Selling Your Soul

“Is it more important how much money you make or how you make it?”

That was the question posed by my 8th grade history teacher. After an awkward pause, a student chimed in that the amount of money was most important.

“Drug dealers make a lot money”, the teacher shot back.

He didn’t need to explain. We all understood his point that how one made a living is as important, if not more, than how much one earns.

I thought back to this exchange while I had lunch with a friend today. Both of us are close in age and about halfway through our careers, most of which has been in technology. We both have young families, and spouses who have put careers on hold to raise young children.

He asked me what direction I planned to take my job search. I asked him what he’d do if his company kicked him to the curb. Neither of us had an answer, but I suspect the days of selling our souls to a big company are over.

When I moved to Seattle in 1994 there was a buzz in the air. The internet was set to take off, and a new version of Windows was around the corner. Netscape was about to become a household name and kick off the dot com era.  Microsoft had replaced with the carrot with stock options and was dangling them in the face of anyone who could help them crush the upstarts.

With Boeing locked in labor issues, Microsoft and Amazon were seen as saviors. Thousands of small companies sprung up to ride the internet wake. And if that didn’t work, ride the coattails of these two titan of tech. I worked for one company that partnered with Microsoft, and two that didn’t. Guess which company is still in business?

Jobs were plentiful. So plentiful that I never really had to look for a job because the job would find me. One recruiter took me to lunch to sell me on an opportunity. He asked if I had a resume, and I shrugged, “Why?”

When nearly every company is hiring and wages are high, it’s rare that one considers the flip side which is what’s happening today. Microsoft has laid-off over 5000 employees over the past couple of years. Sure, they have hired back some of those, but many more have left on their own before being forced out. In the mid 90’s Microsoft was the place to work in Seattle. Now it’s just another big company “optimizing itself for shareholder value”.

This brings me to the question posed by my history teacher.

One of my jobs at Microsoft was to share information about the direction of our software with partners who directly increased sales of our products. It wasn’t always easy to determine who was selling for our against us. But I had information they needed to innovate and stay out ahead of us. Those companies that received the information lived to do business another day. But many of those that didn’t were crushed by our next release.

If the two ends of the spectrum were drug dealer and school teacher, I have little doubt which I was closer to. And yet, part of me feels relieved that I worked for a large company who cared enough to at least save their friends, or at least friends who increased revenues.

By starting my own company, I’ve inched my way towards the middle of the spectrum. It may take a few more years before all that corporate greed and grime is out of my system. I love not having a boss who tells me to “remove the human element” from the decision and do what’s best for the shareholders, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

I wish jobs were as easy to find as the last time I was searching. They are harder to come by today, but that’s given me time to consider what I stand for and how I intend to support my family for the second half my career.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know my focus will more on the how and less on the how much.