Last week I passed my first anniversary at Fission, a deep tech startup where I have been working as head of Operations. It has been an entirely positive year, and I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the reasons why.
First, a little context. After taking a career break to live on Iki for a year and a half, it was tough to get back into the workforce. I knew I might return to Japan since my wife’s father was fighting stomach cancer so specifically looked for a remote-first job. I thought my job hunt would take about two months, but it actually took four. In the autumn of 2021 everyone was looking for a remote job. The Great Resignation was happening and competition in the tech industry was fierce. As each week ticked by — marked by rejections or worse-yet no replies — my confidence was very low.
Prior to going to Iki, at my previous role as Director of Technology for an edtech company, I was not very happy and had done a lot of soul-searching to figure out what I should be when I grow up. This meant talking to friends and coaches, taking assessments like CliftonStrengths and Sparketype, and spending time reflecting on what kind of work would make me happy. All that work was very helpful in figuring out the qualities I look for in my own personal career “sweet spot” — but it wasn’t enough. I was having a difficult time “branding myself” which made the four months of job search drag on since I was actually applying for the wrong roles!
More self-reflection was needed. This was a valuable lesson, and something I pass on not only to mid-career folk, but especially to young people trying to find their place in the world. That said, it is not something you can do alone. I reached out to a number of people and got all sorts of advice. Even then I did not come up with a solution. I reached out to an old contact, Boris Mann, for some career advice. After a few weeks of back-and-forth counselling, I ended up joining his merry band of protocol researchers and engineers. But even then, I wasn’t sure if it was the right fit. But after a year, I am very grateful for the opportunity to figure things out.
Let’s take a look at how.
Making work, work
Lucky for me, a number of things have really worked at Fission. There are some lessons in here for people looking to get into a career, or change careers, but I think there are also lessons in here for companies looking to hire and retain passionate team members.
I am going to go through this from my personal perspective with Fission first, and then try to draw out some generalizations. Although I have a lot I could say, I will bundle it up into just four top-level categories. (skip to the bottom para if you just want to see the generalizations).
- The mission: I appreciate being on the forefront of the technology of the day. Fission is one of the companies out there trying to re-decentralize the web. Countering Big Tech is a boat I have been on for a very long time. In fact, this blog started in 2009 when I was writing about the iPhone and web in Japan, and the dangers of global tech homogenization. I actually stepped back from blogging about tech in about 2016, and this blog has been more about travel and Japanese history since. But I have still maintained my interest in ethical tech.
- Intellectual stimulation: The intersection between technology and politics has always been an interest of mine, and being involved in the zeitgeist mentioned above has once again let me dive deep into the question of to what degree technology is emancipatory, and imagining alternative ways to organize humans. This has lead me to read some fascinating books around political economy (see my annual book review next month!) which has been very intellectually stimulating.
- The people: It’s that simple. Fission is a great team of caring individuals. Also, it is a team made up of some of the top people in the field (not enough space to list them all here!). I feel like I have really graduated to the next level, and it is a privilege to work alongside this team. Plus, the wider ecosystem is filled with a similar quality of people that I have taken great pleasure in getting to know.
- Self-actualization: being able to apply lessons from both my past experiences but also from the lessons learned about myself in the last few turbulent years of my life has been very satisfying. Not only that but I am given many opportunities to continue my growth, which has been very significant this past year. Related to this is agency, a core value of Fission. This has allowed me to find my own growth path, but also given me the flexibility of working in ways that best fit me. For example, from Nov to Apr I was in Canada and for the rest of the year I’ve been based here in Kyoto.
Over this past year my personal growth has had a number of breakthroughs. Working through the challenges of a fast-growing, fully distributed team (I was #8 when I joined and we now number 23, and will double again next year) thinking about how to make a small company attractive for highly skilled (and valued!) talent from around the world has been exciting, and I think helped me gain relevant skills for the future. Developing corporate strategy for a VC-backed deep tech firm has also been new territory for me, and well, for everyone, since the startup environment of the last 15 years has been basically about making the next SaaS.
There is lots of advice out there for finding meaningful work, avoiding B$ jobs, and growing and retaining passionate talent. These are the lessons I have taken from my past year of “finding out what I want to be when I grow up”: In order to flourish, I need a workplace that has:
- novel and intellectually stimulating challenges
- an ethically-aligned approach
- supportive and smart people to learn from
- and the opportunity to grow in such an environment
That last one is the big takeaway. Most people don’t join a company as a “finished product.” They really need understanding leaders and a supportive environment not just to grow into a role, but to make it theirs. After a gruelling job search, this was something I particularly appreciated from my current company. It has been a good year and I have grown leaps and bounds. I look forward to the next anniversary!