A recent tweet by Hunter Walk made me revisit something I’ve been thinking about for a while–something I wish people had told me when I was starting my career in Silicon Valley.

Optimize for working w smart folks early in career. Today hung w peeps i met 2001, 2005, 2007. All doing amazing stuff.

I started by working in two big companies, Xerox (at PARC) and HP (at HP Labs). The career path for a software engineer at a large tech company like HP, IBM, Intel, etc., looks something like this:

Software Engineer
Senior Software Engineer
Staff Software Engineer
Senior Staff Software Engineer
Principal Software Engineer
Master Software Engineer
Software Architect
Chief Software Architect
Fellow
CTO

There are similar progressions for other types of engineering as well. Typically, there’s a parallel track for management that diverges at some point, and leads to positions such as:

Engineering Manager
Senior Engineering Manager
Director of Software Engineering
Senior Director of Software Engineering
Vice President of Software Engineering
Senior Vice President of Software Engineering
Executive Vice President of Software Engineering

In both cases, you’re “working your way up” (my list is upside down), the way that people in the U.S. have thought about career advancement since at least WWII.

After living and working in both worlds, I now understand that the Silicon Valley startup career path looks a little different:

Company A
Company B
Company C
Company D
Company E

Here’s the key difference: In the traditional path, your career success is defined mostly by your individual advancement. In the Silicon Valley path, however, you may have different positions at each company, depending on what you like to do, but your career success, especially in financial terms, will likely be dominated by the overall success of the companies. Ask any of the first 1,000 employees at Google, no matter what their title. Therefore, it’s vitally important for you to work with the people who are most likely to succeed, and maximize the opportunities for doing so. If you work at Company B with an outstanding team, but the concept didn’t quite make it, your chances at Company D will be much better if you can work with some of them again.

Furthermore, your opportunities at subsequent companies will come from the people at the previous ones. Otherwise, your fate is in the hands of recruiters and HR departments. If the all-star team from Company B is reassembling for another try, you want them to be thinking of you.

This can also apply to projects—within companies, or open-source, for example. Even if you’re not switching companies, look for projects with great people. I certainly met some at both PARC and HP Labs, and did end up working with some of them later on. I just wish I had known how important that was going to be.

Lessons

Do everything you can to work with great people.

Figure out who’s on your team.

Go where the great people are. (They may not be where you think.)

If there aren’t great people where you are, leave.

Your future depends on it.

(Thanks to Hunter Walk for reviewing this post and suggesting improvements.)