Navigating the current landscape

The last few months have been difficult for employees of high-growth startups and public companies. As investors adjust to a likely future of higher interest rates, they are less willing to pay high multiples for growth-stage companies — resulting in the stock price declines we’ve seen across a broad range of public companies. Many private high-growth companies are likely suffering the same valuation drops, just not as transparently (since those valuations are by definition private), though some have officially lowered their valuations this year. Layoffs are becoming more common, and some companies are even rescinding accepted offers.

How should you navigate this environment? You could just continue doing your job, keeping your head down and hoping that everything gets better. Or you could go into full panic mode, looking for a new job at a safer company.

I recommend a third option. Below, I list some of the things that you might want to do to increase the odds that you emerge stronger from this period of uncertainty. There are two major categories of items I describe: understanding and doing.

Understanding

Understand your company

You should understand how your company is doing. Aim to get a sense of the following:

What do the company’s numbers look like? Are they trending in the right direction? If you work in a public company, you have an advantage here, since you can look directly at the company’s quarterly earnings reports. You should augment this public information with information from internally available material — metrics dashboards, all-hands presentations, and so on — to help you gauge how well the company is doing.

I want to caution strongly here that none of this advice means that you should buy or sell your company’s stock based on material, non-public information. There are strict rules around that, and if you’re in doubt, you should either talk with your company’s stock admin department, or just not do whatever it is you’re thinking of doing. But in general, you should have a basic fluency with the company’s performance numbers.

At a private company, you won’t have the same level of public information, but you’ll still have access to internal information about the company’s performance. Take a look at it, and try to understand the broad strokes. Is the number of customers increasing? Is the growth rate staying the same, increasing, or declining? Is the company getting closer to profitability if it is not already?

What are the company’s priorities? You should talk to peers and your managers to understand what’s important to the company right now. This may be very different from what was important at the start of the year, or even a quarter ago. For many companies, it’s becoming clear that profitability is much more important today than growth. This means that speculative new areas that won’t contribute to the company’s bottom line in the near term are in danger of being cut. Some companies will have areas that are adjacent to their core business that will continue to receive investment, while areas that are further on the periphery may be cut. Try to get a sense of how the company classifies the area you work in: core, adjacent, or peripheral.

What if you find that you work in a non-core area? While some companies will make sweeping, area-wide layoffs (where both good and poor performers may be let go because of reduced investment in an area), most smaller companies will look at individual performance rather than cutting across the board. So just working in a non-core area doesn’t mean that you’ll lose your job. But it may mean that you should raise your hand more often to work on important initiatives, especially “horizontal” or cross-cutting projects where participation is relatively open. With more vertical projects, team assignments are often clear from the start, and it’s harder to work on them if you’re not in one of the teams they are assigned to; this is often not the case on horizontal projects (if you’re an engineer, think about projects that help the engineering team become more productive, through work in areas such as libraries, tools, standards, or learning and development).

Understand the industry

One way to make yourself more valuable is to have domain expertise in addition to your function-specific technical expertise. If you’re an engineer, you should have a good understanding of how users use your company’s products, in addition to understanding technically how to build those products. You should also have a reasonable sense of the value your company offers, and how it makes money. Understanding this surrounding context makes it more likely that you’ll make better decisions and add more value to your company.

Understand where you stand

The final piece of understanding the environment is understanding where you stand relative to others in your company. You may already have a sense of this from performance reviews you’ve received previously; however, if you’re in an early stage startup or a company that hasn’t matured its processes, your “performance reviews” may have consisted of a vague uncomfortable conversation with your manager, so you may not have much information to go on. In any case, you should start having conversations with your manager about your performance. Discuss both what you’ve accomplished in the past and where you hope to go, and ask for specific feedback on gaps relative to the next level. (Making a plan and documenting your accomplishments, covered in the “Doing” section below, can help you have a more useful conversation.) Most managers and organizations want people who are motivated to stay, so discussing the next level in your career isn’t premature as long as you have the conversation in a constructive way. You want to show that you understand the company’s constraints (which you should understand better if you’ve done your research as mentioned earlier), but are also clear about how you’ve added value and your aspirations.

Doing

In parallel to understanding where things are, you can also start doing things that will position you well for whatever’s next.

Exceed expectations

This may be obvious, but make sure that you are exceeding expectations for your role. You want your management, and peers within the company, to think of you as a top performer. You can’t (in general) fake your way into this sort of perception, but you can help it along in the following ways:

  1. Excel at work that’s clearly within your area.
  2. Volunteer for work that’s not in your area, but which is important to the company. (If you’ve followed some of the advice in the “Understanding” section above, you may have a better sense of what the important areas are.)
  3. Communicate your accomplishments, without coming across as vain or credit-hogging. Periodically, take stock of your accomplishments over the last few (say six) months, and send your manager a written update with that information. Connecting your accomplishments to quantitative impact on the company is probably the most effective way to do this. Your company may require this sort of summary in the form of a self-assessment for a performance review cycle, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a good idea to take the initiative to do this yourself.
  4. Communicate well. If you’re presenting in a meeting, communicate at the right level of abstraction for your audience. You want to provide a higher level perspective in general to people further away from the details of your project, or people “higher up” the management chain who may want only an overview. In written communication (email or IM), be clear, thorough and concise. If someone asks you three questions, make sure you answer them all, not just the first two.
  5. Keep your commitments. If you say you’ll do something by a certain date, do it; if you can’t, whether due to factors within or outside your control, let everyone involved know. Don’t deflect blame, but don’t hesitate to clearly explain the root cause of why you’re unable to do what you said you would. Perhaps equally importantly, try proactively to solve the problems you’re facing; don’t stop at stating the problem, but work actively to find solutions.

Some of this advice is very basic, but it’s surprising how many people don’t do it. Getting these basics right differentiates you from many other people.

Build relationships

You should use this time of uncertainty to build relationships within the company, and strengthen your relationships outside the company. You can do this without being inauthentic or a “career networker” — simply be open to meeting with people, learning from them, and helping them wherever you can. Building relationships within your company helps you learn about new areas and problems within your company’s context, which will hopefully give you new ideas about ways in which you can increase your value to your company. And strengthening relationships with former coworkers or classmates outside the company is a good hedge in case you do need to find new opportunities.

Beyond these short-term benefits, building relationships is just a good thing to do overall. Strong social connections increase your satisfaction both with your work and with life overall, and investing in human relationships is worthwhile.

But what if you’re the shy sort who hates asking people out for coffee? You can start small: have a 1:1 with someone on your team that isn’t about a specific project or task. Then expand the set of people you meet to people from adjacent teams, the broader organization within your company, and acquaintances at other companies.

I’ve found that a good way to break the ice with people is to ask them about how they are feeling — if you want, you can “prime” the conversation by bringing up something that happened recently — “how are you feeling about the announcement at our last all-hands that we’d be slowing down hiring?”. People generally like talking about their feelings, and open-ended questions like this are a good way to get the conversation flowing.

Another effective way I’ve found to build a meaningful connection is to bring to the conversation a specific problem that you’re dealing with, describe your thought process and attempts to solve it, and ask the other person for input. If you’re doing this, you should probably mention this when you’re setting up the conversation so they don’t feel surprised, but this is also a good way to build a collaborative relationship.

Neither of these tools should be used in a manipulative way — if you ask someone for their opinion, you should genuinely value their opinion and want to hear the response. But these may be useful ideas if you struggle to have more than task or project-specific conversations with other people — they help you understand others at a deeper level, and build closer relationships.

Create a plan

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” I’m a big believer in setting aside time every week to think and plan. I like to think about where I want to be at the end of the quarter, the end of the current year, and a year from now, in my current role. Most of this weekly thinking time goes into setting weekly goals that move me toward these longer term goals; less frequently, I may adjust some of the longer term goals. A couple of times a year, I also set aside time to think about where I want to be two or more years from now, and what my next role will look like.

If you’re in a leadership position, I recommend you do both types of planning: the more near term (current quarter/current year) planning, as well as the more personal long term career planning. You should consider yourself in a leadership role if part of your job responsibilities involves determining what other people work on, even if you don’t officially manage people.

If you’re not yet in a leadership role, you may find the most value in doing the second type of planning. Think about where you want to be a few years in the future, and specifically in your next role. If you started looking for a job in six months, what would you hope to have as accomplishments on your resume? Then start working toward getting that experience. For many people, this means taking on increasingly broad scope, leading projects, or working cross-team. It may be helpful to speak with others (mentors, or people with whom you’ve built relationships) to refine your thoughts around what’s next. Writing down what you want to have happen is the first step toward making it happen.

Wrapping Up

The current environment is uncertain, scary, and for people who graduated after 2008, may seem unprecedented. What’s certain is that at some point the turmoil will end, markets will bottom out, and optimism will return. Through it all, the best companies and people will thrive. I hope some of the advice in this post will help you emerge from this volatile period stronger and better equipped to thrive in your career. Good luck.

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Engineering leadership, growth, navigating ambiguity. Create, learn, repeat.

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Abhijeet Vijayakar

Engineering leadership, growth, navigating ambiguity. Create, learn, repeat.