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I just returned from a visit to San Francisco, where I spent most of this week meeting with people who work in the kinds of places that the students I advise might someday like to work.  San Francisco is a lively city, with charm and character — just like Washington, where I work.  But while Washington has beautiful panoramic sights, it does not have mountains and fog.  While Washington has kitschy cupcake shops, it does not have avant-garde ice cream shops featuring two-headed cows as mascots.  Like San Francisco, Washington has a Chinatown, but the poultry there doesn’t seem as undead as the poultry in San Fran.

So it was for San Francisco employers.  There are law firms and accounting firms and business corporations, and they generally practice the same kinds of work that law firms and accounting firms and businesses do here in DC — or in New York, or Chicago, or anywhere.  But as I spoke with the people who worked in these places, I was able to see each one more clearly as individual enterprises, with specific goals, clientele, methods, and plans.  They were similar to what I knew and expected, and at the same time each was different from what I’d already encountered.  Some of these differences had to do with location, naturally, but others were born more out of history or choice.  One firm near Silicon Valley had a predictable focus on high-tech clients and issues; another firm, located in San Francisco proper, had developed into one of the leading employee benefit firms in the country.

It’s no surprise that businesses, like the people who make them work, have different personalities, even when they share common traits.  But there is a huge difference between recognizing the truth of that essentially trite truism and actually learning how that truth plays out in the real world.  Knowing that A Corp likes to hire generalists while B Corp looks for specialists, or that employers within a city expect 25% more overtime than employers outside the city, can help you make important decisions about your career path — and not just at the point at which you are trying to choose between competing offers from A Corp and B Corp.

After all, choosing which offers to accept, or which employers to target in a job search — these make up only a small (though by no means minor) portion of the many decisions that determine our career path and fulfillment.  We also make decisions during the course of our current jobs — what skills to sharpen, what projects to take on, what people to connect to.  If we’re in school, we make decisions about coursework and internships.  Throughout our lives — with the classmates we stay in touch with, the organizations we volunteer for, the books we read — we have opportunities to make decisions that can bring us closer to our career fulfillment.  By learning as much as we can now about the full variety of options available to us — the details that make San Francisco different from Washington and A Corp different from B Corp — the more fully informed we will be when making all such decisions.