On a sunny Wednesday in September 2006, I showed up for my first day of an internship with Intronis Technologies, then a 3-person online backup company based out of Englewood, New Jersey. It's fun to look back on the days when working at a startup meant I was writing Visual Studio plugins in C# and hacking at Windows context menus. The software industry's been great to me since then: I've written 2 books, traveled to exotic locales, started numerous companies with varying degrees of success, and, most importantly, gotten to spend the better part of my career thus far working on cool projects with good friends. Here's some lessons I learned along the way that I try hard to embody to this day.
- Dress professionally
I showed up to my first day at Intronis in athletic shorts and a t-shirt. Not surprising for a 17 year old varsity basketball player, but the lead engineer pulled me aside and told me to show up in slacks next time. Since then, I wear slacks and a shirt to the office every day. I don't have to, but in my mind reaching for slacks and a shirt rather than sweatpants and a ratty X-Men shirt is like making your bed in the morning: it puts you in the right mindset to get the job done. The guy who starts his morning by skipping shaving, eating a pop-tart, and putting on a pair of sweats is telling himself that it's ok to cut corners for the sake of laziness and convenience. Don't be that guy.
- Work with people you like, because you'll be really mad at them sometimes
After my time at Intronis, I left for college and ended up helping start SCVNGR (now known as LevelUp). SCVNGR was my first real startup, my first real startup incubator, my first experience pitching VC's. Needless to say, I was one stressed out 19 year old after Josh Kopelman spent our meeting ranting how our business model was garbage (after showing up 15 minutes late wearing sweatpants and flip-flops, see point 1).
Starting a company was hard, there were more than a few times where I wanted to just quit and take the first train back to New Jersey. I still remember one time one of my coworkers and I were so mad at each other we spent the better part of the afternoon throwing markers at each other across the office. Thankfully, SCVNGR's early team was mostly people I was close with long before we sent our first test SMS. It would have been a lot easier to drop everything and leave if I didn't actually like the people I worked with. Startups where the team has a real bond are the ones that push through hardship, startups where the team is only there for the money or the cool factor are the ones that fold at the first sign of trouble.
- The best way to learn to code is to try to build something
Aspiring novelists are often told to throw out their first 1-3 novels, because more often than not your first novel will suck. This is doubly true for software engineers. I left SCVNGR to go back to school, but also because I was definitely not ready to be the CTO for the next stage of the company's growth. After leaving SCVNGR, I made it a point to write more software. From implementing obscure data structures to building gimmicky dating apps, I'd build whatever interesting project I could find.
When people ask me what the best way to learn to code is, I always tell them to try building something. Sure it'll be difficult and confusing, and you'll sometimes be embarrassed by the mistakes you make, but that's how everybody feels when writing software. Even if there was a perfect path to take somebody from a beginner to being a junior level engineer with no struggle, it wouldn't work, because being an engineer is about having the mental fortitude to grapple with a challenge and win.
- Testing is like broccoli
You might not like writing tests, but you need to if you want your code base to grow up big and strong. Testing is hard, you need to really wrap your mind around what it means for your code to be correct, which is why most beginners struggle with it. On the other hand, most beginners also struggle with squatting 300 pounds, but the struggle yields great rewards.
When I was at Google, I interned under AngularJS author Misko Hevery. The best thing that Misko did for me was that he didn't pull any punches. He held me up to the standard of a real Google engineer, and that meant writing tests. My project wasn't considered done until I hit 100% test coverage. That was a high bar, but my skills and project were better off for getting it done.
- Don't spend 6 months working on an MVP
In general, any project or initiative which takes more than a week to build into a usable prototype will suck. Like how Werner Herzog says that it never takes him more than 5 days to write a screenplay, if you're spending 6 months building an MVP, either you're building too many extraneous details or you're building a product that will be too complex to have any appeal. I've been through several of these sort of projects, only to see most of them fall flat on their face. The ones that didn't made me wish they did, because the project was so heavy and bloated that it needed a rewrite before it even served up its first page view.
At my first job out of undergrad, we had weekly meetings but stopped in the name of "efficiency." The end result was me not knowing what anybody on my 3-person team was working on, despite the fact that I sat right next to them. I still remember the team lead asking me what the status of a given feature was and I responded that it had been in Gerrit awaiting his code review for the last 5 months. Talk to your coworkers, tell them what you're doing, because it's hard enough to keep track of your own projects, let alone someone else's.
- Take "expert" advice with a grain of salt
- Embrace disagreements
Like many engineers I know, I became obsessed with tinkering on the computer because I was terrible at interacting with people. I became interested in programming because it let me get things done without having to engage in face-to-face conflict with others. Because of this, I've often found myself taking on projects that I had no interest in or accepting decisions I knew to be wrong, just to avoid the emotional strain of saying "no" to some inconsequential middle manager. However, disagreements between rational people are a wonderful thing: one party is right, and the other party learns something. Be willing to stand up for your ideas and be willing to accept being proven wrong. More importantly, run like hell from any team that ends debates with "we don't like to debate". Avoiding bikeshedding is important, but fostering an environment where the most effective ideas win out is paramount.
- Live by the rule of "Fuck Yes or No"
There's no shortage of interesting work out there, your time and your willpower are far more scarce resources. If you ever find yourself dragging your feet, it's time to reconsider what you're working on. For example, I got roped in to writing some niche advanced Windows auth features for the MongoDB Go driver. I had minimal experience with Go, and no experience with Windows, Active Directory, or Kerberos. But naturally, nobody else was willing to step up, so I figured I'd suck it up and do it to curry favor for a future promotion (which I never got).
In the meantime, the work that I was truly passionate about, mongoose, stagnated. I learned a valuable lesson from that: never work on a project that you're not champing at the bit to work on. Apply the rule of "Fuck Yes or No" when it comes to your work, especially if it leads to conflict (see point 8).
- Build a good team
Coding is very much a team sport. There's a limit to what you can do as an individual. Plus, daily discussions (and/or disagreements) with smart people help keep you from getting stuck in your own confirmation bias. Building a team, though, is about more than assembling the right people and guiding the culture: it's about building a real bond between individuals and making the team conducive to the individuals' personal development. In the legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson's terminology, you need to become a stage 4 (or even stage 5) team to really get the feedback loop of individual improvement -> team improvement -> individual improvement going. In that kind of environment, software engineering becomes pure bliss, and success becomes almost inevitable.