Any Experience is Good Experience, and Other Falsehoods

At the beginning of my career, I took a job that was well aligned with where I wanted my career to go. I was going to be designing custom electronics in a dynamic, fast-paced environment and be able to get my hands on different kinds of technologies very quickly – what I considered good experience.

Two weeks after I started that position, my group was put under a new manager, hired from outside the company, who decided that we should be buying our systems from third parties instead of designing them ourselves. He wanted to outsource all the design work I was hired to do and turn our department into what could be referred to as a “systems integrator.” That decision radically changed my job description, responsibilities, career path, and the experience I would be getting. Being so early in my career, I decided to stay in the same department and see where this new career path might take me – I was a naive optimist.

That was the start of a 3-4 year meandering detour as a series of managers and senior engineers took advantage of my skillset, abilities, and work ethic to make their projects, and themselves, successful at my expense and the expense of my career. On one hand, you could argue that I allowed it to happen.  On the other, I simply had the misfortune of being hired into a department so mismanaged and toxic it never would have occurred to me to think it would be allowed to exist inside of a company that was otherwise very well run and successful.

A year and a half later, it was blatently obvious that I didn’t want to do that kind of work, or in that kind of environment, for the rest of my career.  I started looking for more design oriented, engineering jobs to put my career back on its original path, but I bumped into a new problem. I had work experience, but it wasn’t experience in a field similar to the positions I was applying for. I suddenly realized I wasn’t looking for a job change, I was looking for a career change. The experience I was getting through my job wasn’t experience that was applicable to the career I wanted.

[Spoiler Alert: This story has a happy ending. My career is in a much better position where I have more learning opportunities than I know what to do with and work with incredibly capable and intelligent people. I still have a lot of work to do, but that might always be the case as I’m looking for the next opportunity.]

Your work experience is a positive feedback loop – it compounds. If you’re acruing experience in a field or skillset that doesn’t build towards a career you want, you’re digging yourself deeper into a hole you’ll eventually need to climb out of. Coming straight out of school in a competitive job market, it can be easy to have the mentality that any experience is good experience. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this is dependent on the industry, but it does seem that you can be pigeon-holed into a particular kind of job very quickly based on your previous professional experience. Where and how your career starts can be incredibly important in determining what kind of options you have later.

To bring this full circle back to the idea of being domesticated: if the goal is to be able to act more opportunistically, then you first have to create, and be able to take advantage of, opportunities.  Having work experience in fields that are conducive to the desired direction of your career allows you to create opportunites that are valuable to you – like job offers. If you’re dependent(domesticated) on your company, then it’s going to be difficult to take advantage of an opportunity because of high opportunity costs. You will have to give up things you are accustomed to just to make a change, hopefully for the better in the long run.

It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself in a situation where your company or manager is asking you to work on projects that benefit the company, but not your career. As one manager told me while trying to convince me to further postpone my career to work on his projects, “Well, we need smart people working on these problems, too.”

That may be true, but if the company no longer has the kind of work that takes your career in the direction you want it to go, doesn’t that mean your career goals and the company’s needs have diverged? It’s a manager’s job to find people who want to do the the kind of work the company requires. It’s not your responsibility to adapt your career to what the company needs – especially if you were hired on the pretext of doing a certain type of work and the needs of the company change.

You need the ability to say “no” when asked to do things that do not benefit your career. This isn’t selfish or not being a team player. It’s protecting your livelihood, and in many ways your happiness and autonymy. That ability to say “no” hinges on being able to take advantage of another opportunity, so don’t allow yourself to be steered into a position where those opportunities are difficult or impossible to create.

 

 

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