As the CTO of a growing early stage startup, I have had the experience of interviewing a number of very talented people. As with any large enough dataset, I have come to find some consistent patterns amongst the candidates. While there are and will always be a set of clearly untalented unqualified people, I am surprised by the number of genuinely talented people who––because of choices they’ve made in their career––are now unqualified to work at an actual web startup or start their own.
The provocative title to this post may sound like I’m suggesting that the problem is local to Microsoft. In reality, Microsoft just epitomizes the large bureaucratic environment that seems to confine an engineer to become just that, an engineer. This typically leads to detailed knowledge in some proprietary technology which is not compatible outside of the company it applies to. Moreover, larger companies tend to position engineers to remain engineers. If you want to someday start your own company, you will need to have a network of investors and people with diverse and complimentary skillsets to your own. And after three years at Googlesoft, the only people you know will be engineers.
This goes against a prevailing mindset amongst freshly minted, high talent engineers, which seems to be that if you aren’t ready to start a company, the next best thing to do is to go to a “startup” like Facebook or Google and get connected into the valley. This would make sense if either Facebook or Google was actually a startup. Neither one is, and this path can end up leading engineers down a decidedly non-entrepreneurial path.
The more likely outcome if you do go down this path, is that every day you become less likely to start your own company. Every day you are probably learning some proprietary technology that isn’t helping your startup career. Every day you are becoming more and more accustomed to that cushy job and fat salary.
I’ve seen this happen to too many friends that I once would have considered “die-hard” entrepreneurs. I hate to see entrepreneurs give up, it’s a truly sad thing to witness.
Below are some stereotypes that I have gathered from the larger subsets of candidates I’ve interacted with. I use the word stereotype purposely to indicate that these are unfair assumptions when considering individuals at each company, but seem to embody the culture at said company. This assessment is intended to give startup-minded engineers an idea of how experience at some of the bigger tech companies looks to a startup founder hiring early employees.
Facebook: Some of the more intelligent people I have talked with, but borderline autistic. To date, I wouldn’t want any one of the people I’ve talked with at Facebook working on my team. My impression is that this type of person would create beautiful software, but jet at the first hint of trouble. There seems to be very few risk takers.
Beyond that, for a young startup there are characteristics other than technical prowess that are vital to growing a company. Outside of Facebook, Asperger’s Syndrome is not thought of as an “asset”. A small team can’t have the liability of someone on the team alienating other team members because they aren’t aware of human emotion. If even one of my team members is constantly getting pissed off at another member, dev team productivity can go down by 50%. Can’t happen.
If you are at Facebook and looking to someday do your own startup, make sure you are interacting with non-tech people. Get out of the office…but don’t just go and play Rock Band with the same two friends you’re used to. Make sure you are interacting with non-tech people, they actually do have value in the startup world.
Of course if the only thing you care about is working on interesting technology, Facebook sounds like a great place.
Google: The new IBM. No longer a startup culture. Despite what they like to tell themselves, the company has morphed over the past three years. Once again, Google is huge and of course there are some startup-minded people there, but that’s not the prevailing culture.
What I have seen are a lot of talented engineers who end up working on “interesting projects” that have no place in the market. I find it entertaining reading quotes from Google, such as:
Take a moment to think of what the real “risk” is at Google. What happens if you fail? Your project is just a drop in the bucket from the endless Google money pit. Most likely, you will not be scarred.
Whereas entrepreneurs systematically try to create something that people want (and will pay for), Google systematically creates things that hardcore engineers think are cool. When a company openly dismisses the value of designers and business analysts, you end up with Google Wave.
Bottom Line: The Google Search cash cow has created an inward, engineer-focused culture that is been systematically shielded from market forces and, consequently, market discipline.
If you are an entrepreneurial minded engineer at Google, don’t get stuck hanging around Googlers your entire time. Google has done a great job of creating a comfortable work environment that encourages long hours at their playground. You need to get to startup events and go out drinking with actual entrepreneurs and investors. I guarantee that you will hear completely different responses from a startup founder on how they would approach a real world problem as compared with your coworker. The technology behind the solution will only be part of the answer.
Beyond that, try launching something. Can you create something that people actually want to use? Not something that is nice to look at once and strike a fleeting interest, but something that will actually result in people wanting and using your creation. If you can, you are ready for a startup. If not find someone with complementary skillsets or a startup that can help you learn this.
Microsoft: Microsoft has kept a pretty tight screening process for engineers, but if you are an engineer there, make sure you are working outside of Microsoft. Microsoft is very tied to the .net platform. I don’t know how many startups use .net as their development environment but there aren’t a lot. In fact, if your primary development platform is Windows your are going to get bumped down a couple notches if you are looking to join a startup. I have been pretty impressed with raw aptitude from Microsoft employees, but if you aren’t exposed to non-proprietary technologies, its going to be very difficult to sell yourself to an early stage startup.
More Companies: There are many more companies not mentioned due to either lack of enough candidates to make an assessment or to keep from pissing off some of our investors.
In general, if you want to start a company some day, my best advice is to either start one NOW, or join an early stage company. If you decide to join a startup, make sure you join one where you can have direct interaction with the founders. If not, you aren’t getting the real benefits that a startup can offer.
Note: My startup is hiring. If you are a talented, entrepreneurial minded engineer at any of the above companies (or just in general) drop me a line. I will either try to hire you, or give you a sense of where you fit in with what I’ve seen.
I’ve been way too busy, posts coming eventually…