When you're right at the start of your career, trying to decide which path you want to pursue can be challenging. You might be wondering what industry you should move into, whether you should go for a job in a big tech corporation or opt for a growth-stage startup, or even if you should just launch your own startup instead.
There are so many exciting career opportunities and fascinating areas to work in that you can be paralyzed by the sheer number of options, feeling the full anxiety of the paradox of choice. But fear not, we're here to help guide you through the process and to introduce the questions you should have in mind when thinking about launching your successful career.
If you work your way through these thought processes, you'll arrive at a clearer understanding of where you want to go, and how you are going to get there.
A good intermediate lesson in chess is that even a bad plan is better than no plan at all. Having no plan is chaotic.
1. Have a vision of your career in ten years
Considering where you want to be in the future can help significantly in planning what action to take in the present. If you think about the career you want to have in ten years, then you can reverse-engineer the steps you need to take to get there. Do you eventually want to be the founder of your own company? Then taking a position in an early-stage startup will give you valuable insight into what building a company entails. Do you want to become the leader of a product team? A junior position in the relevant department will be a good first step to develop the skills you will need in the future.
If you're still unsure about where you want to end up, don't worry. This is very common and isn't a barrier to successful career progression. You can just use the exercise as a source of inspiration and to get a feel for the different available career paths. Understanding the job market and the available options will help you realize what is most attractive to you.
2. Learn hard skills in an environment that suits you
The early years of your career are probably the most formative and important. You're fresh out of university with barely, if any, professional experience, and you still have a lot to learn. It's during this time that you'll develop the hard skills that will form the foundation of your professional career.
Large tech companies, consulting firms, and more corporate organizations offer some significant advantages when you're in these early stages. When an organization is more stable and established, they'll often invest in training and help you learn hard skills that will benefit you throughout your career. They'll also drill good routines and workflows into you, which will make you more productive and efficient.
A startup might not offer the same level of structure as a more established company, but in place of this, you'll get the opportunity to be directly involved in a wide range of tasks and areas. To an extent, you'll even be able to shape your own role and select the areas you want to focus on. It's much more a case of learning by doing, but this means that you can acquire a wider variety of skills.
The most valuable compensation for working at a startup as opposed to a “normal job” is a dramatically higher rate-of-learning (ROL).
There's a downside though. As startups are often in a state of flux, they tend to lack structure and established routines. If you're in the early stages of your career, there is a risk you'll pick up the bad habits that can come with a lack of structure.
Which of these routes works for you might come down to your personality type. Do you like the sound of a dynamic and changing working environment where you can develop your own role? Then a startup is the right choice for you. Would you prefer a scenario where you receive more guidance on best practices and the chance to learn ideal workflows and routines? Then an established organization would be a better fit. Both offer opportunities for growth and to acquire skills but in very different ways.
3. Structured learning curves vs. high level of responsibility
Having more responsibility is, on the whole, a positive proposition. Still, some people may prefer to increase their level of responsibility slowly over time once they have harnessed their skills thoroughly.
In tech, consulting, and corporate companies, the learning curves are very structured, while your initial level of responsibility is rather low. In startups, it's the opposite – there is much less structure to the learning curve, and you'll work things out mainly by doing them. The upside is that you will be given a lot more responsibility and have more ownership over your projects.
Which environment works for you comes down again to personality type and individual preference.
4. Use brand names to boost your CV and build your network
A well-known brand name on your CV can work wonders for your future career path. When your first employer is a recognizable company, it sets the tone for everything that comes after and helps to open doors to subsequent positions. Branding works, and it's smart to use it to your advantage.
Another additional benefit of working with more well-known companies is that they are usually filled with other smart and high-performing individuals. You can supercharge your learning curve when working alongside these people while building a strong network.
Of course, it can be the case that you join an early-stage startup that will become a household name in ten years. Being part of this growth will give you both the benefits of brand value and the credibility of having helped build a successful company. It can be hard to know which companies will grow in this way, so do your due diligence to understand if the company you're joining is likely to become successful.
5. Safe bets vs. the rewards of risk
What are your feelings about risk? Do you feel comfortable and thrive in high-risk situations, or do you prefer the sense of security that comes with low-risk scenarios? Your answer to this question is crucial in deciding which path you will follow, and there are two career paths you can go down.
If you lean towards a more risk-averse mindset, then a large tech-, consulting-, or corporate company is a good option for you. These organizations are safe bets that have pre-defined career paths with a progression of roles and salaries. The steadiness and security are ideal for those who like a clear trajectory. If you crave a fast pace and an ever-increasing amount of responsibility, then this track might bring frustration. Your level of responsibility in a safe bet organization will increase slowly over time, not overnight - often regardless of your performance.
For those of you who enjoy taking on a higher level risk, a startup can be a better option as the rewards of taking a risk on a new company can be huge. First of all, your learning curve will be very steep, and the opportunities to increase your responsibilities will be plentiful. There's also a strong chance that you'll get the opportunity to take on a leadership position early in your career when you're part of a startup's growth, which is very unlikely in a larger, more established company.
The downside of startups is that you can pour your heart and soul into the company, only for it to fail. This is the most likely scenario. Of course, not all startups are equal, so do your due diligence in your career planning process and be selective about the ones you join.
6. Think about the money
Thinking about the money doesn't mean just going for the largest salary that's being offered, but instead, deciding how important salary is to you. If you want steady salary increases and work with a fixed career path, then an established company will offer this. Startups, on the other hand, tend not to pay as well, but there are ways to benefit from the potential financial upside. Employee stock option plans (ESOP) are standard practice in the U.S., and now they are becoming much more frequently used in Europe too. In this scenario, you receive stocks in the company, and if it takes off, you can look forward to a nice financial reward.
For example, when Facebook bought WhatsApp for US$19 billion, each of WhatsApp's 55 employees received a huge payout. And when Facebook purchased Instagram for US$1 billion, their 13 employees at the time shared a windfall of US$100 million while the CEO pocketed a cool US$400 million.
If you work through these steps when planning on how to embark on your new career, then you'll be sure to start on the right foot.