September 13, 2005

Musing about the future, looking at the past

I have a milestone birthday coming shortly which has me pondering generally but mostly about the 8-10 hours a day I spend in what I loosely call a career. Not quite a mid-life crisis, but a good stock-taking time. Your feedback, counsel, advice, and -- yes -- help (if you can bring yourself to it) will be asked for at the end, so enjoy the tale that follows. Maybe you can relate to it.

First, some back story. About five years ago I needed money. The dot-com I was starting up flamed out because we didn't get the post-Angel dough before the capital market melted down. Had sort of rolled the dice and was now without cash inflow or savings to match the persistent cash outflow that continued unabated. Bummer.

So I went to get a job. People actually told me that my 15 years of contract consulting at business strategy was not "real" experience. That is, it wasn't within a "real" (read: big) business. The rubber-meets-road business experience of really, actually meeting a payroll during my periodic serial entrepreneurship did me no service either because (a) it wasn't "real" business (again, read: corporate, big) and (b) it suggested I was a flight risk who would go back to starting-up as soon as I could. Not much anyone could say to that except maybe, "Oh yeah? Well . . . that's just not true." Big deal. The only thing to do was prove it. Besides, corporate experience couldn't hurt in the big scheme of things.

So, for reasons that made perfect sense at the time, I took a job for which my broad, general business experience was excessive. I was underhired, but as I said earlier, I needed money and the experience. And I was prepared to regain the ground I'd lost. The job was with an organization that is about as corporate and bureaucratic as you can find: rigorously structured and large by any measure. (I'll never forget one of my first internal meetings when I got business cards from people that worked for the same business.) And, from my perspective, I've performed very well while taking my lessons about corporate life and corporate perspective.

Over the past four years I've been involved at the centre of two corporate strategy activities and -- I think -- distinguished myself by standing in there with the most senior executives in the company while carrying the handicap of talking "up" nothing less than two hierarchical levels. That and being the "e" guy (read: flake) in the group. My employer's enduring interest in digital identity has given me the opportunity to become familiar if not near-expert in the business (and maybe even the philosophy) of digital identity as well you may know from this blog's typical content. Moreover, during this tenure I've also been able to indulge my desire to practice writing by blogging and writing essays on a variety of businessesque subjects, some of which have been published in magazines and newspapers. Got three patents with my colleague/boss for my product development efforts too. All in all, a pretty good showing.

The thing that I am most personally satisfied with is what I did to bring a very cool idea to life. When I first arrived and had nothing to do I was handed a nascent idea for a Web-based single-point registration engine that would allow surfers to ask for stuff anonymously. Having just come off a dot-com and with an unnatural interest in mobile telephony (SMS), I enhanced the idea by adding the phone. Then through a bit of tenacious market validation (litererally 20 lunches with senior executives from telecomm, advertising, Internet, and consumer merchandising), career-limiting refusal to be cowed into accepting the 70-year old EVP sponsor's insistence that, "Tim, you're not hearing me. It's about the Web," and the exceptional internal promotion skills of my colleague (boss) I saw the concept funded for market test -- if the prototype could be built and the ecosystem of partners and participants assembled.

I'd had enough and wanted to try something else. That lasted about two months before, at the new team's insistence, I was brought back to do the non-build stuff. So I hit the road. Forty-five thousand airmiles, probably a hundred or more meetings, thousands of nagging follow-up calls, engaging several well-connected influencers and riding them like Secretariat, and unashamedly asking people who had no interest to invest and participate in something they didn't want to do, my (surprising) unmitigated chutzpah paid off. By default and negotiation with wireless and technology partners, media companies, and advertisers I set the test time and location. It was done. Then, as the test was being prepared for operation, off I went into the sunset (and don't think I'm not still a little bitter about that push; but it's in the past). Regardless, the whole thing happened in no small part because I had something to prove -- mostly to myself.

I'm going to take a break for a moment and say that I do realize that this particular post has me at the centre to an indiscrete degree. Hard to get away from it. I apologize, but do not retract a word. It is what it is. Now back to our story, which we pick up with the musing mentioned at the top.

Here's the nub (finally): I am pleased with my accomplishments and what I've learned. It's possible that my employer and/or certain people in the organization are too. However, I feel a little unrewarded since this kind of accomplishment at many places would have resulted in significant status and even financial elevation. Be that as it may, and that's not my entire point, what I'm wondering about is what's left?

What's left to do except maybe more of the same? The project I spent a lot of time describing may be one of the biggest initiatives the organization has undertaken in a while. The strategy work I'm involved in cuts to the very future of the business. And . . .? I'm feeling a bit like the guy who blows into town, does his unsung job, and, in the last scene, has to leave to go where they need him more (or, for you Canadians out there, like "The Littlest Hobo" --woof). So the pondering is this:

If you don't feel rewarded and, in fact, are stagnating -- while at the same time sense that you've succeeded doing as much as can be done in the circumstance -- is it appropriate to move on? Or should one just suck it up?

This is part of what I don't know about a job and a corporate career. Can anybody -- confidentially or in the comments -- tell me their story if it's near the same, provide an opinion, give some advice? I plan on using it.

Posted by Grayson at September 13, 2005 09:27 PM

Hey Tim,

Ken Schafer pointed me to this post and said that you may appreciate my story.

I have a very similar yarn, but with a twisted ending (beginning?). I'm less senior than you in years of experience as in the first boom I was just starting my career. When the dot coms went bust, I was two years into establishing myself as an 'e-marketer'. If you think that getting work with 15 years of this mumbo jumbo internet stuff is hard...well...

I went into the most clueless industry ever. Advertising. Tom Hanks made it seem fun in Big, so I thought, "What the hey". Then I struck out on my own and had a good run until I ran in with a clueless client. Took the life-sucking 'make the most out of it' job with the beaurocratic association (so they pay worse) and got to the point a couple of months ago that I thought it would be better to live in a cardboard box than to go in for another day of work.

Then came my ray of light. The blogosphere.

The board of directors of the association I worked at were doing a back to the 50's style hacking of the already stretched staff and I knew it was time to jump ship or sink with it. I posted, similar to yourself, my desires to change. However, I posted a very strong beacon with a specific goal and my resume to boot.

The next thing I know, I got an email from an A-Lister blogger who I had interacted with occasionally telling me about an opportunity in Silicon Valley...ground an online start up. I thought it was a total shot in the dark, but I went for it anyway and did the whole interviewing over the phone and email thing.

Less than a week later, I was giving my notice.

Ten days later, I was on a plane to San Francisco.

Today, less than a month later, I am happier than I've ever been in my career.

There is more of this yarn documented on my own blog (as well as my new boss, Munjal). My new title is Chief Blogger (or at least, a large part of it).

I hope that is inspirational enough for you. I figure we only live once as far as we know...

Oh...and I know of other opportunities down here, so email me and I'll hook you up.


Posted by: Tara 'Miss Rogue' Hunt at September 14, 2005 02:41 AM


What a great ending. Or is it just the beginning? If all's well that ends well, then I guess you (and Ken and Tad) will be well. I love happy endings and inspirational stories. And yours has that, I think. May the power of the blogosphere rain down upon me. Of course, my A-listers are only occasional readers . . .


Posted by: TRDG at September 14, 2005 01:23 PM