Last fall as I started my last year at UCLA, I aggressively applied and interviewed for programming jobs. The decision agonized me for weeks and I devoured career guides and advice. And in the end, I chose a small 50 person startup over exciting companies like Facebook, Stripe, and Cruise. I basically chose less money for more work mostly because it was a startup.
While the term startup is often thrown around, here are some traits I mean:
While mid-sized companies like Stripe or Cruise have some startup traits, they offer less of what made Apple working out of a garage a startup. There are two main reasons I chose to work for a startup: More Meaningful Work, More Learning
At a small startup, everyone at the company actually cares about the company. All their equity is worthless without success and no one wants to have dedicated themselves to a failed company. So everyone in your community of employees, founders, and investors appreciates and encourages success. Working hard and contributing gives you earnest peer validation. The vision of creating an impactful company from nothing is bigger than you all. If you find yourself swept up in the fervor, it can be intoxicating.
At big companies, there are “objective” promotion committees that review and judge your measurable accomplishments. But, immeasurable things with huge impacts like assisting colleagues, building community, or writing clean, extensible code is ignored. Promotions become a game of managing relationships and documenting impact. To win this game, you naturally start to care more about seeming to have an impact than actually having one.
But, when a startup is just trying to survive, everyone’s individual success and failure have real stakes and real impact. If you don’t accomplish your part, then the company as a whole actually does worse. There is no team or unimportant project to hide behind. Likewise, if you go above and beyond, then people will notice. The people promoting personally know you and your work both measurable and immeasurable. With this accountability, the incentives at work can be what they should be: actually creating value.
With a company on the line and so much work to do, anyone can seize as much responsibility as they want. Work rewarded by startup accountability and community. You can grow as fast as you can and choose your work. There aren’t experts specialized in each aspect of running a company from DevOps to SEO, which is a rare opportunity for a complete beginner to try and learn. If you succeed and the company grows underneath you, then you get a hypercharged career.
Building systems is a much better learning experience than building within systems. By using open source tools directly, you get excellent documentation, StackOverflow support, and tutorials for FREE. No internal, company-specific architecture or framework has anywhere close to the quality and quantity of online resources. This is one of the reasons why Google and Facebook are open sourcing main frameworks and languages like Go, Dart, Hack, HHVM, or React. It allows the very liquid engineer talent pool to learn the internal architecture of Google and Facebook before they are even hired and provide internal engineers with a large community of peers and resources.
Learn more general skills
At Facebook, I had to learn my mentor’s quality assessment code built on top of my team’s custom data manipulation code built on top of Facebook’s internal data pipelining tool. Each layer added more confusion and made the knowledge less and less general. In the end, my Facebook internship taught me little I could use outside Facebook and this is the norm. But, startups building a codebase from scratch offer very general knowledge from the fundamentals.
And at a startup, you are directly interacting with everyone from marketing and product. Instead of hiding inside a tech niche, you are facing real problems and real people with different perspectives and worries. This is probably very underrated. Knowledge of the inner workings of business and people can make everything you do more effective. Especially when everyone else focuses just on the technical.
Throughout my work, the most important factor in my ability to excel and learn is how meaningful and motivating it is. Meaningful work pushes me to work hard, learn so much, and enjoy doing it. Motivation supercharges learning which is really the most important for a young boy like me.
Learning should be prioritized over everything else including money, impact, stability, prestige, luxury, or happiness. Obviously, I need a certain level of happiness and stability so I don’t collapse and money so I can function at a high level. But I spare whatever I can to learn in the most general sense: exploration, general transferable skills, life experience, technical skills.
Life is amazingly long; I can expect to live 4 times my current life. And everything I learn now will be useful for my entire life. The same way money compounds so does knowledge. And knowledge and skill can be converted into whatever I want in the future: money, power, happiness. But, most importantly I can hopefully figure out what I should even want.
As a young boy of 22, I probably don’t know what I‘m doing. But I can learn.