How Data Can Help You Win in the Winner-Take-All Economy

In nearly every sector of the economy, people who seek well-paying, professional-track success face the same set of challenges: the rise of a handful of dominant “superstar” firms; a digital reinvention of business models; and a rapidly changing understanding about loyalty in the employer-employee relationship. It’s true in manufacturing and retail, in banking and law, in health care and education — and certainly in tech.

What it means to do a job well is changing faster than most people’s ability to navigate those changes. This has made the workplace seem scarier, particularly to midcareer people who suddenly find that their parents’ advice — show up early, work hard, learn your craft — is no longer enough. But just as important, these changes have conferred an advantage on those strategic enough to shift their approach.

If you’re looking to make a career out of creating great art, or changing the world through activism, or otherwise eschewing the conventional business track, I wish you the best. But this article isn’t for you: I’m here to address those seeking fortune in modern capitalism. And across industries, I’ve found, more and more of the most compelling opportunities are at companies that dominate their fields — global, profitable, well managed, technologically adept.

I’m not arguing that this is entirely a good thing. Clearly, consolidation gives large employers too much power to hold down wages, and political clout they can use to tilt the field against competitors and entrench advantages. Worse, as the recent tech backlash shows, the concentrated might of the Silicon Valley titans is disturbing in ways we are only starting to comprehend.

What I am arguing is that even if there is legislative action or antitrust enforcement to rein in these companies, their rise is driven by powerful technological forces that aren’t going anywhere. As a result, these superstar companies — and the smaller firms seeking to upend them — are where pragmatic capitalists can best develop their abilities and be well compensated for them over a long and durable career.

This applies for people who just graduated and are entering the work force, and for those weighing their next step after decades in the corporate trenches. Even for those who never show up for a job at a mega-corporation, many of the traits it takes to succeed within them are becoming essential in other settings, including smaller companies, government and the nonprofit world.

Microsoft, which as I type this is the world’s most valuable public corporation, with a market cap of just over $1 trillion, is a prime example. From its origins selling operating systems and basic software, it now sells products including game consoles, cloud storage and LinkedIn subscriptions. As it has grown, the obvious disadvantages of bureaucracy have been outweighed by some not-so-obvious advantages of scale.