Job hopping: Imperfect #5
Is it bad?
Technical people famously stay very little time in their jobs. But changing too frequently can be seen as a red flag by hiring managers. After all, companies invest time and resources in each hire, and they want to get their money’s worth.
With the tech jobs market being on fire at the moment, it’s never been more tempting to hop for something better. But can jumping around too much hurt in the long run?
Why tenure is so low
Average tenure at tech startups seems to be very low across the board. 2 years seems like a decent stay. As a manager, and especially since the pandemic, I think this number from 2018 seems high now. But why?
1. It’s easier to get a raise and a promotion by moving
In my opinion, tech companies generally optimise for hiring rather than growing talent. There are many obstacles to getting promoted, like having to wait for a performance review, getting a good one, waiting for the desired role to open up, applying to it, and then rolling the dice on whether or not one gets picked. On the other hand, it’s possible to go on LinkedIn over lunch break and book ten interviews for a better position. Three weeks and a notice period later, one can unwrap a shiny new laptop at an exciting new job at arbitrarily higher compensation.
2. Startups change a lot
I’ve been through a couple unicorns personally, and know plenty of people at others. There is a common theme of the company changing its culture over time. That shift often alienates the earlier employees, who no longer recognise the place they used to love. So they walk.
3. But people change faster
The whole deal of tech jobs is rapid career progression. Join an early stage band of misfits as a mid-level engineer, go through absolute hell, be Director at a unicorn two years later. People can and do grow faster than companies. It’s quite common to outgrow one’s role, find no growth opportunities internally, and find them in the job market instead. These opportunities often bring financial benefits, but they can also be purely new challenges.
4. And most startups still fail
It cannot be overstated how absolutely overflowing the startup deadpool is. And everyone knows. Stock is often added to cash to pad up compensation packages, with the understanding that 1 dollar in stock now will be worth many dollars in equity on exit. And that is a very good thing - people should have a stake in any upside their work generates. But most companies fail, and all go through difficulties. It’s common for people to lose confidence during tough spells and leave for greener pastures, their vast unvested stock powerless to stop them.
5. AND, work sucks
There are clearings in the dark forest of startup life. Times and places where everything comes together, the sun shines on us, and life is great. But mostly it’s a bit of a grind. We’re all solving whatever problem for the first time, under tight deadlines, following whatever process is top of hacker news this week, for fickle customers, reporting to nervous investors, fighting for talent against every other startup, all the while hearing how we’re all expected to give 200% all of the time and it’s up or out. People burn out left, right, and centre all the time.
And for those who happen to not be straight white able-bodied child-free men in their 20 or 30s, triple the pain. Because you need to prove yourself so much harder.
Most startups are not set up to give people an enjoyable life, and so people keep trying to find it elsewhere. No amount of 8am yoga classes is going to help if the basics are off.
What companies can do
In principle, companies are interested in keeping valuable technical people around for as long as possible. Software products are complex, and it can take up to a year for a programmer to be fully onboarded and operating at full capacity. Not great when the programmer leaves just as they’re coming up to speed.
I’ve learned over the years that companies that sound too worried about their employees’ tenure are giving off a sort of organisational smell. A hint that perhaps they don’t understand the problem.
Companies that do well on talent retention seem to let the facts do the talking. They rarely say they’re great. Rather, they talk up their mission, why they exist, where they’re going. They let the facts click with the people who’ll be the right fit, and they take measures to keep themselves competitive in terms of compensation, ownership, quality peers, education, career growth and quality of life. I’ve never seen a company that I think is cool describing itself as cool.
The most inspirational companies tend to be supportive of people moving on to other things. I heard a friend at Spotify rave about their CEO calling them all “future startup founders” and how motivating that was. He’s still there after four years, so clearly that encouragement hasn’t affected his tenure.
As a manager, I believe that it’s our job to make our teams attractive places to be. If we don’t have the means to do so, even after trying hard to get them, then we need to make choices too. About whether we stay in places that don’t value their workers, or vote with our feet by walking out towards places that do.
Luckily, in this day and age, the majority of tech companies do have the means. So our job is more about how we employ those resources and make our teams attractive, fulfilling places to work at.
My advice as an employee
Most hiring managers care far less about how long a candidate stayed at their previous jobs than they do about the reasons for changing and the learnings accumulated. The reality is that in tech there’s a job for everyone.
So my advice is to not worry too much. Whatever your reasons for changing jobs often, someone is going to understand them. Probably most people. They might be what lands you the jobs of your dreams. Just try and always learn something.
In the end, we’re all on our own journeys. Leaving a great place in order to learn something different, go travel, switch careers or any other reason is perfectly valid.
As a hiring manager I prefer to avoid asking why someone job hopped. I rather ask what they’re looking for. What’s going to make them want to stay for a long time. Because whether or not they’ll find it here is something I can control to an extent. I can’t control where their life is going to take them — that’s for them to decide.
We all have but one life and it’s ours to decide how to live.