Vivek Haldar

Talented Beast

This piece by Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman did the rounds recently. He thinks engineers in the Valley are getting spoilt by high salaries and lavish perks. They’re too comfortable, too soft.

Before most computer science graduates ever walk across a stage to get their diplomas, they’re set for life. This is especially true in 2013, which will be the first year in which most companies pay top engineering graduates in Silicon Valley $100,000 or more per year in salary. For the companies, for Redfin, the engineers are worth every penny. And for the engineers, the money is nice to have. But how many engineers hired from Stanford or Berkeley in the past year will ever feel the savage need to make something happen, to bust out of the matrix, to push the limits of their abilities? The problem is that the young engineers earning that much become well-fed farm animals at the very moment in their lives when they should be running like wild horses.

(Emphasis mine.)

The piece plays into several stereotypes:

  • The Startup is the apogee of all possible corporate forms.
  • The Startup is the only place where an engineer can do hard, challenging work.
  • Above benefits are great enough that one should take on significant risk, financial and personal.
  • If you are young, you have nothing to lose, so roll the dice with a (preferably my) startup!

This is the Overarching Valley Myth. But reality is much more varied, much more complex, and not as disappointing.

If hard technical problems in the real world are what you seek–and that is indeed what you should seek if you’re a fresh CS grad–then a startup is possibly the worst place for you. Startups are about product definition and finding a business model. They are only tangentially about technology. Given all the risk that a startup takes on the business side, the last thing it needs is to take take on more risk on the technology side. Corollary: startups prefer middle-of-the-road, mature technology.

On the other hand, large tech behemoths are good places to dwell on hard technical problems. They operate at a scale where such problems actually manifest themselves. They also have enough resources that they can comfortably push the envelope on new and risky fundamental technologies without worrying about whether they have enough money to make payroll next month. That’s why they make a much better training ground than startups.

For example, there is no doubt that you will learn much more about planet-scale distributed systems at places like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Google, than any startup under the Sun.

Kelman is also downplaying the significant risk one takes on with an early stage startup. Financially, a big chunk of compensation at a startup is equity, which of course will be worthless if the startup fails. The flip side is that you could hit the jackpot and become wildly rich. But you know the odds. Also know that if successful, rewards go disproportionately to investors and founders. So why not make a startup instead of joining one?

But there are personal costs too. The perfect counterpoint to Kelman is Alex Payne’s Letter To A Young Programmer Considering A Startup, which takes a harrowing personal look at the toll of the Valley Myth.

I’ve seen firsthand the damage that startups can do to relationships. I’ve watched marriages and friendships fall apart, seen children and partners pushed aside, and failed those in my life in all kinds of ways when work came to the fore. I’ve listened as people who are the very picture of startup success – visible in the press and social media, headlining conferences, forever founding and exiting – have confided their utter loneliness despite being seemingly at the social center of the entrepreneurial community.

There are two sides to every story. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Kelman is also reinforcing the Valley age stereotype, what with all the imagery and metaphors around young, wild horses. Yes, when you’re fresh out of school, with no family and no mortgage, you have nothing to lose. But I think he’s completely missing the other side of the age/risk curve, which is engineers who have spent a decade or so at a large company, and built a comfortable financial cushion. They’ve built up an appetite for risk by then, and they’re experienced. They won’t run around like wild horses. They don’t need to. They know exactly how to build your system right the very first time, with a minimum of wildness.

Last but not least, Kelman has a massive bias: he’s complaining because he runs a startup, and startups are finding it hard to hire and retain engineers because all these other large companies in the Valley have soaked them up with pumped-up salaries and cushy perks.

Buried deep in Kelman’s piece is a sentiment I agree with: don’t get comfortable. Keep stretching yourself. Being showered with perks doesn’t mean you cannot keep seeking out hard problems. Even while burping from your gourmet meal during a mid-afternoon massage.

[Full Disclosure of Personal Bias: I happen to be happily ensconced in a large tech company. That’s partly why Kelman’s piece pricked me. Whether it has made me comfortable and soft time will tell.]