First, listen to the song “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock & Roll)” by AC/DC. You can find it here.
Even in the 70’s, it was a herculean task to reach AC/DC’s level of success as a rock group – countless bands with only room for a few to make it huge.
Now, it’s far worse. How many Americans have made it big by playing the guitar in the last 10 years? Maybe more than zero, but if not, close to zero.
While I have no dreams of musical stardom, I am interested in professional success – and as the late Angus Young alludes to, not all careers are equally easy to succeed at, however it is you define success.
My road to acclaim & riches won’t be easy either, but it never hurts to act with intentionality. I’m writing this post to help me think through my options.
This article is a jumping-off point to explore “Game Selection” in the context of my career – that is, choosing to exist in a field that lines up with my goals.
Where I’m At Right Now
I’ve got a few things going for me here, and a couple that’ll make things harder.
I’m being intentional about this at a young age, I’m hungry to succeed, and I’ve got the “cognitive horsepower” to achieve incredible things. These are all more or less prerequisites for massive success, but they’re not enough on their own.
The more difficult pill to swallow is this… I don’t yet know where I’m going, and I really need to start figuring that out. Do I keep moving down the current track? Should I work in big tech? What about becoming a capital allocator?
Many paths lay before me, and while they might all be valid & good choices, they are not equal. Optimizing for certain life outcomes isn’t just about making good choices – it’s about making the best choices available.
I’m starting to wonder if that means I need to find a way into capital allocation, though I’m still very open to the idea that my place is in software & tech more broadly.
The State Of My Career
As a refresher or introduction for new readers, I’m currently working in finance as a software engineer at a small growth equity firm in midtown manhattan. I didn’t attend college & got a relatively late start, with my first serious job starting around a year ago, when I was 25.
The work I do at Full In Partners means I’m learning a ton about software engineering and only a moderate amount about growth equity investing.
If I were content with the career path of software engineering, this wouldn’t be a problem. Over the long term, though? I’m not sure I’m content as an engineer. That mismatch of the experience I’m gaining & the goals I might set raises some important questions for me.
As an aside, some of you might be surprised that I'm not totally sold on being a software engineer forever. I've said many times in the past that it's often the best job available to someone who didn't go to college, and I stand by that sentiment. I think I might be able to do bigger things. That might mean becoming a software engineering manager or something, too - I'm not sure yet, and figuring it out is the point here.
How I Define Professional Success
I’m reticent to list specific dollar amounts for what I hope to achieve in terms of income. I’ll just say that I want to be in the top .5% of Americans at a minimum.
Beyond money, things get a little less clear. One goal I do aspire to? Building a reputation of competence & offering valuable insights – the kind of guy that people refer to with a single name, and who causes a stir in their industry with every new piece of writing they put out or new move they make.
As examples to what I mean, Marc Andreesen, Mark Zuckerburg, Jack Dorsey, & Sam Altman all come to mind in terms of tech leaders.
From the world of finance, I think about Bill Ackman, Carl Ichan, Ray Dalio, and Moses Kagan.
These are lofty goals. They’re muted in priority because they arguably almost require (per the lists I mentioned) being a founder, especially on the tech side.
I’m pretty sure founding a startup is not something I want to pursue again, at least not in the next 10 years.
Breaking Down My Options
If I were to go the big tech route from here forward, I could reasonably hope to be an “upper mid-level” or senior software engineer at a company like Google, Facebook, Stripe, or Apple by 31-32 years old or so.
According to levels.fyi, the average senior engineer at Stripe makes around $490k/year total comp. A comparable role at the other companies mentioned are only slightly less lucrative.
Longer term, there are many big-tech software engineering managers that pull down north of a million dollars in their early 40’s. That would satisfy me.
If I stayed in finance as a software engineer, the story is less rosy. The only financial firm I have good data on for software engineering compensation is Goldman Sachs.
It’d still be a decent living, but a “Vice President” who does software engineering at Goldman only pulls down $200k/year, and you have to assume the career advancement prospects from there are far worse than at a tech company.
I was going to write about what a career change into an investment position instead of remaining a software engineer would look like, and as I’ve stewed on the idea while writing this post, I realized that was a dumb thing to even consider.
Investors work way harder with less social impact and worse pay, perhaps except at the very top. There are worlds in which I try my hand at that sort of thing on my own in middle age, but not anytime soon.
What I’ve Concluded
I believe I’m smart enough to work in big tech, so why am I not doing that?
My action plan from here on out is pretty simple, if not easy. I need to continue doing good work at Full In for another year or so, but as I proceed with that, I need to start preparing for interviews involving data structure, algorithm, & systems design questions that tend to require a lot of study.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt to grow my body of software engineering work (especially blog posts & tutorials), open source contributions, etc. either.
Lots to consider. Lots to execute on.
Thanks go out to my friend Moses Kagan for introducing me to the general concept of game selection. It’s an extremely useful frame.
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