Saturday, April 28, 2012

Letters to a Young Engineer: How to Decide Where to Work

[Oftentimes throughout my life, I wished that I could time-travel and ask my future self for advice. I felt sure that in five or ten years, I would know exactly how to handle the thorny situation facing me. Usually, it was true. A handful of years later, I knew precisely how to address the issue, but I could not tell my younger self.

What a tragedy that this supply and demand could not be connected between my past and older self! Instead I will write out the advice I would've given myself, in hopes that other young people may find some benefit.

I am naming it after the book "Letters to a Young Poet", because I like that quaint title.]

Dear Younger Self,

Deciding where to work is a momentous decision. There are so many factors: the responsibilities of the role, the team you'd be working with, your manager, compensation, risk profile of the company.

Let's say you're deciding between several appealing companies. (I'll write a separate post about how to get yourself into a position of having multiple companies bidding after you.)

Here are the most important factors that I've boiled down:

1. Imagine that when you wake up tomorrow morning, you'll start work at this company. How do you feel? Excited and a little nervous? Dismayed and wishing you could postpone it indefinitely?

This is the first branch in the decision tree. If the answer is that you're not happy about going into work, you need to scratch that company off the list. It's a non-starter. I don't care if the company is super-popular or has 10 Nobel Prize winners that you revere. If you're not excited, you're not going to do your best work. Then those 10 Nobel Prize winners will see you as a non-phenomenal colleague, and that's the reputation which will spread about you.

When you think about companies in the abstract, it can be hard to differentiate between your feelings for them. But when you force yourself to think of the concrete reality of getting out of bed tomorrow to work for a certain company, your body will tell you how you feel. When I think of a happy company, I feel light, and my back straightens itself. When I think of a company that's not a good fit for me, my shoulders slump subconsciously.

There are a million factors that go into whether you'll enjoy working at this company. As stated in the book How to Decide, when trying to gauge an emotional matter, making a pro-con list is actually liable to lead to the wrong decision. Your brain can only handle six or seven variables. Your intuition can handle a lot more. Just let your intuition tell you how you really feel about working at this company.

2. How well do you align with the company's ideal candidate for your role?

This will determine how much you succeed at the company. If you are far off from the company's ideal, you will spend a lot of effort contorting yourself to fit that ideal. If the company expects solemn suit-wearing individuals, and you are a bouncy Tigger who loves pranks, you will waste a third of your mental power repressing your natural exuberance, so that you'll be taken seriously. You will waste another third attempting to learn how to be serious, but you will not be able to do it as well as the people who are naturally born that way. Now you only have one-third of your brainpower remaining to do your actual work. The people who are naturally serious will be able to outperform you, even if they are actually only 80% as good as you.

No fit is perfect, so it's to be expected that there are parts of you that don't mesh. But it should feel natural. It should not feel like you are trying every day to act like a vastly different person.

If you force yourself to contort, you will also grow increasingly resentful at the part of you that's being repressed. You'll grow depressed. Don't do it.

3. Fair compensation.

If you feel underpaid, it will be difficult to give the job your all. If it bothers you to the point where you're not able to do your best work, you end up with the same problem as in issue #1. If your compensation is fair, there won't be any obstacles, and you can fall completely in love with your work.

Note that I said "fair", not "the maximum". Since stock options have high variance, it's difficult to gauge which package out of a few companies will end up being the most valuable. If you over-optimize, you may end up being penny-wise and pound-foolish, like my former colleague who told me not to refer him to Google pre-IPO because he wanted to stay for his $20,000 bonus from Microsoft.

Since your projection of future value is likely to be inaccurate, it's better to optimize for the other factors, as long as your compensation is fair.

4.The job should teach you things that you find valuable.

In a great job, you'll be growing quickly. You'll look back every year, and realize that you can now handle things that would have been very challenging for you a year ago. This will enable you to do increasingly amazing things.

Only you should decide what is valuable. Do not let any single person or set of people sway you on this. Some people will urge you to get an MBA and learn more about business. Others will hold MBAs in contempt and tell you to focus on scalability or mobile or programming languages or whatever their favorite subject is. You need to survey the land and learn enough to make up your own mind.

5. Appreciate the product.

This is what gets you past the rough patches, when you have to stay at work late again and your sweetie is annoyed, or you feel temporarily misunderstood by your manager. You need to have an appreciation for the product.

For me, it's very rewarding to help Minted's indie designers around the world. These are incredibly talented artists and graphic designers who find their voice through Minted, and are able to build a name for themselves as well as earn royalties. Last year when I was at a Career Fair, I was describing our community to a university student, and tears actually came into my eyes because I was so moved. It makes me laugh to think of it now. That student surely thought I was crazy.

You don't have to be as crazy I was, but it's good to feel appreciative of some aspect of the product. Sometimes people work on enterprise software despite feeling like they are just iterating on a boring product, or they guiltily work on toolbars that make revenue by tricking people into accidentally using a different search engine. Living with that cognitive dissonance is a high cost to pay every day.


You may have noticed that I put a lot of optimizing around finding an environment to do your best work. This is because I believe that world-class work has a way of reaping you unexpected rewards (fodder for another post).

I also didn't talk specifically about your manager or your colleagues. Those are very important, and they are covered by points 1, 2, and 4. If you enjoy your colleagues, that's one factor which will make you excited to go to work (#1). If they enjoy you, you will align closely to the ideal (#2). If they are stellar, you will learn a lot from them (#4).

If you do all these things, you will end up in a place that makes you happy and allows you to do your best work. This means that even if other aspects don't go as well as you planned, you will not regret this time, because you were happy and accepted.

Good luck.


To the young engineers reading this post, Minted is hiring! Email eng-jobs AT with your resume.

Or if you want to go for a super-early-stage startup with just a few people, email me and I can connect you with those too.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Funny Shirt Contest at work

I hosted Funny Shirt Day at Minted. There were 22 entries! We each did a little walk to show off our shirt.

This shirt says using keyboard keys: "I AM [ALT] OF [CTRL]"

Saturday, April 21, 2012


I saw this book in the Marketing area at Minted today.  I snapped a photo and sent it to Tom, with the subject:

This book should have my name on it instead.

Tom wrote back:

What do you mean?  It looks right to me...

He even mimicked the font and matched the perspective skew!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

new era of cloud 9

Every day for the past three days, I have had a long conversation that shocked and amazed me.

The first was with a woman who is raising two kids on her own (one adopted orphan baby and one natural born), while having started several successful startups. Her companies are highly successful. I always hear people saying, "Raising a kid by yourself is hard" and "Starting a company while having a baby is tough" but she is relaxed!

She cheerfully talked about how it doesn't actually feel that difficult. Not in the hollow-eyed manner of someone trying to convince you that their life is perfect, but in an actually genuine and honest way.

I was so floored by the conversation that I completely forgot all sense of decorum or "playing it cool". The last five minutes of the group dinner and walking to our cars was filled with me obsessively stating how we must hang out again. I came home and immediately emailed her, added her on Facebook, and posted on her wall.

Now I know how stalkers feel.

The second conversation was with a writer. I've cut back a lot on public writing, mostly because I experienced a lot of criticism a couple years ago from someone close to me. But talking to this writer made me remember again how exhilarating it can be to share ideas with the world. Good writing is a thing of beauty, and watching it emerge can be wonderful.

The third conversation happened today, about 3d graphics and art, with someone who I deeply respect. We talked about SIGGRAPH and GDC, and how Blizzard spends months making detailed prototypes, which they then chuck away on the path to creating an even better prototype. 3d graphics is also about creating works of beauty. Sharing this wonderment was really inspiring.


Typically, awe-inspiring conversations only happen to me once every few months. So I don't know how I'm so lucky that it's been happening daily for the past three days. I feel like I'm winning the lottery every day. I wonder how long this can continue!

I also have conversations this good with Melissa, the cofounder of Minted, but she's working in Shanghai at the moment. Maybe I've entered a new era where every day I can have a conversation like this, and it becomes the new normal.  That would be an amazing world to live in!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

a nice quote about love

From a graduation speech.

I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise. Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance. It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable.

Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning, attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul.

Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm.
You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the heart.

You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you.

inspirational cat

Friday, April 13, 2012

of peaks and chairs

Today I sold the chair and ottoman. It tugged at my heartstrings when the woman carried it out of my place! But she said her husband will love it, and that she will give it a good home and will treat it with love and care. So I felt good about that.

Also I'm going to climb Half Dome in mid-August with a bunch of cool people! Yosemite only gives out a few hundred climbing permits per day, chosen by lottery. A dozen of us entered the Yosemite lottery to maximize our chances, and five people got permits. Each permit allows guests, so we will all be able to go.

Next Sunday, I'm going to climb Mount Diablo! I hope it's not going to be like the time I climbed a Seattle peak with five Chinese women who were gym cardio addicts. Halfway through, I could not keep up and offered to go at my own pace, to stop holding them back. But they refused! They insisted on going at my slow pace the whole time. It is sweet, but was also a lot of pressure.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

chair sentimental attachment

Many people have told me that this chair is the most out-of-place piece of furniture I own.  When my brother was living as my roommate, he polled all of his guests, and half of them said that this chair was the single worst item in the house.

I put up an ad on craigslist, and someone wants to come buy it tomorrow.

Suddenly I am overwhelmed with emotional attachment to this chair!  I've had so many good memories of sitting in this chair!  I don't want to sell the chair!!!

But even I can see that the chair is in fact out of place.  



Our tech ops manager baked these plants.  They're oreo cupcakes, with green apple licorice.  What a fun surprise!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Steinbeck quote I just read

"There are several kinds of love.  One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance.  This is the ugly and crippling kind.  

The other is an outpouring of everything good in you -- of kindness and consideration and respect -- not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable.  

The first kind can make you sick and small and weak, but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn't know you had."
-Steinbeck, A Life in Letters

soccer at work

On Friday, 9 of us from Minted went to play soccer in the park across the street.

My college friend Jordan, who works next door at another startup, walked through the park and said hello to me.  I shouted back, "Can't talk now!  Watching soccer!"  It felt really nice, like a community where you're bumping into your friends, and having fun pickup games.

The marketing team turned out to be uniformly good at soccer.

There were three ladies sitting on the lawn, just behind one of our goals.  At first they flinched and ducked whenever the ball came within 20 feet.  By the end, they were completely unfazed even when the ball nearly hit them.

Saturday, April 07, 2012


management advice overheard in chinese restaurant

Six or seven years ago, I was eating in a chinese restaurant.  I overheard a conversation that struck me to this day.

The speaker was a woman in her late 30s, eating at another table with a companion.  They seemed to know the owner.

She said, "Ping used to be a waiter here at this restaurant.  The owner really takes care of his employees. He gives them good food to eat for the meals.  When they're sick, he visits them at home with medicine.  Then Ping was offered 10% higher salary by another restaurant, and he quit and went to work there instead."

"The other restaurant didn't treat him well.  They wouldn't let the employees eat the nicer food.  When he's sick, they didn't check in on him at all."

"After a month, Ping called up this restaurant owner and asked to come back.  The owner declined.  He said, 'I treated you like a human being, but you don't treat yourself like one.  Don't come back.'"


I was struck by how much we undervalue feeling loved in our job.  All those gestures of caring clearly mattered a lot more to Ping than the 10% salary, but he didn't consciously value them until they were gone.

I also was surprised that the owner is so relentless.  Ping is sorry!  If you take him back, he'll probably be extra loyal, now that he knows the grass is browner on the other side.  Why shut him out?

Maybe the owner already hired replacements and now has no open headcount for Ping.

Friday, April 06, 2012

easter eggs at Minted!

Glittery princess egg!  The owner refused to use this egg in the egg cracking contest.

SF Giants egg.

I asked our admin to buy some dye kits and eggs.  She hardboiled 60 eggs two nights in advance.  Then she bought all these treats, dyes, decorations and set up the entire table.

It is very amazing when you can give a one-sentence description, and the person executes it beyond your best dreams.

Homer Simpson egg!  This was creative.

Coloring the egg with a sharpie.

I also officiated the egg cracking contest, an ancient Greek game where you pair off, and tap your opponent's egg with your own egg.  One egg will crack.  I officiated and I also won the game, which was a bit suspicious.