Table of Contents
by James Lange, CPA/Attorney
This past week, I received an email from an enterprising business student at Carnegie Mellon University seeking some career advice. Specifically, she was asking about my career path.
My first thought for her was to set the objective of being self-employed or controlling a company within five to ten years. I don’t think going from job to job—even if the next one seems better—is the best route to follow. And, the days of working for 30 or 40 years with one company, getting a good pension, and then retiring—as was common years ago with places like Westinghouse—are long over.
That begs the question: How do I become self-employed or a boss in five to ten years? Think like Mario Lemieux. He was not the best hockey player on the ice because he knew where the puck was, it was because he knew where it was going. I anticipate that we will see massive disruption in virtually every profession including my own, so anticipating what might be coming down the pike is critical.
Look at the shifts Uber and Lyft have sparked. We add in autonomous cars and the changes will not only affect jobs that are obvious, like car and truck drivers, but many that aren’t. What will happen to the parking industry? (I won’t be crying for those garage owners who take your money and make you drive round and round looking for a space. But I will feel sorry for the employees). What are all the lawyers who work on car accident litigation going to do? There will be accidents in the short run when people interact with autonomous cars, but eventually we won’t be driving. Those lawyers will try to adapt, but better not to be thinking of that area of practice if you are just starting out.
We won’t need lawyers for house closings. Instead of taking three weeks and costing thousands of dollars, it will be instantaneous and cost $50. What are those lawyers going to do? I know many of you are thinking it couldn’t have happened to a nicer profession! Our tax practice used to do a lot of simple tax returns that people are now doing for themselves with TurboTax® or other tax software. We adapted. We are doing more sophisticated returns, providing a higher value and frankly are charging more per hour. The downside for us is that we need trained and experienced CPAs—employing interns is difficult because there isn’t that much routine work that can be delegated to someone with limited experience.
Change is constant, and things are changing ever more quickly. Some occupations/businesses will innovate and adapt, some won’t. Not every small-town business failed when Walmart came to town. The businesses that were more likely to survive planned for Walmart’s arrival and changed direction or focus. The upshot? When thinking about a career, look to the future, to what is on the horizon, not necessarily what is hot right now.
But, it is also important to keep in mind that people will be people. Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, not only looks at what will be different in the future, but what will be the same. Here is a quote from him:
“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.
It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher.’ ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.”
Establishing personal connections will still be critical. Excellent communication skills will be essential—writing, speaking, and appearing comfortable and confident on video will be even more important as “distance work” becomes part of the normal work week.
How will people change? I think a lot less than the technology that will change the way we do things.
Things will look different, but people will still want the same things. We will always want to live longer, enjoy financial security, have fulfilling relationships and good health, a better way to take care of our parents, raise our children, be thinner, look younger, etc.
There are going to be winners and losers. The winners will be adaptable, and have the right skill set and have the vision to jump on an opportunity. You don’t want to be the best buggy whip company when automobiles are the coming thing!
So, while that presents a bit of my philosophical prognostications, I also think it is a good idea to gain some experience in your field before you hold yourself up as an expert and go out on your own. I may sound like a fuddy-duddy, but it is popular these days to want to skip the “dues paying” jobs. I am all for accelerating that process if possible, but sometimes it takes a couple years for you to learn what you are doing and what works.
Vic, the owner of the successful Indian restaurant caddy corner to my office, worked as an employee at India Gardens in Oakland and learned the business. Now he is his own boss. But, he learned his stuff first. Then he started his restaurant and bought the real estate that houses his business.
From my perspective, I would advise the CMU student to get some experience. I think the best experience will come from working in a high-quality small firm in an area where you have an interest. Work for them for a few years. To quote Bezos again: “Work hard on getting smarter. Work harder on getting smart people on your side.”
I worked for Steve Nash’s small law firm that specialized in estates and trusts. He was incredibly bright and always thinking outside the box—particularly for ways to save his clients’ money—a lesson I took to heart. I got that job by writing him a note saying how insightful his cutting-edge workshop on estate planning was.
To be clear, I also worked for Buchanan Ingersoll, a behemoth law firm, and I learned things there too. Same with the CPA firms. I worked in both small and large firms and learned much more from some mentors in the small firms. Arthur Andersen’s tax department was great. But, in general, I think it is better to stay small if you can work with the right people. It isn’t résumé building. It is learning what you are doing.
I also think it is important to be technically proficient. It was because I understood tax basics that I came to the obvious conclusion that Roth IRA conversions were going to be great for my clients. I wrote the first peer-reviewed article on Roth conversions. I was promoting flexible estate planning earlier than just about everyone, which lead to the development of Lange’s Cascading Beneficiary Plan. If you really understand the concepts, such as the ones behind Roth IRA conversions and flexible estate planning, it becomes obvious—but you must have mastered the basics.
I will concede that sometimes the best way to learn something is to throw caution-to-the wind and jump right in. But you must be willing to accept the consequences. That said, I think it is better to take a shot when consequences are least onerous. If the young gal from CMU takes a job, starts something on the side, then quits her job and devotes her full energy to her side business and it fails, it isn’t the end of the world. She can live in a basement apartment and wash her dishes in the bathtub. She won’t starve. (Scarier for both her and her parents would be for her to move back home if she was desperate). She can dust herself off and try again. There is no shame in failure. I am positive most successful business people have failed more than once. But, if she is married and has two kids, then the stakes are a lot higher.
Writing this started me thinking: Did I do and am I still doing what I am recommending? Relatively early on, not knowing where I would end up in business, I listened to my brother’s advice and majored in accounting because according to him, the other business majors, like business logistics or business administration were B.S. I don’t know if the other majors were B.S., but his advice was good. Becoming a CPA gives you a way of understanding business that is extraordinarily helpful even if you never go near public accounting. As I said, I worked in firms big and small, and among my “side” ventures was going to law school—that proved to be a good decision.
Most recently, I tried to anticipate “where the puck was going” by predicting the Death of the Stretch IRA. It did not materialize with this most recent tax reform. I still believe, however, the idea is far from dead. While I went out on a limb and wrote two editions of a book on tax changes that didn’t happen, clients and readers who took my advice, which is sound even if the law never changes, will be much better off. Had they changed the law as I was anticipating, I would have been, if not the hottest IRA expert, at least one of them and my book would have caught fire. But, to return to Mario Lemieux, you will never score a goal unless you shoot the puck and risk missing!
Do you think I am at least partly right? What advice would you offer to a graduating student looking for a job? If you have any comments or reflections on your path through your career, email me at email@example.com where one of our writers will compile the ideas. I am also interested in feedback on my “anti-inflammation” January newsletter. I would love to hear your success or failure stories. I know it is anecdotal, not scientific, but if something I recommended helped or if it didn’t, I want to know about it. I will follow up in another newsletter with reader comments.
Broiled Salmon with Almond-Dill Sauce
Prep Time: 10 minutes, plus chilling time
Cook Time: 50 minutes
- 1 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk
- Grazed zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Pinch of ground cumin
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons Mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon ground sage
- 4 (8-ounce) boneless, skin-on wild salmon steaks
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Combine the almond milk, lemon zest, 1 tablespoon of the minced garlic, the mustard, cumin, and a pinch of black pepper in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced to about 1/3 cup, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer the liquid to a heatproof bowl and chill in the freezer until cool, about 20 minutes (stirring after 10 minutes). Once fully chilled, whisk in the lemon juice, dill, and mayonnaise. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.
Preheat the broiler. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.
In a small bowl, stir together 1 tablespoon of the oil, the remaining garlic, and the sage. Set aside.
Brush the salmon steaks on both sides with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with the salt. Place the steaks, skin-side up, on the lined baking sheet. Cook about 5 inches below the broiler until the outside is opaque and the skin is beginning to crisp, 4 to 6 minutes. Turn the steak and continue to cook for another 4 minutes, then brush with the garlic mixture. Continue to cook until the salmon is still pink in the center but warm throughout, about 1 minute. Place the salmon steaks on serving plates, spoon the chilled almond-dill sauce over them, garnish with additional dill, and serve.