Before I left Disney Streaming Service, one of my colleagues told me, "You made the wrong decision to pursue a startup that doesn't give you any brand name instead of Disney. A brand name is much more important than a high compensation package."
He has been in Disney Streaming Service as a Software Engineer for ten years. I didn't get the chance to be promoted into management or IC roles because of increased competition.
I once asked him why he never switches to another firm that will open up much bigger opportunities in an IC or management role.
"I care more about the brand name and prestige than the money it will give me."
I nodded and listened. My mind thought, "Being in a prestigious firm is useless if it doesn't help you grow as fast as other less prestigious firms."
Many of us (myself included) have had this battle within us of a desire to chase prestige that made our career growth stagnant.
When someone achieves something prestigious, such as an elite university, it automatically symbolizes their status. Even more, what magnifies the awe in people is if this prestigious endeavor was made possible through an individual's blood, sweat, and tears.
Growing up as an Asian Kid, I often heard my mom mention the great achievements of other kids with a slight hint that I should be doing better. She will say, "Auntie Mary's son started a business right after college and was nominated under Forbes 30 under 30 in South East Asia."
I would hesitantly nod and say, "Cool." Deep down inside, I knew she wished to motivate me to do better with my current work.
All Asian parent wishes that their kids are the best so that they can brag about it with their friends. All of the bragging is because they want to receive a symbol of high status. It feels good to have some validation and awe from a group of friends and be perceived as having quality and an act of accomplishment.
All kids (myself included) want to make their parents proud, and when they hear that their parents boast and feel a sense of envy from the kids' accomplishments, the pursuit of prestige is ingrained into their brains. They ended up becoming like their parents.
Our longed-for high-status validation is so strong that many businesses are built around it. Brands, such as Supreme and Kith, buying and wearing those product signals high status. Their marketing strategy revolves around feeling prestige when you own them. There is no quality or material difference between having a 200-dollar Supreme hoodie vs. a 30-dollar Uniqlo Hoodie. The only difference is - you become much cooler.
The study has found that you get much more VC funding if you go to Ivy League (link to ivy league school article).
Everyone inherently knows when something is prestigious, even though they may not agree that it deserves to be prestige. Therefore, prestige becomes a signaling tactic.
When someone achieves something prestigious, such as landing a job at Google, people automatically connect the accomplishment to the person associated with it and judge their current ability with that accomplishment.
A fresh graduate landing a job at Google doesn't stop reaping the rewards of his accomplishment once he leaves Google. The recruiter signals the candidate's competence before he steps into the room due to his approval stamps from a prestigious firm.
That is why you see many "Ex-"in their LinkedIn profile, trying to shout out, "Hey, I did this accomplishment, so give me more opportunity."
Chasing after prestige keeps you blind from the best opportunity.
George Oroszly mentioned joining to Uber vs. Datadog:
Uber was founded in 2009, and Datadog in 2010.
7 years ago, Uber was valued at $62B, Datadog at ~$150M.
Today, Uber is valued at $63B, Datadog at $43B.
Remember this as you consider joining private companies with extraordinary valuations already. They might be the next Uber.
However, many people wouldn't even know what a datalog was seven years ago. Many software engineers want to work for Uber because it is deemed more "prestigious" than Datadog.
The lesson learned here is that the best opportunity is rarely prestigious when there's big money to be made with them.
If I chased after prestige, I wouldn't have driven an old Toyota Corolla for 10 years and saved all those money to buy a house.
If I chase after prestige, I would not leave a firm with a great brand, such as Disney, to work for a startup that has a potential upside.
The only annoying thing is to explain to strangers and family members why I left such a great company and pursue something to be seen as mediocre.
If the hardest part about life is getting into a prestigious university or company, then the path of least resistance is to coast after that. When you coast, you rely on the institution's prestige to justify your self-worth. Over time, you'll be filled with self-doubt, whether your accomplishments are your own or because of your company. Why do you think some people never leave? They're afraid that without their company, they aren't anything!
Working for the most well-known, branded, prestigious firm is insufficient if you want to make a lot of money being a software engineer. You may earn a lot more money than the average human being, but you will always have a higher opportunity cost by exchanging your time for money if you don't love the job.
To decrease your opportunity cost, you must become a good investor by finding the best opportunity cost to exchange your most precious asset, time. Warren Buffett learned from his mentor, Benjamin Graham, that finding unexplored or unrecognized intrinsic value is a reliable strategy to build wealth. This works in the stock market, real estate, and everywhere.
Everybody wants to be high status. But despite the financial rewards, few people are willing to work on low-status projects, even if they have the potential to become high-status. Most people jumping into Crypto now weren't willing to commit a few years ago when people scoffed at digital money.
How to look for a project that has upside potential? A reorg is an opportunity in the company.
It's during these political transitions that new careers get made. When Joe Biden won the 2020 election, many politicians made huge strides in their political careers when he nominated them to his administration. Just like in political transitions, departments get axed, and new teams get created during corporate re-org. This paves the way for roles to open up - and that's your chance to move up.
My colleague at Disney Streaming Service was promoted to senior manager after stepping up during a reorganization.
You must imagine ways to fit in this new org that align with your career goals. Then propose it.
Thinking long-term helps you stay away from the shiny object syndrome.
Don't get swayed by the current hype once you set a goal. Put in the work every day and stay focused. Becoming a subject matter expert requires more than just learning the latest and most popular framework. You must also understand the fundamentals to build a tangible product. Some SWE has moved from learning about Blockchain technology and promoting blockchain in 2020 to learning about prompt engineering because of the AI hype. With new technology coming every year, they didn't have time to hold off on the fundamentals. As a result, they become novices in everything.
During one of his interviews in 2017, Jeff Bezos discussed the importance of long-term thinking for success. He said that none of the people who report to him should be focusing on the current quarter. When an investor comes to him and congratulates him for a great quarter, what is on his mind is that that great quarter was baked three years ago - and his team is working on a project that will come to fruition five years later. Thinking that way changes how you spend your time and energy, and your ability to look around the corner is better.
You have thought that the open source principle is fundamental to software development. However, in the early 1990s, it was a new idea of thinking. Linus Torvalds envisioned an operating system that would continuously evolve and improve through collaboration with a global community of developers. Instead of aiming for short-term gains or quick solutions, he thinks that the operating system's future is a collaborative approach. Throughout the years, Torvalds remained committed to long-term development and nurtured an open and inclusive community where developers would contribute their expertise and ideas to this operating system. This collaborative approach made Linux the most versatile and reliable operating system.
If you are thinking in the long term, every decision will look strange and stupid at first to other people. When the time comes, they will understand the reason behind your actions.
Chasing after prestige can limit our options and prevent us from taking risks that could lead to significant growth. Instead, we should focus on finding projects and opportunities that align with our goals and have long-term potential. Working on projects with an upside and thinking beyond the immediate validation of prestige can open doors to greater success and fulfillment.
It's crucial to remember that the best opportunities are not always the most prestigious. Just like the example of Uber and Datadog, the most financially rewarding opportunities can arise from unexpected sources. By broadening our perspectives and looking beyond superficial prestige, we can make informed decisions that lead to long-term personal and professional growth.
So, let go of the obsession with prestige and focus on finding projects, companies, and opportunities that align with your goals and have the potential for long-term success. Think beyond the status symbols and invest in your growth and development.
I’m Edward. I started writing as a Software Engineer at Disney Streaming Service, trying to document my learnings as I step into a Senior role. I write about functional programming, Scala, distributed systems, and careers-development.
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