A Four Axis Model of Work

Mission, Technology, Culture, Compensation

In mid December I received (a generous) two month's notice that I would need to find a new job. I had the luxury of being able to reach out to people I'd be interested in working with while wrapping up loose ends at work for one month, and the further luxury of being paid for another month while searching for a new job. With that much time to think about what I want to do next I came up with a framework for how to approach my search, and how to compare different opportunities should I find myself blessed with choices. What I came up with I've taken to calling a four axis model.

Important Caveats

I don't presume to be able to offer advice. I've been incredibly fortunate in so many ways in my life that I find myself standing on top of many different layers of privilege. These are things for which I can take no credit, but have made my life dramatically easier than for the average person. There's an important conversation to be had about how to make what has been possible for me possible for more people, but that is not what this post is about.

The Four Axes

These are my one-word shorthand:

  1. Mission
  2. Technology
  3. Culture
  4. Compensation

For most readers, the use of the word axis probably hints sufficiently, but in case someone else stumbles across this post, the idea here is multidimensional optimization. If all I cared about was money, I could optimize for that 4th axis by interviewing with a bunch of different companies, comparing the compensation, and simply choose the job that pays the most. Since I care about more than just money, I have to be willing to make trade-offs between these different dimensions and try to maximize the overall value that a job offer presents.

Mission

What is the company trying to accomplish in the world? What are they actually accomplishing? How does that mission connect to my values and add meaning to my day-to-day work? What story (real or imagined) will I tell myself each day about why I work where I work? Will ongoing reality re-enforce that story, or undermine it?

Technology

This is where it becomes very clear that my 4 axes are shorthand for more than 4 axes. Technology is shorthand for:

  1. Do they use technologies with which I am already familiar? Will I be able to ramp up in a reasonable amount of time and be productive?
  2. Will I learn and grow as a technologist?
  3. Will I be able to contribute to open source projects?
  4. Do they get bonus points using any of my favorite "nice to have" technologies? (For me, "nice to have" includes things like running illumos instead of Linux, using ZFS, using rust, etc.)

Culture

What are the the company's professed values? What values do their actions reveal? How do people interact within the team, across teams, across larger organizations within the company, etc. Does the company care about diversity? Is the workforce already diverse including if not particularly in upper management? Is the workplace (physical and/or digital) inclusive?

Compensation

Compensation is the value a company provides back to you in exchange for your labor. Some of it is things like an hourly rate or a base salary. Some of it is some form of equity in the company. Some of it is agreed upon explicitly at hiring time, while some of it could be a bonus based on your performance, or the company's performance, or both. Some of it could be contributing some or all of the cost of various things like insurance. Some companies offer fancy offices with catered food and snacks. Some companies will contribute to a retirement account for you. Heck, in some professions they still have pensions! Some companies will match your charitable donations. All of these things are forms of compensation, and you have to figure out how to weight each of the components of the compensation you're being offered.
I'm still relatively inexperienced with how lots of different companies try to balance their compensation packages, and I think I could have done more research during my job search. In the end, I consulted with a financial advisor to help me understand how to value base salary, public company equity, private company equity, etc. I do think it's very important to ensure that your base salary covers your critical expenses, but beyond that, I'm probably the wrong person to provide advice on compensation.

How I use this framework

I will once again repeat the caveat that this post is not advice. I've linked some other resources at the end of this post for further reading (and if you have a favorite resource not listed, let me know about it and I'll add it!)

As a filter

Again, fully recognizing how fortunate I am that simply marking myself as "open to work" on LinkedIn provided me with a steady stream of inquiries from recruiters, this framework allowed me to, for example, politely decline some companies in industries that are just not of interest to me (even though by reputation they pay very very well.)
Similarly, I've come across companies which have pages on the their website showing the leadership team and it's ALL white men.... They might be very nice people, but chances are their workforce isn't particularly diverse.

As a tool for answering questions:

Question: "What are you looking for in your next job?"
Answer: Well, here's this framework I have in my head....

Question: "Why do you want to work at X?"
Answer: Well, here's this framework I have in my head, and here's how I think X maps onto it so far, but also, I'm still wondering about this aspect. Can you tell me more?

As a tool for asking questions:

This is where I don't know if what I'm doing is a good idea, but here it is:
In every interview where I get the chance to ask questions (most of them) I quickly run through a very brief explanation of "I'm looking to optimize across Mission, Technology, and Culture and here's what I mean by those.... Please tell me about your experience with this company along those lines."
The great thing about asking the same question of everyone is that the answers across individuals within the same company are revealing in their similarities and differences and comparing the answers across companies helps with decision making.

As a tool for making a choice:

I was fortunate to get more than one offer at roughly the same time. Having criteria for comparing offers helped me with deciding on which offer to accept.

Further Reading