Things I’ve learned from working 1/3 of my life at the same company
Later this week I’ll turn 36. Quite often, when people ask how old I am, I would have to think a little bit to figure it out. And I still get asked for ID’s in restaurants, bars, and liquor stores in Canada and the states. Therefore, it’s a bit weird to think that I’ll be in my late 30’s in a few days.
A few weeks ago, I reached the 12-year work anniversary. I joined a Vancouver based high tech company in the communications sector shortly after graduating from university in 2006. Over the last 12 years, my job title changed 4 times and my job functions had changed many times as well. With my 36th birthday approaching, I realized that I have spent a third of my life working for the same company.
It’s pretty crazy to put that in a quantitative perspective.
Before entering the workforce, I was told by many people to expect to change jobs every few years and jump from companies to companies. It was the norm for us millennials.
Comparing among my peers from my graduation class, I am one of the few that still works at the same company 12 years later.
I guess you can call me an atypical millennial!
Having worked at the same company for a third of my life, I will share with you 5 lessons I have learned along the way.
1. You can easily be replaced
I was hired in 2006 as a hardware engineer/integration engineer. Some of my job responsibilities included doing hardware design reviews and testing and validating customer platforms. Within months of starting my job, I developed a test methodology to screen the electrical performance of SIM card circuitry. It was very important to screen customer platforms because usually, customers would need to send their platforms to a test laboratory to validate their designs. Such test would cost around $20k each time and usually customer platforms would need at least 2 rounds of tests, or more, before getting a passing grade.
This test I developed was saving money and time for customers. Instead of running multiple rounds of testing, spending hours and thousands of dollars, I was able to screen out any potential failures and help customers to modify their electrical designs. So, when customers send platforms to the test laboratory, the platforms would pass on the first try.
Customers appreciated the prescreening and liked saving money and time. As a result, I was spending a lot of time testing platforms.
When the financial crisis hit in 2009, although the company was not in the financial sector, the overall business was impacted due to the macro business environment. One morning, I began to see a lot of managers walking around, visiting people’s cubicles. People were packing up and leaving work with boxes.
“Oh, I’m totally safe, I am the only one in the company that knows how to do this test…” I thought.
On that day, 15% of the company employees were let go.
Back then I thought I had job security because of this test I had developed. I thought that was the only reason why I wasn’t let go on that day.
I sure was naïve!
After the 15% layoff, many of us engineers were told to document everything. Tests, including the one I developed, had to be documented, so someone could be trained to do the same tests.
There were a lot of uncertainties and anxieties after the layoff. The uncertainties and anxieties only increased by 10-fold when the company decided to let go of more people over the next 6 months.
During that time, I saw many smart phenomenal people getting the infamous pink slip. Many of them were engineers with important responsibilities within the company, whom I thought were irreplaceable.
But life went on, and the company found someone else to replace these people.
After going through multiple rounds of layoffs during the financial crisis, I realized I didn’t get let go, not because I knew how to run the test. It was because someone else on my team was next in line to get let go rather than me.
Their names got picked by the management instead of mine. It was as simple as that.
In the last 12 years, I have gone through many more rounds of layoffs and saw many more remarkable people that got let go, ranging from engineers all the way up to C level executives.
Perhaps I am jaded now, but I have realized that if you are an employee, working for someone, you can easily be replaced. No matter how brilliant you are at what you do, someone can be trained to do your job.
Do not assume that you are the only one that can do your job. Never assume you have job security. Even CEO’s can be fired and replaced!
And that is exactly why I believe it’s so important to have multiple income streams and become financially independent, so if you were let go from your full-time job, it would not be a financial disaster.
2. Be approachable, be polite, be authentic, and be yourself
Having worked with many different people, both internally within my company and externally, I have learned that it is important to be approachable, be polite, and be yourself. Given that a lot of communications are done via emails nowadays, it is very important to write “friendly” emails. Addressing someone like “Hi Bob or Hey Bob,” rather than addressing someone directly like “Bob.”
Be precise and detailed in your emails, provide as much background information as possible. Since people can interpret words differently, it is best to leave sarcasm out of emails. When interacting with people, use the same approach. Be approachable, be polite and friendly. Establishing allies will go a long way. When people like you, they are more willing to help you out and hand out favours.
Another important lesson I have learned is be authentic. Be yourself and don’t pretend to be someone that you are not. If you don’t know or understand something, it is OK to say that and ask more questions. Don’t pretend that you know and understand everything, that will eventually backfire on you. Also, if something is going against your core values, be courageous enough to speak up. Just because you are an employee of a company or working with customers, it doesn’t mean you should ignore your core believes and values.
3. Companies will pay you as little as possible
As someone freshly graduated from university without any work experience, other than Co-op experience during university, I had very little knowledge when it came to salary negotiation.
During the later stages of the interview process for the hardware engineer/integration engineer position, the human resources person asked me about my salary expectation. Instead of giving her a vague answer or a range, I gave her a specific number.
Later when I received the offer, the salary offer was exactly what I had told the HR person.
I accepted the offer without negotiating a higher salary.
This was one of the biggest mistakes I have made in my life.
I could have probably negotiated an additional 10-15% in my starting salary.
The amount may not have been that much to start with, but over the years, the compounded difference would have been significant.
In 2010, a project manager position surfaced in my team. I had always wanted to manage projects, so I decided to approach my manager to tell him that I want that job.
I got the position without having to apply for the position formally. I then started managing one of the company’s top 5 customers.
But I didn’t get a salary adjustment.
I was getting paid the same salary as a hardware engineer/integration engineer while having more responsibilities.
As a project manager, I was dealing with customer’s Japanese R&D team daily. I had worked with these engineers previously, but now as a project manager, I faced a lot of scrutiny with project schedules and deadlines. I found out quickly that Japanese engineers were extremely demanding and extremely detail oriented.
A common trait that most Japanese engineers shared is that they never forget anything. Quite often they would refer to an email or a statement that I said months or even years ago.
Despite extreme scrutiny from my customer R&D team, I was very motivated and performed very well. I was recognized within my company as one of the top project managers.
But I was severely underpaid as a project manager.
Around that time, Mrs. T and I moved in together and later got married. Because we were applying for her Canadian permanent residency, she couldn’t work in Canada until the application had been approved. I was the only source of income for us.
Although we just had our financial epiphany, I wasn’t making much money for what I did. Things were tight. We were consistently going over our necessities budget each month.
So I started to research online to find project managers’ average salary. I then listed all the accomplishment I achieved as a project manager.
I then approached my manager and his manager and asked for a salary adjustment. I also implied that if nothing happened to my salary, I was ready to walk.
I was pretty tight with another manager on my team and had told him about my salary situation. I was surprised at what he told me one day:
“As an employer, it is the company’s responsibility to pay as little money as possible to the employees. And as an employee, it’s your job to demand as much money as possible with the company. It’s a business negotiation. Don’t let emotions get in the way.”
After 12 years in the workforce, I have always remembered his point.
Companies will pay you as little as possible, it is up to you to fight for how much you are worth.
In case you’re wondering, I ended up getting a 30% raise as a project manager.
Finally, I was being compensated fairly.
4. Be willing to learn outside of your work responsibilities
When I was a hardware engineer/integration engineer, although my responsibilities were primarily hardware related, I was not limiting myself. By involving myself in many customer projects and talking to different engineers within the company, I was learning about firmware, software, and even project management. I was able to debug codes, analyze firmware and software logs at a high level, and provide some quick issue triage without relying on the R&D engineers. I also learned how to run RF tests, how to calibrate units, and many tasks that were outside of my hardware engineer/integration engineer job description. As a young engineer, it was a great learning experience for me.
Thanks to all these experiences, I became a very technical and hands-on project manager. Although the customer R&D team was extremely difficult to work with, they respected my technical ability. I was able to establish a level of trust quickly because of my technical background. One time when I visited the customer R&D team in Japan for a multi-million-dollar project kick off, I was drawing and describing the USB initialization sequence with engineers to figure out a question that surfaced during the meeting. After the meeting, my project manager counterpart took me aside and expressed that he was extremely impressed and applauded for what I did during the meeting.
Today, as a product manager, the technical skills I have learned have also come in handy. I have kept this willingness and continue to learn outside of my work responsibilities. As a product manager, I work with different teams within the company, like R&D, operations, quality, sales, technical support, RMA, marketing, etc., and I continue to learn new things every single day. I work with our customers in understanding market requirements, and I continue to learn new things from our customers every single day as well.
I have learned to not box myself in because of my job title or job responsibilities. Learning as much as I can because whatever I learn today could one day be extremely useful.
The same lesson applies to personal finance, blogging, investing, and financial independence retire early too. Be willing to learn, regardless whether the knowledge is new to you or not. Have an open mind. And be willing to learn from others, whether they are ahead or behind you on their financial journey (and blogging experience) or how old they are.
5. Be open to opportunities
I worked as a project manager for over 4 years. Although I faced a lot of pressure and scrutiny every day from customers, I enjoyed what I was doing. I was learning new things and being challenged every day. I felt I had a lot of career growth potentials as a project manager.
While on a work trip in Japan with director and VP level co-workers, my current manager mentioned over breakfast one day that he was looking to hire a product manager. He then immediately asked me if I was interested.
As a project manager, I had been working closely with my current manager on many different projects for about 3 years. I had been involved in some of the high-level product management tasks, so I was somewhat familiar with what product management involved.
At the time I was surprised that he asked if I was interested in the position. Jumping from engineering to marketing wasn’t something that had crossed my mind before. But I had always had an interest in marketing/business, and that was the key reason why I minored in commerce during university.
After breakfast, one of the VP’s, whom I have always considered a mentor to me, pulled me aside and told me I should seriously consider this opportunity.
“It would be an excellent opportunity for you, it’d look good on your resume to be both engineering and have product management experience. And you have a leg up on other candidates. Go for it.”
Rather than shutting down the idea of a career change, I decided that I need to approach this opportunity with an open mind. I went through the pros and cons with Mrs. T several times and talked to the hiring manager to understand more about the role, responsibilities, and expectations.
I even approached the general manager of my business unit (one level below the CEO) that oversaw over 500 people and asked him for his opinion. His answer was straight and simple…
“Bob as a project manager, you are extremely good at what you do but if being a product manager is what you want to do and that makes you happy, go for it. I’m happy either way and pleased to have you on my team.”
So, I decided to go for it.
After four rounds of internal interviews, I was hired.
If I had turned down this opportunity, I would have probably still been a project manager doing the same things for the past 3.5 years. Earlier this year, the company went through another round of layoffs and the project manager that replaced me was let go. That could have been me!
Be open to opportunities. Before going down the path, weigh the pros and cons of the opportunity and determine for yourself whether it makes sense to proceed. Don’t just shut down the opportunity without further evaluations and some soul-searching.
It is hard to believe that I have spent 1/3 of my life working for the same company. I am no longer one of the youngest persons in the company (although may I look like one), instead, I’m one of the “seniors.” Nowadays, Co-op students and new hires that are fresh out of university look like kids compared to me.
Learning these 5 lessons in the past 12 years have taught me to never take things for granted. Furthermore, I have realized how powerful it is to have multiple income streams. One of the ways to do that is to work for yourself by having side businesses. I have also learned to not let your work define who you are. Work should be a small fraction of your life. Find the right work-life balance for you and your family.
More importantly, although I enjoy what I do at work, I realized that there are more important things in life than spending 40 hours or more each week in a cubicle. I want to have more freedom and power in deciding my daily schedule. I want to travel more with my family and explore the world. And I want to not have to worry about getting a pay cheque every two weeks.
More than ever, I am convinced that being financially independent is the way to go.
So I can decide to work because I want to, not because I have to.