Adapting to Mega Corp Culture

Context for people moving into Big Tech jobs

👋 Hello to all our new subscribers this week!   We’ve kept up our Sunday morning post tradition for every week of this year so far – thanks for joining us!   This week, we return to the concept of career coaching and best practices for tech professionals.  Let me take a second to recap some previous posts we’ve had in this area:

  1. 🎉 Celebrating 15 Years at my job 15 lessons from 15 years (Adam)

  2. 🐸 Three careers by mid-30s Lessons from career hopping (Helen)

  3. 🎁 The Gifts We Hope to Give One question that emerging leaders should be asking (Adam)

  4. Where Does a Tech Product Leader Spend Their Time? Time management tips (Adam)

  5. 🤗 The People Angle: A Lens on Career Advice & Job Seeking in Tech How to think about “the people you’ll work with” when growing you career (Adam)

  6. 👩‍💼 A day in the life of a frontline manager Management pro tips (Helen)

  7. 💞 Why mentorship matters Learn about the 4 types of mentorship (Helen)

  8. 📈 Mega-corp to growth stage company transition  Lessons from a career transition (Helen)

  9. 🧘‍♀️ How I Approached a Recharge Week Managing burnout (Adam)

This week will be our 10th in a series on how to optimize your career.  Gee, what a great milestone to maybe give us a few shares or a forward of this newsletter to a colleague or two? Or your whole team?   Gotta hit that 500 subscribe milestone ASAP! 😁

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-Helen & Adam

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So, your startup got acquired by a Big Tech company.  Or you moved from a smaller company to a bigger one.  Or maybe you are just starting your career.   In any case, you find yourself in a culture shock – struggling to figure out what the new environment optimizes for and how to thrive.   This post shares a few observations on how to adapt to the environment in Big Tech product jobs.   The goal is not to assimilate you but to provide context that may not be obvious.  Also, I wrote this post with an eye towards preventing cynicism and burnout by providing positive re-framings on the things that cause the most frustration. 

My perspective is someone who has been steeped in Big Tech for 15 years as a product manager and team leader and now early-stage product executive.  Not at the bottom of the hierarchy – but also far from the top: Right in the middle of both setting tone/culture/strategy and being on the receiving end of it.   Sponsoring outside perspective and talent is the part of my job that forces me to be most introspective on product making.  So here are some tips that can generate empathy and understanding early, unlocking curious people to make a career plan for a new environment.

Research Culture Like You Research Product

I try to avoid terms like “startup product manager” or “backend PM.”   That implies a fixed mindset, or at least one where someone can only be good at one type of role.   Yes, your previous experience gives you a set of learned behaviors and biases, but it doesn’t define who you are or want to be.

Indeed, understanding and adapting to context is one of the most important skills of a product manager  and we do this already with product and market research:  What’s motivating my customers to use this UX flow in this way?   Is there emerging tech to democratize and what user job can it be best hired for?  Product is about differentiated plans based upon careful analysis of the context.

Apply the same rigor of market research to the company culture you find yourself in and adapt a career and skill plan to match.   This is a growth mindset that avoids becoming a victim to an environment that you barely took the time to understand.

One of the reasons startup vs. Big Tech memes exists is because the product cultures, more than not, are dictated by the economic systems that support them.  So it’s a great place to start to root cause the reasons behind the “way things are.” 

For instance, startups are funded mostly by risk-craving external venture capital and therefore prioritize disruption and speed and vainglorious trendspotting that encourage herd funding.   Big Tech, already having acquired a large number of customers and with a closed loop of capital allocation, prioritizes line extensions to things they are already good at and finding the strategic patience to deploy massively complex interconnected systems under a belief that few others can do so, so it creates a durable moat.

This analysis is better than saying “startups are a place for risk taking” and “Big Tech is a place for systems thinking.”   Often true, but not ultimately helpful: These are attributes about a system that don’t get into the underlying motivation and rationale for decision making.  Be curious and root cause the culture you find yourself in.

Introducing Survive and Thrive

As someone who has found fit within Big Tech for over a decade and a half, there’s an approach I want to share about it that is based loosely on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  

Break your plan to adapt to culture into two components.  First is how to survive: What are the basic needs required to sustain your existence and feel psychologically safe over the long haul.  Second is how to thrive: what is needed to self-actualize, grow, and experience moments of being in the flow where challenge and opportunity meet for step-function growth.

I see people steeped in startup experience struggle with this dichotomy and I hypothesize it is because in startup land, survival and thriving are more intertwined.  You either grow or you die.  There is no room for nurturing the basic needs – you are always one funding round away being put out of existence.   You sprint from job to job often.  

But in Big Tech, there is more opportunity to create a durable home and build long term relationships and expertise.   Time horizons stretch out as a lot of economic differentiation comes from managing complex systems over decades.

So I find myself doing a lot of things to optimize for long term survival: treating my attention as a finite currency to manage, generating internal energy around balancing many complex needs instead of a maniacal focus on one goal, and giving myself permission to accept what I can’t afford to fix right now.    

But I think I’d go crazy if that was all I did.  Like many, I want periods of being in the flow of work and growth.  Every year, I try to seek out 1-3 opportunities to go deep on that will create differentiated impact and drive excellence.  Keeping up to speed on trends, looking for missing opportunities that no one is taking care of, figuring out what the system will reward above other things – these are thriving activities.

Notice how much of this is about giving yourself permission to focus on your own needs vs. only driven by the needs of the business or organization.

The Big Reframes for Working In Big Tech

OK, now we are into the meat of this article.   I found there are a few big unfortunate framings on the environment that hold people back from their full potential.  All of them have some truth to them, but my goal here is to provide an alternative that is more productive and useful.  Do you want half-truths to prevent you from embracing a productive narrative?

Reframe How You Cultivate Social Proof for Your Ideas

Bad frame:  Big Tech has way too many stakeholders.    I’m always finding new people I need to convince before my ideas gain traction.

Good frame: Building social proof for your idea is an important part of Big Tech product design.   It’s like the social proof of a VC firm funding a startup’s idea, but since there are less transaction costs and agency problems, the Big Tech system naturally creates an even deeper level of review and coordination.   Most likely your product can be accelerated by coordination with other parts of the company, so lean in and treat executive reviews and stakeholder management as a pressure test of plans in the marketplace of ideas. They are no replacement for a customer driven and data based product discovery process - but they are your primary forms of social proof on your ideas.

Reframe Innovator’s Dilemma

Bad frame:   We need to invent something new before a competitor does.

Good frame: Our job is probably to learn about the company’s innovation swim lanes, draft behind them, and bring existing customers along.   The most common strategic mistake I hear in Big Tech is an overapplication of the Innovator’s Dilemma at the feature or feature area scope.   Yes, this notion that new technologies at first are not as useful to existing customers and therefore incumbent firms with customer-driven incremental innovation pipelines will get outflanked by niche emerging players is true and has a big role to play at the product or cross-product suite level. The critical question to ask yourself: Is it your role to invent a brand new solution?   Or has the strategic maneuver to deal with that already been framed, requires multiple teams to coordinate, and therefore joining a coalition the better strategy?   Far more common than the Innovator’s Dilemma is the New Coke mistake (where famously Coke’s response to Pepsi was to abandon their existing customers and replace their existing product with a new formula before backtracking).   You must carefully balance the product strategy between the Innovator’s Dilemma and New Coke pitfalls – but my advice is to have a healthy skepticism of disruption worship, new brands and product IAs, and plans that unintentionally abandon the existing customer base. 

Reframe Careerism

Bad frame:  People only care about getting promoted and the visibility and self-promotion required to do so.   Since there is no exit package or outsized payoff for growing a business like a startup has, individuals in Big Tech see promotion within the hierarchy as the only economic incentive.

Good frame: Even if there is some truth to the raw economics, it is an unproductive and cynical framing that doesn’t inspire or create an inclusive environment.  Instead, re-frame the problem and think about how we can grow a stronger org by visibly sharing best practices and setting norms in a transparent culture.  Give people the grace to be visible; it’s often tricky to navigate how to do it well but it’s easier if you frame it as for the greater good.

Reframe Coalition Building

Bad frame: I worship disruption and the go-it-alone quest based upon the strength of my own ideas.

Good frame: This model of hero-lead creative destruction in product making is near anachronistic.  If tech is going to extend its run as the most impactful industry on the planet, the future of leadership is about allyship, inclusion, and using privilege for good.  Instead of prioritizing ownership, prioritize championing hidden figures.  Who can you bring on to the team who is different than yourself who can be a voice for unintended social consequences of the team’s products?   What disciplines (e.g. User Research, Design, Content Writing) have historically not had a strong a voice in decision making that you can champion if the business problems require it? 

Do I have to change or does the world change for me?

This post isn’t about asking anyone to conform to the norm.  A well-run organization will tolerate an extreme amount of diversity in working styles.  But rarely will cynicism and negatively yield results so I do bias my reframes around the most cynical and negative aspects that I’ve seen. 

Furthermore, you may choose to ignore almost every single piece of advice in this post.  In fact, some of the biggest successes I’ve seen in my 15 years in tech have done exactly that – breaking the mold of existing structures to birth brand new products and innovation that never would have been possible by rule followers.   Watching the people who lead those, my observation is that they had a keen understanding of the systems they were breaking.  Either way, you got to know how the system is going to react.

Coda on Privilege

We end every Mind The Beet post with a discussion of privilege and ways we give back.  We continue to talk a lot on this newsletter about the economic privilege that technology affords to so many of us.   Two charities we haven’t highlighted yet are code.org and girlswhocode.com.   Both are fantastic organizations expanding the reach of a computer science career to young minds.  Check them out!