By now, some of you have probably read my previous post, “Why You Should Work for a Startup as Your First Job”. Some of you might find it beneficial for your own career choices, and if that’s the case, awesome; glad I could give you some perspective.
To start looking for startup jobs, definitely check out this site: https://angel.co/. They offer a great collection of growing startups that are constantly hiring young, ambitious talents.
But that’s not really what I had in mind for this article. For today, I’d like to talk about why you should consider NOT working for a startup after graduation.
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I remember when I first started working for FASTPORT full-time. It was so crazy: The working hours seemed endless; new projects hammered us on a weekly basis. Everyday, I learned to build new things, because of the nature of my projects. I learned things so fast that I sometimes had to go back and review what I’d done so I wouldn’t forget. Starting out as a humble Web Developer, I soon trained myself to program mobile applications, backend services, even databases sometime. It was an exciting time. I absorbed so much knowledge about so many different aspects of web/mobile development than any junior dev guys could get their hands on in their first year.
Ironically, that was also my downfall. I learned so many things so fast that I never really had time to tune my programming skills. My code was sloppy, hacky, and most critically, non-disciplinary. I defined parameters that I later never used, wrote hundred lines of functions to do things that could easily be done with one or two lines of jQuery, abused callbacks whenever I had the chance, etc. Basically, I threw all programming good practices and precautions out the window when I coded. I was a fast employee (extremely fast, even), but a terrible programmer. I seriously think that if recruiters looked at my code from a year ago, they’d never hire me.
Fortunately, I ended up moving away from those terrible programming practices and habits. As I started to hang out with other developers in my field, I gradually realized that whatever I was doing was awfully inefficient and unconventional. I spent hours and hours on coding platforms, working my way through even the simplest pieces of codes. I needed a refreshing start for my programming career if I were to avoid crashing out of it for good. I went to many events for programmers, trying to talk to people and learn from those who have been around the industry for years. Those occasions proved fruitful. Before long, my code became cleaner and more elegant; my projects more organized and my applications more performant.
But that wasn’t all. The startup position also affected my personal life. Slowly, I became isolated from real life. During my first year of work, I think I went out maybe three times. Friends would constantly call me up, asking me to go out and have some fun for once. “I have some work to do,” I’d say. I worked fifteen-sixteen hours a day for weeks, up until a point when I had a serious mental breakdown resulting in seeing a psychiatrist. At the time, my mind was already so damned twisted that I constantly thought about hurting myself and started turning against even my own co-workers and friends. For instance, I cursed at my supervisor in front of everyone in the company, skipped works for weeks, and distanced myself from the workplace. I also cut ties with most of my friends and severed my relationship with a friend for good. (Looking back at that incident though, I guess we both played our role in it, but I still regret it happening. She was a nice person and a good friend.)
Luckily for me, I did not get fired or lose more than one friend. My supervisor understood that I was going through a tough time mentally and encouraged me to go see a therapist on a constant basis. Most of my close friends who knew about my condition also supported me through that time. My former roommate, who was a medical researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, talked to me wholeheartedly about it and pushed me to seek help immediately. Another friend of mine, who I didn’t get to see much but would always be there for me when I needed her most, spent time with me when she was back in Boston from Nevada. She constantly reminded me that my life held more meaning than I thought, and urged me to keep fighting. And there are others who were also there for me, in better or worse days. Today I’m still thankful for having those people during the hardest times of my adult life.
I wouldn’t say that working for a startup is the only reason behind my professional and personal shortcomings. A lot of other professions and career choices could very well lead to the same outcomes: international banking, medicine, finance, etc. for similar reasons: stress, long working hours, lack of socialization and so on. The reason might also lie within ourselves. Mental disorders are not something that just happens out of the blue. Neither is unprofessionalism. Take me, for example. I was a bad coder, partly because I did not try hard enough to be better at what I did. I suffered a mental breakdown partly because I had always been somewhat a troubled mind.
Nevertheless, working for a startup, especially as your first job, has this unique and dangerous edge to it. It gives you so many rushes and thrills, pushing you all the way up to the top, only to make you realize that you’re at the edge of a cliff and can fall down anytime. The excitement you get from your work then turns against you, driving you manic and potentially ends up killing you physically and/or emotionally.
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Compared to my previous article, this one is a real downer. I understand that. However, just like most things in life, this career choice has two sides. There’s the amazing side that gives you so many opportunities to do great things and learn from the best, but then there’s the side described in this article: a real creeper that seeks to slowly destroy you professionally and mentally.
There is one thing I would like make clear before I end this note. I never, for a moment, regret this career choice. There have been ups and downs, but I’ve started learning to enjoy this new self and embrace the new changes and people in my life. Also, in reconnecting with my old self, I’ve learned from my past mistakes, to not repeat them again.
To wrap this up, I would like to quote my favorite author, Haruki Murakami:
“To know one’s own state is not a simple matter. One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all.”
— Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle