We should have blamed the market all along

Why I stopped worrying and learned to love ROI.

Jessica Zwaan
8 min readApr 1, 2024

At the start of 2022 I was lucky enough to attend the Point 9 investor conference with a now infamous reexamination of “RIP Good Times”, the content of which hardly deserves elaboration now that we sit within the ivory tower of 2024.

Today we stand, surveying the wreckage of the last few years, and we’ve all got hot takes we’d like to share. Why not? It’s easy and fun to tell people what they should have done differently 2+ years ago. But there are still things we’re doing today that hurt us. Things that you’re probably doing. That you are conditioned to do because, somewhere deep in there, those tiny constructions you’ve convinced yourself are right make work and life easier to understand. Things I partially (pls don’t be mad) blame People Operations teams for.

Companies are here to make money. It’s one of those statements we get to say from time to time and nod along to, while not truthfully acknowledging that we industrially obstruct this fact from ourselves every day.

Modern People Operations teams (that is post-Google-culture of the 20-teens) are built, in some way, to purposely shield us from the capitalistic aims of our work. We’re here to “prioritise impact” and “live the spirit of challenge.”

Until we’re not.

And, in 2022, we learned just how squishy some of these values were. Plenty has been written about the fine line between corporate behaviour and public messaging, but what about us as individuals? Don’t we all personally value “accountability” as much as our People Operations teams have lead us to believe? What about the things we’ve convinced ourselves to believe despite it working against our best interests?

It was the market all along.

In 2021, only a miraculously short period before the great decline, we were still well in delulu land; investors and economists could be forgiven for believing that equilibrium interest rates had settled close to zero for the foreseeable future.

Off the back of one of the most bizarre periods of HR history, the great resignation gripped us and engineering salaries jumped 15–20% within Europe and the US. The market was smiling on us, comrades, and we were willing to bathe in it’s good favour.

Until we weren’t.

Now, I’m not an economist but somewhere in 2022 something I would describe as quite bad seemed to happen across the entire technology sector. The market turned it’s back on each and every one of us. We were left to our own devices.

Accomplished business leaders with years of success were looking for roles for months at a time. Total compensation packages shrunk due to RSUs shrinking in value, and an incredibly liquid employment market. Companies who invested billions in workplace happiness were investing new billions in cutting those programmes dramatically or entirely.

Picking up the pieces in the dust we begin whispering to one another, “it’s a terrible market.” And we all agreed. And that was nice.

It’s the market who is wrong.

The market never changed

No, I am not insane.

The behaviours of capitalism changed but the goals and principles of the game remained the same. We went from free cash to a constrained economy. We went from ‘exponential growth at all costs’ to ‘oh shit, shouldn’t we be actually be making profits?’ Despite the chaos of 2020, we seemed to have collectively forgotten to check in and say, “what’s really happening here?”

Who can blame us? We were so busy with zoom pub quizzes and corporate chocolate tasting. Our People Operations teams forgot (or never realised themselves) that our company will move as quickly as the market does… because it has to in order to survive.

According to Nasdaq, the markets are never wrong because they reflect reality. What went wrong is that we started seeing our reality and presuming this was the forever truth of the market. I don’t mean companies here. I mean us. You, me. We forgot that the market moves without us in mind. We’re powerless to it, and yet we’ve built our careers on riding the wave upwards-ever-upwards. And when it came crashing down around us, we blamed it for changing… when if we would have asked “the market” in 2021 what it was optimising for with our pay raises and inflated titles: it would never have said, “You, baby.”

Despite everything, you are in control of your career

In the journey of career advancement (and for avoidance of doubt, I am talking specifically about salary growth) two distinct paths emerge. The first path involves the market valuing your skills more (2021) or less (2022) due to supply and demand dynamics. In 2021 the war for talent was in full swing, and we were, all of us, millions of Joan of Arcs.

The problem, however, with relying on the market to keep us buoyant, is — well — broad gesture towards 2022.

The second path is is enhancing your Return on Investment (ROI) to your company. This path is the where you can exert influence. In fact, it’s where you can exert any influence. It’s probably where People Operations teams should have been pointing us for decades. Instead, we were pointing our team (and our efforts) towards tenure, and engagement, and a bunch of other words that make me want to cry.

The one true advantage we have

As I said, companies are here to make money. And, without being too forward here because lord knows it’s not nice; they’re here to make money off of us. That is what an employment contract is at the base of it. It’s the exchange for your skills in the hope the company can, collectively, make more money from you than it spends on you.

Of course, our employers (most of them anyway) do want us to be happy and “bought-in” and psychologically safe and growing. And why? So that you make more money.

Embracing this fact points you towards the one truth that should probably have driven your career choices all along: if you want your company to pay you more money you should probably make more money for them. At least, it’s the best argument you’re going to be able to make when the market turns its cold, mean back on you.

Key Strategies to Enhance Your ROI

The strategy I encourage for those aiming to growth their career and financial standing is to adopt a more T-shaped approach. This is in direct contrast with being narrowly focused (I-shaped) or a generalist with no specific expertise but willingly deployed on any challenge that will have them. T-shaped individuals possess deep knowledge in at least one area complemented by a broader understanding of related fields. Think an Engineer who can also throw their hat into design, or a Finance Manager who can manage projects. This blend of depth and breadth not only makes you more adaptable but also opens up numerous avenues for contributing to your business’s success, either saving them money or making them money.

When all boils down: in a market-based economy in which we are watching salaries depress, demand will only increase for those colleagues who help a company save or earn more. (A truth that was always the truth, but easier to see now, I suppose.)

  1. Embrace the T-Shaped Model: Being T-shaped implies you’re not just confined to a niche. You possess flexibility and the knowledge to contribute across various domains, significantly enhancing your value to your company. This value can be spoken for in savings or earnings, and you have every right to say, “you’re saving money by hiring me, so I need to be compensated accordingly.”
  2. Understand Your Company’s Revenue Mechanics: Understanding of how your company earns money and contributes to its profitability is invaluable. It’s about bringing well-reasoned commercial arguments to your initiatives, marrying your specific expertise with broad commercial awareness to make impactful decisions. If you don’t know how your company makes money, it’s almost impossible to make reasoned arguments that you are helping drive that forward.
  3. Cultivate Financial and Data Literacy: A “halo effect” is powerful. People Ops teams are lean, management is hard, companies aren’t very good at teaching people things. The most valuable of all skills you can possess right now is the ability to transform other people into numbers people. Influencing your team to embrace data and financial insights not only boosts the collective ROI but also establishes a culture of informed decision-making.

The Bottom Line

Relying on market dynamics to progress in your career is a gamble. While it can sometimes pay off, it’s unpredictable and beyond your control.

The emphasis should be on what you can control — and it can be summarised into something… kind of… hard to read???, “you are an investment in a P&L”. A human, thinking, hilarious (probably), fun, interesting investment. But an investment none the less. [As a side note I kind of resent People Operations turning from “Human Resources” into People Operations, because I think in a way it allowed us to hide ourselves from the truth (and to the detriment of all of us).]

Of course, I think the work we’re here to do is to make money in the way that is genuinely most beneficial to us all, to make the world a better place. It’s also fair to think that in trying so hard to obfuscate ourselves from the reality of capitalism, that we’ve lost the plot a bit. It’s why I don’t really feel that bad when I read Reddit posts callously reminding me that “HR work for the company and not for you” because, well, they do. We all do. And, honestly, it’s in our best interests that we do — because if we didn’t we’d be in probably a much worse place. People Operations teams should be helpful, caring, engaged human beings with the best interests of everyone at heart (and even then, trying to think of the best interests of hundreds or thousands of people often leaves some individuals in worse situations, such as being laid off). Even with all that said, we should never hide the facts from the other grown ups we work with — or else we risk hurting their careers and their lives.

People teams aside, there are things you should probably consider changing in your mindset towards work. Adopting a T-shaped approach, understanding the financial workings of your business, and fostering a culture of data literacy are actionable steps you can take right now. In doing so, you not only can more confidently argue for your career progression but also protect yourselves against the wild up-swinging and down-swinging of a market who cares only for itself.

Ok that’s all from me, folks. 👋

👉 Buy my book on Amazon! 👈
I talk plenty more about this way of working, and how to use product management methodologies day-to-day, I’ve been told it’s a good read, but I’m never quite sure.

Check out my LinkedIn
Check out the things I have done/do do
Follow me on twitter: @JessicaMayZwaan

Me and my cat, looking professional



Jessica Zwaan

G’day. 🐨 I am a person and I like to think I am good enough to do it professionally. So that’s what I do.