A retrospective on the first three years of my tech career

It’s my birthday today! (Yes, I am a Cancer baby.) My birthday happens to correlate really well with my tech anniversary. I actually started my first tech job the day after my birthday three years ago.

So, I think it’s a good time to write a retrospective. There’s so much I would say to myself earlier on, and since I can’t go back in time, I can only hope I’ll reach someone who’s a little bit behind me here.

[This whole post will be in this newsletter and cross-posted on the blog since this post is pretty personal anyway.]

Let’s just recap the years in case anyone doesn’t know the full story:

Year 0: I’m going to become a programmer.

One day, I decided that I could no longer flit around as a freelancer. I wanted health insurance, a 401k, an office, and a resume.

I went through a typical self-taught path to learn JavaScript, React, and Node.js. This was relatively easy for me because I have a decent amount of discipline and the resources for learning to program were much more abundant in 2018 than they were when I was a kid. I made a blog post every single day when I was learning all of this, complete with monthly recaps to track my progress.

Year 1: I got a job.

I was very deliberate with my job search and moved far outside of my home of Los Angeles to get a job in a less competitive environment.

I went to Rochester, NY and got a job within 2 weeks. What happens next is your typical bad job story. They say they'll mentor you, within a week the Senior engineer on the project is ignoring you, you never understand anything he says, you start to retreat into the performance of work rather than actually producing code, you blame yourself for being so incapable of understanding the codebase, your boss violates your boundaries, everyone around you keeps making fun of your racial heritage, you do a tarot reading to decide where you're moving next, you wait the minimum amount to say you've been there a year, then you're off to San Francisco.

Everyone's first job is some variation of this, right? It happens.

Year 2: I need another job, and I got it.

I spent 4 months on my second job search. I was desperate, I was faking, and I was planning for the reality that I may never get a tech job again.

In the end, I had two offers. OpenTable was one of only two companies that I interviewed with that weren't small startups at the time. I think we both made the right decision in choosing each other. I learned so much in my first year at OpenTable and I could've never imagined a better environment to become the engineer I am today.

Year 3: I got promoted.

I've been at OpenTable for nearly 2 years now. The growth I've experienced has been beyond any of my expectations. I can only hope my growth has also exceeded the initial hiring panel's expectations as well.

I have a lot going for me. I know that most everyone I work with directly likes and trusts me. I have a network and a brand outside of my company which has resulted in 3 of the 5 FAANGs reaching out to potentially interview me (and I'm not even marked as open to work on LinkedIn). I have been promoted into a level which makes me an asset, not a burden on any potential company.

Basically, I think the 3 year mark is when I officially passed tech's hazing period. (That is, until ageism and the glass ceiling catch up to me. But, I'll worry about that once I get there.)

I know that's very strong language to use, but I believe it's true. Absolute, complete luck has led me to an environment where I've been able to develop into a competent engineer. The luck could’ve easily turned the other way and I have no clue what I’d be doing for money right now.

Every day, I write absurd code that there's no StackOverflow answer for. I read hundreds of lines of code a day, casually traversing codebases that were written by 30+ people. My GitHub profile says I've made over 1000 contributions over the past 12 months.

That sounds ridiculous to Year 0 Radhika who could barely link React components together.

I get to ask very smart people for help without my intelligence being questioned in the process. I'm actually encouraged to get out of my comfort zone more, because I play to my strengths too easily. Oh and yes, people respect my PTO.

I remember I thought about going back to freelancing full time because I was afraid I didn't fit in in the job world after how alienating my first tech job was. I thought since I don't drink beer at work and since I'm not able to talk about how I spend my weekends, I'd never find respect.

I get inbound recruiter emails from extremely well-funded companies. There are kids I knew growing up who work at these companies. Their moms call my mom and proudly say how exclusive and high-status their kid’s job is. When my mom tells me these things, I say Mom, a recruiter from there messaged me just last week. ME! I have no pedigree to fall back on and their recruiters are sending me 6 follow-up emails.

Year 2 Radhika is saying that's impossible. There's no way you just hit a certain year mark and the entire job searching dynamic changes. She doesn’t even think she’s going to make it to 3 years in this industry.

Well, here I am.

Is there anything I’d do differently?

Yeah, honestly, I wasted way too much time on Twitter. I was on Twitter from December 2018 through March 2020 and my entire experience spiraled out of control before I could even grasp what was going on.

I fundamentally do believe that Twitter is a great branding tool and it was the source for several of my job interviews. But after I got my current role, I knew I never wanted to get a job through Twitter again. I’m really grateful that I got banned right before the pandemic started, because I think the entire community has just continued to go downhill over the past year.

I’d still recommend anyone who’s better at branding than having a perfect resume pursue stuff like Twitter, blogging, newsletter writing, etc.., but I honestly don’t know if the work I put in is worth it now that my resume is more impressive. Does anything I say matter anymore?

Lastly, I’d just like to give some general advice for anyone who wants it, even though I’m wholly unqualified to do so.

  • Focus on people. Your network matters more than anything else. Twitter worked for me — I met some of my favorite people in the entire world on Twitter. It’s helped both my personal and my professional life.

  • Work at the most prestigious company you can. Too much of the traditional good advice has been overrun by VC type people who have very different goals than the average person. Prestige matters. Work at the company your mom is most likely to know. They’ll probably be more stable and if not, the prestige can land you your next role more easily. Smaller startups don’t guarantee higher-growth and more learning, so why risk it?

  • No, not everyone has read Clean Code. "Classic" programming books have really been replaced by the internet. If you’re working on the web or on mobile, these are focusing on a very different style of development, one that doesn’t exist for most product engineers. Just read blogs and the books that your favorite bloggers recommend. It’s a much better use of your time.

  • Vocabulary is still important, though. Vocabulary is and always will be fairly antiquated and yet important. My #1 hack to fitting into tough interviews or new companies is to learn the lingo and learn it well. Oversimplifying was really important in my pre-tech life, but in tech, if you oversimplify, people tend to treat you like you’re not very smart.

  • Just try your best for 8 hours a day. You shouldn’t work overtime. Don’t spend a ton of time reading books. No, open source won’t help your traditional career if you’re a product-oriented engineer. Just show up and be useful to people in your job. That’s all that really matters.

  • Stay employable. Despite what I just said… having something on the side is important. Keep your LinkedIn and resume up to date if you can rest on pedigree. Focus on branding if you’re not getting enough reach outs from recruiters. Practice those algorithms if you just can’t pass interviews. It’s a tough industry, and you never know when the tables will turn. Keep your skills sharp.

I have no idea what the next three years will bring, but I hope they’re pretty chill. These first three years have been such a rollercoaster that I’ve lost track of what I even want out of this career.

I’m in a transitionary phase right now (aka post-pandemic burnout) where I have no real goals and I’m pretty confident with myself and my ability to remain employed. I don’t know what comes after this.

Either way, I hope you’re safe, enjoying the summer, and taking lots of time off. Let me know if you like this style of post — I used to write annual reviews on an old blog of mine. If there’s enough interest on this kind of writing, I’ll begin again with a 2021 Year in Review.

Thanks for reading!