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What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

by Jitin Asnaani, Director of Technology Standards and Policy

As athenahealth continues to grow at a rapid pace, we’re actively seeking new talent for roles across the company. Recently, my Product Innovation (PI) peers called on me to contribute to our campus recruiting efforts. In so doing, I would talk with some of the smartest and most interesting young people in colleges and universities around the country. It was an opportunity I just couldn’t refuse!

But what do you tell a highly gifted student from MIT or Harvard that he or she hasn’t heard before? Well, I can tell them about the huge, national health care problems, about the deluge of investment into health information technology (HIT), and about the potency of cloud-based services, like an EHR, in the face of accelerating business and technology changes.

So that’s where I start. But then I ask the students to step back from the job hunt – to forget athenahealth or anyone else – and focus only on their own lives 5 to 10 years from now. What do they want to excel at? What do they want to be known for? Who do they want to emulate? And with all that in mind, what kind of people will their current job options train them to be?

And then, I show them this chart, to help approach those questions: 

The two axes describe potential job opportunities (green titles) in terms of the degree to which a graduating student will have ownership of their work compared to the variety of challenges he or she will face. The watermarked titles indicate what the young Padawan is getting trained to do.

To be very clear, this chart does not say that any one job is better than another. In fact, I’ve personally held four of the six roles and I can attest that each one can be uniquely satisfying. The question really becomes “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The Differences in Production Roles

On the face of it, the placement of some of these job opportunities on the graph is debatable. Take Project Management (aka Program Management or Product Management), for example, in the bottom-left quadrant. Isn’t a Project Manager, by definition, switching from project to project, getting a broad variety of experience? You’d think so. But in reality the vast proportion of Project Management jobs are really focused on keeping track of the status of various activities. Over time, the project manager tracks increasingly complex projects and builds increasingly complex status reports, but is rarely on the hook for delivering a project or understanding meaty problems well enough to build a vision for tackling them. To use an analogy, Project Managers may not have a vision for the next jumbo jet aircraft and they certainly won’t design it, but they will know where every part comes from and how those parts will all fit together.

Consulting and academia fit squarely into the bottom-right quadrant. Consultants and professors are certainly on the hook for recommendations, reports and patents, but are usually not responsible for the real-world impact of those artifacts.

Conversely, engineers are responsible for very direct, real-world impact, through the products they create.  If you like to do something specific like coding, for example, I don’t know why you would do anything else on this matrix. But if you prefer a broader variety of functional roles and experiences, pure engineering roles usually won’t get you there until much later in your career.

On the Hook for Business Results

And that brings us to the top-right quadrant, where people are on the hook for business results, whether the challenge deals with a product or process, operations or sales, new markets or existing customers. So what belongs in this quadrant? Rotational Programs more or less fit in here, depending on how well they are structured. Entrepreneurship probably belongs somewhere in this quadrant too, and most closely resembles PI, though it deserves another, hidden axis called “stability,” along which it clearly lies on the lower extreme. I’ve played the entrepreneur role too and it can be a blast… but the party usually doesn’t last long.

Thankfully companies like athenahealth are run a little like a “federation of startups.” This helps sustain that wonderful tight-knit culture, with the added benefit of sufficient resources to keep the party going, even if it's for electronic health records.

But in almost no other analytical role is a young graduate on the hook to deliver as much as in PI, and I share that with our prospective athenistas. As one of my own young graduate hires recently told me during our weekly one-on-one meeting: “I just joined three months ago, and I can’t believe that the first product I helped design and build is now going to be deployed and used by over 35,000 providers this December. That’s really scary. I’m lovin’ it.” This guy is a true product innovator – someone who wants to LEAD!

So that’s my recruiting story. What do you think? Like I said, there is no role here at athenahealth that is inherently “better” than any other – each has its own intrinsic satisfaction. 

What other roles did I miss? What are other dimensions that might cast some roles in a different light? We’re hiring for roles of all kinds and I’d love to match the smart folks I keep meeting to their dream jobs here at athenahealth!

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