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  • Mehul Shah

Finding Your Next Exponential

Updated: Jan 22

This is re-posted from Mehul A. Shah's personal blog.

We, tech workers, have been fortunate. The technology industry has been rapidly expanding for decades with no foreseeable end in sight. The recent macroeconomic environment, I believe, is temporary. It has given us all a chance to pause and reflect on our careers and what we find meaningful. And, we already are starting to see new opportunities appear, especially in areas related to AI.

People often ask me for advice on careers in times like these. What fields of endeavor would be fruitful to pursue? How do you decide which job or role to take? What should you look for and stay away from? When is the right time to leave and take on something new?

While there are many axes to consider and no universal answer, a common theme that repeatedly emerges is one of learning and growth. My advice often boils down to how to look for and identify a place and opportunity where the people and environment will help you learn the most. Learning breeds passion and satisfaction. Money, title, prestige, fame, and other fruits are simply by-products.

People often learn the most when their company or organization is growing. I do not mean steady linear growth, but rather exponential growth. Growth can be measured many ways – in terms of users, customers, revenue, or employees –, and typically all of these go hand in hand.

My advice to look for exponential growth is not new. Eric Schmidt once famously told Sheryl Sandberg, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” Paul Graham also argues in “Startup = Growth” that exponential growth is essential for a business to be considered a startup. Although one can find growth outside of startups, startups are certainly a cauldron for learning.

Some Rules of Growth

So, how can an outsider tell whether there’s growth?  In hindsight, it’s easy – start by talking to people on the inside. Over my career, I’ve accumulated some rules of thumb to help find your next exponential.

  1. Growth is fun. There’s a healthy vibe in the air. People are optimistic. For example, when I interviewed with Google in 2004 and with AWS in 2014, I could tell that people were having fun. There was an atmosphere of chaotic optimism. People were busy and hustling, but they were never too busy to talk and relate the optimism.

  2. Growth is obvious; it does not hide. It is not under the rug or just around the corner. It’s a Mack truck that hits you in the face. The data will tell you.

  3. Growth is divined, not engineered. Sometimes companies are early in their journey. They may not have a product or may still be tweaking the product to discover what customers want. So, by definition, they will not show fast growth. Looking for growth is like searching for oil. You have the right tools and know-how, but need to make educated guesses and dig in many places.

  4. Growth is not forever. Finally, every company or organization eventually slows down or plateaus. Either the market becomes saturated, or they hit some other internal bottleneck. So, if you’re experiencing growth, enjoy it while it lasts. When assessing a new opportunity, remember that reputation lags reality. Refer to the previous rules to search for and assess growth. If your current environment has lost its ability to grow, then that’s a sign to look for your next exponential.

The Thrills of Exponentials

Environments that grow exponentially are rare, and AWS in 2014 was the first place I experienced this kind of growth. At first, I found the environment to be unintuitive, chaotic, and often unsettling. My first manager warned me that “the world in which you operate and assumptions you make will fundamentally change every three months.” She was not wrong. It’s hard to describe a world with customers, revenue, and teams growing nearly 3x a year and the challenges and issues that accompany it. Scaling was an exercise in organizational and system brinkmanship. By the time we deployed a new feature, system, or process, it was time to revisit it. Everything was constantly breaking, and we learned to stay one step ahead of it all collapsing.

I quickly found the pace to be exhilarating and addictive, and the growth necessitated an environment of trust and camaraderie. There’s so much to do that everyone can find real impactful opportunities. And because there’s so much open space, people are not territorial, which means no politics and more fun. If I wanted to work on something, I could simply join an existing effort. Or I could start something new and convince others to join. While people did not always agree with my ideas, no one stopped me from trying. Everyone started with trust, assumed good intentions, and had high expectations. With success, this cycle built on itself. By landing at a place with exponential growth, I learned so much and so quickly, and as a by-product my career also grew quickly.

Growth is for Community

I often remind people that growth’s purpose is to enrich and sustain our community and not collect wealth and power for individuals. Silicon Valley and the technology industry that it spawned is predicated on exponential growth, but not on growth at all costs. I started my career at HP, which was founded by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, two pioneers that set the standard for the valley. (Unfortunately, I joined too late to have met them.) Dave famously said that a company’s responsibility is to its employees, customers, and community first, and then its shareholders. A company is a collaborative effort by a group of people that want to make a contribution, and money is simply fuel to sustain their activities. I concur. Somewhere, Silicon Valley lost its way with the recent growth-at-all-cost behavior of some big tech firms and personalities. I hope the pendulum swings back, in this respect, to the old school ways.

Many wondered why I left AWS last year. Like others, I was amazed by the unprecedented advances in generative AI models. While their abilities to create images, audio, video, and natural language are remarkable, we felt that an essential ingredient was missing and needed exploration. We saw a larger opportunity outside of AWS that many did not agree with. So, I co-founded Aryn to seize that opportunity, find my next exponential, and make a contribution back to our community.

I thank Ben Sowell and Jon Fritz for feedback on drafts of this post.

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