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Money + Career Choices

Yesterday, my friend, Manish Patel and I, did a careers in technology panel at a L.A. based charter school. Quick background on them -- the Alliance College Ready Public Schools are a set of charter schools founded several years ago -- some of their backers include the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation. More information about them is here on their website [link]. I took a tour of one of their high schools, was incredibly impressed by their work and the dedication of the various staff and students I met, that I organized this panel at one of their high schools. (Yesterday's was the 2nd one we did at another high school.)

Manish and I, by the way, are friends and we used to work together at Google. He's currently a venture capitalist at Highland Capital [link].

Davida (the principal) mentioned that our panel was so popular that she had to cap signups at 30 and they had a waiting list. These panels can be a little difficult to navigate. In this particular case, there was no formal agenda, so frankly -- it was Manish and I riffing a little while the room warmed up enough to begin asking questions beyond the "sample questions" that Davida had provided them. Honestly, I was really afraid we were boring them or saying inane things until I was interrupted by the theme music from Super Mario Brothers. (It plays over their speaker system to let them know when to switch classes.) When they told me what the music signified, I said, "Oh, do you guys need to go?" To which multiple people shouted, "No! Keep talking!" I took that as a good sign though it's certainly possible they just didn't want to go back to class :)

Both Manish and I spent a lot of time talking about the various companies we worked at, what we learned, how it helped us prepare for subsequent jobs, and so forth. It was all nice and good. Then towards the end of the talk, one of the students asked, "To what extent does money factor into your career decisions?"

Wow. I didn't see that one coming. But I decided to take that one since I felt like I have a particular perspective on it.

I left for a whole host of reasons, but one of the reasons was because I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial. I failed. Looking back, the reasons were pretty clear and maybe I'll delve into them in a future post, but after that failure, my mind was oriented around, frankly, getting more money. If I couldn't get something off the ground because I didn't have enough money, well, I would find a job that would pay me more money, save up, and then give another go at it. I should note that at this point, while I wasn't literally running out of money, I kind of was. I had a non-trivial amount of money in my bank account (~$20-25K) but with no income, that money was going quickly. I moved into the basement of a friend's house (initially they had me house sit while they were on vacation in exchange for free rent and I just ended up staying there for a while). I would save money on everything -- one example is Subway had (and still has) a deal where you can get certain foot-long subs for $5. So I would buy a footlong meatball sub $5 for lunch -- and then eat half of it for lunch, and half of it for dinner. So for someone who really never wanted for anything money-wise, this was a very strong wake up call as to why you make money.

After a difficult and humbling job search, I ended up getting a number of job offers -- including one from Google. At the time, the tech crash had occurred and there weren't a lot of tech companies hiring. Google was one of the few. But even more interestingly, for those that knew, Google was one of the very few chances to change your life. Why? Google fit all the criteria -- it was pre-IPO by a couple of years, it was still reasonably small (800 employees when I joined), growing very fast, and the whisper was that it was already profitable. That's a sure bet. You never know what your stock options will be worth, but this stood a good chance that they would be worth something significant.

I remember interviewing at Google. It was weird and quirky. While I was waiting for my first interview, in the lobby was a gift-wrapped arcade machine (I think) and the discussion that I overhead mentioned that one of the venture capitalists was giving it as a holiday gift to one of the founders. That was completely outside the bounds of my understanding. 

The core group of my interviews were just fine. I met, I think, half a dozen people who all seemed perfectly nice and I was in full-on interview mode. At the end of the day, the recruiter brings me in for 5 minutes to meet with the VP -- he was apparently driving a candidate to the airport or picking someone up at the airport, but even though he was tight on time, they wanted to make sure he met me. Ok. He pretty much asked me only one question -- something about whether CPCs would be higher for a more general search term or a more specific search term. I talked about how more specific terms are likely to result in a higher CPC because it's more targeted and brought up the example of comparing why someone would pay more for the term "Canon S100" over the term "digital camera". He seemed to find this acceptable and then left. 

As the recruiter was walking me out, it was around 630pm, and literally, the entire office was still there. Everyone. They were working away at their cubicles and it was dead silent save the sound of typing of keyboards. No one was even on the phone. I saw my life, I knew exactly what it would be like, and I knew I would be terribly unhappy.

To answer the student's question, I said something to the effect of, "I knew I would be unhappy at Google and I took the job because I knew I would get paid more than I would get paid anywhere else."

Mark Suster wrote a blog post a few years ago where he espoused the theory that in any job, you should be learning OR you should be earning [link to blog post]. The problem is that people want it all -- they try to learn and earn simultaneously. 

My first job out of college was at Because I had a competing offer that offered me a more senior title, offered to match that offer (which was for a "Product Manager" title -- a title usually reserved for folks coming out of an MBA program or promoted into after a few years of working). However, my pay was set at the level below that. It's possible I could've gotten more money but I didn't bother negotiating because I got what I thought was the most important thing -- I got that title, and got it with a legitimate tech company. To amazon's credit, within a year, they adjusted my pay by bumping up my salary almost 50% -- but my crystal clear focus in that initial offer was to learn -- it didn't matter that my salary was way below what others with an equivalent title would be getting. (As a matter of reference, one of my colleagues -- her signing bonus was what I got in first year comp + signing bonus)

I remember telling myself before I took the Google offer that I had to get my mind straight. That I had to understand what I was doing. That I was taking a job where I believed I would be unhappy in exchange for the fact that I would get paid. And I took it. And I was deeply unhappy for at least the first year and a half. Now -- despite this unhappiness, I would say that I worked the hardest when I was unhappiest. 

I had a friend / colleague in a very similar situation in terms of unhappiness, and we would get together every week or two at this cafe in Menlo Park called Barrone, order some drinks, and literally sit in silence as we wallowed at how miserable we were. At one point, maybe 15 months in, I called my brother and said, "I don't think I can make it." And he told me the most liberating thing that he could've said at that point. He said, "Then leave. You made it over a year. You don't have to stay." For whatever reason, that gave me all I needed to stay and stay for 4 years. Now -- I should note, that the last couple of years were relatively enjoyable and I should also note that I don't say all this in a blame Google sort of fashion. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I could've carved out a far more compelling, interesting, and enjoyable existence at Google with a number of small changes. I certainly don't put all the blame on myself, because in so many ways, Google was great for me, and great for lots of other people -- and I don't want that to get lost in this blog post.

Around maybe 2006 or 2007, one of my friends who was a pretty senior person at a prestigious tech company told me that some folks at Facebook had inquired as to whether or not she'd like to join them. I knew Facebook and I knew them for a while. They were Google but even earlier than when I joined. They had all the attributes too -- they were going to be huge. I told her, "Whatever you do, go to Facebook. Even if you know you're going to be unhappy, go there, because you can work there for 4 years and then retire and do whatever you want for the rest of your life." She didn't go -- for a combination of reasons. Some of it was she'd have to take a temporary pay cut (her base + bonus at her current company was likely way more than what Facebook would pay) and some of it was pure comfort (she was in meetings with the senior management team of her company and these were very well-known people in the industry. Back then, Facebook was not the Facebook of today -- it was a good, but relatively early stage startup.) Her not going, conservatively, cost her $10MM. Probably a lot more. Only she can decide if that made sense or not, but she did tell me recently, "I should've gone."

At least the way I interpret it, the conundrum with her job was that she sort of was getting both -- she sort of was learning (though she wasn't ridiculously happy with the extent / scope which is partly why Facebook intrigued her) and she was sort of earning -- she was well paid in terms of yearly copensation but her overall compensation over the long-term was nothing like what it would've been if she took a little more risk and jumped to someone like Facebook.

The overall advice I wanted to convey to this student is sometimes you have to make very significant tradeoffs. The easy answer would've been, "Money is important but [insert all other more noble pursuits / attributes / etc. here] are more important." I was clear about what I wanted, what I needed, and the fact that I worked at Google has enabled me to do what I've done the past 5 years and those have been the best 5 years of my life. For that, I'll always be grateful to Google. But to do so, I had to say to myself, "I'm taking this job because of the money and only because of the money."