To High Tech or Not to High Tech

There was a recent article in the New York Times that painted a pretty bleak picture of working at Amazon, followed by a ton of responses for and against what the article stated. Over the years, I have read quite a few of those articles and now that I am Seattle-based, I work in a high-tech company area. For what the article said, you could change the name of the high-tech company and reprint. So the question isn’t this high-tech company or that one, rather, it is high-tech company or not high-tech company.

In companies that create technology-based products, there will always be someone better than you and someone worse than you. You will have a very narrow band of skills that you bring expertise on and be known as the whatever-your-skills-is person. Business will be business and if your value doesn’t exceed your cost to the company, you will be freed to pursue other opportunities. When Jack Welch was in charge of General Electric (GE) he wanted to replace the bottom 10 percent of performers with fresh blood. He was famous for saying that having people fired from GE was not a bad thing and provided value to the company. Today’s titans are stretching the boundaries of business practice and trying new ideas. If you like a challenge, fast pace, and very high expectations, then go with a startup company.

Established companies or "non-technical" companies typically have a slower pace of business and since IT is an enabler rather than the focus of the business, the pressure on a technologist is different. You are not compared to all the other roles in the organization, but also are the person on the team to keep IT going and keep the company out of the Wall Street Journal. If you can’t do it, there are not a lot of other people to go to for support. You are also part of the cost of doing business more than part of the team that brings in the money.       

If you have worked both in high tech and another industry as a technologist, you get it. In a company where everyone is technical and the products are technical, there is a different level of expectation and a different pace of business. Same with start-up versus established companies. High-tech and start-up are very fast-paced and centered on technology. Established companies or non-technical companies often have a different level of expectation and pace of business. That said, most companies are shifting to a more cutthroat environment with a very fast pace that sets the expectation that there really isn’t a notion of “work hours” – work hours are defined as you having a pulse and still breathing. Some key takeaways if you are a technologist trying to figure out where to work:

Do determine whether you are working to live or living to work. Younger and more high-tech companies are going to have higher expectations for your skills and work ethic. If you want that, yay! Jump in and do it. If not, stay away.

Do focus on one specific and tangible skill and be the best inside and outside of your organization at it. Business managers need to know your skill and be able to assign a value to it to reward you. While you may not be able to be the best in the world, be known by the best and widen the geography you are known in.

Do expect the pressure and expectation to rise as your salary and position in a company grows. When you find the level in a company and industry that provides you an acceptable (for you) work/life balance, enjoy it. When your skills atrophy or you need a change, do it!

Do not set your self-image, expect loyalty or satisfaction based on your company’s feedback. Companies are businesses and business is business. There will be plenty of “unfair” decisions made for and against you. You have to measure yourself by your yardstick and by the feedback in your network.   

Whatever you do, enjoy what you can when you can and listen to your inner voice. There are plenty of times I ignored that voice and things went sideways. Had I listened, things would have gone much easier. 

Andy Ruth
SEI Mentor
Apprenticeship Program