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I want to get into startups, but I don’t know where to start (42floors.com)
96 points by jaf12duke on March 5, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 79 comments

It’s no surprise that Alex mistakenly chose a big company over a startup straight out of school even though he was already interested in startups.

That was not necessarily a mistake. As a fresh college grad (and particularly as an engineer) I'd argue that you are ill-equipped to judge a good startup opportunity from a bad one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending time at a large company, benefitting from their experience in graduate intake, learning a lot of good, sensible practises, then applying them to a startup.

I've also recently become deeply skeptical of working for a startup as anything other than a founder or a very early employee. You don't benefit monetarily (low pay, bad stock options) and the work environment is frequently toxic and incredibly demanding. The only difference is you'll be making your bosses rich instead of making stockholders rich.

Agreed, was just about to say this. I worked at a startup straight out of school, but that was because it was a spinoff of a research project I was already working on.

However, I'm at a more established firm now, and the fact that I can spend time building systems properly and work on self-development is invaluable. I think working for a big company, even a giant bureaucracy, out of school, is not a bad thing at all, provided you can spend a few hours independently working on side projects.

To your comment about working at a big company not being a mistake (I agree), I think the art of learning through 'apprenticeship' is getting lost in the whole 'hacker' hullabaloo.

My first job out of college was at a large company and I worked with some old timers who had been in the industry for years and on code that, at least parts of it, had been written almost 20 years ago. Learning from my colleague's experiences and through the code was incredible and I am certainly better for it. These sort of experiences can rarely be had working at a startup.

Open source needs more of this. I've seen FreeBSD's model but I think there's room to maturely optimize.

I started my career at SAP. Although I feel like I'm behind the "startup curve" because I spent 4 years there, the lessons I learned about managing teams and understanding complexities in a large company are absolutely priceless. I don't believe it was a mistake whatsoever. You and I are probably being too pedantic, but I agree, it was a poor choice of words.

Lately, I've noticed a meme from investors about discerning founders who can start companies and those that can grow beyond 250+ employees. The generally consensus is that there are very few entrepreneurs (Zuck for example being one of them) who possess the capability to scale. I'm not talking about scaling servers, I'm talking about scaling organizations as quickly as their revenues grow. Looking at it through the lens of an external person, this may seem trivial at first, but having been in the professional world for 8+ years now, there are some key challenges all companies hit when they hit certain growth (for example, hitting 50 and 250 employee milestones). Working for a big company can (notice I didn't say will) prepare you for that.

By and large, I suspect the only Internet companies that would ever need to exceed Dunbar's number[1] are those that have to implement advertising and sales functions. What is the largest subscription-based or one-time-purchase site?

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

> have to implement sales functions

So, pretty much any business? There are so few companies out there, especially venture backed ones, that the employee headcount hasn't scaled with the growth. We just hear of the Instagram/WhatsApp acquisitions with low head count so often here in the echo chamber that we assume it's norm. To take that further, how many companies are at FB/SalesForce/WorkDay/Twitter-level that don't have over 500 employees (much less 1,000s)? I can only think of very few - 37signals, Valve, etc?

My larger point - VCs in SV want to fund billion dollar businesses and founders who can create billion dollar businesses. These billion dollar businesses need large amounts of headcount and a CEO who can take them there.

Don't you.. just hire experienced folks in for specific roles to help scale? Mark hired Sheryl Sandberg. Perhaps the best skill is knowing how to delegate.

Completely agree here. I had the option to join a startup or go with an established web company this past year when I graduated and I chose the more established company. The reason I did this was because I wanted to learn what was tools and technologies were being used and how they were being implemented by established web companies today and build upon that knowledge. Obviously the larger company has done something right in order to get to where they are. Plus, there is a level of stability. Bigger companies also tend to be able to help international students better and provide a little more financial security to someone who may have college loans. I have learned so much this past year at my job and will carry that knowledge when I do start or join a startup.

I also feel the same in regards to working for a startup when you're not a founder or a very early employee. It is completely true you likely will be making your bosses rich and not as much yourself, unless you're like an absolute rockstar their equity is still going to be at least 20-50x more than you (this is just a rough guess). If you think you can do it on your own, might as well.

There are huge differences between great startups and mediocre startups. This is just the same as at large companies.

With regard to this comment: there is nothing wrong with "spending time at a large company, benefitting from their experience in graduate intake, learning a lot of good, sensible practises, then applying them to a startup."

That is true. But there is also nothing wrong spending time at a small startup, learning good sensible practices, learning from smart people, learning from making mistakes, THEN applying these skills at large companies.

People often say "You'll learn a ton at amazon, then you can work anywhere." That is true, but you can also learn a lot if you work for a great startup.

The idea that you learn more at big companies is planted in students brains at these career fairs. And when GS and BofA come to campus to recruit. The idea spreads because startups don't come to campus and preach the reverse.

There's huge variability among startups.

There are small startups; no one knows whether these will succeed, even if they're YC startups.

There are big(ger) startups that are clearly on the way up. Pinterest. Dropbox. Airbnb. Uber. Snapchat.

Then there are medium sized but fast growing startups. Quora. Stripe. etc.

The latter two categories are obvious choices.

That's motivation to find a business model that can support a healthy work environment from day 0 and mentor folks coming up.


This is going to be rough, but here are some scattered thoughts in a Q/A format:

I want to get into a startup, where do I start?

Find a problem and sell a solution. Not rocket science.

But I can't find a problem!

Try getting outside of the hedges of your university and talking with normal people, business owners, and civil servants. I will give you a hundred bucks if you can't find anyone with something to bitch about.

But I don't have a solution. How can I build a solution without being technical/having money/knowing a programmer?

Where did I say anything about building solutions? Customers don't care about tech, they care about results. Find something somebody else has already done, maybe several somethings, and string them together, and sell them. Charge arbitrage--think of it as a laziness tax for the customer.

I'm a programmer, and I have this neat idea to solve a problem I have.

That's not a question, and besides, nobody gives a shit anyways.

Well, what I mean is, how can I turn this into a business?

You probably can't. You probably don't have the business/people skills yet--find somebody that does, and try to sell them on the idea. If that doesn't work, find somebody else. Once you've got one, get them to do the sales stuff.

But my solution to this problem is awesome/elegant/clear/in Ruby!

Again, nobody gives a shit. Go Tell HN or /r/peoplewhogiveafuck.


It's not some magical process making a startup/breaking into the ecosystem: find people who know more than you, and ask them questions--or even better, try to find a problem people will pay you to solve.

Being a successful startup, now, that's a whole 'nother problem entirely.

Elaborating with some direct personal experience:

If you find a customer, and find a solution, and make a tentative sale, don't go wander off and do something else. An otherwise bright young lady I worked with last year has all three things: problem, solution, and customers. She's going off this summer to intern at Deloitte instead of building her business, because she "wants to learn more about business".

You know what else teaches you about business? Running a fucking business.

Presented with this fact, she said she wanted to learn more about the "strategic side of things...mergers, acquisitions, aquihires, etc.". Those are all issues that are pretty far off if you're just starting out as a business, and you won't likely worry about them until you are big enough to care. And if you're expecting to worry about them at another company, you are going to be hired in as a junior employee anyways so you won't even have anything useful to say on the topic.

The tech guy on that team is trying to find tech jobs at other startups--again, despite having a problem, a solution, and customers.

It's baffling.

How many customers, how quickly was she growing? If you can't turn 10 customers into 1,000, then 100,000 quickly, you're wasting your precious time and are probably better off at Deloitte.

I've sold apps and had customers, but not at the scale that would let me quit my day job.

Great advice, thanks.

Also I just want to point out that /r/peoplewhogiveafuck is a real subreddit but it is empty. Which is telling, I guess.

I think your post is mostly on point but I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of picking the right problem. Is the pain point big enough that someone will pay for a better alternative? Is the addressable market size large enough? How you can reach these people? I think these three questions are very important.

Great advice. i'd like to add that sometimes it's not just finding problems, but developing solutions.. but also finding out what makes them look good to their boss.

I've been working on startups more or less for most of my 20s (both as a founder and an employee at a venture-backed startup), I've learned a great deal from it, lost a lot from it and endured a lot of hardship, but I think the journey also transformed me and cut me out of wood (http://max.levch.in/post/36289276742/strengthen-your-startup...). So no regrets, I'm really excited about the future and I'm thinking long-term.

I disagree with this post though, if I had to start all over again out of college... my recommendation would be to start a profitable, bootstrapped business. Build that up to 7-figures and be financially independent. You'll earn your first stripes way earlier than most, at much lower risk, and once you attain that black belt, then you'll be ready to consider swinging for the fences with a startup. And people around you will want to bet on you too with your track record.

I'm 28yrs old now and that's my gameplan for the next few years. I'm tired of being poor.

Worth reading: http://www.gabrielweinberg.com/blog/2010/06/paths-to-5m-for-...

Hmm, start a profitable bootstrapped business with 7 figures of revenue right out of college? And it's much lower risk. Why didn't I think of that?

Because you're too busy reading TechCrunch...

I'll throw my hat in the ring. I started an eCommerce enterprise SaaS focused business in high school as a hobby, sold it for $4M at age 21, bought it back for $32k, built it again into a $6M/year revenue (profitable) business, and sold it again in 2012 to Answers.com. All of this was 100% bootstrapped with revenue, no debt, no outside funding. In neither case, round one or round two, did I self-fund it, other than the $32k -- the revenues from the business funded the business, it wasn't me funding anything. Sure, it was a long slog, but worth it.

I really admire that... props to your success and track record, thanks for chiming in. If I was an investor, sounds like you would make a good bet and someone to keep an eye on.

Starting out, the best way to learn entrepreneurship IMO is to just do it and build it organically like you did.

what kind of business specifically was it if you don't mind me asking? Are there still low hanging fruit like that around?

You make it sound like bootstrapping a business to 7 figures is a walk in the park.

Obviously not, but there are plenty of success stories out there on the internet. It's far much more of a walk in the park than making it with a venture-backed startup first time around. If you don't have what it takes to make it with a "lifestyle business", then there's no way you have what it takes to make it as a startup founder.

Also, sorry don't mean to sound cocky. I'm still a failed entrepreneur, just speaking from lessons I've learned from scars of failure. I'm not giving up on the startup game, just thinking long-term about it and my development as an entrepreneur.

I'd add an important lesson that I have learned: it takes money to make money.

A ton (perhaps most) failed businesses fail because they're undercapitalized. Even if your costs are low you can only go so long without eating, and if you're worrying about how your life savings is going to run out in 4 months I guarantee that you won't be as effective at building your business.

Your chances of bootstrapping a successful business are much much higher when you have money.

The best thing you can do is not start up a different kind of company (bootstrap vs. VC) but build up your bank account. In this market there are a lot of opportunities to earn good money, particularly if you're a developer. Save, save, save and in a few years, you should have enough to start a business from a credible, realistic cash position.

"I'd add an important lesson that I have learned: it takes money to make money."

Amen. Although, my approach is to be working full-time making a good salary, but spend my nights/weekends working on my business and investing my savings into it. I'm not going to do it full-time until I start making good $ with it.

I don't know how well the night/weekend ventures actually work out but if you're not willing to wait to start a business, I'd bet on a night/weekend venture over a full-time one where the founder thinks $10,000 in savings is going to take him to break even.

Maybe it's me but it feels like it should take some initiative to find work with a startup. Startups are (usually) more demanding than regular corporate jobs and require a higher degree of self sufficiency and initiative. You can end up at a corporate job and sort of realize over 6 - 12 months it's not for you and the whole experience and moving on is pretty soft. You'll know in about 4 - 6 weeks if the startup live is not for you and it'll be intense and emotional. So better it's not handed to you on a plate lest you make the mistake of signing up without enough critical thinking.

It's a few years old at this point, but this book has a lot of good advice:


Between people like patio11 and Rob Walling, I'm pretty convinced that that sort of business is where it's at for people who don't want to do the whole VC style startup.

Another point that should be brought up is to not overvalue yourself. I remember asking Justin (from JTV/exec/socialcam) in 2011 for some advice - I was working in the corporate world and was ready to make the jump to a startup. At the time I was an IT consultant and was looking for PM roles at Dropbox/Foursquare/insert hot startup here.

He gave some much needed but harsh feedback, essentially asking "Why should they hire you? <hot startup of the month> has their pick of the litter, why would they gamble on someone unproven?" I've never really been told to aim lower, but it made me think -- if you really want to work at a startup, you'll start somewhere and prove yourself. Justin used the example of Aram, who started out as an office manager for JustinTV and ended up founding ZeroCater. I now work in BD and haven't looked back.

Justin ended up writing a guest post for TechCrunch (I'd like to think partially inspired by me) here - http://techcrunch.com/2011/11/28/how-to-get-a-job-at-a-start...

Equally important is to not undervalue yourself. For a skilled engineer, moving from a publicly traded company to an early-stage startup is often a huge step backwards in many respects. If you want to take the plunge, great, but remember that proof of legitimacy goes both ways.

Isn't a reasonable answer to his question along the lines of "I am proven; I worked for X years on these Y projects". I'm not sure why so many startup people seem to think that non-startup experience is worthless. It limits the points of view and types of problem-solving experience you have available in your company if you're only willing to hire people who fit into a limited bucket like that.

Very good point - I should probably add in my story - I ended up not wanting to take an APM or AM role that would pay me 30%+ less and was a perceived gigantic step back in my career, so I was on the verge of taking a director of systems engineering role along the lines of what I was doing at the time but at the last minute a really awesome BD opportunity opened up at a friend's company and I took it.

My main point was just to be realistic about your opportunities

Similar logic when looking for a technical cofounder. Do you have a vision grand enough that you emanate that someone is willing to give up $150k to join you on your dream?

My problem is not finding a suitable role within a startup, it is getting the opportunity to interview. I have been in commercial real estate in NYC for the past three years. While my role is that of a financial analyst, my day-to-day responsibilities encompass brokerage, client relations, analytics, and research. I have applied to many different both early and late stage startups for both sales and business development roles and have had a very difficult time getting an interview. I once called a hiring manager that did not get back to me and asked why it was that I did not get the interview. I was told that my experience was not in tech sales; thus, they didn't think I would be a good fit. Do you have any advice for current members of the work force looking to break into the startup realm?

Honest question: does it make sense for startups to hire inexperienced but smart people? Unlike big businesses, startups have less time to train/develop/mentor talent. They also usually have one focus: shipping product. Because of that, it seems better for startups to hire older, more experienced people who can be productive immediately. Of course there will be exceptions, but I think that on average big firms should hire fresh grads and startups should hire experienced workers. Is my thinking wrong?

Edit: I suppose the main benefit of hiring smart inexperienced people over smart experienced people is that you can hire more of them for the same price. Plus, maybe inexperienced people tend to be young, and young people tend to have more hours to devote to work? Are there other benefits I'm missing?

On the issue of having a presence on campus: if you're not one of the really hot start-ups, putting up a fall recruiting booth at Harvard probably isn't going to sway those kids who have offers at Goldman or McKinsey as an alternative. However, it can be quite valuable to cultivate relationships with professors at local schools a rung or two down. There are brilliant kids at those schools who won't get the time of day from pedigree-conscious Wall Street, and professors are often quite well placed to identify them, based on interactions over a semester. It's a win for them, because they love being able to hook someone up with an inside lead on a good job, and it can be a great way for a start-up to get pre-vetted candidates.

Don't forget the most important skill for any startup employee: learn to pick the right companies to work for. It pains me to say this, but choosing the best company will pay off more than any other skill on that list (of course, you need those listed skills to get that job). Joining WhatsApp at an early stage probably led to a bigger payday than many founders see after successful exits.

Start by working for a startup. Preferrably a doomed and mismanaged Web 2.0 startup on series F. That way you'll be embittered and cynical, and ready to negotiate correctly with your next employer, startup or not. Finally, finish up by writing fluff articles for TechCrunch about Elon Musk's new hairstyle. Congratulations, you are now "into startups."

For me personally it is more like: I want to get into startups, but I don’t want to give up my large paycheck and 40 hour work week.

The article does not address the money issue.

Then you don't want to get into startups. That's not really what this article is about, though.

It's still an important filter though and I think should have been mentioned. For people that think they want to get into startups but are unaware of the realities of the salaries, benefits, bonuses, number of raises etc, becoming aware of that is more important than deciding where you can help.

I think the idea here though is you're straight out of college. Whatever you make is more than you were making last year. Better to give it two hards years now vs even a few years later when you have established a higher cost of living.

Exactly. What you want is "the fun of an energetic culture and the chance to make a ton of money when the startup goes public" but without taking the risk associated with that, which is precisely giving up your stable (high) paycheck and 9-5ish schedule.

*although, thankfully, the schedule-regularity theme is starting to show up more regularly in startup culture, which is a good change.

Change "the fun of an energetic culture and the chance to make a ton of money when the startup goes public" to "the stress and chaos of a childish, incompetent culture and the delusion of making a ton of money when the startup gets bought by Facebook" and you'll be spot on.

"unless it was a large startup and the founder herself had gone to that school."

Small gripe, but "herself"? Better as "and the founder had gone…" Even him/herself is a good option.

"Finally, our sector is on top and these young people want to come and join us."

It's like saying "and these young women…"

Former university English instructor here; the usage you are critiquing is widely regarded as a good tradeoff between deferring to the gendering baked into our language and recognizing the integration of a population.

It's often much easier to write and read pronouns, and it is my opinion (though far from an accepted truth) that alternating him/her when contextually appropriate is less clunky than using the him/herself construction.

As a writing instructor, I personally have no problem with "himself" being used in a broader, non-gendered construction... and for the same reason have no problem with a similar usage of "herself", though as I say, opinions vary.

In English the male pronoun is the generic and has been for centuries. Every time somebody misuses she/her as the generic I'm knocked into a moment of confusion wondering who this sudden specific chick is.

Let's cut the crap; when people write she/her/womankind for the generic it's about PC. It's not standard English.

"In English the male pronoun is the generic and has been for centuries. "

Well, so has treating women like second class humans, but hopefully we can overcome that, too, no? Languages live... yes it is about acknowledging difference, but so what?

"Every time somebody misuses she/her as the generic I'm knocked into a moment of confusion wondering who this sudden specific chick is."

I was at the barber in my tiny Texas town today... you should have heard their comments when "his husband" came over the TV audio... they were shocked, too.

> "In English the male pronoun is the generic"

Indeed.. and that's the problem.

The times, they are a changin!

Sorry, but why is that at all a problem?

There are no fixed rules in language over time.

Funny, I don't see many corrections on here when articles use male pronouns incorrectly.

The key points of the article are "Engineer" and "side projects". The engineers are an important and fun part of startups. Side projects are applications and code you can show people outside your company.

One sugggestion is to look for public developer groups in your area in meetup.com. Type keywords "java" or "mobile" and you get a number of them. Go to those meetings and hear about interesting things people are developing either as part of a company or a hobby. Get involved in an open-source type project, generally on github. Just downloading, building and runnng such software is a significant hurdle. Probe it to see how it works. Maybe thre are a group of people in the project with lots of side projects they dont have time for. Many of these projects are weak on the testing and documentation side. So if you improve those aspectd, that shows understanding of such projects without interferring with core development.

Then when you interview for a small company, you can show people what you have done. Maybe get references from others in the projects.

More likely some of these projects may become a company. The company may support the open source with production strength versions, fill gaps, etc.

Sorry but in practice side projects usually don't mean much at most companies. Companies generally hire by one of 2 things:

1. Track record (i.e. you worked at a big name company and/or shipped product that's public facing/commercial). 2. Interviewing ability.

The former don't care if you built something on the side and the later are going to hire you based on your whiteboarding ability.

Shameless plug. We are trying to solve this. We started off by doing 1-to-1 web development tutoring bringing clients from 0 to backbone apps & beyond.

Recently, we got connected with two top CS students from "mid-tier" schools who were about to join large corporations in technology consulting roles. We were able to place them in some awesome startups in SF. And we were thrilled to have such a huge impact on the trajectory of their careers. We want to continue to do this.

If you're interested in hiring top CS students, teaching web development, or if you're a current CS student please e-mail me. david@techcareerhq.com

>negotiations, there are plenty good books out there.

Such as? As a programmer that can't negotiate a decent salary/consulting rate I would find this useful.

I find most people who can't/don't ask for more money (assuming they're worth it) let their impostor syndrome through and mentally shackle themselves during negotiations.

We all need a little bit of "I'm good and I'm worth it." Some maybe more than others. Negotiations are all a mental game. People will pay anything for what they feel is worth it, it's your job to frame what a service of product is worth.

The best and most valuable class I took in B-School was my last class, which was on negotiations. Nothing earth shattering but bits of wisdom when assembled together can really change your perspective on how to approach things.

The basic problem is that whether due to culture or nature we tend to approach transactions as zero sum games (aka distributive), ie if I get something you must lose something. Negotiation is about thinking in terms of widening the pie, ie creating a win-win for all (integrative). Even in situations where it can appear there is no win-win, there often is.

Want a better rate? determine the value of what you are bringing to your client, then price your service accordingly. If they balk, then you make your case based on your analysis.

The text we used in class is this: http://www.amazon.com/The-Mind-Heart-Negotiator-Edition/dp/0...

I believe it is suitable for pretty much anyone who can read.

Negotiating is like a muscle. You're gonna want to work on it before the moments that really matter. Easiest way might be to start going to flea markets, because those azn grandmas are killers that make Shark Tank look like the kiddie pool.

That'll help the soft skills, but in a hiring situation, the other part is getting to what the other side really wants and what their concerns are. A hiring manager's first thoughts are: "how much babysitting is this person going to take?" and "will s/he mess up team mojo?" Don't be that person, be the net go-giver that makes 'em shine... Less talk, more walk.

> If they bulk, then you make your case based on your analysis.

Minor nitpick: it's balk (or baulk)



Knowing your BATNA is important so you don't take a deal worse than your BATNA, but the whole point of negotiation is to get something better than your BATNA.

You should never lead a negotiation with your BATNA because then your counterpart is only going to give up the absolute minimum above your BATNA, thus depriving you of all the surplus.

Interesting article, but I'd ignore the entire section labeled "Marketing". I don't buy any notion that "traditional marketing" is any less important today than it ever was, nor do I agree that "growth hacking" in any sense whatsoever replaces, or competes with, "traditional marketing". Growth Hacking (to the extent that it even has any meaningful definition) is just one part (or a couple of parts) of an overall marketing mix[1]. And anyone who doesn't know the term "marketing mix" should go take a class in... wait for it... "traditional marketing".

Or to put it another way... if you're talking to a startup and the founders say anything like "we don't need marketing, we use growth hacking" then run away, as fast as you can.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marketing_mix

Do you want to work at one or start one?

Nothing is better than going to a hackathon or a Startup Weekend. My first Startup Weekend is where I caught the startup bug.

If you want to work for one, check out Readyforce if you are a student or Angel.co if you are experienced.

www.readyforce.com www.angel.co

And we have nothing. Startups are nowhere to be found on campus colleges, maybe with the exception of Stanford and MIT.

Here in the UK we have a startup job fair called Silicon Milkroundabout [1]. At the moment it's London-based, but it attracts a huge amount of college grads. I suspect they'll soon be moving into doing or taking part in job fairs at Universities around the UK, because they're growing pretty quickly at the moment.

Maybe they also need to start making their way into the US, too.

[1] http://siliconmilkroundabout.com/

That part of the article didn't resonate with me, either.

I go to the University of Waterloo in Canada and as a second-year (sophomore) have already worked at a startup for an internship. I got that internship because of the co-op program at my school --- startups often hire from it. I'm not alone, either: several of my friends at UW are or have been startup interns. One friend is interning right now at a YC startup.

That's not even to mention the huge hackathon movement that has swept technical schools across North America. Startups have a huge presence in hackathons at UMich, Yale, MIT, UPenn, UW, University of Toronto, McGill University, and many others.

Start with building stuff. Polishing your skills and becoming a full stack kind of person, tech or not.

Haha, I identify with Alex. Even from Boston too.

Just start making things, and telling people you're making things. Eventually you will become connected to like-minded people.

It's that second part that's important--even if it's just a github.

If I can't see your code, I can't tell if you're just bullshitting really well or actually pretty cool. And no, forking a bunch of other people's repos doesn't count--I will check your commit history.

I've never understood this obsession with public source repositories. What is the difference between experience writing proprietary code and experience writing code that happens to be published on GitHub? Both kinds of experience are valuable.

Most tech employers own everything you do, even on your free time. So a large GitHub history can send the message that you're not employed all that much.

So, here's the deal.

I don't think it is fair to expect you to talk about your old company's codebase in an interview--I'd love to have that conversation, but I understand if you wouldn't feel comfortable doing so.

So, I can ask you questions in person, and get some response. Maybe you interview well, and you can answer things easily; maybe because you know your shit, maybe because you crammed with "Crack the Coding Interview"-like books, maybe because you have inside information on what'll come up in the interview.

Maybe you interview poorly, and if I ask you to whiteboard something you have a panic attack even though you know it cold. Maybe you are having an off day, or our conversation just flows the wrong way and you don't communicate to me the experience I'm looking for that you already have.

By contrast, if I have your github (or sourceforge, or bitbucket, or whatever), I can infer certain things about you: I know what languages you write in, I know whether you roll things from scratch or make little changes to other people's projects, I know how much you care about code quality and commits, I know what sorts of projects you like to work on in your free time.

In an interview, I can (and will!) ask you about some code that you've written, both good and bad, and I can see how you respond--are you defensive, apologetic, humble, humorous? I can ask questions about specific projects, work through your thought process, and get a much better feel for how you are on a team.

As to your question "What is the difference between experience writing proprietary code and experience writing code that happens to be published on GitHub?"

The difference is that I know for certain you can use git, I know that you aren't hiding behind your team on that project, and I know what lines of code you did and did not write (barring certain corner cases). Proprietary code is also usually pretty fucking dull, honestly: you're usually patching or hacking in some business logic for a legacy app that isn't that great to begin with. If I cared about that, I'd just hire some legions of code monkeys from India and be done with my problem.

> I know whether you roll things from scratch or make little changes to other people's projects

I'm curious as to what your thoughts are on the difference between these two things. Rolling from scratch seems like more work, but sometimes gathering enough knowledge and understanding about someone else's project to be able to make a change to it is even more work.

So, it all depends, right?

If you have little commits that just change some config settings in your fork of a common jQuery library, that's not a big deal.

If you have little commits that change some deep magic in sizzler, okay, that's something we should talk about.

If you rewrite a software rasterizer, just for funsies, that's something to talk about.

If you write yet another web framework in Ruby, or lightbox plugin for jQuery, I'm going to call you out on wasting time.

If you can explain why your implementation of half of the functionality of Rails is desirable, and satisfy me that you're doing it for engineering/business/safety reasons, I'll be really impressed. If you admit it was for the lulz or to learn or because you didn't know any better, I'll admire you for your honesty. If you did it because async is srs bsns guise also activerecord more liek activerecrud amirite, I probably will let somebody else have the joy of breaking in a cowboy coder.

It can be very, very hard to commit work to other people's projects--I skipped even the modest task of putting out a Visual Studios make system for somebody's Minecraft clone, for example, because I just didn't want to have the "Cmake? Fuck cmake!" argument.

One thing you can do, is fix your ssl certificate, It expired.

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