4 Lessons I’ve Learned After Switching from Government to Startup

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You know that common complaint of how people from the government are always “lazy”, and that they wouldn’t last a day working in the private sector?

That’s me.

Just to be clear, this isn’t one of those “but WAIT – you were wrong!” stories. I’m here to tell you – you’re right. A pampered government staff who went into private went about as badly as you thought it would go.

I worked in a government agency as a writer for seven years, before my contract was terminated last year. Immediately after that, I got into a startup – this site, to be specific – and was rudely awakened by life in the private sector.

To be fair, I can only speak about my experience in the agency I worked at. It could very well be that it was only this particular agency and I that were lazy, and that other government agencies are actually hardworking.

But probably not.

Here’s a few lessons I learned.

I had no idea what “long” hours were

Here’s an example of a day in government work – I’d clock in at 8:00 A.M, and then go for breakfast with my colleagues. We’d come back around 9 A.M, and then ease into work till about 12 P.M.

Then it was time for lunch. Lunch was from 12:45 to 2:30 P.M. From then on, it’s trying to do some work while dealing with the carbo coma (sometimes taking a nap to deal with it) till 5:00 P.M.

At which point we would form a queue at the punch card machine to clock out. Literally.

Everyone (from my agency at least) left on time. It didn’t matter if you were late or if you got your work done – 5 P.M means 5 P.M.

Of course, there were times when we had to stay back. If there was an event we had to attend, or if there was a rush job that needed to be done, then yeah, we’d go back later than usual.

But my point is that it wasn’t the norm. You only did it if it was absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be expected to work any longer than the nine hours stated in your contract.

Is working long hours the norm? Read about it here on IRL!

What happened when I joined this startup

When I joined a startup, operating hours were more of a guideline, rather than set in stone. And by guideline, I mean “has absolutely no meaning whatsoever”.

Like certain jobs.

I remembered when we were designing this site, the team had a meeting with the web developers. That meeting went on for 10 hours straight – on a Sunday.

And it wasn’t like a government meeting where we discussed work for two hours and spent the next eight hours making stupid gahmen jokes – out of the 10 hours, we took maybe just an hour’s break. The rest we spent meticulously going through the site’s features and design.

Today my working hours are from “right now” to “as long as you can last, bitch”.

Every. Single. Day.

It happens, because that’s just the life of a startup. You have limited funds and small work force – who’s going to do the billion things that needed to be done yesterday? There’s only you.

Time has become so precious that even lunch with a friend takes careful consideration – those three hours could be spent chasing a deadline and buying some time before the next one.

Speaking of deadlines, here’s another lesson I learned,

In the private sector, deadlines matter

That’s not to say deadlines don’t matter in government. I’m saying that they’re almost never as important as deadlines in the private sector.

See, when you’re government (the previous government at least), you don’t have anyone to answer to.

Did you say, “the government answers to the people”?

I mean, who’s there to pressure you? The money comes from the Ministry of Finance. The targets and goals change according to whoever’s on top, and whomever higher they want to impress.

Our bosses get things done to impress their boss, and those bosses get things done to impress other bosses. Rinse and repeat.

When you have guaranteed funding and superficial goals, then your deadlines become superficial too. There’s no real agency to get anything done. You get bosses who suddenly and irrationally want things done by tomorrow, but then forget about it like it never happened.

For example, once, the director general called a sudden meeting with the editorial team. It’s a big deal because we almost never see the DG.

It turns out, he wanted a compilation of every speech and press release ever written by the editorial team from 2002 – 2017.

To be clear, he didn’t want a statistical figure – he wanted the actual printed copies. Oh, and he also wanted it two days before the weekend.

The reason? He wanted to show someone higher up how much the organisation had done.

Would a simple pie graph have sufficed? Absolutely. Did it matter? You bet your ass it didn’t.

Thankfully, my editor, who had been there 15 years knew the ins and outs of these horrible bosses. He told us to say yes but forget about it. True enough, we never heard about the matter again, up to the time the DG got replaced.

To read more about Horror Bosses, read this other article from IRL!

Enter, 2018. Being in a startup, I suddenly learned the meaning of ‘dead’ in deadlines.

What happened when I joined this startup

See, contrary to popular belief, IRL doesn’t just run on hopes and dreams. It takes money to run the site, and the money doesn’t just come with little card which says “Hope you do well!”

“I believe in you. Also, if you fail, you’re fired.”

It comes with strings, and lots of them. One of them was that I, as an editor, had to produce at least one article per day. Also, we had to hit a certain amount of traffic at each interval throughout this year, or else we’d lose our funding.

Suddenly, deliverables matter. If I miss the deadline on an article, traffic might suffer. When traffic suffers, we don’t hit our targets. When we don’t hit our targets, this site shuts down.

Working in a startup, I finally understand why many government staff are inefficient – it’s because they can afford to wait. I mean what’s the worst that could happen if they delay? No one’s getting fired. Nothing is getting shut down.

So why not be comfortable and push things to the last minute?

Here’s another difference between government and startups,

There’s no such thing as this-is-not-my-problem

While some might argue that we don’t have the most bloated civil service in the world, from experience, I can say that at least my agency hired too many people (which is probably why they didn’t renew my contract).

An accurate representation of how they reacted to the news of me leaving.

When that happens you have too little work for too many people. The lines of responsibility get blurred – it becomes easy to say, “this isn’t our responsibility.”

Sooner or later that phrase gets thrown around so much it develops a culture of work avoidance. Whenever work comes in, your first instinct is to decide whether or not it should be your problem.

Spoiler alert – it almost never is.

This happened so much at the agency I was working at. One time, I had to write a press release for an event another department was hosting. They gave me the information, and I wrote the press release based on that.

As it turns out, those goons had missed out a major sponsor for the event. The sponsor called in to ask why weren’t they mentioned on the official press release.

Immediately, the guy turned around to ask me what was I going to do about it.

“Lo there, upon the fields, do I see the solution to thine problem.”

Obviously, this wasn’t my fault. But when you have a different department writing the press release, and a different department organising the event, this work/blame tai-chiing is going to happen. And it happens a lot.

What happened when I joined this startup

In a startup, there’s no such thing as not-my-problem. I’m in charge of editorial, but if a teammate needs help with funding, I come up with ideas. If we don’t have enough writers that month, it’s my job to go out and find them. When the access card to the office doesn’t work, I’ll have to go to the building manager’s office to find out what’s wrong.

I went from a culture of doing as little work as possible to one where everybody’s got their hands full.

I wish I could say that it’s because I’m a changed person, but it’s not – it’s just something that had to be done. If I stand around twiddling my fingers, the whole mechanism stops. There’s no one else to pick up the slack. Everyone else is busy with their own things to do for the site.

Being a startup forces you to develop initiative. Because if you don’t collectively address a problem, it’s going to come back and bite all of you in the ass. So essentially, anyone’s problem is everyone’s problem too.

The experience has made me a better person, but the transition wasn’t smooth nor easy. I still instinctively avoid work sometimes (old habits die hard). But then I realise what I’m doing, and I buck up.

Here’s another difference between government and startup,

You become a better-skilled employee

When I first joined the government agency, I had to admit – most of it was because of the money.

See, there was this girl, Donna, who was a first-class honours student from my uni. She was a star among us because she had landed a job at British American Tobacco.

Her starting pay? RM3500.

This was 10 years ago when RM3500 was the highest pay we heard of for a fresh graduate.

My academic results were less impressive (read: absolutely trash), but somehow I wanted to top that. I wanted to be paid equal, if not more than Donna.

Miraculously, I managed to. I was hired as a contract writer for the government agency I applied with. The position was actually for someone more experienced, but since I was the right bangsa and wow-ed my interviewers, I actually beat out this other candidate, who was a more experienced journalist from a major newspaper.

For the first few years, I relished in my pay. I was getting paid more than this first-class honours student! How badass am I?

Yeah, no.

See, all I needed to do in my agency was write speeches and press releases – for the entire seven years I was there.

That’s it. The only skill I ever developed was a slightly higher word-per-minute type rate.

Donna, on the other hand, took on more and more responsibilities and rose through the ranks at BAT. After six years, she left that company to join a major food conglomerate in Malaysia.

Her current pay? Somewhere around RM10k per month.

When I left I was making a base pay of probably around RM4k. During the brief job hunt before I joined IRL, I couldn’t find a job which paid what I needed. I just didn’t have the skills which warranted the kind of pay I was looking for.

My point is that, at the end of the day, how much you earn is secondary. The real value is in the skills and personal development you get from your job.

Which brings me to,

What happened when I joined this startup

I learned more in the first three months of joining this startup than I did during my seven years in the government agency.

I had to learn how to fill excel sheets. I had to learn online advertising. I had to learn how to be an editor and how to run an editorial team.

As a writer, I had to learn how to write for online audiences. I had to know what worked and what didn’t, and which format worked best so that readers would keep coming back. I had to learn discipline and time management because a missed deadline meant the difference between being able to pay my rent that month or not.

These are just examples off the top of my head. There’s still a lot more to learn before I can go around advertising myself as a semi-competent adult human being with professional skill(s).

Which made me think – If only I had started doing this seven years ago, I’d be a much more qualified candidate today. I’d be earning closer to what Donna is earning now and be higher up the career ladder.

“What did you say he was? A freelance writer?! Oh you poor dear…”

Lesson learned.

The takeaway

I didn’t write this article to bash civil servants indiscriminately. I’m sure there are many hardworking civil servants in important government departments and agencies.

I wanted to highlight that at the end of the day, someone’s salary doesn’t reflect their value. I earn less now than when I was in government, but I provide more value to my company and clients. Eventually, that will pay off, but it’s going to take time.

So, wherever you are, whether government or private, ask yourself – are you developing your professional skills? Are you providing value to your company and yourself?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, then maybe it’s time to make a change.

For more articles on Career & Skills, read The Moment I Decided Never to Be Late for Meetings Again, and 7 Ways to Fail Your Job Interviews – Tips from a Hiring Manager.

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Khairie Apirin
Hi, I'm Khairie, the editor. When I'm not writing, I'm at the gym, or trying to adult (unsuccessfully). I love a good story though, hence this site. If you've got a story you'd like to share, come - tell me. I'd love to hear about it.
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