CONVERSATION in an elevator: two engineers in their mid-20s exchanging notes. “How much did you ask?” “Eighty-five,” comes the reply. The job interview has obviously taken place on company time. So what? The two engineers are oblivious to the fact that the elevator is a public place and that they are not alone. The casual, almost cynical, transaction reminds me of day traders during the Internet boom.
Day trading, for the uninitiated, is buying and selling stocks in order to make a gain, in one day. It requires the intuition and the risk-taking abilities of a gambler. It is not about tomorrow, it is not about anything you would remotely call long term. The Internet arrived. And day trading shifted from the floor of the stock exchange to the virtual world. Many sensible professionals learnt about ways to make money without leaving the suburbs – all you needed was a PC and a modem. People quit their jobs and got on to day trading. Then the world stopped. Billions of dollars of losses later, the day-trading folk – flower children of the late 1990s – are still picking up the pieces.
It is ironic, however, that the lesson is lost on many other people. The workplace is not a gambling den. To some, the most critical issue is to know who is getting how much money and where. There is no view of tomorrow and what the real wager in the game is. The initial years of a career are akin to the years spent in internship by a young surgeon. Inherent talent or skill does not matter. Real learning comes by watching senior doctors at work, learning to pick up signals while doing the rounds holding on to someone’s coat-tails, and sharpening one’s knowledge, skill and attitude. More importantly, these are the years when one learns to learn.
But where is the time to learn to learn? I meet 20-something people who are convinced that they are ready to become the chief of finance or marketing or human resource of their organisations. They cannot wait and must get there before a ‘batchmate’ does. Telling them to ease up is like preaching celibacy to a teenager.
Recently, I met one such give-me-the-chief’s-job-or-I-will-go-elsewhere youngster. He just could not wait. I have a very simple thing to say to his kind. Think of nature. By the time you enter your teens, you have the ability to procreate. But society has realised that the ability to procreate and to parent are two different things. That is why even though at 12 you are physically ready to be a dad, you wait till you are 30. To the youngster I met, only functional knowledge mattered. That is like the ability to procreate, not the ability to take up parenting.
On another occasion I was speaking to a competent professional who had just changed jobs to join MindTree. I asked him what his motivation was in stepping out of his earlier organisation. “Peer pressure,” he replied. The last time I had known people talking about peer pressure was in the context of smoking or drinking. Here was an otherwise sensible, full-grown human being, educated in the best of institutions with a good job on hand. Yet, he walked out because all his friends who had joined the organisation with him were gone.
One makes a job change for substantive reasons – each job change can be a snake-and-ladder game. It is not just about the job title and salary you get. In the early years, it is critical who you work with, how much headroom there is to learn and contribute, how competent the environment is to provide tough feedback, so that you are ready for larger challenges.
Another group of young engineers I met at an industry event asked me if it is true that staying in one place for long makes you lose your worth. The answer lies in observing the track record of people who have made an impact during their lifetime. Seldom will you see that they have been mindless job-hoppers. They certainly haven’t made job changes of the day trading or the peer-pressure kind. People at the top are invariably the ones who have made two, at best, three changes in their entire career.