When I was 8 years old I started making websites with my friend. His grandmother had purchased him a domain name and web hosting. It was 2003 and the world was whispering of Web 2.0. Books I checked out of the library talked about DHTML (dynamic HTML, basically what any web app is today). There was no mobile app market, native application development had a high barrier to entry, and the most exciting things happening with computers were websites like eBay and Google.
Together my friend and I would make silly web pages. Basic things like choose-your-own-adventures were fun and easy to make. All you needed were some links to the next pages and you’ve made a game! We of course had the most offensive color schemes imaginable. We had 24-bit JPEG backgrounds of landscapes and tropical coasts. They were the most beautiful images I could find online, so why shouldn’t they be the backing for my red 12pt Times New Roman text?
At some point I saw a picture in the Philadelphia Inquirer of a slide in an office building and an all-you-can-eat free candy dispenser. Google was becoming the first “web scale” company in real time. And they were rewarding the employees handsomely for reshaping the world. Every year they would release a reality-altering product. Google Earth blew my mind. I could spend hours scanning around in the American deserts finding interesting canyons and mountains. In high school I had my own personal site that functioned mostly as a blog. It was a major point of pride that I wrote the HTML and CSS by hand - I even made the graphics myself in Paint. At least one post showcased the highlights of my discoveries in the satellite imagery of Google Earth.
My family would all talk about how some day I’d work for Google. I believed them and considered Google to be the apex of a programmer’s career. They paid the most, got the most done, and their employees held the most respect.
So when I graduated with my Bachelor’s in CS and got a cold email from a recruiter I was ecstatic! Soon they flew me off to interview on-site in Seattle. I can only guess why, but I did not make the cut. My fall-back was to go work in startups in Silicon Valley. I already had a few good projects, co-ops, and part time jobs under my belt. My experience earned me a few competing job offers. I picked the better of the two and moved across the country.
What shocked me was how healthy the startup job was. There was no grinding, a good work-life balance, and a set of 20 kind and knowledgeable co-workers. Everyone was there because they wanted to be there. We all wanted to build something, together. I sat next to the founding engineer for a year and learned more per day than I ever had before or have since. The guy was notoriously blunt. His bluntness honed my edge.
During the pandemic I switched jobs to work at a rapidly growing startup in the emerging AI/LLM space. I had dropped into a runaway success. After only 8 months the founders had achieved thousands of signups per day, millions in ARR, and I was here to rewrite everything from scratch. We shipped the rewrite after a couple of months and used the fire hose of new users to iterate on on-boarding and product functionality. Being able to go from ticket to PR, LGTM, release, and get metrics in a hour is an amazing way to learn. Consistent, fast feedback is one of the key aspects to becoming an expert.
But for all of the team’s virtues we also had our failings. Soon it became clear that we didn’t have a strong direction in the face of a rapidly changing landscape. A GPT-3 app could not stand still, certainly not one with VC funding. I started to grow uncertain of the value of my time spent there. Then I got another cold email from Google. They wanted me to interview again. I gave it a shot and got an offer for an L4 SWE position. After almost 20 years I had gotten into the magic place with slides and free candy.
Figuring I might as well take the opportunity to try some different work, I joined a team working on phone firmware. After a couple of weeks the tech lead quit. My manager would often not reply to my emails. They told me I didn’t need to do any work for the first couple of months. This is the last thing I wanted to hear. When I did get work assigned I was immediately thrown into the jaws of bureaucracy. A project to help us track errors in production would take months. Most of that time got allocated to getting Privacy Council approval because we would be logging strings. My team all lived nearby but rarely came in to the office. Virtual meetings were held with cameras off. Co-workers started quitting left and right.
I came to realize that I had joined the wrong version of the team. There was one team working on this product specifically for first-party phones, and another for the platform at large. But because Google refused to offer support to 3rd party OEMs, even at a price, none would sign on. Hiring got frozen so I couldn’t switch to the “real” team.
And so my new skip manager told me he would have the team shut down and I switched to an adjacent team managing a certificate authority. This would be web-based work. After my failed entry into Rust firmware development I was glad to go back to my roots.
As it turned out, the web side of this project was maintained by another department. I was on loan to them. I got assigned a “dotted-line manager”. When I first met him he gave me a speech about how he didn’t want to hear anything about my working on 20% projects - “they always end up being more than 20%”. He didn’t want me to get pulled into work by my direct manager. He felt he owned me.
After finishing my first project I made the mistake of picking up new work because I had nothing else to do. Mr. Dotted-Line and his team had put together a list of tasks for the next few quarters without me. I picked the first unassigned item in the document and sent out a design document for what would end up being 200-300 lines of code. Big mistake - I was going rogue. Dotted-Line contacted my skip manager demanding I be reined in. My skip and direct managers had my back, but I still felt awful. Was I not supposed to be learning? Building?
Not that my other managers were amazing to be around. My direct manager would fantasize about monetizing male loneliness through futuristic sex robots. Later, when my skip manager was staging a coup to steal Dotted-Line’s project he pulled the other guy into a call. During the call he opened up a group chat with my team, writing:
Skip: He is fighting it
Skip: But he also looks like his dog got shot
Skip: He is now pitching for us to work better together
Skip: Feels like a breakup lol
…no one responded.
“Those guys over there are so toxic” was a favorite phrase for him.
As I realized this project was no better than the last one I made my complaints clear to my direct manager. I told him my issues were with the company itself and had no optimism that working on yet another project would fix things.
He told me (paraphrasing) “Well, you know it’s really a lot of paper-work to fire you. You could just get away with doing nothing for 12 months.” Again, not what I wanted to hear. Why tell me this? Presumably for him this was a way to pad his head-count. One of the primary metrics for leadership success at Google is how many people you have under you. It doesn’t matter if one, two, or more aren’t working - as long as you are meeting your self-defined OKRs you’ll look good.
It’s the same motivator for why my dotted-line manager wanted to steal me. Hiring got frozen - the only way to get that sweet sweet head-count is to take it from someone else.
So after 15 months I was out of there. I learned that I don’t care about the money Google pays. I don’t care about the high scale of influence your work can have. I skipped from series A startup to mature IPO’d company and cheated myself out of the experiences you get in-between. I want to earn the scale through hard work. For me FAANG was not a place to learn, it was a way to get paid. But I didn’t come to Silicon Valley to get paid.
P.S: I want to be clear that all of the ICs I worked with were great. If any of them read this they should know I appreciated their time spent working with me.