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Beware of the Silicon Valley cult (thinkfaster.co)
170 points by pmcpinto on Jan 14, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 134 comments



By now everyone knows that expected payoff of working at a start-up is the same or lower than a big company, but with much higher variability. Everyone knows this.

The thing is though, no matter where you work, as a professional you'll spend 50+ hours a week working. The satisfaction you get from that time matters a lot to your happiness and sense of satisfaction. You could work at a large soul destroying company that MUST pay you more because you have to put up with their BS, or you could work at a small company where you can look the founder in the eye and tell him or her to change something you don't like (as this article disparagingly puts it, change the culture in two weeks). And the founder is going to listen because everyone on the team is dedicated to the same mission. Really where are you going to be happier?

The fact that start-up payoff is even remotely equivalent to big company salaries tells me start-ups are a great choice if you value things like your happiness, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, impact on the world, etc.


There are plenty of large companies where you can go to your boss, express dissatisfaction with some aspect (tech used, projects youre involved with) and get an almost immediate turn around on.

Conversely, there are startups (even ones just founded) where the CEO is inapproachable and your input wont affect culture/product/whatever one jot.

As a programmer, my satisfaction comes from writing quality code on systems that are in some way complex and commonly used. There's not a lot of satisfaction to be gleaned from writing a dozen CRUD apps.

Btw, citing 'impact on the world' as a reason to join a startup is a really good way of coming across naive imo ;)

EDIT: I also disagree with your point on 50+ hours a week. 40 hours is about right with 50+ hours during crunch periods - which should be rare (2-3 a year max).


Agree that "impact on the world" is naive and meaningless. It's like new grad resumes that hype leadership skills.


It's a cliché, but neither naive nor meaningless when the small company you're working for is trying to do something ambitious.


It's naive because the vast majority of small companies crash and burn, with no impact whatsoever.

Also, since we're talking about Silicon Valley, it's naive to think that Uber-for-Dog-Walking or Grindr-for-BitCoin startup is going to change the world in any meaningful way. Most business startups are playing inside-baseball games that only certain companies care about, and consumer startups tend to be trivial contrivances for people with copious amounts disposable income.


> It's naive because the vast majority of small companies crash and burn

Most ambitious projects fail, but that doesn't mean they aren't more satisfying to work on. That kind of satisfaction has to do with the work and one's team. It isn't retroactive; it doesn't flip polarity because the project succeeds or fails in the end. Such work is more deeply satisfying because of its nature, even when we know that the odds are against us. And don't forget that most projects—especially most ambitious ones—fail inside bigcorps as well.

There's a cynicism going around about about startups right now where the game is to exchange negative generalizations with other cynics, kind of like trading cards. That's understandable as a reaction in the hype cycle—the startup hype cycle has entered a downturn among the early adopter types who populate places like HN. And yes of course some startups are derivative and some are lame, though the bias to dismiss nascent things as trivial is also a huge distortion, and easy to fall prey to when you're in a cynical mood.

But any account that minimizes the joy of working on a fresh, ambitious project with a small team is clearly mistaking a baby for bathwater. Greater work satisfaction is an important reason why someone might want to work at (the right kind of) startup that has little to do with expected payout and is a form of compensation in its own right. For that type of person it can change the calculus from "meh, it's a lottery" to "the greater meaning justifies the risk".


It's not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You're suppose to solve some small problem you have and then by proxy impact/solve something big because other people have a similar problem. So advertising "impact" and "change the world" is superfluous.


There are a limited number of hours in the day, and the more time wasted on things you'd rather not be doing is less time you're doing things that make you (and quite possibly others) happy.

There's no moral imperative to not waste time, of course, but I'd argue that increasing happiness in the world is never as trivial as you make it out to be.

Sometimes that means something as large as giving dying kids a last wish, sometimes that means something as small as providing a better/faster way to do something we all already did. How many people wasted time and energy shitty homegrown workarounds for file syncing before Dropbox showed up? How many shitty, stressful, overpriced cab rides did people have before Uber came along? How many relationships wouldn't have formed without things like Tinder and Grindr?

All "trivial" web applications, but all increased happiness in the world, one way or another.

What's your motivation for making this comment? Is it to increase happiness, knowledge, understanding, or any positive aspect of any piece of humanity? Or is it to take cheap potshots at people who aren't working on what you've arbitrarily decided is the base level of importance?

(And lest you ask: My motivation for this comment is to increase understanding - hopefully I can change your mind)


>>It's naive because the vast majority of small companies crash and burn, with no impact whatsoever.

Let me tell you a lot of people prefer to be the participant and fail disastrously than being audience all their lives and clapping/cheering for others.

If you take a moonshot aim and fail, you are going to end up far higher than the anybody else who is doing the normal routine.


But you are talking about <1% of the companies making that claim.


I recently read an MIT career guide that said you should work 60 hours a week always, but 40 hours for your employer, 20 hours for your "career."


Sense of purpose is a real sources of satisfaction and happiness. If you work on something that you believe will impact the world, you will be happier, regardless of the actual odds.


By now everyone knows that expected payoff of working at a start-up is the same or lower than a big company, but with much higher variability.

If that were true, places like Silicon Valley would be smaller, I think.

The thing is though, no matter where you work, as a professional you'll spend 50+ hours a week working.

Nonsense. I've been doing this stuff for decades and in my entire career I have never worked for anyone who expected or received 50+ hours per week routinely. If this is your norm, you need better employers/clients.

Particularly in creative fields like the software or Web work we usually discuss around here, I would even say that most people can't sustain 50+ productive hours per week for an extended period.

You could work at a large soul destroying company that MUST pay you more because you have to put up with their BS, or you could work at a small company where you can look the founder in the eye and tell him or her to change something you don't like

You imply a false dichotomy. There is a vast range of employers and many other ways of working that do not involve either working in a dead end job for a faceless corporate giant or working in a small start-up.

I have nothing against start-ups. I have started my own companies, which I run to this day, and the majority of my earlier career as an employee was working for smaller businesses. But I do think articles like this are useful from time to time, because a lot of relatively inexperienced people do get taken in by the start-up culture and, in some cases, I would even say abused by it. If the start-ups are as attractive as their advocates would have the newbies believe -- and again, I'm not saying they don't have some big plus points -- then it won't do any harm to offer a more realistic look at the rest of the picture, will it?


Agree with all points - and to add, part of the problem with all this is that developer pay has incredibly high variance and in general knowledge of salaries is poor.

It's not that many people choose lower-paying startups for the enjoyment, satisfaction, etc, while fully aware of how much more BigCo pays - many simply aren't aware of how much more BigCo pays. Many are not even well informed on how much startups pay.

Many are also not aware of the proper math around their startup equity, which results in a large overestimation of its value even in the case of success - I'd say it's not uncommon to see startup employees overestimate the value of their equity by ~10x. Most haven't seen the cap table at all, which means they don't have the ability to estimate the value of their equity at all.

I've seen this in real life where people - not new grads either, experienced industry folk - express shock at the sizes of offers Google, Facebook, et al are throwing around.

We've seen this here, where revelation about how much many engineers make routinely elicit shock - and even hostility - and this is a demographic that particularly cares.


> I would even say that most people can't sustain 50+ productive hours per week for an extended period.

I'm not sure, I've noticed that people can sustain it for indefinite periods. What happens is pretty massive drop in quality of work output, massive (negative) lifestyle changes, health problems, social isolation, depression / general dissatisfaction with life.

I find it really interesting just how often these changes go either completely unnoticed or are noticed but not connected to the cause. It seems to be a particularly harmful emergent property of some combination of some types of human irrationality.


The thing about larger companies, some parts could be soul crushing and others can be quite amazing.

I've experienced such at the two larger companies I've worked at.


Sometimes even in the same company. After the NY Times story on Amazon, a lot of Amazonians here posted that they had both really good experiences and really terrible ones.


> no matter where you work, as a professional you'll spend 50+ hours a week working

This is false. There are plenty of companies that respect the 40 hour work week (and many where you can get away with less).


Wake up, get ready, commute both ways, lunch, happy hours, etc. 50 hours is on the low side.


If you include thinking about work, then even work-from-home people could reach the 50+ figure relatively easily since you include weekends and trying to get to sleep. But then you might easily get into low numbers of hours per week, 15-30, if you subtract things like spending some large % of your time doing non-productive non-work (happy hours, lunches not at your desk, watercooler talk, browsing HN) even though you're at work.

Work time should generally only be the time between clock-in and clock-out. For professionals that are freed from clock-in-clock-out, I think they would still clump around that 40 hour figure if you made them clock-in-clock-out for the data rather than for the pay.


I manage a software team at a Fortune 20 company, and my developers have a ton of freedom. They can work from home any day they please, and I'm honestly surprised when I tell them, "You don't have any meetings for the rest of the day, go home." By no means am I an exceptional manager, but that statement is taken as suspect by most of my staff. Good software can't be coerced.

They also own houses instead of renting flats in SF with roommates.


I work 9-5 M-F, live 5 minutes away, and love my job. Keep looking, they are out there.


Sure, if you include all that I've been working 50+ hours a week for virtually my entire career. I don't generally count all that other stuff as "working", though, because I have some control over how much or little of that I have to deal with.


Are you seriously considering waking up and putting on pants to be working?


Job requires pants, it should be included, but you're obviously not paid for it.


Those jobs are few, not plenty. They also tend not to be tech companies unless they are bodyshop/ad-agencies in which case you'll find 60 hour work weeks.


Also, it's unclear that big companies would be willing to hire 100% of the people who want to work in tech. For some, working at a startup might be the best way to learn and improve. Google might not blindly extend 100k+ more offers, above market rate, just to cover everyone who wants to be a programmer. So for the (likely majority of) people who can't realistically get into Google, a startup might be one of the best ways to learn and make money.


> The fact that start-up payoff is even remotely equivalent to big company salaries tells me start-ups are a great choice if you value things like your happiness, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, impact on the world, etc.

I can tell the CTO I'd like something to change and one of these things happens:

1) I'll get a pay raise and/or more PTO.

2) What I'm not happy about will change.

> The thing is though, no matter where you work, as a professional you'll spend 50+ hours a week working.

I work 40 hours a week. I get paid more than a startup would pay me.

> You could work at a large soul destroying company that MUST pay you more because you have to put up with their BS, or you could work at a small company where you can look the founder in the eye and tell him or her to change something you don't like.

That is true of small-to-medium sized businesses with a reasonable C-Suite. This has nothing to do with startups and pretending it does perpetuates the myth that startups are different in ways they are completely identical to other businesses.

> The fact that start-up payoff is even remotely equivalent to big company salaries tells me start-ups are a great choice if you value things like your happiness, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, impact on the world, etc.

I've designed and built systems that I'm as happy with as I would be at literally any other business.

Really all of you've done is generalized a "bad employer" into "all large companies". This simply isn't true.


I hope you understand how lucky you've been. Would you say majority of devs have it like you? Because I've experienced the working hour issue. And that's not even at a startup.


> I hope you understand how lucky you've been.

Tbh, I maintain a several-million-dollar-a-year project with essentially no IT resources besides myself and my requests are reasonable.

At this point, three developers [including someone my boss really, really was hoping would replace me on this] have failed to handle this project effectively.

So it isn't just luck.

> Would you say majority of devs have it like you?

The Devs I know personally do but they are largely my coworkers or my coworkers at previous employers.

> Because I've experienced the working hour issue. And that's not even at a startup.

Yeah, its probably because I've been largely self-managing with hard deadlines really only when we have contractual changes.


Thanks for answering, appreciate it.


Maybe you are right and all luck. :) Idk.

Best of luck to you.


"By now everyone knows that expected payoff of working at a start-up is the same or lower than a big company, but with much higher variability. Everyone knows this."

I actually happen to agree with the statement but 1) I think the author doesn't understand the mathematical meaning of his statement (or he would have put an AND not a BUT) and 2) It is definitely not possibly true that "Everyone knows this"

In pure probability / economics terms, if I have three payoffs:

a) 50% probability of +1, 50% probability of -1; expected value = 0

b) 50% probability of +5, 50% probability of -5; expected value = 0

c) 25% probability of +5, 75% probability of -5; expected value = -2.5

a) and b) have the same expected value, so:

-- I am "risk neutral" if I am indifferent between the a & b

-- I am "risk averse" if I prefer a) over b (lower variance)

-- I am "risk loving" if I prefer b) over a (higher variance - a gambler)

In financial terms, any investor would absolutely prefer a) over b) [the lower variance bet]. c) is obviously worse than both b/c it has a lower expected value (and it's "doubly" worse than a) b/c it has a higher variance AND a lower expected value).

If now, the argument is that startups have both a lower expected value AND a higher variability than established companies (i.e. they are like bet c)), then, if everyone knew this, the startup community would not exist not least because investors wouldn't be willing to fund it, but also b/c no one should be willing to work there.

What are the caveats?

1) People's behavior isn't always rationale (people pick c) over a) --> for example, the lottery

2) There is a fair amount of evidence that most VC's don't make any real return at all (That putting your money in stocks is on average a way better investment.) Hence, perhaps it is true that startups are like bet c).

3) That the payoff of a VC is different (and better) than that of an employee who suffers from asymmetric information (VC's get access to the "best" companies to invest in whereas workers may not), lack of diversification, being screwed on equity structure, etc. So, it is possible that for a VC, there is expected value equal to that of comparable investors, but that for an employee, on average it is worse in all ways (lower expected value AND higher variability) to work at a startup as an employee than for a larger company.


y now everyone knows that expected payoff of working at a start-up is the same or lower than a big company, but with much higher variability. Everyone knows this.

Not everyone or the VC business model would have imploded.


Actually it wouldn't. Most professions with high variability pay lower average wages than more stable alternative industries, this is a basic, well documented principle of hits businesses like the VC industry, upstream oil & gas, movies, and even drug gangs.


You sure about that? My experience working as a government employee (i.e. about as low-variability as it gets), with corresponding low pay, and as a corporate contractor (high-variability in the sense that you may not be needed tomorrow), for higher pay, argues otherwise.

Heck: drug gangs.


It has certainly become a well-worn meme on HN, so much that it's probably past its best-before date. Once things get repeated too often, the discussions around them stop being vibrant.


It needs to keep on being repeated until 20-somethings aren't getting chewed up and spat out by the startup machine anymore.


It sounds like you might have had some bad experiences. If so, I'm sorry that happened.

From a discussion-quality point of view, though, your comment seems an example of what I'm talking about. Hype inevitably leads to cynicism, but neither gives a balanced view and neither is good for curiosity.


Fair enough! :-)


You could work at a large soul destroying company Yes, you could.

You could also work at a medium-sized soul destroying company with a totally dysfunctional culture. Or you could work for a 5 person start up with a founder who was only able to function if he had multiple grams of cocaine in his system. Or an up-and-coming, making the transition from startup company who used to have a dysfunctional culture but who fired the perpetrators and who is focused on strategic hiring during a period of heavy growth. Or you could work for a US-based branch of a global company where things were pretty good except for that one co-worker who'd been there 15 years who threatened violence every day and suicide at least once a week and who worked at a snail's pace, yet who was still there the day you got fired because the new boss was younger and saw your college degree as a threat to his position. Or you could work at a 3000+ software company on a product that was used by almost the entirety of the Fortune 2000 and have the direct ear of the CIO even though you're 4 levels below him (as a result of the company culture, not because you're special) and have direct influence on the company direction because of it.

Point being, "startup" != happiness or quality of life, no more than "established company" = stability or a big paycheck. Again and again, it all boils down to company culture, and that's entirely independent of company size, and often it will vary greatly from group to group within the same company.


Company culture is not independent of company size. Bureaucracy grows inexorably with size, probably super-linearly. Smaller organizations and teams are under fewer constraints.

That doesn't guarantee that a small team or company will have a fine culture, but the option is so much more available that the odds are higher.


It's not all about money. Smaller companies, while yes, are gambles they often are a more enjoyable place to work. You get a larger sense of ownership of your area, have more responsibility than a large company generally gives you, and you have more potential for positive influence.

These all lead to a higher satisfaction in life than just what the $benjamin's$ can give you. If you're fresh out of school, you get more experience in a year than that crappy little project you'll be given at a large company and be chained to for four years.

Startups are a financial risk, but if it has a good culture, it can be a very rewarding place to work, which often leads to greater happiness.

Negatives exist: sometimes longer working hours, more demanding, less mentors/senior people to learn from, and when the culture is bad; it is really bad.


If you're fresh out of school, you get more experience in a year than that crappy little project you'll be given at a large company and be chained to for four years.

I had the opportunity to work at several start-ups (on the east coast) during the first DotCom bubble in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was generally a good experience for several reasons. First, I didn't have a software background/degree, so it gave me a chance to cut my teeth and the learn from good mentors (perhaps I was lucky in this regard...my first employer was started by two late 30-somethings). Second, given what I was doing right out of school (running a small climbing gym), the pay, while still under market rates, was a fortune compared to what I was making.

Nearly 15 years later, I have no interest in taking another job at a start-up. I work for a fairly stable company, doing interesting work, with lots of flexibility around when and where I do that work. I do, however, appreciate the experiences I had when I was willing to take that risk.


That's quite a typical retirement/investment strategy: when you are young, you can take high risks that might pay-off in the long run and if they don't you still have time to rebuild. When you approach retirement, you should move your money into low risk investments because you will need them soon. I's the same when investing time in your career development.


I haven't gotten piles of these offers that are "double" what I'm making at a startup. I don't think working for a startup automatically qualifies me for a 2x salary at Google. Over my career I've gone to progressively smaller companies and made progressively more money.

Let's be honest, there aren't that many big companies that are known to be great places to work generally (like Google). And if you don't do well at your interviews with the small number of "cool" big companies... It's not such a straightforward tradeoff.

And by the way - my last startup before my current one was one of those "really bad" situations. It was a startup trying to run itself like a big company - more executives than devs.


Smaller companies also have better hiring. I look at the apps from some of the larger corporations in Sweden. It's like the digital version of faecal matter.

They pay 2x complete with benefits and insane pension, yet they seem to produce the worst shit they can get away with mostly because they have some sort of a monopoly or access.

The people in charge of both tech and hiring are not Engineers, thus only paper good will make it in. Some might be whiteboard good I guess if they do that.

Been reviewing apps from large Swedish corporations and quite frankly it's sad. I'm forced to use some of them like banking and phone.

Telia has an iOS app that is essentially a broken website in a WebView. They pay a ton of money for that either by consultants or in house.


Or you can just find companies that have good culture, if that's what you're looking for.

That's ultimately the most important thing in my eyes: workplace culture. Do they respect my time? Both my at-work time and my off-work time?

If so, that's 80%ish of the culture that I need.


True, but it's hard to find that in large companies, based on my experience. Too much middle management can create lots of pictures political maneuvering and backstabbing.

My guess is that politics increase as performance of the company goes down. When things are good it's great, when things are bad the knives come out.


I don't see why the conversation is always work at large company vs. working at a startup. There's a third option: start a "lifestyle" business that can eventually be semi-passive. I am currently making about $400k / year working about 5 hours / week from a few different "lifestyle" businesses which I've built slowly over the past 5 years.

There's no question that joining a startup as an employee is a terrible idea for any competent engineer. By far the best way to make money in startups is to be a founder. In every business I've started, I've always had big exit dreams, but when those fail to materialize, my startups have soft landed into passive "lifestyle" businesses of which I collect 90% of the profit. Mere employees are forced to quit in this situation and are left with nothing - this is why being a founder is so important. Also, never take VC money without a very good reason to do so.


May I ask what kind of businesses you have? I have tried this several times but never got to a point where the money really worked out. I always seem to pick the wrong niches. Or probably my selling sucks.


You definitely asked the big question ... but don't expect an answer, a lot of the time this is highly valuable information. Often this information is the single largest company asset.


I am not asking about specific details. I am just curious in what areas a small company/single person can make money on that scale.


My dad used to run a few similar passive income businesses. The thing you are asking is exactly the valuable information that isn't going to be publicly shared. At least in my dad's case, the execution of the business plan was trivial, the only difficult part was the marked research to know what product areas were valuable.


I'm not sure about your businesses, but that sounds super great. (Though even 30 hours a week and a quarter of that is super great if you're happy).

But I don't think joining a startup as an employee is terrible - perhaps it's even better - you get to watch some of the wheels in the machine, without being, well, between the cogs :) There are advantages and disadvantages - if the company is young and it acts like it, it can be chaos - but you probably don't have the bureaucracy and maybe it doesn't act like it. I've seen 400 person companies that acted more like 10 person startups and 30 person startups that acted like 400 person companies. It all varies.

Join the company who's people, product, and culture make you the most happy, IMHO. The startup isn't a terrible idea as an employee, as long as you aren't doing it for the profit. And you could still do ok, but ... that's not reason to do it.

I love the idea of a bootstrapped business, and it's a shame in certain circles that's looked down upon. Getting to a place where you can build the right thing and only grow when you want to grow, and care about employees (if applicable) first and foremost is super fantastic.

If you can do this, every time, do this. The VC equation is entirely a profit model and the focus on growth causes all kinds of tradeoffs.


Any recommended reading for doing this sort of thing? This is my goal long term, I just haven't discovered what to do it with yet.


Pick a business domain that needs software. Write software it needs. Sell it.

There, I just saved you hours of reading :-)


Haha, yea I know that. I guess finding the domain is the tough part >:|


Airline Rebooking - this takes them forever Any recurring visit business (Barbers, Nails, Dentist, Optometrists, Dispensaries, Restaurants, ...) customer engagement/tracking/service software Any Job estimating business (painting, construction, masonry, welding ...) Any billable hour business (freelancing, legal, babysitting, ...)

Consider walking down {Main|King} Street of your town, walking into each shop, and asking them about software they use and what they like and don't like about it. Attend a meeting of the Rotary or Chamber of Commerce and ask them.

The trick is that customer only sees problems and you only see solutions, so no customer will come to you proposing a solution to their problem, and you won't be successful guessing what problems the customer has. You have to go out and see for yourself and try to understand their pain points.


My experience is a little different... customers are great and seeing problems and solutions, but I only pay attention to the problems.

Their solutions typically apply only to their 5% use-case and would be disastrous if implemented.


This is great advice, thank you!


Helps to know a lot of people who aren't developers, and get them to complain about work.



Woah, this is great. Thanks!


Any advice on how you did this?


The recipe is very easy actually. Pick a business you think you'd be competitive in, and apply for a low level position at one of your competitors. Customer support, mail room, whatever you can get. If you went to a top university or have an impressive resume, leave that info out of your application, it will only raise red flags. Getting the position will more often than not give you unfettered access to all the competitor's proprietary info including revenue, margins, sourcing, expenses, as well as identify areas where you could improve upon what your competitor is doing or make things more efficient. When you have a good grasp of the business and a roadmap in mind, quit and do it yourself.


I think it's interesting that the culture on HN is such that we can have an article like this on the front page. Sure, the comments are dumping on it, and it's not the most compelling argument in the first place, but the fact that it's upvoted and seriously considered before being refuted is pretty awesome.

I guess I'm seeing it as an interesting case of a culture being open to criticism. How many of you were sincerely hoping, when you clicked on the headline, that the contents of the article would be a really intelligent argument about cult-like behavior in SV? One that said things you hadn't heard before? I was hoping. Why is that?


I've been browsing HN since 2009 and there's always been articles like this. Hell, if you read pg's old essays, he often took a strong pro-bootstrapping, anti-funding tone.

The problem with articles like this is they call startups a "cult" on the grounds that one can get a better financial deal elsewhere. What they ignore is that some people might be entirely rational in valuing the chance to build something groundbreaking, over pure financial concerns. The real criticism of startups would be that this is the big swindle -- that despite advertisements to the contrary, VC-funded startups do not offer the chance to build great products. The VC game inherently undermines attempts to build companies which think long-term, act on principle, and which build awesome products. Some companies manage it, but it takes exception leadership, vision and political savvy from the founders.


"Cult" might be a provocative word choice, but given the shared irrational/false beliefs that partly define the real existing culture being talked about you can't easily dismiss the word choice completely.


I wasn't commenting on the word choice. I was commenting on the focus on the financial drawbacks of startups, when the focus should be on how they stifle good work.


I think it shows that the backlash to the careerist-striver SV startup bubble culture is in full swing. I'm not sure when it first came back after the Dot-com bubble, but it's a good counterweight to being unquestioning towards the 'wisdom' of founders/funders.


> I guess I'm seeing it as an interesting case of a culture being open to criticism

What's the proportion of readers sharing this culture? I assume most readers don't work in SV, and many of them don't even live in the US.


I don't see this article as clickbait. It's been upvoted a lot, so I would say that's evidence also of being an "intelligent argument".


I don't think it's clickbait, just kinda ranty and with no "wow, that's a good point!" moments.


> the average salary for a senior software engineer in the United States is right around $100K not $250k like it is at Google, etc.

Bay Area HNers would be wise to remember this line. The number of times I see comments stating that it's easy or typical to make $175-200k/yr just a few years out of school is far too high.


If you read any of the discussions in r/cscareerquestions you'd think you're a failure for not making $150k straight out of college.


Unless you're doing some very specialized in-demand work I seriously doubt anyone will make 150k/yr at the start.


Holy crap, this sub is hilarious!


The number of people who frequent that sub with more than a year or two of professional experience is frightening. The discussion is so myopic it gives me a headache.


Really? I frequently see the opposite opinion there now.


The obsession with money in this town boggles my mind. My parter makes ~$100k <1 year out of college working for a very big company. He likes what he does, has no commute and practically sets his own hours. He's already feeling antsy about the pay: Is it enough? Could I be making more?

The way I see it, he's already better off than a vast majority of people. Good pay, interesting work, professional validation. Why he's willing to risk it for a job he might hate for more money I can't figure out.


We all complain when NBA players strike over salary concerns.

But it's always relative. If someone who does the same thing as you at a similar competence level, and they make 2-3X what you make, naturally you're going to feel agitated.


>> better off than a vast majority of people

Fallacy of relative privation. If you can be making more, by all means move, and make more. This is healthy process in the industry where it's not uncommon to see 20-30% net margins. This cow has plenty of milk in it.


The cow has plenty of milk, but how everyone gets it isn't equal. I understand the sentiment, I just can't relate. I'd rather enjoy my work for just "adequate" pay than constantly move from place to place. Money is just not important to me.


You seem to perceive it as an either/or proposition. It is possible to have a kickass, satisfying job which also pays really well. Money is important, at least in the US where you're responsible for funding your own retirement.


>It is possible to have a kickass, satisfying job which also pays really well.

And it's possible to leave a kickass, satisfying job that pays well and end up at a job that pays better but isn't as satisfying, or has unforeseen tradeoffs. My point isn't that it's an either/or proposition -- it's that there are other things to consider besides money, and the culture around here doesn't seem to value that. Leaving one job for the next one is a calculated risk. The more times you do it, the more chances you end up in a place that doesn't hit all the sweet spots.


The more times you do it, the _lower_ is the chance that you end up in a crappy job. If the job doesn't meet your needs, move. I'm not saying money is everything and it should be the only thing to optimize for. I'm just saying there's no shame in demanding more money if you can. As a bonus, awesomeness of "individual contributor" type jobs is well correlated with how much you get paid. Companies are typically interested in putting expensive folks on the meatiest problems.


>If the job doesn't meet your needs, move.

Absolutely. But you've changed the premise to fit your argument. Recall:

>He likes what he does, has no commute and practically sets his own hours.

In this case, a move after <1 year at BigCo is optimizing only for money. I'm starting to get the impression that there's something in Silicon Valley's fog that suppresses risk aversion -- or maybe it causes FOMO?


If you ever want to buy a house around here, the difference between 100k and up is still significant, regardless of how it relates to the rest of the country.


In the bay area the average for juniors is only 90k, and most people cap out at 120k or so, unless they have top-tier degrees, incredible negotiating skills, or something.


From my experience, I'd say the cap is around $150k in the bay area or so for standard senior positions regardless of degree. The degree is absolutely irrelevant and in many cases if you have an advanced degree, (Masters, PHD) it can work against you (if you don't actually know how to build things).

For reference, with the cost of living being where it is, I'd say anything < $200k in the bay area is not enough to live on and save comfortably, but that's just my opinion. As far as I know, there aren't any startups offering $200k or above (or even close) for engineering jobs in the bay area.


The guy in the article linked an article, whose author (Dan Luu) seems to think that $250k (total compensation) is pretty much a given for anyone with 5 years of experience working for a big company (i.e. Google or Facebook or Microsoft), and claims that anyone who thinks you can't make that much talk to the tens of thousands of engineers that do. Is it really that common?

When I was interviewing in San Francisco and Seattle at big companies (Zynga and Disney) a couple of years ago, they were wanting to pay me around $130k for a senior position, which didn't seem worth the move.

I also interviewed at Google and while I didn't get as far as salary negotiations, I was lead to believe by the recruiter, I think, that it would start around $110k-ish, although it also wasn't for a senior role.

I don't see how Dan Luu is thinking $200k+ salary is on the low end out there. If I could expect to get that I might actually consider moving to the west coast.


Take a look at Glassdoor. What you're saying is accurate, but where Google, Facebook, etc really take off is in equity compensation.

In my case at Goog, I started off with a small equity grant, vesting over 4 years. So after the first year, I had equity vesting every quarter.

Assuming you do ok/well, you'll get refresher grants every single year after that.

Fast forward 3 or 4 years, and you have 4 separate grants vesting every single quarter.

This quickly adds up to 50+K a year, and that's where these numbers come from, even if they're not reflected in your base pay.


$250k is certainly not a given. I think that includes equity compensation like the other post mentions. My experience is that Google and Microsoft pay around $170-200k to start base compensation for a Sr. Engineer so it's generally a little higher than the $150-160k you'd expect at a regular bay area company or the $130k or so you can reasonably expect in Seattle. The higher end of that I'd expect in the bay area and the lower end in Seattle.


How much worse off would you say a non-top tier grad would be in the Bay, if at all?


"Only" 90k.


"Only" counts for something when you have to pay half of it to live in a reasonable location. That 90k in SF is around 50k in Hampton-Roads VA. That 90k in Oakland is around 60k.


Do people not commute from Oakland? Is the BART ride too long? Or are rents in Oakland just as high? I've only visited the Bay Area a few times, so please feel free to correct me on this one.


Oakland is almost just as bad.

I managed to make do with 50K a year, but I lived in San Jose and didn't have the expenses of car ownership.

Living in SJ required a 20 minute walk to CalTrain and then a 45 minute ride to the city by CalTrain (if I caught the express) and then another 15 minute walk to work.


BART from Oakland only goes along Market, which is only walking distance from about half of SOMA (where most of the tech people work). That whole area can be pretty rough, especially after dark. Personally I'd rather walk to 4th & King and commute via Caltrain, but the peninsula is more expensive and Caltrain only has one stop in downtown SF vs 4 for BART (Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center).


1. More and more people are commuting from there.

2. To some, yes, because BART is getting crowded so many end up standing in a wall to wall claustrophobic space.

3. They are climbing higher, especially since Uber is moving to there, and they're only the vanguard. It's also been discussed as a cheaper alternative to SF for at least two or three years now.


What the hell does "reasonable location" even mean?


It means you aren't spending 4 hours a day commuting. The comments all around you describe the situation in SF and the surrounding area.


Are there no places available in the lower end range with 1 hour commutes? I know there is a shortage of low priced apartments, but they have to exist.


Don't worry, 75% will go to the cost of the privilege of living in the bay area.


90k is essentially broke in SF.


You're insane


The median 2 bedroom apartment in SF is currently about $4600/month. This means that even with a roommate to split the bills with, at a salary of $90k you're looking at spending nearly 50% of your take home just on rent. Add in utilities, food, transportation, etc and $90k pretty rapidly stops looking so great.


You could easily live in a 3-bedroom and pay $1700 a month in rent. You'll only have $3000 a month to pay for food and transportation - oh my god, the privation, how is anyone supposed to make it?


"in SF" in a pretty important qualifier. On top of a 28% federal tax rate you're paying 12% state income tax. San Francisco has a 1.5% income tax as well. So on $90k/yr you're down to about $4500 a month take home but that's excluding any payroll taxes outside of income. Several hundred dollars there. You're already in "spend half my check on rent" territory.

Even though 90k is ~3x the average personal income for the US, when you're living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, you can absolutely be broke on that.


SF does not have an income tax. It does have a 1.5% payroll tax that is paid by employers, but that is already factored into your your gross pay (IOW, if a company offers you 90k the pay the $1,350 in taxes and you never deal with it).

You can argue it effectively pushes down the size of the offers people get, but you don't have to worry about it when you calculate your net take home.


My cursory google search was a little too cursory, then :)


28% marginal tax rate. Maybe 19% effective. State tax is 10%, not 12%.


You are right, (marginal) state tax on $90k is "only" 9.3% and that's on about 40% of the income.

My point was that on $90k in SF proper, if you want a "nice" place, even a 1BR or studio you're going to be spending a huge percentage of your income on rent and basic necessities.


Absolutely. Just bought a house on the Peninsula a year ago. I feel ya.


In SF, a nice two bedroom apartment runs about $6k/mo. It is insane, not GP.


I agree. Like even in the Minneapolis area, the salary is probably more like 70-80k/yr for a senior developer unless you're with a much larger company and you have some specialized skills on top of project management experience then the number I can see sorta push above 80k/yr. But honestly, I've never seen it such figures beyond that for senior developer positions around here.

By then, most people I assume have to much into a management track to see larger numbers (more responsibilities and the like with come with it).



Thanks for the correction.


That's seems way low. Even for the Midwest. I assume you're looking at companies with comp packages and that figure is simply the salary, not the entire comp (which is generally above $100k)


That's got to be the low end. Even in the midlands of SC (not exactly a high-value area) you can expect to earn that much as an intermediate developer at relatively small companies.


> For the privilege of being a member of the cult, you get to take half of your market rate in salary in exchange for equity that will most likely be worthless.

I realized this article was rather silly after reading this sentence.

Yes, if you're working for a super early stage startup, you'll take little or no salary, and bundles of equity. No one goes into a role like that without knowing exactly what they're risking.

In general, though, working for a well-funded startup is not taking "half of your market rate." Even if you're taking half of senior-level Bay Area rates, you're still earning 1.5-2x the rate of developers in the rest of the world.

If you want to avoid the "Silicon Valley cult," don't worry about startups -- worry about thinking that every software developer is worth $250k. They (generally) aren't.

Quick note before I close out this comment: I'm not trying to be pessimistic or cynical, but overvaluation of tech workers isn't something that will continue to exist in the short- to medium-term, in my opinion. I want to get paid well as much as the next guy, but if we're going to talk about a "bubble," tech salaries in the Bay Area are a big part of it.


Yeah, the article is silly. He's dumping on moving to the Bay Area for a tech job, where everyone I know who has done so (including myself) is thriving. And not working 100 hours a week.


I don't believe anyone thinks every dev is worth $250k. But the problem is that the local cost of living seems to think so.


I have found one advantage of startups as an employee if you want to start your own company down the road is that you get to see easy-to-make management mistake and their repercussions. In a big company, there are systems and structures in place that help prevent some (obviously not all) of those problems, and there is more buffer (financial and otherwise) to smooth out the effects.

Personally, I've found working at a startup deeply rewarding and educational, but of course ymmv :)


I just shake my head when I read this article. Taking half your market rate in salary and then complaining about it is a ridiculous example. Equity is never a sure thing and everyone know that. If you take equity in lieu of pay you do so at your own peril.

I joined a start up because I didn't have the traditional experience needed to get hired at a big company. I was given a ton of responsibility and able to learn a lot in a short time. Yes, you still only have X number of years on your resume, but you can talk to people and show them the work you did, which is a lot more important than your resume IMO.


It's always good to question orthodoxy so I support the general idea behind this post, but the word "cult" actually means something specific. You can search for "characteristics of a cult" and get lots of interesting lists, but here are a few that I think are interesting with regards to startups:

1) A leader with a monopoly on "truth". This varies in startups, and certainly there's usually a guy who is the "decider". However it's not usually taken for granted that he's always right just that he's entitled to make the call.

2) Separating members from non-members. Cults often encourage and sometimes force separation, even from family and close friends. I have yet to see this in a startup, a mother who is no longer allowed to make contact with her child because a startup prohibited it.

3) Sexual/financial/life/etc exploitation. This one arguably does happen in startups, to varying degrees. This seems like the central critique of OP. That said, the same happens in regular companies too (migrant farm workers, emotional abuse, exploiting information asymmetries/etc) and I'm not sure the distribution is all that different.

4) Preventing people from leaving, through debt, threats, or conditioning. This actually sometimes happen in startups through offering credit.... They owe you back pay and you want to stay at the top of the payroll. But this is nothing like what Scientology does, maintaining a blackmail file on members.

5) General use of mind control. Progaganda, conditioning, etc. Generally creating an environment where human brains sort of gravitate towards the mainline. This happens everywhere, to differing degrees. I think if you watch the Heaven's Gate exit videos you see the extreme of this. This is a fire we all play with. Probably some startups overdo it.


My guess is the 'trap' is the passion and intensity of working with a small team of dedicated and smart people. The author certainly makes many good points, with which I agree. However the intensity of a startup is not found in just any environment, thus it's appeal ...


"We had a rockstar team with backgrounds from top tier companies and engineering schools, but no aqui-hire materialized out of thin air like I thought it might. We built kick-ass technology, but nobody was interested."

If nobody was interested, your tech was shit. As simple as that. You have a self delusion.

You maybe do some interesting things, but if people do not demand it, it means you live in a different world from people. You just have not done the connection.

That is the usefulness of marketing, not as selling whatever you have, but designing and doing what people need.

When I created my company I was lucky enough to get a virtue loop and getting it soon.

Now as angel investor one of the patterns I see most on young founders is being fascinated with new tech but missing the connection with people's needs completely.


I think what people keep forgetting here is that you are comparing all start-ups to the Googles and Facebooks of the world. There are MANY promising start ups up there, it really depends on what your definition of a start up is. Number of employees? Publicly traded? Years since it was founded? Sure, working at Google/Facebook is probably better than working at Evernote. But is it better than working at Snapchat or Lyft?


Snapchat and Lyft are both $billion unicorns, not startups.


Off topic, but I propose we stop calling "unicorn" startups unicorns and instead call them zebras (based on the phrase "if you hear hooves, think horse, not zebra").

Unicorns are called unicorns based on the presumption that they don't actually exist. "Unicorn" startups exist and there are enough of them that calling them something imaginary is evidently wrong.

It would also make them sound less appealing (they're not magical and when it rains you may come to realize it was just a donkey with stripes painted on it all along). Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.


A small company is not automatically a startup.


After one startup I said I'd never do that again. I realized it was like playing the lottery. You might win big, but most likely it leaves you poor. I'm now at a small company that pays very well, is stable, grows slowly and is a great place to work. I've always switched jobs every 2-3 years and for the first time I can see myself happily working for this small company for quite a while.




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