Stripe, San Francisco, and Velocity.js
Go behind the scenes at Stripe, learn the trick to getting great SF job offers, and listen to Julian Shapiro gloat about his accomplishments.
A few months ago, I applied for a grant at Stripe. The premise was simple: Stripe will select two developers to pay $7,500/mo to work on their open-source projects in the comfort of Stripe’s San Francisco office. Catch-free.
All tech companies rely on open source software, but Stripe wanted to return the favor as directly as possible by sponsoring open source developers to work full-time on projects with significant potential.
My application was rejected.
Until, 45 minutes later, when I was unceremoniously unrejected.
What happened? Well, I believe my application was a runner-up, but enough of Stripe’s employees were interested in the problems that Velocity.js addresses (web animation), that Stripe allowed a third grantee into the program.
I was sent a follow-up email instructing me to “ignore that previous email.”
Boom! (Of course, I’m now subconsciously conditioned to forever rebuff any suggestion that I’ve been rejected from something. I’ll undoubtedly tell myself every time, “Nah, nah. They’ve made a mistake; they’ll get back to me in 45 minutes to correct this oversight.”)
In addition to improving Velocity, I saw this grant as an opportunity to:
- Work alongside the design and product teams at Stripe. (I’ve always told people that Stripe.com and Webflow.com are the two best-designed sites on the web.)
- Meet the SF-based entrepreneurs who reached out to me after the release of Velocity.
- Live in San Francisco long enough to come to a conclusion on whether I’d want to move there. (Answer: Yes, but with several reservations.)
First impressions of San Francisco
- The city is too bustling. It’s busy everywhere. You’re shoulder-to-shoulder at every restaurant. You can’t even book a same-day haircut.
- I, for one, like the weather here. But I understand others’ complaints. I dig the fog, which you can actually escape by driving a few blocks southward. Not a big deal.
- Every task-running service is here: Instacart, Shyp, Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Postmates, Caviar, and Washio. The level of convenience at your fingertips is surprisingly impactful. Don’t dismiss it as frivolity.
- Real estate here is expensive. I know you know that. But, unless you’re living with a significant other, expect to have roommates well into your 20's, and very likely into your 30's. Unless you feel like moving away from the city, that is.
- If you find hipsters repellant, be warned: Ornate facial hair, carefully slicked-back hair, skinny jeans, and tattoos abound. And mustaches everywhere. Even on cars.
- If you’re in the right place (near the waterfront or a hilltop), your views can be spectacular. Few American cities are this gorgeous.
- All the tech people you want to meet are in fact here. It’s not a myth.
For me, the pro of that last point outweighs all the other cons combined. Growing up in Montreal and Kelowna, I never had other technical entrepreneurs to chat or brainstorm with. It’s something I’ve always valued.
First impressions of Stripe
The San Francisco office of any high-growth startup is expectedly gorgeous. The headquarters of Pinterest, Airbnb, Twitter, Stripe—they’re all beautiful. Modern and cozy decor, amazing food, top-of-the-line equipment, and plenty of perks. Gone are the cubicles of yesteryear; they’ve been replaced with standing desks, sunlight, indoor foliage, and oceans of MacBooks.
But that gets old quickly. What lasts is the quality of the team surrounding you. Invariably, the smaller the team, the more intimate and productive your experience. Stripe is at a sweet spot of ~160 employees, with about 2/3rds of them working out of the SF office.
When your startup is hot, everyone wants in. When everyone wants in, you have the ability to work with the best of the best. The best of the best are actually as good as you’d imagine. From design, to development, to growth, you’re working with bright, well-adjusted badasses who aren’t jaded and want to see Stripe succeed.
Not once have I chatted with a Stripe employee who’s expressed a desire to move to a different opportunity. The truth is that opportunities don’t get much better than this: Stripe has fantastic employees, growth, products, and IPO potential. They’re considered the Valley’s darling for a reason; it’s the unicorn you dreamed of.
I pride myself on writing bluntly, and that’s the blunt truth.
Personally, I’m stationed alongside Stripe’s design team, which consists of @ludwig, @bdc, @awfy, and @phlntn. The team is flatly structured, with each member having a tremendous amount of autonomy over what they choose to work on and how they choose to execute on it.
There is, of course, some structure: one of them oversees project assignment, while another has final approval on design decisions.
Stripe doesn’t currently have dedicated product managers. Stripe has instead largely focused on hiring people who are sufficiently talented and self-motivated to execute to completion. This ethos extends to the open source grant as well: No one oversaw the development of Velocity, and no one ever asked that I reported in.
Stripe’s culture of autonomy and equality also extends to the interaction between its employees: On any given day on any given couch, you can find anyone talking to anyone — whether it’s Stripe’s general counsel talking sports with a front-end designer, or a support team member chatting with the CEO over lunch.
That’s how I met Stripe’s CEO, @patrickc: I walked up to him and off-handedly asked if he wanted to try the Oculus Rift. With a smile, he responded, “Want to do it now?” (Everyone else wanted to try it too, hence the header photo of this article.)
Every Thursday, everyone at Stripe gathers on the ground floor for an all-hands meeting. Remote employees watch via the livestream.
This isn’t like a school assembly or corporate gathering where someone preaches core values while vaguely painting a picture about the future.
This is like having a front-row seat at a VC meeting, where Stripe’s the hot startup and the employees are the board members. The employees peg one another with all the constructively revealing questions they can. The founders, in turn, get up and reveal Stripe’s internal growth metrics with a level of transparency and trust that’s nothing short of fascinating. When you bluntly hear how growth in one period compares to another, or, say, which countries are skyrocketing, you get swept up by the narrative.
Throughout, employees — everyone and anyone — are encouraged to share thoughts of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (“FUD”). Specifically, FUD surrounding the company’s trajectory or internal operations. The FUD that gets raised is the meta variety, such as “How do we continue to stay hungry while we attempt to double our headcount?” — not silly Office Space pet peeves like, “Someone keeps stealing the toilet paper rolls from the second-floor bathroom.” (But, seriously, who keeps stealing them?) The FUD is oftentimes raised by the founders themselves. This works really well at keeping everyone level-headed.
Earlier, I wrote that I didn’t need Stripe’s generous grant to continue working on Velocity. That’s technically true, but — looking back — it’s not the whole truth: It’s quite possible that I would have tired of Velocity had I continued my isolated development regimen: In the comfort of my Vancouver apartment, I had a neverending supply of time, but—whether I want to admit it or not—probably also a depleting sense of challenge, fun, and motivation.
Moving to SF and working out of Stripe kept me working full clip. A key motivating factor was being able to bug @ludwig, @michaelvillar, and @jamesreggio for advice. In particular, @ludwig suggested the idea behind Velocity Motion Designer, @michaelvillar frequently provided feedback on my feature ideas, and @jamesreggio’s front-end expertise drastically improved a major feature coming to Velocity’s UI pack.
All I had to do was lean over; the best of the best were within arm’s reach. What an awesome opportunity.
As for an itemization, I’ve accomplished the following:
- Velocity 1.0.0 was released. It’s battle-tested, jQuery-free, and packed with features that drastically improve the UI animator’s workflow.
- My second library, Blast, was released. It robustly crawls the DOM to parse text for a variety of powerful typographic animation and analysis purposes. I introduced it on the Mozilla Hacks blog.
- Velocity Motion Designer was released. Many developers are excited about its potential to change the way we design motion in the browser.
- I wrote “Animating Without jQuery” for Smashing Magazine.
- I wrote “The Simple Intro to SVG Animation” for David Walsh.
- I signed a book deal with Pearson. More info soon.
Further, I’m part-way through several upcoming projects:
- I’m releasing a game-changing Velocity plugin for mobile animation.
- I’m working with both Stripe and Digital Ocean on a project that will hugely empower open-source developers across the web. I think this upcoming project will be significantly bigger than Velocity.
Follow me on Twitter if you’re interested in staying on top of updates.
Addendum: How to get great SF job offers
It’s easy to get job offers if you’re a minor open source figure. That probably doesn’t surprise you. What will surprise you is how easy it is to become a minor open source figure if you’re self-motivated, understand developers’ needs, and can write well. In particular, the combination of Velocity’s adoption and its ensuing publicity (all of which was the result of my own proactive work) lead to dozens of competitive job offers from tech companies.
Here’s my advice to those looking to become well-paid startup devs in SF:
- 1) Find a category in the open source / dev world that’s under-addressed. For me, it was UI animation—the most popular use case for web animation.
- 2) Figure out the most broadly applicable solution to the category’s predominant problem. For me, it creating a performant general-purpose animation engine that wasn’t reliant on jQuery.
- 3) Market your project heavily. In fact, expect to spend more time marketing than developing. Write as many guest blog posts as you can. Throughout, pimp your Twitter handle everywhere.
- 4) Proactively go through your new Twitter followers / online mentions to find employees in senior technical positions at the companies you’d be interested in working for.
- 5) Directly message those people, inviting them to a quick Skype chat in which you’ll explain how what you’ve learned while building your project will benefit the products that his or her company is developing.
- 6) If you carry yourself well in these conversations, expect at least half of these people to ask if you’d like to come work for them. If you don’t know what “carrying yourself well” means, consider picking up the book.
This might take you ~3–5 months in total, but it’s a surprisingly foolproof path. In fact, this self-promotion pathway is open source’s best kept secret. Very few people are doing it (putting in the marketing effort), but those who do benefit hugely. I’ve had the opportunity to chat with @rauchg and @jdalton, who’ve shared their similar journeys with me.
No excuses, folks. Go kick some ass. Follow me on Twitter and ask me any questions you have.