depth & breadth

the most annoying people on LinkedIn

For me, LinkedIn has turned into a sort of career-focused version of WebMD. I almost never start poking around in there for an emotionally healthy reason — I’m either frustrated by something at work and looking to wallow in self-pity for a minute or two, or reading about whatever happened to that incompetent product manager I used to work with. And, as with WebMD, all I really get out of the experience are pangs of insecurity and a fair amount of eye-rolling horseshit.

Now, I have a decent amount of patience for the amount of terrible, uninteresting nonsense on LinkedIn. It’s an inherently self-serving environment, combining the narcissism of any social network with the naked greed and ambition that comes with private business and career advancement. My Dad, who has one foot in retirement after a long, interesting career, has the best LinkedIn profile ever (I’m pretty sure he only had it to look at people he was supposed to interview eventually). It has no accomplishments, no skills, lists one company he’s worked at, and has the same picture he’s used for everything that I’m pretty sure is from my junior year of high school. And it’s not like the twenty year old pictures some people have on LinkedIn, either. It’s not some idealized version of himself — it’s just the standard picture he’s used forever because my Dad places zero weight on your opinion of his appearance, or really anything else about him. Like, actually zero.

The polar opposite of my father — and the source of unquestionably the worst material on LinkedIn — is the insufferable “growth hacking” people, who are usually either digital marketing consultants (sorry, “CEOs” of their one person companies), or people who claim to have worked for like, eleven different startups in seven years. “NINE TIME STARTUP ENTREPRENEUR!!!” Uhh… congratulations?

You can spot these people by their long, self-congratulatory posts about how hard they worked, and how everything is possible through said hard work. (“AirBnB turned me down for a job out of school, but guess what? NOW I’M AWESOME!!!”) They are always white guys in their twenties, except for a couple of white guys in their forties, who are gods to the people in their twenties, and are advisors to no fewer than twenty-five different startups.

breadth

Obviously my resume is a little different, with fewer lasers and pyrotechnics. I’ve had real jobs producing some sort of fairly concrete business value since I got out of school thirteen years ago, in 2004. Other than one extremely difficult year in Cleveland, I’ve had steady, pretty intense employment at growth-focused companies the entire time, and I’ve learned at what I can only conclude is an above-average rate for a couple reasons :

  • the growth-focused thing; outside of Cleveland, I haven’t worked for a company on cruise control
  • the companies I’ve worked at have been pretty small, or early enough in their trajectory that you really need to pull your weight and often punch above it
  • most companies have had a strong technology component, and were in a new or rapidly changing industry
  • I’m a little bit of a generalist so I’ve gotten to have lots of different kinds of roles (support, product, marketing, leadership)

I’m very grateful for how all of this has played out, because I know for a fact that I work my hardest and do my best work in environments that really need me (this also explains my extremely inconsistent academic history). I’ve felt very strongly needed everywhere I’ve been since I moved to D.C. in 2008, and that’s not a feeling everybody gets to have.

But here’s the interesting thing; even though I’m really confident I’ve had an extremely productive, challenging, and enlightening first thirteen years of my career, I feel like I’m increasingly running into people who — on paper, at least — have done so much more. I’ll read a resume from a candidate with fifteen jobs, three major promotions, some kind of graduate degree, and one or more entrepreneurial experiences, and then realize they are three or four years younger than me. And the only thing I can think is… how did you do this? Are the annoying LinkedIn people right? Have I simply discovered a sub-class of superhuman professionals? Am I going to have to go back to working in the kitchen of that steakhouse from college again? (Just kidding, they’d never hire me back.)

depth

This kind of thing used to freak me out a fair amount, until I started actually calling these people, interviewing (and sometimes hiring) them, and working alongside them. What I pretty quickly realized is that more often than not, these kinds of people take very little of substance from their experiences, maybe because they are so focused on title, perception, and the next step on their path. Once you experience this, the whole facade starts to crumble, and the realization is pretty jarring. If this is what this person wants to be doing more than anything right now, and they are just sort of so-so engaged, what does that say about their prior experiences?

This has been (and remains) my number one concern about going back to school for any kind of graduate business education. No, I don’t want to spend the money, and no, I don’t want to spend the time away from my kids, my wife, music, the gym, writing, and other things that have long track records of making me happier and smarter and better. But I really would consider sacrificing parts of those things if I wasn’t so worried that the whole experience is a great networking exercise bolted onto a bunch of faux-intellectual nonsense. Given that I have plenty to do, and great venues to do it in already, I’m worried that going to school is actually a less efficient way to learn than what I’m doing now.

I say that because, if you’re really in the gears of how a business grows and operates… holy smokes is there a lot to think about, design, execute, and learn from. That’s certainly true at FiscalNote, but it was true at Contactually, and EEx, and Bamboo as well, and even back when I was writing documentation and filing bugs, I always had access to the core questions and challenges of the business, and could feel the connection between them and my work.

I remember when our investors pushed most of the good people out at Bamboo (there was some personal stuff there). Almost overnight, it became obvious that we weren’t a “business” anymore; we were a bunch of people tasked with jockeying for the favor of our investor group as various people sought to extract cash out of what was left of the company. Some people saw that as an opportunity — “if I handle this right, I can be a vice-president!” — but I immediately knew I had to go even as it was made very clear to me that I was needed for this exercise. But what the hell is the point of working in business if you aren’t motivated by growing and improving a business? I had just turned thirty, so I left and spent the next couple of years frantically, maniacally building a functional company with my wife, which seemed a lot less crazy than whatever was going on Bamboo.

Five years later, I’m a little more sympathetic to the mortgage-havers and whatnot who didn’t have the luxury of my self-righteous professional/moral high ground. But many of those folks were further along in their lives and careers than I am even now, and had more to lose than I can fully comprehend yet. But the point remains that ladder-climbing and cache-gathering isn’t a cost-free exercise, whether you’re in school or at work, and that fact doesn’t always translate well to something like LinkedIn. Basically, resumes and the like are still great conversation starters and rudimentary framing devices, but at this point I now know there’s more depth beneath those titles and accomplishments than I may have fully realized in the past. Or in some cases, there isn’t, and that’s even crazier.