Thinking clearly about what is important to you can be hard, but without clarity on what is important to you making a job, the decision is fraught with danger. As I have traveled along my personal career trajectory I created a tool that has helped me with this. I call it the Job Decision Matrix.
The Job Decision Matrix will help identify what is actually important to you at this point in your career. Gaining clarity on what is important to you, right now, will help you identify new job opportunities, avoid wasting time on job opportunities that are not right for you, and to make a job decision with conviction.
The three goals of the Job Decision Matrix
- Identify new job opportunities
- Avoid wasting yours and others’ time.
- Make job decisions with conviction.
If you have not already done so, take a moment to read You Are Thinking About Your Career Trajectory Wrong. Once you view your career trajectory as a non-linear progression akin to a series of interplanetary space missions you will realize that your perspective changes over time. At each stage of your career, the things you care about will be different.
When I was graduating from the University of Arizona (Go Cats!) I couldn’t even spell “family”. The concept of caring about feeding a family was simply irrelevant to me. All I really cared about was the technical domain (GUI applications) I’d be working in and the stage of the company (established, but not big). Later in my career, I was married with children. Suddenly feeding a family was something I cared deeply about.
As you work through your Job Decision Matrix focus on what is important to you NOW, not what you imagine might be important to you in the future, or what you used to care about.
Buckets are simply groupings of similar things that you stack-rank from left-to-right. Most people end up with something like 6 to 8 buckets.
Buckets are very personal. Everybody has their own perspective on life. There are some that resonate with most people though, such as: “Company Size/Stage”, “Location”, and “Money”.
Let’s use a fictional character to illustrate. Laurie is right out of a master’s degree in Comp Sci and looking for her first real job. She hooked up with her high-school boyfriend in college and is already married. She believes she wants to be a professional software developer. Her husband has family in Seattle and really loves it here. They currently live near downtown Seattle and don’t have kids yet and love to travel. Laurie’s husband has a job and makes an OK amount of coin.
Here’s what the top-left portion of Laurie’s Job Decision Matrix might look like:
|Company Size||Location||Technical Domain||Money|
|Big Company||Seattle (Downtown)||Machine Learning||Living expenses|
|Mid-sized Company||Seattle (Eastside)||Data Science||Two big trips a year|
|Startup||Portland||Robotics||Own a home|
Laurie’s not an entrepreneur. She really just wants to start her career off with a solid job. So she’s identified that getting a job with an established company is the most important thing for him right now. Company Size is her most important bucket, and within that bucket, Big Company comes first.
Laurie’s smart enough to know she won’t be happy unless her husband is happy; living in Seattle is super important. They’d prefer not to have to commute to the Eastside (what we call the suburbs here), so she stack-ranks Seattle (Downtown) above an Eastside job, but push come to shove, she’d take a job on the Eastside. And if a really great job came up in Portland they’d take it.
Because Laurie’s husband also works, Laurie has the luxury of being able to prioritize what she works on, the Technical Domain, above money. As you can see, she’s into ML and data science, but if she found a job working on robotics she’d seriously consider it.
This example is a good start. I encourage people to have 6 or 7 buckets though because there a few buckets I find people don’t normally think about that prove helpful. More on these other buckets below.
Order your buckets from left to right. The buckets on the left should be more important to you than those to the right. If you can’t decide if one bucket is more important to you than another don’t worry about it. Move on. But ponder it in the shower tomorrow morning and come back and re-order if you’ve got clarity. The key thing is to really try to decide which bucket is MOST important and which is LEAST important.
Within each bucket make sure the items are ordered top to bottom, by what is most important to you. The thing you care most about now should be at the top and the thing you care least about should be at the bottom.
Tools for the Tool
I used to use an Excel spreadsheet for this tool. Each bucket was a column. Now I use a Trello board where I have a List for each bucket and each item is a Card.
You can find my current Job Decision Matrix on this Trello Board:
This really is my own personal Job Decision Matrix. I updated it as I wrote this post. I may have changed it again since this post was written. Hopefully, it can provide a real-world example. But, do not read too much into it as it is MY matrix and only I really understand it (I reserve the right to call you an idiot if you attempt to extract some deep meaning from it).
The nice thing about Trello is it makes moving things around super easy. If it doesn’t feel right to have “Money” to the left of “People” simply drag & drop it. And items within the buckets can be ordered likewise. You can also attach notes to Cards which can be useful.
I run Trello full screen so I can see all of my buckets in one view. I find visualizing it this way is helpful.
To further illustrate here are some more examples taken from my own personal matrix. I’m taking the time to include these because I want you to explore some buckets you may not have thought about.
The upper-left of my matrix looks like this:
Company Size / Stage
I’m at a place in my career where the most important thing is to focus on startups. That’s why I left Microsoft; I want to spend the next 5-7 years doing something very different than what I’ve done in the previous 21 years: living & breathing startups. Clearly, the things in the top-left of my matrix better are startup-related or I’m not really being clear in my thinking. But I’m somewhat flexible in what stage the startup is in. Ideally, I’d be starting my own company (which is what I’m doing). If there was an opportunity to join a funded startup I would consider it. I put “Large Companies” last in this bucket only to illustrate these lists must be prioritized. The LAST thing I want to do right now is work for a large company.
I have always cared deeply about what customers I’m focused on. I know I am not happy in jobs where I have to think about certain customers. I’ve served IT Pros, but, frankly, their problems bore me to death. Thus my customer bucket is ranked pretty highly (3rd) and I have a stack-ranked list of customer types I care about/want to serve. Right now consumer end-users are at the top of that list, but I do love building products for developers too. It is OK for you to not like a particular customer segment. It is NOT ok for you to hate your job because you can’t find empathy for your customer.
I’m regularly surprised when a mentee hasn’t thought about what kind of people he/she wants to work with. I’ve had points in my career where the previous “space mission” was so fraught with a-holes and soul-sucking ladder climbers that my most important bucket was “People” and the very top item in the People bucket was “Work with people I know & trust”.
Right now my “People” bucket has (in order) “work with new people”, “work with experienced entrepreneurs”, “work with non-MS affiliated people”, “work with people I know & trust”. In other words, I’m willing to take some risks on who I work with right now because it’s more important that I “un-learn Microsoft” than to “feel safe”. Being around people I’ve worked with for 21 years will not help me grow.
I love this one. I have Chris Phillips, the best manager I ever had to thank for this concept.
I’ve written a whole blog post on Merit Badges here. It is one of the most popular posts on my blog.
Very much related to Merit Badges is the Role bucket. The role is literally what role you want to play within the organization. For example, do you want to be an individual contributor or a lead?
In my case, being focused on startups, I care about having a role where I’m driving the technical and product direction for the company. This is important to me. So I have “Founder (CTO)” listed first. But I’ve decided that ensuring I can pay for my kid’s college, the people I work with, the customer I’m focused on, the location where I live/work, and the company stage are all more important than being a Founder/CTO. Having that kind of clarity is super liberating! It means that if an opportunity came along that met those other criteria I would be happy even if it wasn’t a CTO type role!
Some people care about titles. That’s OK (it can be important to be given a title because, like it or not, titles impact people’s perception). I can’t imagine ever having a Title bucket that is anywhere near the left side of my matrix, but I do know other people who would. To each his or her own.
I encourage people to have a “money” bucket. Items in that bucket might be things like “get rich”, “maintain”, “slow growth”. Decide what is important to you in terms of your financial situation and stack-rank/prioritize (e.g. What is MOST important to you RIGHT NOW in your career).
Do not forget to factor your spouse or significant other into your thinking here!
If you are seeking a new job, then I highly recommend you give the Job Decision Matrix a try. Even if you are not actively seeking a new “space mission” in your career right now, you can use the Job Decision Matrix to gain clarity on what is important to you.
The tool is pretty simple. Create a matrix where the columns are a stack-ranked set of related things you care about (Buckets). The rows are stack-ranked things you care about.
When you are looking job descriptions use your Job Decision Matrix to select interesting jobs and to filter out ones you shouldn’t waste time on.
When you have been offered a choice in jobs use the Job Decision Matrix to help you decide which one to take.
Over the years I’ve shared the Job Decision Matrix tool with dozens of mentees and have gotten the feedback that it was super-useful. An email from some random dude asking me for career advice (ha!) incented me to actually write this tool down for the first time. I hope you find it useful and would love to see some conversation about it in the comments.
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