During my senior year, I had a choice between three job offers: I could be a consultant at APT (a big data software company), a consultant at The Greatest Good(a data consultancy started by Freakonomics author Steve Levitt), or a solutions architect at Mixpanel (a web analytics startup). While all three of my jobs belonged under the Big Data umbrella, the job descriptions, business models, and cultures of the companies were quite different.
How did I pick? I chose APT mainly because I thought I could learn the most there. I was interested in Big Data technologies and analytical methods, as well as the Big Data ecosystem at large. APT had the scale and a transparent culture that I would get to see what management consultants see, i.e. different industries, as well as a bit of what product managers see, i.e. the product cycle. I could try on different hats and learn what work I liked best.
Here are some components of learning that I thought about:
Breadth of exposure: One can learn a lot simply by working in an environment that allows one to see a lot of moving parts. For example, one might choose to work at a consulting firm to meet people from different parts of the corporate ladder in different industries. One might choose to work at a big software company to look at different kinds of code, understand the engineering processes, and see how different tools are used. One might become an assistant to a senator to learn about the legislative process. These high exposure jobs offers a big picture and will teach you to know whom to talk to regarding different issues. One walks away with a mental model of how things actually work.
Intensity and variety of tasks: One can speed up learning by doing a lot of things really fast. Ask people at the company for a task breakdown by percentage. The things that you do are the things that you learn. If you’ll be on the phone mostly talking to clients, you’ll learn how to do that effectively. If you’re writing reports or PowerPoints most of the time, you will hone those skills. Don’t just focus on the business model of the company; understand what your job actually is.
Talent and experience of your co-workers: What you learn also depends on the caliber of people you surround yourself with. Work very closely someone who knows a lot and has a lot of high-powered work and you will learn to see the world as they do, as well as the habits that help them succeed. I think of the meteoric career advancement of Sheryl Sandberg, who worked for Larry Summers during her undergraduate career and then at the World Bank and the Treasury. Equally, you could go to a company that attracts top talent throughout the ranks. Think McKinsey or D.E.Shaw, a leading hedge fund. You will learn from everybody around you.
Boss / work culture: The work culture and your boss can make or break your happiness. Your boss can make you miserable or turbo-charge your career. When you evaluate a job, ask around to understand whether your boss will support and defend your work. Does she care about your personal growth and act as a mentor? Similarly, the culture of a company can enable you to learn or block you from being productive. If your work place has toxic politics that prevent you from learning from others, you will end up wasting a lot of time dealing with the politics instead.
Support infrastructure: It’s worth it to inquire about the resources that the company will devote to helping you succeed in the job as well. The question is: Will you be able to focus on the thing you actually care about? For example, does the company provide you with sufficient compensation so that you don’t have to worry too much about paying bills? Are there the internal staff, policies, support teams, or tools that you need in order to be productive? Will the additional perks (e.g. free food and gyms) help you focus on your job? How will these things affect your ability to learn?
Then there is a non-career dimension to an employment decisions as well. Family, friends, and location should factor your decision, for the people and support network around you are important for your personal growth as well.
You might ask, what should I learn? I was choosing between relatively similar paths with a field, but given a choice between two different fields, how would I have chosen? Well, that’s a topic for another post.