Changing jobs can be scary and confusing. Everybody has things that are important to them at a particular point in their career. Thinking clearly about what is important to you can be hard, but without clarity on what is important to you, making a job decision is fraught with danger. As I have traveled along my personal career trajectory I created a tool that has helped me with this. I call it the Job Decision Matrix.
The Job Decision Matrix is one of those tools where you get enormous benefit from the exercise of using the tool as well as the result the tool generates.
The goal of the Job Decision Matrix is to identify what is actually important to you at a particular point in your career. Gaining clarity on what is important to you will help you identify new job opportunities, avoid wasting time on job opportunities that are not right for you, and to make a job decision with conviction.
The three goals of the Job Decision Matrix
- Identify new job opportunities
- Avoid wasting yours and others’ time.
- Make job decisions with conviction.
If you have not already done so, take a moment to read You Are Thinking About Your Career Trajectory Wrong. Once you view your career trajectory as a non-linear progression akin to a series of inter-planetary space missions, you will realize that your perspective changes over time. At each stage of your career the things you care about will be different.
When I was graduating from University of Arizona (Go Cats!) I couldn’t even spell “family.” The concept of caring about feeding a family was simply irrelevant to me. All I really cared about was the technical domain (GUI applications) I’d be working in and the stage of the company (established, but not big). Later in my career I was married with children. Suddenly feeding a family was something I cared deeply about.
As you work through your Job Decision Matrix, recognize that you should focus on what is important to you NOW, not what you imagine might be important to you in the future, or what you used to care about. (This goes along with another career belief I have: you should change jobs at least every 3 years; but that’s a topic for another day).
Buckets are simply groupings of similar things that you can stack-rank. It seems like most people end up with something like 6 to 8 buckets.
In my experience helping others with this tool, buckets are very personal. Everybody has their own perspective on life. There are some that resonate with most people though, such as: “Company Size/Stage”, “Location”, and “Money”.
Let’s use a fictional character to illustrate. Ralph is right out of a masters degree in Comp Sci and looking for his first real job. He hooked up with his high-school girlfriend in college and is already married. He believes he wants to be a professional software developer. His wife has family in Seattle and she really loves it here. They currently live near downtown Seattle. They don’t have kids yet and love to travel. Ralph’s wife has a job and makes an OK amount of coin.
Here’s what the top-left portion of Ralph’s Job Decision Matrix might look like:
|Company Size||Location||Technical Domain||Money|
|Big Company||Seattle (Downtown)||Cloud services||Living expenses|
|Mid-sized Company||Seattle (Eastside)||Developer tools||2 big trips a year|
Ralph’s not an entrepreneur. He really just wants to start his career off with a solid job. So he’s identified that getting a job with an established company is the most important thing for him right now. Company Size is his most important bucket, and within that bucket Big Company comes first.
Ralph’s smart enough to know he won’t be happy unless his wife is happy; living in Seattle is super important. He’d prefer not to have to commute to the Eastside (what we call the suburbs here), so he stack-ranks Seattle (Downtown) above an Eastside job, but push come to shove, he’d take a job on the Eastside. And if a really great job came up in Portland they’d take it.
Because Ralph’s wife works, Ralph has the luxury of being able to prioritize what he works on, the technical domain, above money. As you can see, he’s a back-end kind of guy, but if he found a job building mobile apps he’d seriously consider it.
This example is a good start. I encourage people to have 6 or 7 buckets, though, because there a few buckets I find people don’t normally think about that prove helpful. More on these other buckets below.
Order your buckets from left to right. The buckets on the left should be more important to you than those to the right. If you can’t decide if one bucket is more important to you than another don’t worry about it. Move on. But ponder it in the shower tomorrow morning and come back and re-order if you’ve gotten clarity. The key thing is to really try to decide which bucket is MOST important and which is LEAST important.
For me, right now, Company Stage is the bucket that is most important for me. Technical Domain is least important.
Within each buckets make sure the items are ORDERED by what is most important to you. The thing you care most about right now should be at the top and the thing you care least about should be at the bottom.
Tools for the Tool
I used to use an Excel spreadsheet for this tool. Each bucket was a column. Now I use a Trello board where I have List for each bucket and each item is a Card.
You can find my current Job Decision Matrix on this Trello Board:
This really is my own personal Job Decision Matrix. I updated it as I wrote this post. I may have changed it again since this post was written. Hopefully it can provide a real-world example. But, do not read too much into it as it is MY matrix and only I really understand it (I reserve the right to call you an idiot if you attempt to extract some deep meaning from it).
The nice thing about Trello is it makes moving things around super easy. If it doesn’t feel right to have “Money” to the left of “People” simply drag & drop it. And items within the buckets can be ordered likewise. You can also attach notes to Cards which can be useful.
I run Trello full screen so I can see all of my buckets in one view. I find visualizing it this way is helpful. (Click for larger view).
To further illustrate here are some more examples taken from my own personal matrix. I’m taking the time to include these because I want you to explore some buckets you may not have thought about.
The upper-left of my matrix looks like this:
Company Size / Stage
I’m at a place in my career where the most important thing is to focus on startups. That’s why I left Microsoft; I want to spend the next 5-7 years living & breathing startups. Clearly the things in the top-left of my matrix better be startup related or I’m not really being clear in my thinking. But I’m somewhat flexible in what stage the startup is in. Ideally I’d be starting my own company (which is what I’m doing). If there was an opportunity to join a funded startup I would consider it. I put “Large Companies” last in this bucket only to illustrate these lists must be prioritized. The LAST thing I want to do right now is work for a large company.
I have always cared deeply what customer I’m focused on. I know I am not happy in jobs where I have to think about certain customers. I’ve served IT Pros, but, frankly, their problems bore me to death. Thus my customer bucket is ranked pretty highly (3rd) and I have a stack-ranked list of customer types I care about/want to serve. Right now consumer end-users are at the top of that list, but I do love building products for developers too. It is OK for you to not like a particular customer segment. It is NOT ok for you to hate your job because you can’t find empathy for your customer.
I’m regularly surprised when a mentee hasn’t thought about what kind of people he/she wants to work with. I’ve had points in my career where the previous “space mission” was so fraught with a-holes and soul-sucking ladder climbers that my most important bucket was “People” and the very top item in the People bucket was “Work with people I know & trust”.
Right now my “People” bucket has (in order) “work with new people”, “work with experienced entrepreneurs”, “work with non-MS affiliated people”, “work with people I know & trust”. In other words, I’m willing to take some risks on who I work with right now because it’s more important that I “un-learn Microsoft” than to “feel safe”. Being around people I’ve worked with for 21 years will not help me grow.
I love this one. I have Chris Phillips, the best manager I ever had, to thank for this concept.
As you go through your career you earn stripes. Like sergeant stripes or merit badges. Stripes are the things you are able to say “I really, actually, proved that I could do that.” You can get a stripe multiple-times. Some people love getting the same stripe over and over. I am wired such that I want as many stripes as I can possibly get.
You only get a stripe for FINISHING. Don’t cheat yourself by claiming a stripe where you didn’t really achieve it.
What stripes are on your radar for this phase of your career? Have you hired someone? Have you fired someone? Have you created an open source project that others have voluntarily contributed to?
At Microsoft I sought funding for a startup: Windows Home Server. I was successful in getting that startup funded. That’s a pretty cool stripe that not many others can claim. I also claim a stripe for turning that startup into a brand new business at Microsoft (a very rare thing indeed). But I’ve never done it in the real world (Microsoft is not the real world). So at the top of my “Stripe” bucket now is “Seek & get seed funding in the real world”.
I’ve also never sold a company. I sure would love to have the experience of doing so though. Which is why it’s in my stripe bucket; stack-ranked below getting funding (duh, logical).
Very much related to Stripes is the Role bucket. Role is literally what role you want to play within the organization. For example, do you want to be an individual contributor or a lead?
In my case, being focused on startups, I care about having a role where I’m driving the technical and product direction for the company. This is important to me. So I have “Founder (CTO)” listed first. But I’ve decided that ensuring I can pay for my kid’s college, the people I work with, the customer I’m focused on, the location where I live/work, and the company stage are all more important that being a Founder/CTO. Having that kind of clarity is super liberating! It means that if an opportunity came along that met those other criteria I would be happy even if it wasn’t at CTO type role!
Some people care about titles. That’s OK (it can be important to be given a title because, like it or not, titles impact people’s perception). I can’t imagine ever having a Title bucket that is anywhere near the left side of my matrix, but I do know other people who would. To each his or her own.
I encourage people to have a “money” bucket. Items in that bucket might be things like “get rich”, “maintain”, “slow growth”. Decide what is important to you in terms of your financial situation and stack-rank/prioritize (e.g. What is MOST important to you RIGHT NOW in your career).
Do not forget to factor your spouse or significant other into your thinking here!
If you are seeking a new job, then I highly recommend you give the Job Decision Matrix a try. Even if you are not actively seeking a new “space mission” in your career right now, you can use the Job Decision Matrix to gain clarity on what is important to you.
The tool is pretty simple. Create a matrix where the columns are a stack-ranked set of related things you care about (Buckets). The rows are stack-ranked things you care about.
When you are looking a job descriptions use your Job Decision Matrix to select interesting jobs and to filter out ones you shouldn’t waste time on.
When you have been offered a choice in jobs use the Job Decision Matrix to help you decide which one to take.
Over the years I’ve shared the Job Decision Matrix tool with dozens of mentees and have gotten the feedback that it was super-useful. An email from some random dude asking me for career advice (ha!) incented me to actually write this tool down for the first time. I hope you find it useful and would love to see some conversation about it in comments.
Charlie Kindel has been building software products for over 28 years. He is founder and CTO of a stealth Seattle startup, founder and CEO of BizLogr, Inc, and is active in the Seattle startup community. Charlie was formerly the General Manager for the Windows Phone Developer Ecosystem at Microsoft where he drove the creation of the application and game ecosystem for Windows Phone 7. During his 21 year tenure at Microsoft, Charlie worked on a broad range of things including Windows home networking, Windows Media Center, and Windows Home Server.