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The opportunity cost of staying at one company for too long

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In the past few years I have seen an increasing number of clients from companies such as Cisco, Juniper Network, and Nokia. Some of them have been at these companies for 10 to 20 years. They have been well compensated and gotten quite comfortable at these companies.

But, now, the telecommunication industry is going through major changes. These companies are facing increasing pressure from competitors with newer and better technology. The result is struggling stock prices, low morale, and periodic layoffs at these struggling telecommunication giants. Folks want to get out. But, because they have been at these companies for a long time, some folks feel a lot of fear and discomfort.

Without exception, with a few months of dedicated coaching and preparation, they all landed at great tech companies. After all, companies like Cisco and Juniper Network had their heydays and these folks had excellent background and skills. But, both their technical and interview skills need a major upgrade to prepare for FAANG+ interviews.

As I reflect on my experience of helping these clients, I’d like to share with you a few observations regarding how long you should stay at your current company.

First, you should review your work situation quarterly. You should ask yourself the following questions:
  • Are you learning new things and becoming more marketable?
  • Do you respect your manager?
  • Can you get a 25% raise in total compensation if you take a job elsewhere?
You should answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for each question.

If you have two or more “no” answers for 2 to 4 quarters, you should seriously evaluate your opportunity cost of staying at your current employer.

Second, you can move internally to put yourself in a better position. For example, I have had plenty of clients at Google who stayed there for 10+ years. But they switches teams every 2 to 3 years. They were strategic to pick the emerging areas to ride the wave.

However, if your company is becoming too large and too stale, you are better off to find an opportunity outside. For example, for someone who worked at the WebEx division at Cisco, he/she is much better off to join Zoom or the Google Meet team. WebEx was a market leader over 10 years ago, but it had fall behind under Cisco’s watch. Working at WebEx will not add much value to your career.

Third, your third anniversary at your current employer is a good milestone to start looking outside. Your stock grant will be fully vested in a year. It will take a few months to land an offer. You probably also hit a plateau after doing the same job for 3 years. Plus, your sign-on bonus at a new job will cover part of unvested shares if you leave before the 4-year mark. By the way, in some cases, you might be able to have the new employers to buy you out for the unvested shares. This is more common for executive level positions.

In summary, it is your career and your own professional, emotional and financial well-being. Take charge of your destiny. Be the CEO of your own career. Evaluate your career progress every three months against your opportunity cost of having more learning, better boss and higher pay elsewhere.

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