Get a Job Where They Pay – You Learn
My granddad turned 89 this year. The old man we loving call “Lalo” has a Cuban saying that always stuck with me,
“The devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the devil.”
It sounds funny reading it in English, but the message rings clear. He wanted to make sure we grandkids, who thought we were oh so smart, would listen to the advice of older folks if only because they’d been around longer than they had.
You look at Lalo today and you’d never know he was a successful businessman in Cuba when Fidel Castro took power. He was forced to flee the country and arrived in the U.S. at almost 40 with a wife and two teenagers. He started all over again and in 20 years built up a food distribution business with my father and two uncles which supported us all and enabled him to retire before the age of 60. You think he’s got some experience to share?
There’s one lesson in particular I’ll never forget and I’m now making a point of sharing it with my own daughter. She’ll graduate from college this May.
When Lalo graduated from college in the 30’s, he worked for firms like Goodyear Tire and Schwinn bicycle. (Yeah, the old guy worked for some international firms back in the day.) In the 50’s, he picked up his family (wife and two little kids at the time) for a winter in New York. This was no small task for warm blooded island people. He rented a vacation beach house on the cheap (who needs a beach house in the winter) with the goal of learning the import / export business. He wanted to learn the ropes so he could return to Cuba and start a similar business there.
I remember him saying to me,
“Make your mistakes on someone else’s dime. Find someone who’s doing well in your field and learn everything you can while they’re paying you.”
He made it really clear that you cannot know a business from afar. Starting a business is so completely unpredictable; you cannot afford to learn on the fly. You have to have the basic expertise down pat so you can focus on the crazy stuff that will happen. Then he would stress, “The crazy stuff always happens.”
I followed his advice when I graduated from Purdue in 1984 and landed a job at IBM. At the time, it was the Mecca for software engineers coming out of school like me. Not only would I be working on the hottest stuff (the PC was invented three years before I started at their Boca Raton plant), but they had a culture of learning. They taught you how to be the best in your field.
I started my career there and didn’t even realize all I had learned until I left in the mid 90’s. I remember working at my second engineering job thinking, “You mean not all firms run themselves like IBM did?” Now IBM had its shortfalls like any other firm, but it had engineering discipline. It taught me the value of a formal planning process. It showed me the importance of testing and quality assurance. I even learned how to deal with managers who were not as good as they needed to be. There were protocols at IBM for doing so much. What a priceless way to launch my career.
So Lalo’s advice (and mine too) is to make sure you get a good learning job early on. Focus less on the money they offer you and more on the learning they’ll give. Make those learning mistakes while working for someone else. And boy, if you smell that it’s an erratically run business, run like hell. Unless you are dying to study how NOT to run a business well (which I’m sure you can learn just about anywhere), that’s not something you need at any price.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few other things I learned from the ol’ guy. Please share with the rest of us what you’ve learn from older, more experienced folks (whether relatives or not) that’s made a real difference in your career.
Hope this helps.