Why working for an unassuming company can be a great experience

I am a software engineer in Silicon Valley, but not the “Silicon Valley” in the popular culture.

The “Silicon Valley” that is popularized by the HBO comedy show is peddled with rule-breaking iconoclasts, inspirational kool-aids and stereotypes.

The Silicon Valley that I know values talents, hard work, thoughtful thinking and is a place of diversity and joys.

I can only speak from my own experience, and personally I have been very lucky to be at Google, Microsoft, Box. Inc and currently MindMeld (formerly Expect Labs) [1]. While each company is very different in terms of size, products, culture and organization, I have great respect for my current and former coworkers; they are often smart, funny, dedicated and professional. They listen to my opinions, and I feel encouraged to speak up, even to CEOs and the senior leadership. They get the job done, they teach me how to do it and more.

The mission of Box. Inc is to make document sharing easy

Diversity in tech has been a huge topic this past year, and in contrary to the common expectation, my experience in diversity has been quite positive. My previous team at Box was in charge of building tools and infrastructure for productivity and deployment at Box. Our job was challenging and important, and I had two senior technical managers. One of them was a woman, and the other was a person of color.

Similarly, at MindMeld, our senior technical leadership currently includes a woman and a person of color. While I do not often think of people in terms of categories and strive to appreciate and admire them for who they are, occasionally bringing these facts to mind makes me proud and happy.

While Silicon Valley can be and has been depicted as a place of Jobsian iconoclasts, personally I do believe there are places that work quietly and unassumingly to bring forth new and innovative ideas and products.

I think an unassuming company can be great because it can:

  1. Focus on the job, not the Jobsian: The troubles usually start when there is too much media attention on the leaders and people start fighting for the cofounder status. These corporate dramas can demoralize the team and detract from the actual hard work.
  2. Foster humility: it is hard to access reality when the ego is strong.
  3. Keep ourselves grounded in the common vision: a charismatic founder or leader can bring all attention to themselves and subtract away substantive attention from the company goal and vision.

Does such a place exist, and has it ever achieved any real success?

I believe the short answer is Yes.

Although I believe that each of Microsoft, Google and Box at some points has qualified as the “quiet, unassuming” place that does great, innovative works, I want to point out a much stronger example: Pixar.

“The goal is only to make a good film.” — Ed Catmull

Pixar has been one of the most successful and innovative enterprises for the past decades. Each of its release has challenged the conventional conception about what technology can do (Toy Story), who our heroes might be (Ratatouille, Brave, Wall-E, Inside Out), and whether an animated film can truly qualify as a cinematic masterpiece (Up and Toy Story 3).

I have the good fortune to attend a talk by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar, where he shared with Aaron Levie about his lessons in creativity, culture and leadership. It was a very fascinating talk, and I still remember this line: “Magic happens when ego leaves the room.

Reading his book (Creativity, Inc.) makes me realize that exists a variety of companies and company cultures. Successful leaders can come in different personalities (the extrovert vs. the introvert) and experience (the college dropout vs. the veteran), and so too do successful companies.

While the success of Apple and the likes have proven the power of individual charisma and the wisdom of rule-breaking, companies like Pixar provide a counterpoint showing that successes and creative ideas can come forth from the most quiet, unlikely places.

A little spill about MindMeld

At MindMeld we are a small startup in San Francisco working to power the next generation of intelligent conversational interfaces. The space that we are in is hot and competitive; our competitors include the like of Google, Microsoft and Facebook, but I have confidence in our ability to innovate and execute.

What I like about MindMeld:

  1. We are working hard to crack challenging, unexplored problems in AI and user interface.
  2. We like to laugh a lot (this is very important to me).
  3. We encourage people to speak up (with respects to others).
  4. We do not have slogans, but we do (mostly) the right things.
  5. We do not have free food, but we pay for learning, conferences and workshops.

At MindMeld, we are not creating the next Singularity, and our products will not solve every problem in the world, but I hope that they will bring joy and surprise to many.

What is the your ideal workplace?

Personally I like to work at places where people are funny, interesting, caring, and where I can focus on great, innovative works.

What are important to you? What is your ideal workplace? What is your best experience so far?

Please share your ideas and stories with me as I would love to learn more.


Disclaimer: this article only expresses the personal opinion of this author and not the official view of any company.

Footnotes:

[1]: Google, Microsoft, Box. Inc and Expect Labs has been ranked by MIT Technology Review as one of the most innovative companies in the world.

[2]: The great Steve Jobs did own Pixar, but he was wise to keep it largely untouched and autonomous.