Thursday, 5 July 2012

Why I left consulting and joined a startup

Whether you’re a technology consultant or you’re in a startup, there’s a good chance we have something in common. I call it career commitment-avoidance.
The #1 reason I chose consulting as my first job after graduation was that I didn’t want to decide where I would work, in what industry I would work, or even what I would really DO on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to do a lot of things, and picking a single one of them just seemed too limiting. 
With new projects, new clients, and the expectation that employees will “grow into” whatever rol­­­­­­e they get next, consultants never really have to decide who they’re going to be in life, and that can be very liberating.
Like many others entering this profession, I figured after a couple of years I would gain the perspective I needed to hone in on my dream job. Years later, that still hadn’t happened.
I started revising my notion of a dream job. I realized the right job for me isn’t one job. It’s a career that changes a lot, where I get to learn new things all the time. I began to wonder if consulting was dream job. Maybe the reason I’d stuck around for so long is that consulting is the combination of so many things I want in a career:
  1. learning a lot, fast. When your client is paying $XXX/hr for you to be there, they expect you to know stuff. A lot of stuff. On top of absorbing obscure technical know-how for each of my projects, I learned how to be accountable and manage a team.
  2. emphasis on people & teams. I worked on teams of 2, teams of 20, and multi-million dollar teams of over 100 consultants. Working on a consulting project is truly a bonding experience. Since most people on the team fly in to work for the week, you’re not just doing hard work together. You’re also eating every meal together, getting shit-faced together, and living in the same hotel. You spend more personal time with these people than your spouse. What’s the number one reason consultants give when asked what they like about their job? “The people”. 
  3. merit-based compensation. Some people would hate it, but knowing that I would be ranked against everyone else at my level, then recognized & paid accordingly, was motivating for me (I’m a little bit competitive).
  4. work hard, play hard.  That’s such a clichéd phrase, but there are some really intense people in consulting, and it can be energizing to be around them. They run marathons, go snowboarding on weeknights, run charity events, and more – all on top of working inhuman hours. There were times when I would work 13-hour days, party until 3 am, then do it again the next day. Seems a bit crazy now, but it wasn’t a drain. It was fun.
So why did I quit a great job and join a startup for less pay, less job security, and significant risk to the relationships I have with my fiancé (Keen’s CEO) and best friends (everyone else at Keen)? 
Mostly, I was growing tired of implementing <some old-school technology> to solve <some generic enterprise problem>. I’m a builder at heart, and I wanted to contribute to Creating a Thing, not just bolting together boring software other people had half-heartedly built 8 years ago.
Fig. A: Crying at the bottom of the shower
There are also some, um, less pleasant aspects of being a consultant. Unless you are really lucky, you will at some point wind up on a project with asshole executives and a commute that makes you hate life (see Fig. A). Some people say these projects build backbone. I think the only good thing about them is that they are catalysts for a career change. It was one of these projects that finally changed my thinking from “I need to figure out what to do with my career” to “I need to make a change right now”.  I quit my job and started looking for the next great thing.
That’s how I wound up here at Keen. And guess what? Start-ups share many of the qualities I love about consulting:
  1. learning a lot, fast. Here are just a handful of things I’ve learned in the past few weeks.
    • How startup financials work, so I could comprehend seed round financing and negotiate my own salary & equity compensation.  
    • Our system architecture and associated vocabulary (JSON, REST, Flask, Mongo, map reduce, etc).
    • How to create my first Ruby program, and integrate it with Keen.
    • What differentiates our company from other players in the analytics space.
    • How to get strangers on the internet (and at conferences, meetups, and parties) to talk to me about analytics (we call this customer development).
    You get the picture. In a startup, you get to be involved in all kinds of aspects of the company, and there’s always more to learn & build.
  2. emphasis on people & teams - While people are important in a consulting firm, they’re absolutely critical in a startup. With an industry average of a 20% turnover rate, consulting just doesn’t offer the same level of quality you can get in a six-person startup, especially when it’s six people who took great risks based on their faith in each other. The team at Keen is the #1 reason I joined the company.
  3. merit-based compensation -  My equity stake and the small size of our team means my work directly contributes to the value of the company, which in turn contributes to my own personal net worth. In short, I can enjoy the company’s successes as if they were my own successes, because they are. That’s a rewarding feeling, and it definitely outweighs the salary cut I took to join Keen. Besides, I’m smart enough to have figured out that making anything over a certain amount of “comfortable income” contributes very little to my overall happiness.
  4. travel -  Travel is one area where startup perks are not going to compare to consulting, but start-ups offer significantly less pain in this area.  I don’t get to fly much for work these days, but I also don’t have to spend 2 hours a day driving to a client office. My daily commute is now measured in steps, not hours. 
  5. work hard, play hard- There’s this perception about tech startups that the employees are working all night, sleeping under desks, pooping in socks, and bleeding code.  Startup pace is supposedly so fast you can’t even imagine it. People say things like “one year in startup will advance your career 37 years!”
    I’ve worked around the clock before. One time, Kyle literally spoon-fed me dinner while I coordinated a critical go-live issue. Later that month, a lead told me that the overall productivity AND HEALTH of our Mumbai team was declining because people kept coming to work sick. But, perhaps the most eye-opening experience came when one of my direct reports asked my permission to eat dinner
    That isn’t cool. It’s fucking embarrassing.
    Consulting firms say they value “work-life balance”, but the truth is that consultants themselves tend to be workaholic types, especially senior leaders. No matter how many vacation days, flexible work schedules, or company wellness policies are offered, there are folks who are going to work as much as possible. In projects where this is taken to extremes, you get consequences like the ones I described earlier.
    That’s why it’s a huge relief to join a team that values a sustainable pace. The Keen founders have a term for it: “rested racehorses.” We are an elite team that can run fast, but we don’t sprint every day.  We need to be rested so we can sprint when it’s truly important.
Finally, I want to circle back to the original lure of consulting –- the lack of commitment to a “job.” Startups take this freedom to the next level. There is a strong culture of making it your own way, building your own brand, and focusing on whatever you feel is important. After spending a certain amount of time around entrepreneurs, you begin to wonder where you ever got the idea of a “career,” an “employer,” or a “profession.” This is a much more creative and opportunistic lifestyle.
If you’re stuck in the consulting rut, consider joining a startup. Just like consulting firms, startups value smart, hardworking generalists who can learn quickly. You’ll have significantly more ownership of the business, the product, your day-to-day activities, and your career path. You’ll have the opportunity not only to build a great team and product, but a great company. So, what’s stopping you from making the switch?
If you’re thinking about a consulting career or joining a startup (I would highly recommend either!), I’m happy to help in any way I can.
- Michelle (, @michellewetzler)

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