Why I stayed at a job way too long (and why you shouldn’t repeat my mistake)

1:42 PM James 0 Comments

2007: Super stoked about my new job! Associate Electronic Design Engineer, making the world a healthier place for sick people! LA, here I come! Started at $64k/year, not very competitive for an engineer, but at least it’s a design job in the medical field, which I wanted. And hey, I get to live closer to my (then) girlfriend. Oh what’s that, she just broke up with me? Aww, crap.

2008: Still liking the job. I realize I’m a lousy electrical engineer, but I try really hard to make up for it. I’m getting some decent advice from mentors at work, although I should really be doing more active in making complete designs. Instead, I’m testing and editing current designs, and making subcircuits more or less by trial and error. I’m also still doing a lot of menial work. And also going out a lot and generally enjoying myself as a 25-year-old. Oh well, it’s a good job with a good company. I’m OK with this..

2009: OK, I guess I busted my ass because people recognized me with a Top Technical Contributor award! (Worth $13k in company stock which vests over a 4-year period… I later realized that this is peanuts, more of an empty gesture really.) They also promoted me to regular Electronic Design Engineer, now capable of designing and generally being responsible for stuff. This is great… but I’m about to learn from experience A LOT OF WRONG WAYS TO DO THINGS. Not just my own, but also my department and my company. Take mental notes!

2010: I start to realize that my boss and I have some serious friction. I’m getting bullied and verbally abused by him constantly. I’m manifesting physical symptoms of depression and anxiety. It gets so bad I talk to HR and contemplate quitting. This is the first time I really should have quit. Meanwhile, I’m watching my department get abused by our management as well as our prime contractor. Lots of bad board spins and dead ends. I’m an OK engineer now, but still pretty distracted by my social life and my flirtation with a music side-career, and not really putting 100% into work. I do what I can, but definitely don’t try to fix organizational issues - and I don’t know how. I think about getting an MBA so I can understand what’s going wrong so I can help fix it, but I decide not so at the moment.

2011: I get sent overseas to fix problems with our contractor, and I succeed. Cool, now my department trusts me and I get to work on more quagmire projects. Company faces big losses because we have a product recall (not my fault!). My department gets gutted with massive layoffs - about two-thirds of R&D. Several of the smart ones who aren’t laid off start leaving on their own and getting better titles and raises outside. I don’t get a promotion this year, despite all this and despite asking. Feeling pretty demoralized at work. This is probably when I should have changed jobs. The writing was definitely on the wall, staring me in the face. Maybe I was a little insecure and grateful just to be employed. But on the plus side, I meet my future wife and get engaged! So I guess 2011 didn’t suck after all. (Only work-wise.)

2012: I get married to the most awesome girl in the Universe. As a wedding gift, the Universe miraculously lets me interview, hire, and train my own new boss. Work gets a whole lot more tolerable, even if I’m not moving up. I do get into business school and start working on an MBA part-time at UCLA Anderson. I know I’m going to find a better job before I graduate. By now, I’ve been at my job for 5 years. If I stay much longer, I’m going to get depressed. But I really need to focus on my new marriage and make sure I get the most out of grad school. For now, I can do my job in about half the time it used to, and use the balance of my time to finish my readings and assignments. I actually get to work on some really cool projects that I’m proud of!

2013: I keep doing a good job (and it’s not even hard at this point) and do little extra things like mentor new engineers and collaborate with lots of other functional teams at work. I’m kind of the EE belly-button now. Finally get promoted to Sr. Electronic Design Engineer! This feels good, but it’s not enough of a reason to stay. Other people my age are managers by now. This place is rife with office politics, and I didn’t play them right when I was younger. Something’s gotta change.

2014: So depressed at work, my wife starts to notice. I’m still underpaid, and definitely under-engaged. Start hunting for jobs hardcore, and get some great leads. End up applying for 2 internal positions (mostly to use as exploratory / leverage) and get offers for 1 of them, plus 2 external opportunities. Negotiate back and forth a bit, laugh at my company’s feeble attempt to retain me, and accept an incredibly exciting and scary growth opportunity at SpaceX. I’m so happy to can barely believe it! Is this what it’s like to love your job and be paid well with good growth opportunities? WHY DIDN’T I DO THIS 2-4 YEARS EARLIER? Oh yeah, I was busy and scared and young.

Then And Now

If I could go back in time and talk to my 2009-2013 self, I would’ve told myself to get out there and look! Treat music as the hobby is really is, go out a little less, and grab a kick-ass job at a startup or a sexier tech company. SpaceX, Beats, Google, Tesla, or any number of companies would’ve been great choices. I would’ve learned more, had better growth opportunities, and been better compensated. My compensation has more than doubled since leaving The Old Place. I’ll never know what else I missed by staying at The Old Place for 7 years instead of using more of my 20s to pull ahead in the work world.

Overall, life is still good, all things considered. I’m happy I did make the move eventually. Best of all, I’m determined to make better use of my career than I did at The Old Place. 2 years later, SpaceX is still a great place for me to work - they greatly benefit from having me, and vice versa. I got promoted to Lead Avionics System Engineer, a supervisory role with plenty of influence and impact. And I got that partly because of the lessons I learned earlier in my career, what I learned in business school about managing my career, and wisdom from my awesome wife who I did meet while I still worked at my old job.

What do the next 5 years old in store for me, work-wise? I’m not totally sure, but the future is bright. I’m currently pretty happy at work. If that changes, I’m confident that my education, work history, and reputation will open up the right doors.