the time to be picky. But if you’re like me, and are a fan of looking for a job when you already have a job, then be extremely picky in your search and don’t fake a single breath. Once you find an opportunity that looks good, watch for the reaction from the other side: if this is meant to be – and you’ll be happy at the job – the hiring managers will be ECSTATIC about you joining in. They’ll be blind to any of your faults. They’ll fight tooth and nail to get you the last dollar you asked for. They’ll tell you how perfect you truly are for this job – and you know what, you probably are. Because you were your true self when you were applying.