For the first time in 14 years, I don’t have a job. No direct deposit to look forward to every two weeks, no vacation days to coordinate, no morning scrum meetings to attend.
Instead, I wake up every morning in my furnished studio in what used to be a mental hospital in Palo Alto with the whole day in front of me.
My time now belongs to me, and only me. This is the story of how I ended up here.
July 29 will mark the 6-year anniversary of my move to Silicon Valley. In July 2005, when Yahoo! relocated me to be one of the founding members of the YUI team, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was happy to move to California (I had never even visited) and I was thrilled to be working for one of the most recognizable names on the Internet. I figured I’d stay there for a few years, build some really cool stuff, and drink a lot of free coffee.
Then in December 2006 I got a call from IMVU. I wasn’t looking to make a move at the time, but I know to never turn down a free lunch, so I decided to meet with the team to see what they were up to. What I found was a small team of really smart people that were working on building a 3D chat and dress-up social network that was pretty terrible at the time, but the market validation was there. People were paying for this thing even though there was so much work left to do.
At IMVU, I met visual designer/cofounders that were also writing PHP. I met a CEO and CTO who were still regularly committing code. I met engineers that stayed in the office until 8pm every night and sometimes went drinking together after work just because they liked to hang out with other smart people. And, they were working as fast as they could to build a product that a bunch of people already liked. I realized that this was what people meant by “startup”. A few conversations later, I was in.
This was before “lean startup” and “continuous deployment” were hot buzz-phrases, so I had no idea what I was getting into. Having worked in really traditional engineering organizations at companies like MetLife and Yahoo!, I nearly did a spit-take when my new coworkers explained to me that any code I committed would end up out in production in a few minutes.
“Shouldn’t we at least have a staging server?” I asked. They smirked.
I spent the next four and a half years working in the most continuously evolving, fast-paced, living, breathing engineering group that I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of. I watched as IMVU went from having one tiny BuildBot slave running a handful of automated tests to a gigantic cluster of machines running thousands of tests. I got to see IMVU’s first attempt at a push health monitoring system that would roll a deployment back if something appeared to be wrong. I got to witness first-hand the pain that happens when you try to scale an engineering organization from 15 to 100 and expect that you’ll still be able to have everyone committing and pushing within a matter of minutes. And I watched as the smart people I worked with smashed through every barrier in order to preserve these values and processes, undeterred. It was awesome.
I also got to do quite a bit of product management, which is rare for an engineer, but IMVU has the philosophy of letting people do what they’re good at. The management’s attention to identifying employees’ individual strengths allowed me to explore areas of product development that I never thought I would get to learn about, making me into a stronger engineer and a better product designer.
So, why leave all that behind?
In the early days, one of the guiding principles that then-CTO Eric Ries would constantly repeat in our weekly engineering meetings was the philosophy that every person should be working on what they believe is most important, regardless of what anyone tells them to do—they just need to be prepared to justify their actions and explain their reasoning.
For the past 3 years, I’ve been working on a side project called Routesy, an iOS app which has turned out to be one of the most successful public transit apps in the Bay Area. It doesn’t make enough to pay all the bills (yet) but it has a lot of passionate users who tell me on a regular basis that it makes their lives easier. Just like the early days of IMVU where I was convinced to join because the market had validated something that wasn’t nearly ready, I feel like I haven’t fully realized what I’m capable of creating, or how I might be able to change the world, because there are only so many hours in the day.
Focusing on building my own business and finding my own path is the next natural step for me. I’ve finally reached the point where I know that it’s time to begin investing my time in my own vision.
As Eric Stromberg of Hunch said, “Working at a startup allows you to observe how one startup is run, and help shape a concrete vision of how you would want to run your company.” My time at IMVU has helped me to learn and develop that vision.
I haven’t decided definitely how I’ll be spending all my time, but I can promise one thing: It’s going to be a fun ride.