Five Questions To Help You Navigate Opportunity at a Large Company

When I was balancing the option of working at a larger company or smaller start-up after graduation, there didn’t seem to be a contest. With brand names, perks, training, resource capabilities and networks as a relatively easy incentive for eager-eyed college students, large companies wasted no time during college recruiting stressing their ability to give. The more I talked to people inside big companies, they more they stressed the side opportunities, fun ways to get involved and array of mentors available even outside of their primary functional roles.

Our orientation leaders at IBM reinforced all these aspects during our first few days, especially the importance of IBM’s resource capital. They made it sound simple: in a small company, you’re limited by volume — large companies have hundreds of people, training modules, and skill sessions you can leverage to pursue your interests.

What they didn’t tell us, many of us would find out over the course of the next year — at a large company, there is untapped potential but no easy place to start. It’s easy to be forgotten. It’s easy to be placed somewhere because it’s convenient for the company’s functionality and not because it’s the place you thrive. It’s easy to have your voice squashed by policy and protocol. It’s easy to see a directory with hundreds of people without any idea who to connect with. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilities, and paralyzed by expectation. It’s hard to reconcile with the fact that you, a human being full of interest, potential, and energy, may be a simple small speck in the greater scheme of your company.

On top of that, if you consider Apple or Google a large company — IBM is a behemoth on a different scale. As of the end of 2015, IBM has close to 400,000 employees. To put the size of the IBM workforce in perspective: IBM has more employees than Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Cisco, Apple, Amazon and Google all put together. On top of that, every division of IBM almost operates as its own mini company — the culture and resource allocation of consulting is entirely different from its Watson and Sales counterparts.

True, there are many advantages to working at a large company — the brand name, the perks, the training, and the network are all a plus. But how do you even begin to navigate this network? How do you begin to identify the opportunities for proposals and new ideas when bogged by rules and structures? How do you make them work to your advantage when there are thousands of others competing for the same opportunities?

It all starts with specificity — companies like IBM offer projects and involvement opportunities in dozens of different sectors but getting involved requires breaking down exactly where you may fit into the puzzle. Introspection seems like a cliche and canned approach — so why is it so important to drill in?

Let’s say you have a keen interest in humanitarian work. You open up an email tomorrow about an opportunity to get involved with a vision to create information hubs in developing countries using IBM technology. It’s not related to consulting. There isn’t even a clear idea of where they need help. Where do you start?

Think about these five questions:

What Can I Offer?

Imagine that you had a meeting tomorrow with a practitioner leading this project — what could you offer them? Many immediately jump to development or hard software skills as their sell — this often disillusions many at a technology-driven company to believe they have nothing to offer if they can’t code or build a wire frame. Instead — maybe you can offer research. Maybe you can offer a chance to take notes at a conference. Maybe you can offer an ear or a sounding board. If you are a human being, you have an offer. It’s as simple as that. Determine your skills and specialties first but remember that time and energy is just as valuable of an offer.

Where Does My Story Intersect?

How did your interest in humanitarian work began? Did you do on a trip in college? Read something powerful? At IBM, there are thousands of people that want to work with cybersecurity and vulnerabilities. There are hundreds who want to work with Watson Health. If your reason is “It sounds cool” or “I’m bored at my current job”, you’ll hardly penetrate the layers of empathy that could be used to sell yourself on an opportunity. Start crafting your story and make it succinct — even if you are a genius software developer, having an intimate investment in the project will be far more of an endearing proposal.

Who Can I Interact With?

This is the toughest part because it’s often the most hidden. You read about something cool — who do you contact? Sometimes, the person in charge doesn’t read their emails. Sometimes, there is no specific contact. If there is nothing from the search directory, try and determine the division. Ask others in that division. More importantly, get comfortable with cold emails and cold chats. At IBM, we use the same time platform as a vehicle to chat with anybody in the company. My sametime list is full of scientists, patent inventors, software architects, marketing gurus, and innovators that all work at IBM — I’m no smarter or more tech-savvy than many of my colleagues. Get comfortable with chatting random people and asking them about opportunities. Fear and imposter syndrome is one of the biggest caveats in a large company. Get rid of the “That person is probably so busy, why would they want to talk to me?” or “I’m sure he knows way more qualified people, what could I even do?” from your mindset. If people are busy, they’ll tell you. If you don’t have the skills they need, they will tell you. The minute you automatically assume the worst, you’ve lost that opportunity.

What Can They Do Better?

Once you figure out what you can offer, have a story at the ready, and find the person to talk to — take a minute to learn about the opportunity and start thinking about how you can help. More importantly, try and gauge the need. Sometimes, people will tell you without spelling it out. Sometimes, people will be afraid to admit it is a need. Time and energy is almost always a need for practitioners working on really fascinating projects. If you can’t propose an idea, simply ask “Where are you struggling most?” You’ll be surprised — some people have been waiting for that question forever.

How Much Time Will This Take Away?

If you are looking at an opportunity outside of your full-time role, figure out how much time you can take out of your week. If it’s a couple hours, let them know. If you can’t take out any time but want to be kept in the loop, that’s a fair and honest assessment as well. The last thing you want to do when presented with the opportunity of your dreams is over-promise and under-deliver.

Kushaan is an IBM Consultant based out of Washington D.C. His interests are rooted in strategy consulting, entrepreneurship, social media, and the intersection of technology with social impact. He enjoys blogging about life, career insights, social technology, and hacking the corporate environment. If you liked this post, follow him on twitter: @kushaanshah or click “Follow” for more posts on Medium.

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