After my wife and I decided to trade in the big lights of NYC and head out west, I found myself asking the question, “What’s next?”. My career until this point has primarily consisted of startups, from the very small 1-2 person org to the larger 180 person org that Tumblr became while I was there. I had lived all over the country but until now hadn’t found my way out to the bay area. Did I want to start my own company? Did I want to join a seed stage startup? Did I want to join a well established startup? Lots of choices in the startup world of San Francisco.
One thing that I firmly believe, regardless of who or where you are, is that you should invest in yourself. You can’t be certain what the future of any job holds so if you’re going to work for someone else, at least pick an employer that will stretch you in a new way. Choose an employer that will give you opportunities that you haven’t had before. Been at an established startup? Join a seed stage startup. Been an engineer? Join as a senior engineer (or the dumbest engineer in a sea of smart guys). Make the long bet, invest in yourself.
As an engineering manager (and engineer) at startups I have found on many occasions that my experience betrays me. Eventually you don’t have fresh eyes for problems because at startups every problem starts to look the same. Your MySQL/PGSQL/Mongo/etc data store is at capacity. Your PHP/C++/Java/Scala/Ruby applications has gotten too big/slow/scary. Your architecture creaks. You go from bi-weekly to twice a month pay checks back to bi-weekly back to twice a month. The list goes on. If you ignore the technology, startup problems (for me) all end up looking the same.
When I started thinking about my next job, I started thinking about making the long bet. What experience would serve me well in 5 or 10 years, regardless of where my career goes? As I thought about the beginners mind problem (everything looks the same), I saw an opportunity to stretch by going the opposite direction (this is known as a pivot in the startup world). While most people tend to move towards startups from big companies, I was going to go the opposite direction and join a big company. I talked to people from Twitter, Intel, Salesforce, Facebook, and Google, getting some offers and some declines. Eventually I decided on Facebook
As an outsider, one thing I admired deeply about Facebook is something I heard consistently from friends who were employees. Facebook has a culture where innovation and speed aren’t just valued but are ‘the way’. To me this is a fascinating feat of organizational architecture and scale; how at 5000 employees does Facebook manage to maintain that culture? I have been at companies with less than 100 employees that managed to lose their way and forgot how to do this. As I went through the interview process I found this culture permeated throughout every part of my experience. In my first week as an employee, I have found the same to be true.
I joined Facebook to stretch myself, as I am not a big company person. More than anything however I want to know how FB does it, how they manage to scale the company. As an added bonus I think some of the tech is fascinating, and the people are great. This doesn’t have quite the conclusion I had hoped for, so I’ll leave this as is.
One of the few holdovers from my experience as an undergraduate university student is my ACM & IEEE memberships. I’ve maintained these memberships for years now without ever putting much thought into why I maintain them. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned on Twitter that I had been named a Senior Member of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). A few people followed up and basically were curious as to why I still maintain my membership, while others weren’t even really sure what these organizations were. If you didn’t spend some time in college, or in a more research focused organization, it’s unlikely that you have run into ACM/IEEE members on a regular basis. I think this is a shame.
While the ACM and IEEE both list a set of proposed benefits to membership on their respective sites, I think they both manage to miss the mark. I maintain my memberships for two reasons; opportunities for collaboration, and access to research. These also happen to be the two reasons why I most enjoyed being a university student; ample opportunities for collaboration with smart people, access to cutting edge research.
I’ve met a number of people through my membership that are either in some dark cave in academia, or buried in a bunker somewhere doing research. I’ve managed to be a part of some incredibly productive and positive joint work that otherwise might not have been possible outside of academia. This collaboration has opened my eyes to the theoretical, but my day job keeps me grounded in the practical. I find this gives me an advantage in my industry. This is valuable to me.
Additionally, the ACM/IEEE sponsor a huge number of conferences and journals. A lot of what is published today is targeted towards acceptance at these conferences and in these journals. My membership provides me with access to much of this research. Again, keeping abreast of current developments in my field I feel is an advantage. I do not mind paying for this access. Also, any publicly funded research (e.g. government grants), while not available through the ACM/IEEE digital libraries, is still available online. While some have complained that the ACM/IEEE digital libraries should be open, I don’t entirely agree with this view. That’s a topic for another time.
One of the things that has surprised me as I have gotten further out (in time) from academics is how few professionals maintain their IEEE or ACM memberships. Through these organizations I have had opportunities and created friendships that would not have been possible otherwise. I continue to believe that there is a wonderful opportunity for collaboration between academia and industry, and for me the ACM/IEEE is that conduit. I would strongly encourage anyone out in industry to pick up a membership and take advantage of all the opportunities available to you; conferences, meetups, workshops, etc. It’s some work, but it’s worth it.