The Lean Career

A section from my soon to be published book.

I highly recommend reading “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. Whether you are interested in entrepreneurship or not, the methods in the book are near-required reading for every professional. Simply knowing the language of “lean” approaches will make you a more valuable asset to any company.

But I’m not simply trying to add to your reading list. Here, I will take the core ideas from the Lean Startup and apply them to career development.

The book opens with the author describing his first experience in Startup failure: “I particularly remember a moment from back then: the moment I realized my company was going to fail. My cofounder and I were at our wits’ end. The dot-com bubble had burst, and we had spent all our money. We tried desperately to raise more Capital, and we could not. It was like a breakup scene from a Hollywood movie: it was raining, and we were arguing in the Street. We couldn’t even agree on where to walk next, and so we parted in anger, heading in opposite directions. As a metaphor for our company’s failure, this image of the two of us, lost in the rain and drifting apart, is perfect.”

Perhaps this isn’t an image you’ve experienced in your career, but I bet you have something close – I certainly do. My bet is that if you followed your dream job, like I did, you came crashing into a wall of realization.

This isn’t what I thought it was going to be.

I’ve spent years and tens of thousands of dollars getting the right degree for this job, what do I do now?

Doubt and frustration start to set in. Just like those who experience Startup failure (I am a member of this group as well), the experience of dream job failure runs a similar course. 

Everyone who said this job wasn’t going to be what I expected was right.

Everyone who said this was a waste of time and money will say I told you so.

All the evidence saying this was “the dream job” was wrong – so, where do I look for actual helpful information now?

Just as Ries describes the “mythmaking industry” around Startup success, the mythmaking industry giving you that dream job pitch, the do what you love mantra, is alive and well. Perhaps these startup and career mythmakers are just a subsidiary of a larger corporation – Bias & Post-Hoc Rationality Inc.

Instead, The Lean Startup makes the bold claim that “Startup success is not a consequence of good genes or being in the right place at the right time. Startup success can be engineered by following the right process.”

The same is true for your career. You can build your career by following processes. These processes may not lead you in a direction you would have predicted, but by now you know this isn’t about having your life perfectly figured out in your 20’s with your first roll of the dice. It’s far more useful to be able to grow and adapt continuously.

Step #1: Management Thinking

Think of your career like a machine. Your machinery (what you do), is something you must manage. And by what you do I don’t mean your job title. I mean all your tasks – writing a report, fixing lines of code, moving boxes from A to B, contributing in meetings, responding to new customer inquiries, writing content, providing timely advisory, disagreeing with your boss effectively, smiling, etc.

Management thinking is about the elimination of waste and the better creation of what is valuable. In short, your goal as the manager of your machinery is to stop doing things, developing skills, or gaining experiences that nobody wants or cares about or that don’t generate competitive value; and simultaneously to improve upon your current value-generating activities and to discover new value-generating ones. Take a breath at that sentence. I’ll split it up as it’s pretty heavy.

Effective career management is:

  1. Recognize wasteful activities. Either stop doing them or fix their wasteful elements.
  2. Improve the effectiveness/efficiency/quality of your current activities.
  3. Continually discover new ways to provide value, whether by improving your current tasks further, or finding new things that you currently aren’t doing that could provide value.

Like any good management system, it has to be monitored and re-evaluated, continuously, because the skills and experiences that people want or don’t want from you, as well as what constitutes competitive value for you, changes over time. This is the foundation of the Lean Career. 

Without the management mentality, the practical methods won’t work. Management is about finding what is right – it doesn’t assume you know what is right. It is an apolitical, unbiased observer, communicating to you factual information without emotion. With it, you’ll begin to start learning what things you are doing that are actually creating value in your current work, and what things are a complete waste – and, with equal importance, where you could create value.

Step #2: Running Experiments To Get Validated Learning

Now that we have our management thinking hat on, we need a real action plan. How do we recognize wasteful activities? And how do we continually discover new ways to provide value?

Following the same logic from the Lean Startup, validated learning is about running real experiments about how you make money sustainably. This is different from the general concept of learning – like gaining a new skill, or picking up the Wall Street Journal – this is about putting forth genuine work experiments and seeing if people are willing or eager to pay you for it. The reason for this is because you exist not simply to earn an income and provide labor – you exist to learn how to continuously do this and adapt (and hopefully, expand) your income generating capabilities and the quality or quantity of your labor.

Experiments can be run in two ways – internally or externally. 

Internal Experiments

An internal experiment is within your current work or with your current employer. In that ecosystem, you are doing a certain set of tasks and getting paid for them. The traditional way people are told to advance in their careers is to do their time or get a higher degree or industry leading certification. I call that gambling. How many people do you know who went and got some degree only to find out that this really wasn’t valued in their company? At least in terms of their paycheck… Of course, people with more education or training make more, on average. But this isn’t about what is good or bad on average. It’s about what makes more money for you. Perhaps going through a three month certification program will lead to a promotion or pay raise, perhaps not. Instead of gambling or following generic advice, run experiments. What expansion of activities or optimization of your tasks could you do to provide added value to your current employer? What are they actively seeking to hire or promote for, and what are the qualifications of that role, in reality?

This most certainly begins with the phrase, “this isn’t my job, but… we can do this better, and here’s how,” or “we’ve been doing this process this way, but on my own time, I’ve tried it another way, and my results showed a 20% improvement to X – what if we ran a trial of this process with one department to see if my results are repeated. Think of what this could mean for the whole company?”

Here’s how I used this approach in my career. About 50% of my work is now data analysis. One of my client’s had increasing needs as they grew and adopted a very ambitious plan for their future. Missing from their team was any efficient ability to capture quality insights and make them useful, particularly given that they were literally buried in the grind of day to day operations. My role at the time had nothing to do with data collection or analysis, but I started doing it anyways because the executive team was literally frustrated with the quality of their data insights. Additionally, they recognized that they needed data to improve their operations and they lacked this capacity within their leadership team. So I built it. My early dashboards and spreadsheets were not going to win any prizes, but they added a bit of value and grew dramatically over time. After a year, my client is now a truly data-led company generating quality insight. This all happened because I started doing work outside of my role, work that I knew wasn’t getting done but was desired by company ownership, and that each time I had expanded my own role (and soon to be, paycheck), that I approached it by saying “here is what I’ve done, here is the benefit I see to the company, now I’d like to know how this can work even better.”

If you say that and you are in a junior to mid level position you will certainly get the attention of senior leadership…

The follow up point – and this is critical – is to really listen to feedback. Most of your experiments won’t result in a benefit to you or your employer. Simply because most new ideas are “bad” when compared to the alternative. The alternative, defined, are the systems and processes that are in operation, have been in operation, and have resulted in your employer generating positive cash flow. Certainly enough to hire you! So don’t go around condemning previous systems just because you’ve discovered an optimization, in your opinion. In fact, improving upon the current best practice while simultaneously praising the old regime will not only improve your chances of being listened to, but will demonstrate your qualities as someone who is capable of dealing with higher level (and higher paying) problems. I emphasize this because these internal experiments are not a cause de jure for you to find one process improvement and bang your hands on a desk until it’s implemented. Wear your experiments like a hat – you must be able to take it off easily and try on a new one if nobody really likes the hat. This isn’t about you being right 100% of the time. You aren’t, I’m not, nobody is. it’s about running a system that will result in you uncovering ways to generate greater value to yourself and your employer. 

External Experiments

An external experiment is outside of your current work and employer, and is my preferred approach, as it removes a lot of risk. Ideally, the external approach is as external as possible, meaning outside of your field, sector, or industry. 

The easiest way to describe this is the story of how I became a consultant. I was working as a humanitarian, specializing in communications and fundraising. I wanted to sprint out of that as fast as I could (this was the dream job, once…), so I started learning how to build websites at low cost. The jump from nonprofit communications to corporate marketing isn’t too big of a leap, so I attempted that pivot. I pitched a new website, brand, and marketing strategy to a technology company and got the project as a consultant. Suddenly, I’m getting paid to do entirely different work as a marketing consultant who designs and manages corporate websites. I did this all in Thailand as well. I don’t speak Thai. I make this point for one reason: if you think you can’t find work in a different industry, using different skills, you’re wrong! Believe in yourself. I built my first website and marketing strategy (which is something I had never done), for a company in the tech industry (a sector I had no experience in), and for the Thai market (a culture I didn’t grow up in and a language I didn’t speak). I’m not special. 

You can go out there, develop a skill or use the skills you know you have but aren’t being used, and find opportunities.

If freelance work is harder to come by, you can find volunteer work and start to develop a client list and public record of achievements that way. The mindset to take into all of this is that it’s an experiment – you aren’t looking for a “side gig” or a new job. It’s just an experiment. Who knows if you are able to provide value? Who knows if you even like the work, environment, and people you’re working with? Because of this softer mentality you will be more desirable to work with. You aren’t looking for a job in the traditional way and you certainly aren’t desperate. You’re simply having a conversation about value – what it is, and how to make more of it. Any business owner or executive should love that type of conversation. If you keep having conversations like that, you’ll find opportunities and people will start to pay you more money, because you’ll be worth it. This is the strategy I followed. It was the method I used to find and get my biggest clients, and it worked.

Step #3: Build, Measure, and Learn Using Minimum Viable Skills (MVSs)

Now that you know what an experiment is, where they can be run, and what the right approach is, what, exactly, do you experiment with? 

Here we need to deploy the “build-measure-learn” methodology as described in The Lean Startup. The point of your work and career is to turn your skills, labor, and productivity into value, first for employers and then for you. The “feedback loop” you should uncover in the build-measure-learn process is one where you deploy your skills, labor, and productivity to your current employer and outside opportunities (like those internal and external experiments), measure the success of this (using metrics defined primarily as income or future income potential), and learn, meaning “should you continue that specific part of your work or using that specific skill,” or “should you pivot to a new idea?”

Each phase – build, measure, and learn – needs to be understood.

Build

The core idea in The Lean Startup is the “minimum viable product.” For your career, it is the “minimum viable skill.” It’s a tremendously helpful idea. It allows you to run those experiments and get a fast feedback loop going where you actually learn what you’re best at and how you provide the best value, all without wasting tons of time and money in the process.

A minimum viable skill is learning something JUST ENOUGH to be able to provide value to ANYONE who is willing to pay for it.

A great example is coding. Many are going all in on learning to code. These skills are time consuming and expensive for you and they cost a lot to businesses. How many businesses need a full stack web developer? How many need a hyperpolyglot? Is the most complex and sophisticated coding language the best solution to most business problems? In my experience, not at all! 

So, before you start learning Python, which will take months of dedicated study, why not learn Google sheets or Microsoft excel? It’s one of the most basic programming languages, and you can automate virtually every aspect of a business with it. Also, this is free… Plus, you have the advantage of using an application that everyone is reasonably familiar with. Most answers are solved with simple methods. Simplicity is (almost always) cheaper, easier, faster, and less prone to error. 

Being able to communicate your value in only highly technical coding languages, to a business owner, is simultaneously saying “everything I do costs a lot of time and money, and this is the only way I am able to provide value to your business, hire me at your own risk.” Someone who is able to communicate solutions using simple tools, and often free tools, is simultaneously saying that they understand the bigger picture of a business – the bottom line.

The challenge against this in traditional career advice is that it doesn’t distinguish you from the field if the skill is so accessible. First, the US is producing more than 65,000 computer science graduates each year. Globally, the number is well over 1 million. That isn’t exactly a non-crowded field. Moreover, that process takes four years and a hundred thousand dollars (apparently). 

As an aside, this knowledge, as well as other programming skills, are accessible to anyone with an internet connection for free.

The answer for you may in fact be to continue learning IT and programming skills. But this isn’t a debate about which knowledge or skill is more or less valuable. Please also return to that Confucian story – don’t assume you know the right path in its entirety. Your initial goal shouldn’t be to become a full stack anything or a Six Sigma Black Belt. 

Start low, build many minimum viable skills, and test them. 

Measure

After building these MVSs, how do you measure them? This is a more complex problem than the MVP (minimum viable product) as described in The Lean Startup. An MVP can be almost exclusively tied to revenue. An MVS, while revenue (or the reasonable expectation of future revenue) is the most important factor, there are other subjective factors to consider, and these factors constitute the “categories” you are measuring, which you could visualize as columns on a spreadsheet.

The objective measurement category is simple: money making or money making potential. The subjective categories are up to you. Are you enjoying doing this thing? How does it relate to other aspects of your work? Is it positioning you in a direction that appears to be more or less desirable? Are the advantages you will receive actually the advantages you would like to receive? 

The answers here are opinions, not facts. While something that can help you generate more income is desirable, there are potential reasons why it may not be desirable for you given your preferences and values.

For example, speaking another language or being generally adaptive and knowledgeable of cross-cultural communication strategies may position you to take up a role where you travel internationally often. Such a role usually comes with greater benefits and income, but also irregular hours and travel to international project sites or clients. Is this the lifestyle you want to live? Is this a lifestyle that is good for your family? The answer here is personal, or between you and your family. There is no right or wrong.

I have spoken with a colleague of mine at length about this very subject. I suggested that he gain unique international experience in order to further distinguish him in his field, granting him insight that few people have in the US (for reference, he is an agriculture expert and consultant). However, he is uninterested in spending the time abroad that would be required to actually turn the experience into something valuable (at least, at this time). In the end, any additional skill or experience is “good” – but what makes it something measurably good is if it also has positive second and third order effects on your life beyond the actual or potential increase in income.

The focus on the subjective valuation of the MVS you’ve developed should not be read as making it a priority. All MVSs first go through a profitability test – is this going to make you more money or not? If you aren’t able to measure the real benefit (actual money hitting your bank account via the direct or indirect revenue you have received by virtue of the MVS), or make a substantive case for its potential benefit, then it’s a hobby, not an MVS. I emphasize the subjective because it is easily overlooked. A better career is not one that simply makes more money, but improves as many aspects of your life as possible. The right career path, then, is the union of sustainable and growing sources of income with activities that provide benefits that are experienced subjectively. 

Learn

Now that we know what to measure (MVSs and the objective and subjective categories), it’s all about learning. This type of learning isn’t about whether you learned a new skill or something, but whether or not your experiment (you built an MVS, and you measured some results) resulted in you actually getting knowledge about whether that MVS is good or bad.

Did the experiment get a positive, negative, or inconclusive result? And how do we know that our judgement of this is accurate?

To do this, we need “Learning Accounting” (taken from “Innovation Accounting” as coined by Ries). Whenever the word accounting is used, most people panic thinking a lot of math is about to happen. Don’t worry, it’s not. Because this couldn’t be simpler. The test to use for whether you’ve actually learned anything about your MVS experiment (and therefore whether you can justifiably “account” for it), is the “Show Me” test. And it is best exemplified in the movie, The Matrix.

Early on in the movie, the main character Neo goes through training in a way we all wish we could – a direct neural link that provides nearly instantaneous transfer of expertise in any discipline within seconds. After several hours Neo learned every form of martial art and combat discipline. He is released from the Neural link and says to Morpheus (effectively, his boss): “I know Kung Fu.” Morpheus says: “Show me.” Neo and Morpheus then enter a joint Neural-linked-dojo where they spar. Neo’s only objective is to land a hit on the well-trained and experienced Morpheus. 

The “show me” test is a great constraint that requires you to be very pragmatic and actionable with your knowledge. If you can’t demonstrate it, then what the hell is it? If your employer or superior is not interested in what you have to offer, then also, how the hell is it valuable?

Without the Show Me test, maybe you “learned” something – great! But who cares, at least, for the moment… Your learning isn’t much though if you aren’t using it. Without the use case, there is no Learning Accounting.

Neo learned a skill, was asked to show his knowledge, and was immediately able to provide a demonstration of it. By my standard, he could then add a tally to “Kung Fu” on his Learning Accounting spreadsheet. But this doesn’t mean it was a positive result! It only means that it passed the necessary qualification to be RELIABLE information. Based upon Neo’s experiment and his “Show Me” test with Morpheus, do you think he should continue his training? Should he pivot to something else? 

The questions you’ll have when you’ve met the Learning Accounting threshold will look a lot like this, and more. Where should you keep learning? What should you stop doing? What industry/business/country/sector should you be looking for opportunity? What ultimate problem are you solving for a business that you need to communicate in your first sentence in your introduction? Properly accounting for your learning and development will give you a real measurement. With this, you won’t be armed with an assortment of degrees, certifications, and skills that ultimately may have no correlation to your value.

On the opposite end of Learning Accounting are Vanity Metrics. Vanity Metrics tell you very little meaningful information. They simply feed your “vanity.” The perfect example of Vanity Metric came the day after I wrote this section. A colleague of mine shared with me that an article he published in a scientific journal was the 4th most read article on their website in the past month. 

Let’s do a breakdown here: 

  • he “built” something – writing articles; 
  • he applied measurements – he enjoyed it, but didn’t get paid anything, though he most certainly could get paid in the future; 
  • and now he’s trying to determine if he learned anything – he pulled a metric out of being the 4th most read article. 

The question is: did he learn anything with that metric? What is its significance? To him, this suggested that he start writing more. 

I thought otherwise. How many people have reached out to him after reading it? How many articles cite his work? How many positive connections or opportunities have come his way as a result of his work? These are the questions that matter. Being a popular article is certainly nice. I’d have a drink in celebration. But that’s about it. All of these other questions are Show Me tests. But being a popular article – the equivalent of getting a bunch of likes on a social media post – don’t mean much on their own.

The Vanity Metric version of Neo’s learning would have gone like this: “I have passed a test certifying me as a qualified Kung Fu instructor and practitioner.” I’m not sure what Morpheus would have said to this. If your first instinct is to point to something or someone else as a way to validate your quality, it is likely because you lack that quality. This isn’t to say that certain representations of achievement – like degrees, awards, and certifications – are wholly a Vanity Metric. It is rather to say that reliance on certain lines on a résumé are a poor and stereotypically backward way to represent your qualities. We all know someone constantly touting a Master’s degree of some variety who has no marketable skills, or a colleague who won an award for achievement – five years ago – and has since underperformed. Ultimately, if someone is hiring you on the basis of an accolade rather than a demonstrable ability you’re probably being hired for the wrong reasons. And this, albeit a temporary win, will not serve your career for the long term. 

Degrees and awards are at best hallmarks of the past, at worse idols that turn you arrogant and self-righteous, and are always dust collectors. 

To again draw inspiration from H.W. Longfellow:

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

   Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Demonstrate your knowledge – in the living present. Let your past achievements live in the past, where only others mention them.

I’ll close with a story of my consulting journey to provide a practical roadmap of how I’ve used Learning Accounting and the Show Me test to shape my career effectively. I began with websites, and while that got me off the ground, it didn’t pass the show me test for very long. Had I not used Learning Accounting, I may have continued to try to force web design as the feature of my work, resulting in greater economic loss. My clients valued other parts of my work more, and started saying “show them” by sending me new potential clients as referrals. When your colleagues, employer, or clients RECOMMEND you to others, it’s a big time passed as a Show Me test. Always note the reasons you are recommended. This is when I began to pivot away from website specific stuff and into marketing strategy. My current clients were asking for it, and they were recommending me to others on that basis. As an added value, I enjoyed strategic work in general, and contributing to the overall strategic landscape of a company provided greater upside and new routes for me to grow and expand my expertise and skill set. These were some of the categories I was measuring. So, where to go from there? 

To further measure, I was tracking my clients – what I did for them, how I got them, and why I was ultimately being paid. I used simple language like “paid to make sure their digital presence is positive, working, and error free, while minimizing costs and annoyance to the business owner” or “paid to ensure they stay disciplined to strategic lessons learned rather than following a new idea each week.” The data showed that I was building a lot of websites – even volunteering my time to help nonprofits – and the result was a laughably low amount of revenue given the time and energy invested. Comparatively, the strategic work I was doing accounted for the majority of my revenue and the minority of my time investment. This was a significant finding to say the least! However, the technical knowledge I developed with websites and creating digital assets wasn’t a waste. I can now do all of that quickly and cheaply. I simply know the limitations of its value to my clients. So, I pivoted, and stopped forcing a low revenue generating skill of mine when I had higher revenue generating skills.

I started building more MVSs with technical knowledge and business acumen. This provided a true “split test” where I could measure the development of different skills, all while using the Show Me test, and seeing which of them resulted in greater success. At the time, the skills I was called to develop meant Data Analytics, mastering a CRM, and Digital Marketing. I had a client who needed all of these. At the time, I was getting paid to do Digital Marketing, essentially. My wife and I invested hours in creating ads and running campaigns on Google and social media. Simultaneously, I was creating more and more of the IT infrastructure for the company, from a CRM to cloud storage to online collaboration. I spent most of my time talking with my client about the advertising effort, meanwhile, all the problems they were asking me to solve – all the Show Me statements – involved the IT infrastructure that supported, and was soon to form the backbone, of the company. The relationship between the IT infrastructure of the operation and the increasing need for real data, especially measuring the profitability of different customer segments and the productivity of different employees, was synergistic. More and more, through my management of this infrastructure, I was able to find actionable data and tell stories with it. Because of this, we were able to continuously improve our operation and profitability. My client kept asking me for more data and more improvements to the IT infrastructure.

I was no longer getting paid to do Digital Marketing. I was getting paid to do something else entirely and having a lot of fun in the process. All because I listened to the actual needs of my clients, asked questions using the Learning Accounting principles, and let the Show Me test lead the way.

None of this is to suggest that web developers are bad or that digital marketing is a poor career path. I have many colleagues who are making a killing doing both. This is just about applying a real process for career development FOR YOU. One that works for you and the people who actually pay you money or who could pay you money.