How a Side Project Helped Me Double My Salary
How a meme stock market helped me secure my first senior engineering position
Originally published on February 4th, 2018
The dust has settled. The boxes are (mostly) unpacked. The cats have claimed their perches. At the beginning of January, Tallahassee got its first real snow in decades, and my wife and I prepared to take our adventure to our mutual dream city, Boston. While the 1,300 mile trip could consume a post or two on its own, today I'd like to talk about what brought me from Tallahassee to Boston, and how I got there.
Like everything in life, there was an element of luck involved. I was lucky to have a great recruiter, working for me, I was lucky to have interviewed with people who saw the value in my projects in particular, as well as side projects in general, and saw a fit for me in a fast-moving team working on highly experimental data tooling. However, the harder your work, the luckier you seem to get - and there are elements from this experience that I think can aid people in any job search.
The Beginning of the Job Search
What motivated me to look in the first place? I enjoyed the team I worked with (the building we were in? Not so much), and while we never saw Tallahassee as our forever home, my wife and I both made great lifelong friends there and had a great routine. Well, as we were preparing for our first anniversary trip, a recruiter for Amazon reached out to me on LinkedIn.
I wasn't planning on taking it, but after the results of my pitching Danqex (formerly Nasdanq - and fodder for another post) and with the encouragement of my career sherpa (who also works for Amazon), I decided to go for it. That got me itching to see what was out there given my interests and experience - and there was a lot. I figured I'd look for remote opportunities, save up some money, then move in the early summer or fall to Boston. The best laid plans, yadda yadda yadda.
Updating My Resume
To prepare for this, I had to update my resume. I added some projects and experience I got while working at Homes.com, but I think the most important thing was adding my work as Danqex cofounder, CEO, and data lead. This was something I worried about - I didn't want to give the impression that I'd up and leave right away for Danqex, but at the same time it was (and continues to be) a source of super-concentrated experience in a number of areas - team management, project management, development, technology selection, even dealing with investors and knowing a bit about how funding works.
So I added it to my resume - one thing I've learned in my career is to be completely upfront in the job search, because the hunt is a lot like dating: a good fit is far more important than the quickest almost-fit. Danqex also worked as a great conversation starter - who doesn't like to talk memes?
Mismatches and Encouragement
The Amazon interview came and went. My wife and I had just gotten back from our trip, and I hadn't much time to review data structures and algos. I wasn't aware that I'd have a coding test (something that is always a source of anxiety) at the first phone interview, so that happened and I powered through that anxiety because I had no choice. Getting that out of the way was great, and I actually enjoyed the problem given - unfortunately Amazon decided to pass on me. It was disappointing, but now I didn't have to move to Seattle.
I had quite a few other interviews, which was actually very encouraging because my previous job searches did not often get past the resume submission. These were often great, geeking out with someone else about technologies we loved and work that we'd do. Unfortunately a lot of these were not good matches - often because of a lack of experience with their technologies. The types of companies that don't encourage on-the-job learning (or can't) aren't the ones I necessarily want to work for - picking up a language to do work is pretty quick, even though mastering it takes many hours of work. Picking up supporting technologies (think Kafka, etc.) is much quicker.
One job I applied to I didn't realize was for in Boston and was through an external recruitment firm. I was nervous when this became clear, because I've only heard bad things about these, but I am incredibly grateful for the experience and it worked out perfectly. The business model here is interesting: companies that don't necessarily have the resources to do their own recruitment on a large scale will pay another firm to do it, in this industry this is mostly startups or companies undergoing very rapid growth. The firm that posted the ad I applied to was WinterWyman, and they have teams dedicated to different fields.
The recruiter, Jamie, contacted me, and said he didn't think what I applied to would be the ideal fit, but he'd talk to them anyway - in the meantime, though, he wanted to know what my priorities were as far as my career and what things are important for me in a company. I told him I was ready to make an impact on society in some way - one of the jobs I applied for was for a company doing research on various mental issues as detected in social media postings. I wanted to be able to take point on my projects and have ownership, have the opportunity to advance, work with interesting technologies, process lots of data, and a few others, but my most important priority was impactful work. He returned to me a list of companies that I did some research on, and picked a few. One didn't want me because I didn't have a CS degree (their loss - and I'm happy not to work in a culture with those attitudes), a few others dropped off, but one in particular was right up my alley and was really interested in me.
This company was PatientsLikeMe which has a track record of not only improving lives of patients through connecting them in support networks, but was also doing some groundbreaking research with the data that users of the platform provide. Impactful? You bet. They wanted a data engineer for a new data engineering team that supports the research team and builds tools to trial before bringing them to full production status. Ownership? Plenty.
I had two phone interviews, one with my future boss, and one with a teammate. Both were a lot of fun, talking about Danqex/Nasdanq, my experience, my educational background, and more. Jamie helped me prepare for both, and called me quickly to let me know that the team was really excited about me and would be setting me up for a trip to Cambridge for an in-person interview.
I flew in to Logan (almost missed my flight because my car greeted us in the morning with a flat), spent a few days with my dad, and then got settled in my hotel in Cambridge. My recruiter had been giving me a lot of details on what to expect for the interview, which helped put me at ease, and after a good night of sleep I got dressed and headed over to the PLM offices. While there I went through a few rounds of interviewing, two with my future boss, one with the other team members, one with HR, and one with one of the scientists on the biocomputing team, who we'd be supporting.
The topics ranged from the function of outer hair cells (the subject of my research in grad school) to the design of database tables given some features to RaspberryPis to how to trade memes for profit. Instead of an interview, it was more like meeting with a bunch of interesting and smart people that geek out over the same things I do, and getting to chat about our passions. It was fun.
After the interview I met with some family and before leaving, I got to meet Jamie in person for breakfast. He informed me there was another person being interviewed, but that I'd hear something within the next couple of weeks. A little over one long week later, Jamie called me to let me know an offer was coming. The offer came, and it was exactly what I was looking for and the match was officially made.
One minor issue - the job was not remote. We'd be moving to Boston on the heels of record-breaking cold with plenty of winter left for us.
Wrapped up in all that are a few lessons that can be gleaned from this, I think:
- Work on your side projects, take them farther than makes sense, and be a cheerleader for them and the work you did on them.
- Be prepared to answer truthfully any hard questions about those projects. One of the questions asked was how my priorities would shift with this job in relation to Danqex. Of course, the job would come first, Danqex was born as a side project and that's how we're equipped to work on it. You'll likely get those questions and more about your projects, and you should know them inside and out. Pitching to investors, while not feasible for many, was a great preparation for this.
- Get outside of your comfort zone with technologies you work with. This is especially useful if you, like I was, work with a less in-demand language at your current job.
- Find the best match, not the the first yes. I've been working at PLM now for just under 3 weeks, and it has been the best match for me. A fun, stimulating culture (we have journal club between 1 and 3 times a week, and also a well-stocked beer fridge!), brilliant people to work with (2 of my teammates have PhDs from MIT, the other studied at WPI), a team that's all about rapid prototyping, proving a tool we make, and then letting it mature to another team to maintain, and a shared drive to truly push the science of chronic illness and improve the lives of our patients in tangible ways. Work that truly matters is one of the greatest motivators of all.
- To help with the above lesson - don't wait (if you can help it) until you absolutely need a job to start looking for your next step. This keeps you from making any spur of the moment emotional decisions, and keeps the ball in your court as you wade through rejections and negotiations.