Marc Andreessen's classic Career Planning series
Revisiting the 2007 series which turns out to be timeless advice today and onwards
Beforeco-founded the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz he was one of silicon valley’s great early indie bloggers and angel investors. The whole “pmarca archive” is worth a read. But given our interest in career transitions, I’d recommend starting with the 4 part series: Pmarca Guide to Career Planning. I’ve included a few of my favorite excerpts with commentary below to give you a taste:
The first rule of career planning: Do not plan your career.
The world is an incredibly complex place and everything is changing all the time. You can’t plan your career because you have no idea what’s going to happen in the future.
It takes a certain sense of humility to admit that you don’t know. It takes bravery to operate with minimal planning. Technologies compound upon each other and everything accelerates more quickly today than it did even just a decade ago. As this trend continues you want to be nimble and adaptive, not overly-rehearsed. Ever since the age of the Internet being skillful and networked beats a plan every day of the week.
I believe a huge part of what people would like to refer to as “career planning” is being continuously alert to opportunities that present themselves to you spontaneously, when you happen to be in the right place at the right time.
How can you stay alert to these opportunities? It’s all about building and maintaining connectivity within the right networks. The original piece mentions colleagues, a former manager, or friends as a great starting point for discovering an opportunity. His examples are from an era before we saw the massive rise of tech accelerators/communities and hackathons practically every night of the week. Those older patterns still apply. Though I would suggest they are supplemented today by other IRL environments that often serve a similar purpose — much of the action has shifted to these today. Still the principle is the same. Gather where interesting people are hanging around and be attentive and open to what you hear and learn. Show up and connect!
learn how to convince people that something is in their best interest to do, even when they don’t realize it up front.
This is a subtle point which you might think of as sales. Very technical craftspeople often think of sales as a dirty word (i.e. some cheesy techniques a used car salesman employs to move a dilapidated lemon that’s been on their lot too long). But among talented professionals, the ability to communicate effectively and convince people is the ultimate leverage to accomplishing big things. It’s most effective when you show people how it’s in their interest rather than leaving them to assume it’s in your interest.
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it’s now critically important to get into the real world and really challenge yourself—expose yourself to risk—put yourself in situations where you will succeed or fail by your own decisions and actions, and where that success or failure will be highly visible.
If you join Google or Microsoft today your family may applaud your success. But you’re not exposing yourself to much risk. Those companies will not fail. If you become the tech lead for Gmail you’re probably going to keep the thing running alright, maybe you’ll add a few features, sprinkle in some AI, but are you really succeeding or failing in a visible way?
On the other hand, Paul Buchheit joined Google as employee #23 and he created Gmail from scratch. He first built it as a “20% project” — what we might call a side project today. If it failed he would’ve wasted his time, but as it showed promise he shared it with more of his work-friends. He became known as “the Gmail guy” and as Gmail succeeded so did his reputation within (and outside!) the company.
It’s probably tough to do such a thing today at Google — not impossible, but just tougher. I know of someone who did a similar kind of thing at Rippling recently and scaled a 100 person team from scratch into a major new product line. You need to be paddling in fast moving water to catch such waves.
Optimize at all times for being in the most dynamic and exciting pond you can find. That is where the great opportunities can be found.
Find the people. Be a small fish in a big pond if necessary. In 2024 some dynamic/exciting ponds are happening around AI-assisted-software-development, AI-assisted-creativity-tools, an open global financial infrastructure (bitcoin/lightning), aerospace, reimagining healthcare systems, nuclear energy, and more. Don’t get stuck playing last night’s lotto numbers.
There are a bunch of great things that you get when you go to a younger, high-growth company:
You’ll get to do lots of stuff. There will be so much stuff to do in the company that you’ll be able to do as much of it as you can possibly handle. Which means you’ll gain skills and experience very quickly.
You’ll probably get promoted quickly. Fast-growing companies are characterized by a chronic lack of people who can step up to all the important new leadership jobs that are being created all the time. If you are aggressive and performing well, promotions will come quickly and easily.
You’ll get used to being in a high-energy, rapidly-changing environment with sharp people and high expectations. It’s like training for a marathon while wearing ankle weights—if you ever end up going to a big company, you’ll blow everyone away. And if you ever go to a startup, you’ll be ready for the intensity.
Reputational benefit. Having Silicon Graphics from the early 90’s, or Netscape from the mid-90’s, or eBay from the late 90’s, or Paypal from the early 00’s, or Google from the mid-00’s on your resume is as valuable as any advanced degree—it’s a permanent source of credibility.
Operate as a growth-seeking missile. Tremendous career benefits accrue to those who play this game well.
High-growth companies virtually always hit speed bumps, or even huge potholes. Stuff goes wrong. Going through the experience of gutting through the hard parts and coming out the other end will be a key part of your real-world education and will serve you very well down the road, especially if you ever start your own company.
Most of the biggest successes in technology go through sustained periods of challenge. A few that come to mind are Facebook/Meta with the transition from web to mobile, Coinbase through the many crypto winters they’ve survived, and NVIDIA in their multiple transitions over decades to go from GPUs for 1) gaming to 2) crypto mining to 3) AI today. It all looks like squeaky clean upward trajectories in hindsight, but the navigation is messy for the teams and people building the future at the time.
Picking which startup to join probably deserves its own post. However, in a nutshell, look for one where you understand the product, see how it might fit into a very large market, and really like and respect the people who are already there.
Simple, but not easy. I’d suggest your top-of-funnel on this filter today might be to start with the people if you don’t already have a product in mind which speaks to you.
Every job, every role, every company you go to is an opportunity to learn how a business works and how an industry works.
Learn everything you can about the business and the industry in which you find yourself.
Think strategically: how would I start a firm like this today? Or, if I were starting a company in this industry today, how would it be different than this firm? Why is this firm and other firms in this industry doing what they do? What are the assumptions underneath their behavior? Should those assumptions be changing? How might this industry work differently? Which customers are being underserved? What new technologies might change things completely? How were things working 10 years ago, versus today, versus 10 years from now? And, my favorite: if the creators of this industry were starting out today, what would they be doing now?
Playing these games of imagination and creativity are healthy exercises for your career transitions. But it’s always worthwhile to exercise these creative muscles for professional development. Even once you’ve joined a company you can ask the same questions about the product lines and features. New business opportunities for the company could be analyzed with similar skills. If you can show the company ways that customers are underserved you’ve almost certainly got the ear of the leadership team.
Anyway, it’s a great read overall. I recommend the whole series.
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