23 Oct 2015
Going up the career ladder
“Going up the ladder” is definitely one of the most interesting sayings in the English language for me. We don’t have that in Italian (and that’s another story) and maybe, I’ve started to think, for some very good reasons.
When you start your career, you start hearing this expression “Getting up the ladder” and it’s all a bit of blur, a bit of a dream. The ladder seems magic-beans-in-the-cloud-style and you are looking at it from the bottom up. It just looks like this vertically infinite thing, but it also seems like it could actually be an interesting journey for you.
So you start climbing while looking around, still not sure what’s going on.
The first few years go by, and you slowly work your way through promotions or (more likely) salary increases by just jumping from job to job (a trick nobody told you at career’s fairs!) until you look down and you’ve gone a long way up and you are small-medium management, firmly holding onto the ladder.
Instead I took a detour.
After a few years working in agencies as a web developer, I soon grew tired of companies “not doing the right thing”. I decided to take a bit of a break from suffering from other people’s wrong decisions and started contracting.
I guess this step could be seen as a long term relationship break. It can go two ways: you will just jump into a series of other serious(ish) relationships, or you can just have a series of no-strings-attached flings.
Despite being more inclined to choose the first option romantically speaking, I chose the latter in real life even if not so consciously. I spent two years of absolute “don’t give a damn what they’ve decided, I’m just going to do my bit and not worry about the rest” - and it has been so far, from a career input/output point of view, my best time ever.
I do recognise this might not be the same for everyone else, but where I am trying to get to is that, while contracting, the ladder for me (and I am sure it would prove to be this way for many others), turned into a bit more of a fairly large series of well-connected fire escape ladders on the side of a New York building: whenever there was a fire (within the company I would be contracting for), I could clearly see these ladders going up or down as a very handy fire escape, just by looking outside the window of yet another “rustic canteen” looking startup I had been offering my services at.
And if that analogy was not enough, contracting for me has been like having the emergency seat in a Ryanair plane: you might have to put all your bags away, but you have the emergency exit right there for you AND you get plenty of legroom! I knew at any given crisis time that I could escape fairly easily. Some contracts had 1 week notice (from either part), some others just 1 day. Hey, a day never made such a difference to my life!
Funnily enough though (and I’ve love for a psychologist to get in touch and explain the reasoning behind this), no matter how much I knew those stairs were there for me, I stayed in contracts way longer than I probably would have bet on! I “lasted longer” because I knew it was not forever, because I could quit any time. It’s like my brain would give myself a mini 1 day/week extension every time I felt like I should do a runner and somehow I stayed for months longer than I expected. Bear in mind, I was never in horrible situations, but the idea of having a possibly even better alternative was always there.
I stopped caring about what was happening around me and managed to work in startups I would have not believed in for 1 week as a permanent employee. Somehow knowing in a week or month I would be somewhere else, made it more bearable. I wonder if the same could apply to a prisoner – if they got to move around from prison to prison every few weeks, would they find it a bit more bearable?
When contracting though, I got told, you don’t always get time to do any training or any room to learn. You just get hired to do what you know best. So technically, I was not going upwards on the ladder any longer, especially from a “getting into management” point of view, or getting into roles with more and more responsibilities.
Well, if you hear just that (possibly from a recruiter trying to stick you on a permanent post), don’t believe in it: I was learning (by taking risky projects and learning on the job), I was more confident to experiment in my spare time, and I know a very good friend of mine has been getting contracts with huge responsibilities and even managing a team of supposed minions!
For this reason, I never felt like I was just going down the ladder, but rather slightly downwards, then upwards again and even walking on a completely horizontal bit of floor and mixed those up quite a bit, on this imaginary NY brick building. What I would find from ladder to ladder is just more money and a new skill I picked up on the way. By the end of my brief experience, my journey on the “untraditional ladder” was still worth a very special fuzzy but quite high up space on the “traditional” ladder.
I then found somewhere I really liked and I could not imagine myself anywhere else. And the building I had reached suddenly had another one of those upwards into the clouds single-direction ladder and I thought I was OK with it.
I realised it was expected of me to climb this one-way ladder, that it would get bumpy, and that I would even be given a bit of a load to take up with me. This load would of course increase as I got higher. I was still picking up new skills, although at a bit of a slower pace, but I was not finding money as easily as I had done on the “non traditional” ladder.
I am currently holding a very small load, but I can tell you, it has not been fun. I’m sweating, I had to switch hands a few times and almost fell over and I had to take on stuff others passed me on their way down. Not fun.
So I am questioning it, is this traditional ladder really worth it? I might extend my staying for a little bit longer to find out the answer, but I am conscious that the fire exit is not as close to my desk as before…