4 min read

Professional Symbiosis

Professional Symbiosis
Look at that stylish alien and his (mostly) willing host. All credit to Marvel

Whenever you're involved in any sort of professional engagement, you should always aim to be cognizant about the sort of relationship that it is.

What I mean, is that you must understand who is in the relationship, how each participant is benefiting, and whether or not there are any imbalances in that equation.

One way to do that is to steal a model from biology.

Let's Bite All Their Heads Off

Parasitism is a close relationship between species where one organism lives off of another. That is, the parasite does not bring anything to the relationship. They are a net drain on the host, who may not be aware than they exist or aware but unable to do anything about it.

The very first question you should ask when attempting to classify a professional engagement is whether or not you are the parasite.

I know, it seems like a weird question to ask. I mean, it's good to be a parasite, right? All of the benefits, none of the effort!

But just like in nature, parasitism isn't really sustainable. Eventually the host will figure it out and start putting effort into getting rid of the freeloader, or, in the most extreme cases, it will die.

Businesses are no different. Sure, you might be able to eke out an existence in the shadows, but if the business is even remotely competent, eventually it will identify and excise you like the useless appendage that you are. If it doesn't, it may eventually cease to exist altogether, depending on just how many parasites it is supporting.

But it's not just impending doom that makes being a parasite a losing proposition.

Subsisting on the hard work of the people around you feels bad. I don't think it's a universal truth that everyone wants to do an honest day's work, but I do know that I feel better when I'm contributing, and parasites contribute nothing.

Also, people know that you're a parasite and they don't like it.

Being a parasite is an isolating and unfulfilling experience.

But being the host to a parasite isn't great either.

You Can't Just Go Around Eating People

If you've had a good hard look at a professional engagement and decided that you're not a parasite then you're off to a good start.

Now flip the script and look at it from the other direction.

Is the business that you're working for feeding on the fruits of your labour unfairly? Are they the parasite?

Correctly identifying this sort of situation can be surprisingly difficult. Culturally, we are encouraged to be grateful that we even have a job, which makes it easy to overlook any imbalance.

Be pragmatic about this sort of thing. Be a mercenary. Understand what you want and make sure that you're getting it. Working for an organisation should be a transaction where you are aware of the terms.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't be loyal or a good employee or anything like that, it just means you should be realistic and constantly aware of who is benefiting the most in the relationship.

And if the balance tips too far in the wrong direction, you should do something about it.

Negotiate for more. More money, more benefits, more power; whatever you need in order to feel like the engagement is more equitable.

And if you can't get that, leave.

A business won't tolerate a parasite, so neither should you.

Wait, This Thing Looks Delicious

Parasitism is what happens when one of the parties in a professional engagement is taking advantage of the other. At one end of the spectrum, you are taking advantage of the business that you're working for, and at the other they are taking advantage of you.

But what's in the middle?


Symbiosis is when two organisms form a close relationship where both of them benefit. In fact, the organisms may actually be more successful than they would be on their own.

In a professional engagement, symbiosis is the thing that you want to aim for. A partnership where both parties get what they need or want and where the combination creates a better outcome than if either tried to go it alone.

I don't have any particularly amazing guidance about creating a symbiotic professional engagement. It's not that it's particularly difficult, it's just challenging to put into words.

The most important thing is to make sure that you are regularly reflecting and re-evaluating the reality of the engagement.

And I'm not just talking about money. There are plenty of other dimensions to consider when you're evaluating a relationship and looking for symbiosis, including things like:

  • satisfaction
  • camaraderie
  • free food
  • respect

Obviously free food is the most important one though. I mean, you can literally take my blood if you feed me afterwards, something the Red Cross frequently takes advantage of.

Cooperate, And You Might Just Survive

This might seem like a pretty random blog post and honestly, it is. I could blame it on the covids, but in reality it's just a thought that I've had bubbling around in my head for a while.

Plus biological metaphors are fun.

It is topical though, because it came up in a discussion I had with a baby intern not all that long ago. When you're early in your career it's easy to let organisations take advantage of you simply because you don't know any better. Atlassian isn't that sort of company, but it was still a good conversation to have all the same.

One last point to be aware of is that perfect symbiosis is impossible to maintain over time. Sometimes the business will benefit more and sometimes you will be benefit more. Things shift in professional engagements and that's okay.

The important thing is that you don't let it become parasitic in either direction.