Elijah Verdoorn

Programmer, Designer, Musician

Thoughts on a LinkedIn Ad

When I’m cooking I’m almost always watching some kind of video or listening to some kind of podcast; when it’s video content that I’m consuming it is almost always accompanied by pre-roll video ads. A vast majority of these ads go in one ear and out the other. However, every now and then an ad sticks in my brain, the advertising industry working as intended. I’ve recently found an ad that’s been repeatedly being served to me and inspired some thoughts. The ad is for LinkedIn. LinkedIn has been very successful in connecting myself with lots of people who have helped me, or that I’ve been able to offer advice to or help out in some way or another. Overall the platform has been a positive force in my career but this specific ad does leave a sour taste in my mouth, betraying an attitude and approach to career development that I see a lot would caution against.

The ad is an animation with a voice over, the voice saying the following:
Follow leaders giving expert advice
Find what’s trending in your industry
Get an inside look at company culture
Get the knowledge you need to grow your career
And get the insights you need to find your in
The “in” of course, being a reference to the name of the company. It’s a cute little 15 second ad and a bit of an earworm when paired with the jingle that they put behind it. The ad seems to suggest that there’s some kind of “secret” way to get ahead and have success. If you just knew the “one trick” you’d dramatically accelerate your career advancement.

Leaders give expert advice but in my experience the best leaders have a greater impact by their actions than by their words. It’s hard to get any actionable insights into how those leaders are acting by a couple of words that they post on their public LinkedIn pages (if they’re even the ones doing the writing, keep in mind that there is a good chance it’s a company marketing department doing the writing on their behalf). I don’t deny that there is value to be had in understanding what the pioneers of any industry are doing and what they’re talking about. But the people who are deep in the hard work every day are probably not the people who are spending a great deal of time writing on LinkedIn. Rather, they’re producing their best work in documents internal to their company, or if you’re lucky in open source writings that you can go and access. Rather than putting stock in a one paragraph social media post, look into how they’re spending their time to understand the actions they’re taking more than quips and catch-all advice. It’s even better if you get a chance to sit down with leaders and directly ask them questions about how they spend their time. I’ve never been turned down a request for an informational interview, either with someone internal to my company or external and have always walked away from these conversations remembering the advice shared much more than had I read the same online.

There are interesting new developments coming out in any industry every day, especially in the fast moving product development and engineering worlds. I think that a lot of the time, rather than chasing the newest trend you really want to focus on increasing your understanding of the boring fundamentals that have been around for forever. Keep in mind the saying that “a boring tech stack is the best tech stack”. As a timely example: I think that the average software engineer should know a little bit about the latest generative AI that’s coming up, but not at the expense of mastering the basics. Whenever I hear from others (especially student mentees and brand new engineers) that they’re going to go deep on something brand new I’ve applauded their enthusiasm but reminded them that they should look to balance their time looking to at the “new hotness” with something that is going to give them the fundamental knowledge that will allow them to approach a variety of topics later on in their career. Chasing trends is not sustainable: there’s always going to be new developments, constantly looking for the next best thing at the cost of mastering (or remembering) the fundamentals and the underlying principles will exhaust even experienced engineers. I see a lot more post encouraging this trend chasing on LinkedIn than I do messages about the everyday tasks that yield more fruit.

Getting the knowledge you need to grow your career is only important if you’re lacking knowledge. I’m a firm believer that education unlocks opportunities and there are situations where pursuing additional training is correct, but I don’t think that most people’s career growth is being held back due to a lack of knowledge. For many it’s a matter of lacking effort or tenure. Some just don’t deliver the results day in and out, often a lack of effort can be blamed. It’s not that they don’t have the knowledge, they know they need to do the job and do it with high quality. Then there is another group of people who put in a tremendous amount of effort and are very effective in their roles, but are impatient in seeking advancement. These people just need to let the process happen, show their leaders that they’re ready for additional responsibilities in the course of handling whatever situation has arisen or project that is needing completion. It’s not a lack of knowledge for those folks either. They just need to spend more time in their role, continue to show the effort that they’re showing and wait for the right opportunity to come by (and then seize that opportunity when it does).

Getting an inside look at company culture is important when changing jobs and joining a new company. In that case understanding how your new team works, the norms, the kind of people you’ll be working with, the exact sort of problem that team is looking to solve, and the methodologies currently being used to solve that problem are critical to deciding if a new role is the right fit for your career. Those questions can be answered using social and professional networking, LinkedIn being a good starting point. If you’re not interested in changing jobs, then what value does it offer to understand what other companies are doing? Would it be better to spend the time looking at what my current company is doing and understanding that better? What are your coworker’s needs and can you do something to fill those needs? You’re not going to find detailed answers on any social network. Discovery in this area will come from conversations with co-workers and managers, with leaders further up the company’s working chain. Use those discoveries to advance the culture of the place you’re in, rather than seeking to copy the culture of a place that you’ve never been and probably don’t understand.

Professional networking that LinkedIn is looking to inspire with his ad is not bad. There’s definitely worse things that you could be doing with your time, but I don’t think it’s optimal if your true goal is to grow your career at the fastest pace possible. Success isn’t going to be found by trying to “backdoor” your way into advancement or “hack” your way up the ladder. Doing the hard work, sometimes the work that nobody else wants to do, is going to be rewarded in the end and is going to be the most satisfying. It’s not the times that I’ve felt like I’ve snuck into success that I’ve truly felt proud of my work and experienced the greatest amount of reward: instead when I’ve had to struggle and put in the hard effort I’ve most appreciated what I’ve gotten in return. Instead of spending time looking for the quick-fix to move forward, consider how you might be able to spend the same time and energy in your current role, furthering the culture of your immediate team, and learning from the leaders in your immediate reporting chain.