One of the most fascinating things for me about the world of startups is seeing people who didn’t gel well with university education do super well in a more proactive, practical environment as a founder or early employee.
What skills or inclinations do these folks have that allowed them to thrive at work but not in school, and what does this tell us about our approach to education?
I studied Mechatronics / Comp Sci at UNSW, was a product manager at Atlassian & Intercom, and am now building an early stage startup called eesel.
Reflecting on my journey so far, it’s clear that the mindset you need to thrive in uni doesn't totally translate to the mindset you need to thrive at work.
Why does this discrepancy exist? What skills apply for one and not the other?
Here are the biggest differences I’ve seen between uni and work, and things I’ve had to unlearn.
🧱 #1: Uni is about following a rubric. Work is about making your own rubric.
University gives a lot of structure. There’s a clear end goal, the steps to get there are laid out, and what’s “good” and what’s not is defined.
You can work backwards from this to figure out what to do, and feel a ton of confidence, stability, and validation for the progress you’re making.
The annoying thing about work (and life more generally) is that things are far more open-ended.
From graduate programs to career ladders, you’ll of course see elements of frameworks but nothing will feel as comforting and laid out as the university days.
That sounds a bit disorienting, but this open space of options is the forcing function we need to form our own opinions.
You get to choose what you value, what “good” looks like, and where you spend time. For instance, it’s in grappling with these choices that I built the conviction to work on eesel to solve problems I care deeply about.
There will be tough trade offs to make (career vs. hobbies, career vs. friends), but take ownership of this, and create the rubric you want for yourself.
☑️ #2: Uni is about assigned tasks. Work is about unassigned tasks.
Uni teaches you to do well on an assigned project, but doing good at work is usually about going beyond that. The best way to stand out at work is to zoom out from the mindset of executing on “assigned” tasks, and take a broader perspective on opportunities.
For example, a PM friend at Intercom was handed months of feature iterations to make Intercom GDPR-compliant. Rather than jumping on to deliver this, they were able to successfully challenge the need for the project in the first place.
Likewise, the best way to transition to a new role from your current one is to start behaving like your desired role before you get the title.
For example, I transitioned into engineering from product management at Atlassian, by working on customer feature requests ad-hoc in addition to my day job.
Demonstrate high agency and a resourcefulness to take control, and shape things for yourself. I’d recommend giving this thread from Shreyas Doshi a read:
🏃 #3: Uni is about sprints. Work is about marathons.
I’m generalising, but you can do pretty well at uni working in spikes just before an exam or assignment. It’s not unusual to work unhealthy hours at the last minutes of the crunch, knowing that there’s down time after.
Work isn’t really like that. While you could have some project deadlines with an associated rush, there’s no “end of semester” to work and there’s pretty much always more to do.
You need to learn how to work sustainably, consistently, as opposed to working really hard in a short burst to just get that “one” thing done. This is especially the case in high pressure environments (building a company like eesel is definitely one of them!).
If you’re catching yourself working hard with the belief that you’ll “chill later”, I’d suggest finding a healthier balance today because “later” could never come.
🤝 #4: Uni is about hard skills. Work is about relationships.
There’s a focus in uni around hard, technical skills, and it’s often what you’re tangibly evaluated on. Work doesn’t index as much on that, because teamwork starts to play a larger part.
Building technical skills and critical thinking are of course important, but building healthy work relationships is even more important.
Soft skills like communication, stakeholder management, and leadership are what get you promoted,more so than a specific hard skill like SQL or Python or Excel or Matlab or Figma.
Hard skills are still handy - especially in the early days, and especially so for technical roles - but think of them as means to an end to drive business outcome, and not an end themselves.
🎓 #5: Uni is about short-term learning. Work is about long-term learning.
The pressures of “one shot” exams and getting a high “Weighted Average Mean” definitely got to me at uni, and I somewhat ended up picking up courses I knew I’d do well at.
If you extend this way of thinking to early stages of your career, you default to jobs by happenstance and it can be pretty unfulfilling (even if you’re doing well). e.g. continuing that internship just because you have it on hand and you’re okay at it.
You need to let go of short-term biases and free yourself from your existing circle of competence. Pick a job if it helps you learn the skills you want to learn.
At this point of your career, most of what you’ll learn is to come ahead, so what you know today is nowhere as important as what you’d like to know.
💪 #6: Uni is about output. Work is about impact.
If you put in the effort in uni, barring the odd misguidances, you get the associated results. Work introduces more layers and you can catch yourself working tons but still struggling.
Putting in the hours doesn’t guarantee recognition and you actually need to be pragmatic about acquiring this. For example, when I was at Atlassian, there was a culture of internal blogging and as part of that, highlighting your team’s work was a common way to build awareness of achievements.
When it comes to work, there’s also an additional layer of having ‘true business impact’. While this should ideally overlap with what gets recognised, internal incentives will be imperfect.
Your boss could expect you to do things that don’t end up having impact, or you could do things that do have impact but don't get recognised. It’s a reality of the modern workplace to be aware of, and it’s what drove me to work on eesel as a strict focus on impact is critical in startup land.
But not all sweat is equal. There’re probably things that can have high recognition and business impact, and not require as much effort. Hunt for those!
That’s all for now. If you’re keen to read more on these differences, check out Julie Zhuo’s twitter thread below, or feel free to reach out at @amoghito:
But there's a fundamental part of life where OKRs have only scratched the surface... Not the way we set company and team goals, but the way we set our personal goals. 2021 was my year of experimenting with personal OKRs. This is how things went down. 👇
You rarely see ‘Product Management’ degrees in the tech world, so where the f*ck do all these product managers come from? One of the most common pathways is to first be a software engineer, but it’s no easy leap.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
We acknowledge the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging and commit to building a brighter future together. Our team works on the country of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation in Sydney.