Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why you should join a start-up - and maybe why you shouldn't

I've recently been interviewing engineers for my new start-up (fyi, this is wholly separate from Mailinator). We're well-funded, have a world-changing idea, and as you can imagine, I plan to build an awesome engineering team. (Regardless of where you are, if you're a passionate developer, I'd love to hear from you. Check out the Job Description here and email me your resume at paul@refresh.io ).

I've been talking to engineers from all over hearing their stories. There's really amazing talent everywhere and honestly, a non-trivial amount of it seems to be idling or even decaying in environments that aren't using its full potential. A bunch of moons ago I used to work for Dow Chemical in the dreaded "IT department". It was pretty clear to me then that I was not growing technically in that job. I left to start my Ph.D. but I always vowed from then on that if I was going to be a software guy, I was going to work for companies who's business was creating software. In other words, at Dow I was an expense, I'd much rather be an asset.

Eventually and with that goal in mind, I ended up at Google. Without reservation I can say it was a fantastic experience.  I have said before, "if you're the smartest person at where you work - quit". And trust me, nothing makes you realize how smart people can actually be by working at a place like Google. (To avoid any implications - I did eventually quit Google, but rest heavily assured, it was not because I anywhere even close to being the smartest person - read on!).

I did over 200 interviews while at Google and it was actually a bit fun to interview someone who was coming from someplace where they were the smartest person (at least about tech). I could always tell. It's no surprise that if you're the smartest person somewhere for a long time, you get used to it. You get used to waiting for people to catch up to where you are.

By no fault of their own they walked into the interview with some attitude. An attitude of impatience if nothing else. After someone like that started at Google however, it didn't take long for them to realize the situation they were now in. It was humbling in many respects and I don't mean that negatively, simply they'd not recently (or ever) experienced a place where many of the people they met were at their level or better. Obviously, there are smart people everywhere but almost universally, smart people enjoy the company of others like them, the synergy makes them all better. This is why Silicon Valley is a magnet for them.

As I said, Google (and similarly Facebook, etc) are great places to work. At some point after working there however I thought to myself what a wonderfully steady and safe place to work it was. My responsibilities, expectations, and compensation package were well outlined. I was working with awesome people and learned a ton but I still felt it was far too big for me to have any real impact.

For a time, I worked on the Google Web Server which I could best describe to non-techies as "well, sort of the thing you interact with when you do a search" (this is a bad definition at best). A woman I was dating thought about that answer a moment and condescendingly replied - "what do you mean you work on that - isn't that done?"
In one sense she was right, I worked on that darn thing every day but to her it all worked the same. To her, I was having no impact.

It occurred to me that Google would be a fantastic place to work if what I wanted was a meaningful 9-5 job that after each day of work I could drive my minivan back to my home in the suburbs. But I didn't have a minivan. And I didn't own a home. And I didn't live anywhere near the suburbs. What the heck was I doing there? The smart-person environment was at start-ups too - I could get that there and even have some ownership of what I was building.

It's a relatively normal course of life in our sea of first-world problems that you'll have many chances to take risks early in life and those chances diminish as time goes on. Simply put, Google will always be there. And if Google isn't - the next big, awesome company will be. Every decade or so has a "company" (or two) where the greatest things and the greatest people are happening. At times it was Microsoft, Cisco, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.

I left Google not because Google was in any way bad, but because I wasn't done swinging for the fence. And I still had the luxury of trying. If I ever got to the point where I wanted to realign my life's risk profile, Google (or Google-next) would be there. And this is a pretty common theme - places like Google and Facebook incubate some set of people into entrepreneurs who then go start their own start-ups. But with big ideas, agility, and impact. And they don't tend to fall far from the tree. You might think Google doesn't like this - but I doubt that's true. This is a constant stream of risk-takers that go try stuff for them that they can buy back if needed.

What gets me today is how vibrant Silicon Valley is right now. And even for Silicon Valley this place is on-fire. It seems cities around the world try to copy it but that's really hard to do. The start-ups are here because the investors are here, and the investors are here because the start-ups are here. Guy Kawasaki wrote a great article several years ago partially about why Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley.

I am fully aware that Silicon Valley has a nasty habit of simply not being able to darn well shut-up about Silicon Valley. Other cities are hotbeds for tech too (Austin, NYC, etc), but truth be told, you could find a cadre of smart engineers doing a great start-up in a Des Moines, but it's not easy. There's LOTS of great companies in Silicon Valley that can take you to the next level.

We're in the midst of a huge wave. Depending on your risk profile, joining a start-up or joining "a Google" is the best way to put your chips in the game. Regardless of where you are - if you're a crack-shot engineer looking to change the world, you could do worse than coming here. Again it's all about your risk profile and what's keeping you where you are (which may be great reasons). Start-ups will not only pay to relocate you, we'll put you up for a few months (in the corporate crash-pad) while you find your own place. Joining a start-up now will get you experience both technically and start-up-wise that you can't get anywhere else.

I'm not thinking the start-up life is for everyone. I can definitely see a point in my life or where I have life-constraints where I'll want my job to be a less important part of my life (probably because my life will be more about, well, you know - just "life"). But for me right now, and maybe for you - I'm swinging for the fence. And love or hate IT departments, I couldn't do that there.

Again, if you're a software engineer that loves what you do and lives in commuting distance to Palo Alto, CA or is willing to relocate, I'd really love to hear from you. We're well-funded and I'm literally building the first engineering team right now. It's a fantastic opportunity to get in on the ground-floor of a great start-up. Refresh.io jobs

1 comment:

Jonas said...

I also don't think that startup life is for everybody, but I think that more people should look to join startups fresh out of school to learn the mistakes that other people make and get lessons on what works and what doesn't while learning on somebody else's dime. Big companies will always be around, but you're not going to always have an opportunity to swing for the fences. And its a lot easier today than it was just a few years ago. Modern dynamic programming languages and frameworks, the ability to outsource the most monotonous of tasks from accounting to legal help to customer service, even social media (see BuyFacebookFansReviews to see the sheer number of companies that do nothing other than promote social media pages for startups), make it possible so that a lone person working part time can take on giants within important niches. That's the kind of thing that would not have been possible decades ago. So I think the continued thrust of technical growth is positive for entrepreneurship and it will be easier. But I think that it will always be much riskier to actually make the sacrifices necessary to launch a business and not everybody will choose to go that route. If you think that you have that potential, join a startup rather than a bigger company so you can learn more before taking the big plunge yourself.