Photo via Frédérique Voisin-Demery

I think it’s really easy for developers to forget how much power they have. Designers too. Even with all of the articles about the talent drain, and stories of acqui-hires with developers fetching $1 million apiece, it really feels like the talent still hasn’t figured out that they have the upper hand.

In the last two weeks, two developers approached me and said they wanted to apply to TechStars Seattle, but were worried their current bosses (who were on the selection committee) would find out. They wanted to know if I thought they would “get in trouble.”

Trouble? Do you know what happens to smart, non-expendable employees when bosses find out they’re making an effort to evaluate other opportunities and grow as people? They get raises.

Of course, back when I was an employee doing design, it didn’t occur to me that I had the power to call my own shots. One of my bosses was known for taking things really personally when someone left, so I avoided some opportunities myself and chose safety. Or more plainly put, I didn’t have the balls to do what I felt was right for my personal growth.

There are a lot of things I wish I could go back and tell myself about how to grow faster, mostly just about how to open up the throttle. I heard somewhere that GeekWire has the power to backdate blog posts to simulate time travel, which indicates I could write a letter to myself in the past.

If so, here’s what I’d say to 2010 me…

Dear Andrew,

Andrew Kinzer, far right, with former employees

Listen up. You are not beholden to your employer. Since they hired you, you’ve worked hard for them day in and day out on the same stuff. They gave you a chance, and you’ve given them 50-hour weeks for a long time, often more.

It may feel like family, but your bosses think of you as an asset with whom they have a business arrangement. They negotiated a salary to compensate you for the time you give them between when you walk in and walk out, and as an added bonus they get your random thoughts on nights and weekends. Don’t forget that. And when you leave, they’ll probably be spiteful and unfriendly.

Best-case scenario, your stock options aren’t worth much anyway. Get a calculator, and do the math with some basic numbers. Worst-case scenario, the company fails or you get totally screwed out of them, just like the Skype employees did.

Keep an eye on growth trajectory

The longer you stay there working on the same product, in the same space, with the same people, the more you’re learning a very small part of what you’re going to need to be successful in the future.

Reading is good, but the best education will come from real experiences. It’s going to come from expanding your range of responsibilities, working on many different problem spaces, and with many different people of varying backgrounds.

The bottom line is that you should keep your salaried position, but you need to start working on things on the side to really prepare yourself. This is what I want you (me) to do:

Dive into those hackathons… all of them

I hope I’m not disrupting the time continuum here, but in the future you’ll be where you are partly because you go to a StartupWeekend. You’ll find out you are good at far more than what your day job challenges you with. Going once will open your eyes, but going frequently will turn you into a ninja.

This isn’t just about doing things, it’s about meeting people. Get out of your cave. You’ll make some of the best connections of your life hacking together product and business ideas with people who would rather be building something than playing Xbox.

You need to dive into user acquisition, business models, and broad-spectrum marketing. Experiment in a lot of different problem spaces, with different types of markets. Equip yourself with foundational knowledge of these skills, because you’ll either live or die by them when you start your own company —and you WILL start your own company.

Lastly, don’t waste your time waiting for them to pop up in your city. Take a Friday off and hop a plane into another city for the hackathon happening this very weekend. 

Work on your own product ideas NOW

You have these ideas every day. Going to hackathons will help you thinking through how to look for problems, and how to solve them. As they come up, you should be recording them. But don’t sit on these for too long, in fact I’ll be honest and say that the first ten ideas you think are “brilliant” will suck really, really bad.

The faster that you start using your nights and weekends mocking these ideas up, the faster you can start testing your hypotheses with landing pages and customer development. Don’t be afraid to talk to people, you’ll be shocked what people will tell you if you just ask. When you realize your idea isn’t as powerful as you thought, kill the baby and move on.

Claim Your IP

Your employers don’t own you or your thoughts — you do. You will retain the IP you produce as long as you don’t work on something that violates your non-compete, do it on company time, in your company’s office, or using company equipment or supplies. That’s state law.

It’s simple — establish what your regular hours of business are for the company and don’t work on it during those. Don’t use your company laptop. Don’t work on it in the company office. Don’t use your company Post-It notes. And don’t use your company email address.

Oh, and I know you really like some of the guys you work with. They’re really smart and capable, it’s true, but your employment contract forbids it. This is why you need to get out and meet people.

It’s OK to moonlight

I know what you’re thinking: With all these ideas of my own, why work for money? Well, there’s the first reason, which is… money. I think your wife would appreciate a nice vacation away for the weekend, or a few nights out on the town for once. You could definitely use some decent clothes.

More importantly, if you take a paid gig, you will meet new folks in the community, work on projects that will actually see the light of day and get more responsibilities while still working underneath someone who can teach you a thing or two. Because let’s face it — you’ve got a long ways to go before you’re me.

Don’t tell everyone at work about it, but also don’t be afraid you’ll piss off your boss. If they throw a tantrum, quit and go work for somebody who challenges you and treats you well. There’s no shortage of companies willing to throw money at you.

Don’t forget that you can ask your dev buddies outside of your company to tag-team on some projects. You’d be surprised how many of them are totally down for a little paid weekend action.

Before I go

Don’t be a one-trick pony. Don’t spend more than two years at your job — or any job for that matter — and don’t work on one single thing ever. When it does come time for you to start your own venture, you’ll need to know a lot of people, and understand a number of industries.

Get going on these things, and if nothing else, you’ll likely at least get a raise out of it… and a t-shirt that actually fits you.

Yours truly,

Yourself

Andrew Kinzer is a co-founder of GroupTalent, focusing on design, product and marketing. You can learn more about him at superkinz.com.

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/nick.soman Nick Soman

    YES. And think really, really hard before you go to grad school.

  • Anon E Moose

    I think the biggest problem is self-confidence.

    You said “Do you know what happens to smart, non-expendable employees when bosses find out they’re making an effort to evaluate other opportunities and grow as people? They get raises.”… but many people feel like the are expendable even if they aren’t.

    That’s because most developers are living in environments where their work is viewed as a cost center, they are deadline driven, even though they are being asked to do things which have never been done before and can’t possibly be estimated…. So they live with a constant barrage of disappointment being expressed at them by which is totally unfounded because the expectations they are being asked to meet don’t make any sense. As such, their ability to sense their own value is reduced to nothing OR they become pathologically arrogant by rejecting it (just the inverse, both are unreasonable). Many people feel like their loyalty is their only value, or that they are just tricking the company into keeping them even though by all rights they should be fired for incompetence (because they are constantly told they are incompetent).

    They desperately want to escape and look to incubators/etc to be a life raft out of this hell, but due to their degraded self-confidence, fear both rejection by the incubator and rejection from their company for a perceived lack of loyalty (they probably don’t actually have any anyway and just feign it on a daily basis, so now that truth is exposed).

    And don’t even get me started on non-compete and IP ownership contracts that most devs have to sign. I wouldn’t want my boss to know that I had a good idea for a company/product, because I might be taken to court by the company I work for when they claim to OWN every thought that goes through my head.

    So yeah, those two guys in your intro paragraph… I can understand their fears. That said, a positive way to go about it would just to go to their two bosses who are on the selection committee before hand and say “We have this idea for a company we’d like to start, and we were thinking of applying to TechStars. We wanted to make sure you were ok with that before we proceed and that there is no conflict of interest.”… being open about these situations is the very best thing you can do.

    And about all that pressure I described about.. most of it is complete bull and it’s just in the dev’s mind. If it’s not said explicitly, don’t assume anyone looks down on you. If you feel like someone is expressing that, just ask “Am I disappointing you?”… etc. Low-level stress and constant fear is unhealthy. Don’t let it consume you.

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