Gap Years, Part 1
As it says in my short "about" page, I'm 20 years old and I work in San Francisco. What that page does not include is how I ended up with a full-time job at the tender age of 18. How I moved across the country on a whim to see if I could make it in the tech world; how I put off one of my dreams (to go to MIT) to pursue another; how I left my home and my family and my friends and put myself in an extremely uncomfortable situation, just to see what it would be like. Sometimes I have a hard time writing down my thoughts so I'm going to just go ahead and start from the beginning.
I think it was in April that I began talking with Hyperink. I had skimmed through the "Who's Hiring" page on Hacker News and they were one of the few companies that was interesting to me — I wanted to work on natural language processing, and they were an ebook company. Mek Karpeles, their lead engineer, interviewed me over Skype. I remember feeling like I hadn't done all that well, but he must have liked me because the last question was directly related to a project I had been working on for a couple of months. This is a great interview technique, although now I tend to open with it — asking questions about applicants' past projects really gives them a chance to show what they know.
The next day, Hyperink asked me to fly out for a day of on-site interviews. My parents were surprised (they didn't know I was looking for a job) but excited for me. Taking the time off of school was no trouble (I would just miss two days) and a couple of weeks later I flew to San Francisco.
So this was pretty cool. At this point I think I was very excited about coming to work in the heart of the tech industry. Over the course of a day at Hyperink, I got the impression that the company was doing pretty well and that the employees liked their jobs. The bosses seemed fair, and the work seemed interesting. I spent a couple of hours with Mek hacking on a way to find domain experts on Tumblr by combining various different searches and tag filters. At the end of the day I demoed what we had working, and then flew back home.
I guess I did well because soon after that I received a formal job offer. $54,000 a year sounded like a lot of money to me, for a year of work (after which I would head to MIT), so I accepted! I felt like hot shit back at school. My friends were going to spend the summer freaking out about college, and here I was about to leave for the "real world" and start making cold, hard cash!
My parents were happy for me, and my father was extremely helpful in figuring out the contracts and paperwork related to the new job. We were all worried about whether or not everything would work out once I was across the country, but I have some extended family in San Francisco so there was some sort of safety net should everything fall apart. In the worst case scenario, we all agreed that I could walk away and come back to Philadelphia until heading off to college in the fall of 2013. I graduated from highschool, said goodbye to my friends, and got ready to leave.
I flew out and moved in to my apartment — the second floor of a small home in the Excelsior (south of the city, near the Glen Park BART station.) I was sharing the apartment with two of my cousins, Anna and Morgan. They both moved in before me so I was stuck with the small, shitty room. My own place!
Well, it turns out that the real world isn't exactly ideal. I was enjoying my work, but I had a half hour commute and I didn't get along very well with my roommates, even though they were family. We rarely saw each other, so that was OK, but Morgan would stay up all night playing videogames and Anna did not clean up after herself. I rarely left my room when I was at home, and I didn't know many people in the city so I didn't have many reasons to go out. I became a regular customer at the burrito place around the corner. All of my meals outside of work were take out.
At work, I did well. It took some time to adjust to a more adult environment but with the help of my coworkers I quickly got up to speed. The first big project I took on was adding PayPal checkout as an option to the online store we ran. After some hard work, I was able to come up with a good implementation. After running the analytics, it seemed like sales increased and about 1/3rd of our customers were using PayPal, which made me feel pretty awesome. I helped increase the company's bottom line!
Come August, I had worked on a couple of other projects (mostly related to internal tools) but the luster on my startup dream was beginning to fade. $54k before taxes ended up not being all that much in the Bay Area; after rent, and saving for college, I didn't have all that much money to go out and do fun things. I had a lot more money than most people, and for that I'm thankful, but I wasn't going out and partying every night or spending on anything lavish.
Then, in the middle of the month, I got some bad news. Kevin and Matt, the two founders of Hyperink, brought me and Govil (the summer intern) into a meeting. Kevin told us that he had decided to step away from Hyperink, and that Matt was not interested in running the company without him. They believed that although mildly successful, Hyperink would never become a great success. Most of the staff would be let go, but we were welcome to stay on (Govil through the end of the summer; me until the fall of 2013) with a serious cut in pay. I was told that they would find "something" for me to do over that time — mostly site maintenance, and definitely no new work on the product. So that was a pretty shitty day. It was in one way a relief — the mood in the office had felt strange for the past two weeks, and I had been worried about getting fired. In another, it fucking sucked, because I essentially no longer had a job. Out of the ~18 employees, including the founders, 12 were let go that day.
I called my parents and told them the news, which was a pretty stressful conversation. I had been planning on spending the whole year at Hyperink before going to college, so there was now the question of what I was going to do instead. I couldn't afford to stay on with the reduced salary, and I didn't want to stay on with the reduced responsibilities. I had already told MIT that I was taking the year off, so although it might be possible to go to school that fall, it would take some effort. Pride also played a role: I felt like it would be failing to have only managed to make it 3 months before "giving up." I've always been the kind of person to see things through to the end.
After some careful thought, I began looking for another job.