The 40-Year-Old Loser

By Eric Giguere

Are you sure you want to work for Google? Or Facebook or Twitter or some other biggish company? If you’re in your early twenties, you might want to stop and think about it. Or you could end up a 40-year-old loser like me!

Let me explain.

I get to interact with a lot of young programmers, both as part of my recruiting efforts at Google and as a side effect of Programming Interviews Exposed. The other day I was reflecting on the differences in the tech industry when I graduated (1990 — pre-Java, early C++, i.e. ancient history) compared to today. Today there are so many opportunities for good software engineers to do things that I’m actually quite envious. These opportunities were not around when I graduated. Instead, my classmates and I were busy interviewing with big companies. I turned down an offer from Microsoft, for example (which in some ways I regret because I’d probably be rich by now because of stock options!). Friends were interviewing with Sun, SCO, Bell-Northern Research, Northern Telecom, big banks, etc. — all big companies for the most part. I don’t remember anyone starting their own company.

Today, though, I see many graduating students thinking about starting or joining a startup where the pay is lowish and the work is all-consuming. And that’s great, because the possible upside — i.e., going public or being acquired — is almost limitless compared to working a 9-to-5 job for an established firm. If you love autonomy, if you want to work on something that could be the Next Big Thing, if you want to change the world, a startup is the place to be. And if you were wise enough to stay unattached through your college/university years and are willing to travel to where startups thrive (and you’re OK with continuing to live like a pauper) then I recommend you go the startup route. It’s much, much easier to create or join a startup when you’re young and have no responsibilities.

The truth is that most startups fail. So at some point you’ll probably end up working for an established company. You’ll have lots of hands-on coding experience and you’ll be a prime catch — please do apply to Google, it’s a great place to work. You won’t get rich or change the world working for an established firm, but you will enjoy the work if you choose the right company and get paid pretty well.

Looking back, I guess I regret taking the easy route with my career. I played it very safe. I didn’t even take the Microsoft offer, which would have required a move to the United States. I didn’t join RIM in its salad days — it’s ending badly now, but I’d at least have some serious money to console me. Switching to Google was the riskiest thing I’ve done career-wise, which really wasn’t much of a risk!

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my work and Google’s a great company to work for. But part of me thinks I’m a 40-year-old loser for not taking career risks when I had the chance. If you’re young, now is the time to take those risks. Go interview for that hot startup — what do you have to lose? You can work for a big company anytime — trust me, we’ll be happy to have you! Don’t discount the tiny companies with lofty goals and aspirations. Give a startup a chance. Or better yet, find a buddy and start your own!

9 thoughts on “The 40-Year-Old Loser

  1. Tapas

    Can’t agree more.

    For my summer internship i choose a company that paid me more rather than joining a small company called LiveRamp in California. I sincerely regret the decision now as i find the work culture here very relaxing.

    A 10-5 job and they don’t expect a lot from the interns.Not enough responsibilities i guess.

    Reply
    1. Eric Giguere Post author

      Look at it this way, though, at least you found out during an internship…. big difference than finding out after you graduate!

      Eric

      Reply
  2. Sanjay Subramanian

    Very real and very true I agree. I left the engineering leadership role and switched back to programmer mode 5+ years back because I wanted to get back to the totally hands-on-building-stuff world. I am in hadoop/hive/oozie/hue world past few years and I am having a blast of a time. Not sure if the stocks will convert to a Ferrari but I dont care. Its the present and I love it.
    Small companies (early / late startups) are where u can make things happen. Per capita programming is very high and its fun.

    Reply
    1. Eric Giguere Post author

      Having fun is an important part of the equation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having fun at Google! I just wonder what life would have been if I’d been more of a risk-taker straight out of university….

      Eric

      Reply
  3. Miguel Sosa

    Interesting view on the consequences of the risks we take, or not, when we are young in our careers and where they end up taking us.

    HIndsight is 20/20 – we can tell now what are the paths we should have taken when we were younger and would have made us fabulously wealthy, but similarly we might have ended up just working for a list of failed startups.

    There is a lot of upside to working on a startup that is successful – but most don’t make it. In the end you might end up working for a lot of failed startups without getting the big price. I worked on a failed startup in my mid 30s. It was a great experience, and I *do* recommend people trying it, but, unfortunately, financially it was a setback that I am still trying to recover from.

    What you point out is right in the money, though, if you are going to do it, start early on in your career when you have less “responsibilities” and you can adjust your lifestyle – just know there is no guarantee of success. In the end, just enjoy the experience and learn from it.

    Reply
  4. DTC

    This is sad, Eric!

    I’m about to start working for Google and you really made me think if I’m not taking risk enough since I’m young and it’s my first job. This is sad!

    Reply
    1. Eric Giguere Post author

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s wrong to work for Google. It’s a fun place full of really smart people and it’s incredibly cool to work on stuff that the whole world uses…. I don’t think startups are for everyone, either. Your circumstances may be different, after all….

      Reply
  5. Mike

    In order to avoid feeling like a loser for the rest of your life you may just have to take that risk once and for all. Harland Sanders started KFC when he was 66.

    Reply
    1. Eric Giguere Post author

      Well, I can’t say I feel like a complete loser in everything I do 🙂 Just sometimes you think, “What if I’d done that?”. But usually I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out!

      Reply

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