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.

No exception!

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.

 

Final Thoughts

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.

 

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27 Comments

  • Reply
    Joe
    September 24, 2018 at 7:21 am

    You kept evolving. That’s really great. Not everyone can do that. I couldn’t so I had to strike out on my own.
    Those lessons are great. It’s better to learn those lessons early on. The longer you wait, the harder they are to learn. You are doing really well. Keep it up!

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 2:53 pm

      Thank you Joe. You’re right, not everyone can do that and makes sense for you to strike out on your own term and retire early. 🙂

  • Reply
    freddy smidlap
    September 24, 2018 at 8:10 am

    there is something to be said for sticking around one place. i got to this job 14 years ago at a huge manufacturing conglomerate and have seen all those same layoffs and b.s. i learned long ago it’s all about the money. any satisfaction is a bonus and point number 3 is pure gold. h.r. is not your friend. i only give them what they pay for, but do a good job at that. company reduced some benefits? adjust accordingly. but keep your mouth shut about it if you’re taking that approach. sounds like you’re making a nice career, bob, and i’m glad for that.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 2:54 pm

      It’s certainly less and less common for people to stick around at one place for a long period of time. With respect to your wage & salary, you gotta fight for what you’re worth. It’s an important lesson I’ve learned.

  • Reply
    Blue Lobster
    September 24, 2018 at 8:58 am

    Thank you for this article, Tawcan! 🙂 Your 5 points should be taught to every new employee everywhere.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 2:56 pm

      Great that you liked it. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Mr. Tako
    September 24, 2018 at 11:40 am

    “If you are an employee, working for someone, you can easily be replaced.”

    Isn’t that the truth. This is exactly why I found my way to FI. Work is too unstable these days. I learned not to depend on having a steady salary early on in my career.

    One factor I’ve noticed that makes a HUGE difference to longevity is the support of your manager and their manager. You definitely have that likeable charisma to have their support, and you’ve survived through the layoffs. It might not last forever of course. It’s possible you could goof up and lose the backing of your manager, then poof — next layoff your gone.

    It’s good your focused on FI.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 2:58 pm

      It’s so true, that’s why you should strike for FI and side businesses/working for yourself.

      Yup having your support of your manager and their manager(s) is extremely important, especially when it comes to picking out a name to let go and it’s between you and someone they don’t like.

  • Reply
    FullTimeFinance
    September 24, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    11 years at my current employer here. Everything you’ve said rings true. No layoffs here since 2009, but been through a few since the dotcom bust.

    The one thought I have, while I’m not sure it’s best to stick around after a layoff there are ways to increase the likelihood you stay. Quite frankly it’s a game of whose more politically connected/valuable depending on the culture. You only have to run faster then your competition for the layoff.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 2:59 pm

      That’s a long time, 11 years. There are always a bit of uncertainty after a layoff and I think it really depends on the situation whether it’s best for you to stick around or look elsewhere.

  • Reply
    DivvyDad
    September 24, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    Great post Bob, and as someone that spent 16+ years at my last employer, I was nodding my head with each one of them. In my case, with new IT leadership having come into the company and a change in strategy, my position and a number of others were moved to the east coast and I was laid off. Fortunately, having followed lesson #2 both inside and outside the company, I had people knocking on my door when they heard the news and I had a new job lined up almost immediately.

    Also, I had to laugh as my prior employer was a Japanese based company and I could not agree with you more about that attention to detail and recollection of past conversations and emails. I always enjoyed working with our Japanese team and still maintain great relationships with a lot of that team despite no longer being with that employer.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 3:01 pm

      Thank you DivvyDad. Wow 16+ years is a long time. When there’s a new leadership, often there’s going to be turnovers, that’s the reality of being an employee at a company. I think establishing a solid network is a great idea to keep your options open.

  • Reply
    Mr. Groovy
    September 24, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    Love it, my friend. Numbers 2 and 4 really resonate. On my last day of work, one of the things my co-workers kept bringing up was my emails. They said I was only one in the company who wrote emails like I was having a conversation with a close friend. I never really gave my emails a thought. But my co-workers got a kick out of them. And it also got me a promotion. One co-worker who I only dealt with a few times recommended me for a promotion because I was “such a great guy.” And as far as number 4 goes, consider this: When I was hired at my last company, I was hired as a data analyst. The job primarily involved dealing with Excel spreadsheets. But to do my job well, I had to branch out into a lot of database work and coding. And it didn’t take long to move up once I became known as one of our company’s SQL gurus. Great freakin’ post, my friend. This should be required reading for anyone starting out his or her professional career. Cheers.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 3:03 pm

      Thank you Mr. Groovy. That’s a very interesting personal example that you brought up. Being a nice guy and being nice and fair to everyone you work with do eventually pay off. Stop being rude to people and treat others like how you want to be treated. I think too many people forget this important life lesson.

      And learning outside of your job responsibilities is always a good thing. You never know what things will lead to right?

  • Reply
    fbgcai
    September 25, 2018 at 7:03 am

    Excellent post Tawcan! All your points/lessons are on the mark. .

    I must have some Japanese in me because the typo in lesson 1 glared at me – I think you want the word “methodology” rather than “mythology” unless the circuits are telling Viking sagas. 🙂

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      September 25, 2018 at 3:04 pm

      Oops, thank you for pointing it out! Totally missed that. 🙂

  • Reply
    Adam @ Brewing FIRE
    October 1, 2018 at 11:44 am

    Great post. I’m in a similar circumstance. I’ve been with the same company for 13 years, and just turned 35. Having transitioned roles a few times, like yourself, I definitely think your advice rings true. It’s especially important to realize that you’re replaceable, try to stay flexible, and smile! I think it’s the only way to survive these days.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      October 1, 2018 at 8:45 pm

      Thank you Adam. Staying flexible is definitely a must in today’s work force.

  • Reply
    Financial Orchid
    October 1, 2018 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. 12 years is not a short time!

    Absolutely agree with your major points. I was telling a friend last night working in tech that regardless of how much job satisfaction there is right now, the employer doesn’t care about employees and everyone needs to make sure they have enough money when crisis erupts. Employer’s only responsibility is to shareholders and to further the company’s goal at any cost so long as it’s legal. Any employee is disposable. That’s how corporations function.

    Never fall in love with a job. It’s a conditional agreement. Nothing more.

    I know that might be difficult for some who are enjoying the peak of their careers or many title promotions in a short time. This is even harder for career driven, highly specialized workers who have invested most of their youth to become a highly trained professional today.

    Alas we’ll all become the older guy in the office one day even if it’s hard to imagine now, so passing on the torch to the next generation will be an imminent adjustment.

    • Reply
      Financial Orchid
      October 1, 2018 at 4:43 pm

      Not trying to be ultra pessimist/realist here, but one can enjoy the job, like the job, look forward to heading into work daily (that’s an incredible blessing!) even with the knowledge that state is not permanent.

      I just think it’s important not to tie one’s WHOLE IDENTITY to the profession. Because when that job/role/position is eliminated, then what else is there to identify yourself with if you haven’t developed an identity outside of the profession as well right?
      Maybe that’s my hippy west coast balanced lifestyle talking.
      Perhaps an east coast career driven New Yorker will tell me to stay in my hippy island. Oy

      • Reply
        Tawcan
        October 1, 2018 at 8:46 pm

        Even if you enjoy the job, like the job, look forward to heading into work daily, you need to remind yourself that’s not the end game. Some people’s end game might be climbing the corporate ladder as high as they can, but that’s not how I see it. There are more to life than work. 🙂

  • Reply
    moneyhelp
    October 1, 2018 at 10:26 pm

    Great post Bob!

    I can relate to this article in so many ways with the company I work for. I work in technology in both the software and hardware ecosystem (in fact its one of the companies in your portfolio :)) and have been with them since June 2005 and have changed roles about 4 or 5 times. The current role I’m in is more project management as well, and I was given this opportunity because of my tenure with the company and because of my technical background, this made me be able to oversee projects with scrutiny so other co-workers could not cut corners or do anything they shouldn’t.

    At first, I thought it was a mistake. I’m open to change, but immediately realized I missed my usually assessment, diagnosing and resolving IT issues, but now having the added responsibility of overseeing multiple people and their work made things more difficult and had to quickly learn to provide feedback to my peers, which is not the easiest nor the most enjoyable thing to do, as most people don’t enjoy having someone else tell them they aren’t doing their job properly.

    In the end, I decided to stick with it, because I felt it would provide me with a new challenge, a different perspective and adding some additional skills under my belt. However, unlike you Bob, this was considered a lateral move and therefore no increase in pay (insert sad face); and although I would have welcomed an increase in pay, I chose to accept the new role with the stipulation that if I don’t find it rewarding I can return to my previous role. Personally, I don’t think that would happen without some push-back from management, because they seem to like my no-nonsense approach to IT solutions, and my meticulous way of doing things; hence why they offered me this position to begin with.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post, because I can relate to this, as probably some of your readers would as well; but if I can part with some of my learned advice.

    Don’t get comfortable.

    It’s within human behaviour to not like change, to be satisfied with the status quo. I would challenge you to purposely step outside of your comfort zone. Keep trying to learn new skills. Believe me, they do not go unnoticed by your team. And when the time comes, don’t be afraid to provide fearless feedback to even your leads/management. I never see my boss as my boss. I’ve always seen it as, “you hired me” to do a job so I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and the ones who always immediately gave me push-back, not surprisingly are no longer my colleagues. As Bob points out, be open and willing to learn outside your immediate work responsibilities, as that will open more doors for you.

    Lastly I’d like to say, if you are working at a job you hate. Work hard at it, even if you hate it and even if your co-workers slack-off; show up, and do it! Is it that discipline, that approach, that compromise that will pay you dividends (no pun intended – HA!) for your future when more doors and opportunities come your way because that work behaviour will always be ingrained in your fiber that you will take with you for life.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      October 4, 2018 at 7:52 am

      Hi moneyhelp,

      Glad you enjoyed the article. I’m sorry to hear when you made the position change it didn’t come with a salary increase. That’s too bad. I would personally try to negotiate with your managers and see if you can get a salary adjustment.

      Don’t get comfortable is a very important lesson to learn for sure.

      I like your thoughts on work hard even if you hate your job. The hard work you put in will definitely pay off eventually.

  • Reply
    Shawn @ ThesmartFi
    October 3, 2018 at 8:50 am

    1/3 of your life at the same company? That is a rarity these days. I have been working at my current employer (hospital) for 15 years. I started as one of the youngest nurses and am now one of the oldest (insert crying emoji). You have some great tips, especially your advice about pay negotiations. no emotions. In the end, like you say. we are just a number to our employer; we can all be replaced.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      October 4, 2018 at 7:53 am

      Hi Shawn,

      Yup, that’s a rarity these days. Having said that, there are a lot of ppl in the company that have worked for much longer than me. It’s interesting to see that given a high tech company.

  • Reply
    Angela @ Tread Lightly Retire Early
    October 4, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    Huh. I guess I’m closing in on working at my job close to a third of my life as well (8 years now and I’m 30). But you’re right, it is VERY rare. I can think of just one friend who started his job before me. Everyone else is at a second, third, seventh job. Well, except for the lifers in the military.

    • Reply
      Tawcan
      October 5, 2018 at 10:03 am

      Yup, that’s definitely very rare nowadays, esp for us millennials. 🙂

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