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14 July, 2009

Choices

About 10 years ago, a little more, I made a choice. It was not a good choice, at the time. But it has led to everything that has happened since then, obviously, and I think things turned out quite well. I was working at a small company as an applications engineer. I was the only applications engineer at that company, and I provided a much needed, and reasonably appreciated service. In addition to having that specialization, I also was the only person at the company that had become skilled in circuit board layout using a particular custom piece of software. I was the go-to guy. And I was 28 years old. I'd only been out of school for about five years. And it was a decent place to be, in that company. There had already been one attempt, by a major corporation, to buy the company, which the CEO had refused, because he suspected his business was worth more than the several million that had been offered. But after two years at this company, I'd become impatient with my career growth. I felt that others were being treated better than I was. I felt like others were the "golden children" and that I was just sort of an underappreciated afterthought. I felt that I would never be recognized. Particularly, I felt that I would not be financially recognized. I even felt that my manager was receiving some of the credit for work that I was doing.

So, I gave them an ultimatum. I told them that I thought I should be promoted to senior engineer. And I told them that I thought I should be earning a certain amount of money that was about 40% more than I was earning at the time. It would have been almost unthinkable to give me that much of a raise, but that's what I had in my head. The review came, and I did not get what I wanted. The CEO told me that he felt I still had some growing to do. They did give me a 22% raise which, when you think about it, is pretty significant. But I turned my nose up at it. I immediately began looking for another job, and I found one that paid me what I wanted, and gave me the title that I wanted. And it was at a big company with a good reputation.

I walked in to the CEO of my company and told him about the offer, expecting him to counteroffer. But I should have known better. He was not one to be put into corners. He told me that he was disappointed to hear that I was leaving, and that he thought I was making a mistake, but he respected my decision. That was it. No negotiation. I was worth what I was worth, to him, at that point in time.

I left the company in 1998. The company went public in 2005, and quickly rose to around $18/share. It peaked at around $50 and is now at $33. Most of the senior designers, who would all be around 50 years old now, have retired, millionaires. People who were in the middle tier, like myself, who eventually left the company, cashed in their stock for tens or hundreds of thousands.

The job I took that gave me the title, and paid me more, sucked. It was boring as hell, and I never had anything to do. I was so bored, in fact, that I decided to stop being an engineer altogether, and change careers. And that's how I ended up deciding to study biology. I figured, "If more money didn't make it better, then I guess nothing will". I wasn't necessarily right in that assertion. I think that's what we call "throwing the bathwater out with the baby". But I had it in my head that I needed to make a change. So I did.

I cannot say I regret anything that I did, but I learned something. I think I learned something good, and something bad. One good thing that I learned is to not think short term, and to be more patient, and to see the big picture. I also learned that money isn't everything, because I went on to become much happier, in a less materialistic lifestyle. But the bad thing I learned was to shun certain types of risks. Career moves. I did take a risk by going back to school. True. And I did take a risk by abandoning, or at least forgoing, my graduate degree to work in a loosely related field in industry. But I do feel very hesitant and sheepish about career decisions after that hasty one back in 1998.

The upside is that maybe the worst thing that happens when we make these decisions is that we find ourselves in interesting and unexpected new places years down the road, all having stemmed from those seemingly precarious choices.

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