Don’t let where you work define you

The largest company I have ever worked for was BlackBerry, which I think at the time I left had around 15,000 employees. What I always found interesting was many of the people I worked with at BlackBerry seemed to define who they were (at a personal level) in terms of their employment for BlackBerry. That is, they mixed their personal and professional lives to the extent that you could no longer separate them.

To give some examples, the people I knew would use their personal Twitter accounts regularly for corporate messaging - they would re-tweet positive articles about BlackBerry, respond to people asking device related questions, etc. And all of this would be intertwined with personal tweets - pictures of their kids, a holiday snap, etc.

I would regularly see it go beyond Twitter. Personal views would merge with companies views about all manner of topics. A lot of people I knew at BlackBerry referred to Google as “evil” - not necessarily because I think they believed that, but simply because that was the Company Approved Opinion™.

It’s natural that this occurs - you’re walking a tight line at BigCo. If you’re at an event and people overhear you sharing your personal opinion about a topic, you’re one viral “BigCo employee says…” headline away from being fired. So, it’s better to suppress your personal opinion in public and walk the company line. Less complicated that way. Sometimes parroting the company line publicly can do wonders for your career too - you’ll be seen as a “real passionate guy!”

But it’s not healthy to live in the shadow of BigCo. At some point, you and BigCo will part ways. In all my years working in the software industry, I’ve seen many dedicated, hardworking, and talented employees laid off just like everyone else. People tend to think they’re more indispensable than they really are. And when that happens, all that is left is a great painful void where your own thoughts and opinions used to be. And it can take a long time to fill.

When you’re dishonest in public as well this creates a credibility void that takes years to fix. When I think about the aforementioned BlackBerry employees and review their public Twitter timelines now, I wonder if they’re still being yanked along on a string, saying what they’ve been told to say and not what they really think. It’s hard to trust people who have demonstrated that they’ll readily sell their words and their actions to the highest bidder.

You have to fight hard to maintain a real sense of identity independent of where you work. This is doubly true if you work in a way that makes you publicly visible (community manager, etc.). You might end up even being regarded as someone who is “not a team player”, a maverick, etc. It doesn’t matter - it’s better that way. Five years later (maybe three years later given “fire fast” is the lingua franca of the software/startup world currently), you’ll thank yourself you didn’t sell your identity for a buck.


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