On Professional Self-worth

Huge huge rant incoming, but all is not said and done, and much is open for debate of course. Counterpoints and criticisms are more than welcome in the comments. This is just my opinion based on my experience at this point in time.

Self-worth: the rich man and the poor man

For a long while there have been places in the world that view self-worth as largely tied to wealth.  No doubt there is more than just money, as even within the rich community there’s a distinction between the established rich and the “nouveau riche”, or the newly rich.  One is ranked higher than the other, but nonetheless the rich are themselves seen as being more important than the average person.

You might not believe me.  That means it’s time for a thought experiment!

One way to hammer home this point is to posit a classic thought experiment.  There are two people – one rich and one poor – and this is all the information we have about them (this is important).  Assuming that one of them will die in some horrific way and we can only choose to save one, most people would probably save the rich person (assuming they don’t have a bias or some psychological complex against rich folks).  Remember, we have no other information about them other than one is rich and one is poor.  The aim of the thought experiment, rather than trying to give a realistic scenario, is to simply try to show us that we give the rich person preference.  At least ij the case where we have no other information.

And it’s not even that we think we might receive a reward from the rich person!  Even if we figure that in, we still give preference to the rich person, probably in part because we think that they must be somewhat more important than the poor person.  They must have acquired that money some way, after all.  Possobly even through hard work.  The poor person, we assume, must be poor for a reason, and that might be through sheer laziness.  So we have a hard worker versus a lazy worker… which one is more worthy to live?  And it’s only those hasty assumptions that we have to deal with.

Professional worth: employees of famous and nonfamous companies

Laying aside issues of money for a moment, let’s perform a similar thought experiment, except with different people.  One person works at company X, which no one has really heard of, and the other person works at company Y, which at the time is a wildly famous and reputable company.  Because this industry is so fickle and subject to change, at the time of this writing this famous company might be Facebook, Google, or Twitter.  Or any other company which has the tech zeitgeist or mojo at the time.

Assuming we know nothing else but the people’s employers (and laying aside biases and hatred for certain companies), if we put these people on the line, the one employee of a no-name company and the other employee of a famous company, we would probably choose to save the latter.  For much of the same reasons as above.  For instance, this person got a job at Facebook, so they must be smart and a hard worker.  On the other hand, the person at the no-name company (i.e. the vast majority of people out there) is probably not as smart or not as hard-working.  After all, if they were, then they would’ve been at (famous company) by now!  Therefore they are undoubtedly less worthy professionally, and by hasty extension, less worthy as a human being (remember, we have no other information to base our conclusion off of).

So it is!  Death to the employee of the nonfamous company!

Work history, first impressions, and professional self-worth

We chose to save the rich person and the Facebook engineer. The good thing is that luckily almost no one thinks in these horrible black-and-white terms, and we always take into account other available factors.  For instance, as an example of a poor person we might have Mother Teresa and as a rich person we might have mean old Donald Trump.  No one in their right mind would send Mother Teresa off to the gallows while letting Trump off (regardless of what you think of Trump really).

The problem here is that although we do take into account different factors, professionally we (and recruiters) weigh our work history much too heavily in the grand scheme of things.  We take other factors into consideration, sure, but work history is a huge deciding factor as far as people are paid attention to, give off good first impressions, or are even given a single glance by recruiters.

This isn’t totally unwarranted, I should say.  Chances are, if someone worked at a few famous companies, there’s a good chance they are a better than average engineer, even though there’s no guarantee of this (there are always exceptions).  But that’s not the problem here.  The problem is because this is given a disproportionate amount of weight, people start to view this as THE deciding factor in whether to work for a company.  Name-brand recognition becomes a goal-in-itself.  Money always matters, sure, but professionally there is little that can beat having a reputable name brand on a resume.

So what happens in practice?  An engineer becomes employed at a famous big company, is put to work maintaining some existing platforms, and at the end of a year perhaps learns some things that make them a better engineer.  But the same person instead working for some no-name startup might in the same period of time learn many more technologies, solve many more problems, and have a bit more freedom and opportunity to create (though they won’t necessarily learn best practices or scaling issues that typically come with famous large companies, but there’s more to being a good engineer than that!).  Each gets an opportunity to get their hands dirty with different varieties of dirt.  At the end of the day, I would say the latter very well becomes a more well-rounded engineer, instead of a generic single-functioned cog in some big company machine.

Ok, now my bias is showing through brilliantly!

Let’s at least say, for the purposes of argument, that both engineers are equally skilled (though this is hard to quantify, though, obviously).  So who do the recruiters contact, the employee at the famous company or the employee at the nonfamous company?  Who gets more attention from people in general when they’re asked where they work?  In short, whose professional life is a priori more highly valued?  You already know the answer.

Final thoughts

We MUST become more confident of our skills (I need to work on this myself), and we must be tough enough and realistic enough to know our own professional worth.  Appearances count for much in this world, and too much at that.  But what better to maintain if we are authentic human beings: an appearance or something deeper?

Famous companies do look good on resumes in the same way Ivy Leagues colleges look good on the very same piece of paper.  But don’t make this a deciding factor when choosing an employer.  It’s true that it will help you find more jobs and get more respect in the long run, but then you are wasting your time doing something you don’t want to do for the duration, for a company that exists for its own ends, not the ends of its employees (this is true of most companies out there, to be fair).  If you are ok wasting your time for a cause such as this, then go for it. It seems some people are ok with that.  At the very least be aware of it.

So what happens to the passionate engineers who actually do want to work for a famous company for reasons other than brand recognition?  They might not always get the job.  But it’s definitely not the end of the world.  No one should be disheartened because Google turned them away for not being able to answer today’s technological equivalent of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” (or other mental masturbation puzzles).  In the end it’s you that makes you a worthy professional and a good engineer.  If your job doesn’t actually give you a chance to be one, you can still become one on your own.  I would say most people are capable of this if they invest the effort.

But working for a famous company, and for its own sake?  It doesn’t necessarily make you a good engineer, any more than wearing glasses and dressing in a suit gives more validity to your opinions (even though many people sadly tend to think otherwise).

(Note to self: I wrote this on the banks of the Kamogawa River in Kyoto on my iPad. I was enjoying the moment and obviously in a contemplative mood!)