Being Humble In The Silicon Valley

When I was growing up, I tended to gravitate towards the kids who were less affluent, or had problems at home like I did because I could relate to them more. I didn’t have to hide my true life from them because we had that in common and we wouldn’t judge each other.

 

Now that I’m older, I’m starting to think that maybe what made me gravitate towards them was that they were humble and that is what we actually had in common. A good friend of mine who is not from the Silicon Valley but lives here now, recently gave me his thoughts on the people here.

 

Since I was born and raised in the Silicon Valley, I was interested in an outside perspective. His view was essentially that nobody here has common courtesy. They won’t wave for you to go ahead of them at stop sign, they cut in line, they push and shove, and they act like they are trying to get everything they can for themselves. Whether that’s a faster commute home, more food at a buffet, or a better parking spot. They act entitled and don’t seem to care about strangers. People don’t even know their next door neighbors here.

 

One of the things like a lot about this friend and his family is that they are down to earth and humble. I’m sure they make good money even by Silicon Valley standards but they don’t get caught up in the race to act affluent or keep up with the Joneses. They are just down to earth, good people.

 

Again, just like my childhood, them being humble is what attracted me to them. I’ve never lived anywhere other than the west coast, so when he tells me about the way people act and treat each other where he’s from, I always listen admiringly, like listening to a story about a fantasy land.

 

Now, I have to admit it’s certainly not the case with everyone and while I am sure he is generalizing, he definitely touched on a nerve that I myself, as a Silicon Valley native, had been feeling.

 

Of course there are some humble and down to earth people here but there’s also some creedence to thinking that think the vast majority are trying to give off the impression of wealth and get so caught up in their quest for wealth, it comes at the expense of how they treat others. Since I was born and raised here, I am used to people treating each other that way. And that is sad.

 

There is a never ending cycle here of comparing themselves to others, consuming just enough to one up their neighbors, and making just the minimum payments in order to keep up and barely stay afloat. Perhaps the reason people don’t take the time to get to know eachother or treat strangers with courtesy is because they are so wrapped up in their own lives.

 

There was a recent study that found people in Silicon Valley making up to $400,000 per year consider themselves to be middle class.  I would be curious to see a study that asked these same people how many of them felt that they deserved to be middle class and not upper class.

 

This sentiment could be partly because anywhere else in the country or world, they would actually be upper class. It could also be because many of them have Ivy league degrees and because of those factors, they feel they are entitled to something. But in reality, that’s the type of arrogance and entitlement that is rampant in the Silicon Valley.

 

Titles, salary, and wealth does not entitle anyone to anything. Being humble and having courtesy for others is worth more than all of those things.

 

I am a minority in Silicon Valley because I was born and raised here. Most of the people here are transplants from all over the world. So the larger question I am left with is does the Silicon Valley attract these kinds of people? Or are these kinds of people created as a byproduct, when searching for wealth and success, after they’ve moved to the Silicon Valley?

Taking The First Step

There are hundreds of people who read my blogs everyday.  A subset of them subscribe to my blog, and a further subset of them will reach out to me directly and ask for advice. I have realized there are a lot of people that are in a bad place in their lives. Whether it’s financially, their career, or just life in general, and they really don’t know what to do.

 

Many of these people who need help are highly educated (masters or PHD level), they can’t seem to find work, the bills are piling up, and they feel stuck. When they reach out, I can almost feel the desperation in their messages.  I have three simple words: Change your mindset.

 

Don’t be too proud. I know you have a masters or PHD (or insert your specific credentials/experience here) I get it. I know you have earned it but life is not always fair and won’t give you what you feel you deserve. Don’t be too proud to do certain things.

 

When it comes to your career, do whatever you can just to get your foot in the door. Take an entry level role, take freelance work, network with people, and make small incremental steps. Don’t be too proud to accept an internship and let your skills and work speak for themselves. Which can often lead to a full time job.  Everyone’s path is different and that is okay.

 

Regarding finances, don’t be too proud to do side hustles. Side hustles can help you earn extra income to sustain you while you are waiting for more steady income. The worst thing you can do is nothing at all. Just waiting for something to land in your lap. That’s not the way the world works. That’s just not going to happen. Swallow your pride and go get it !

The Next Generation Of Tech Leaders

Every year, members of the Wharton MBA class take a “Tech Trek” tour where they travel to the Silicon Valley and meet with tech startups.

 

The startup company I work for held a reception for them to come to our office. Our CEO went over our product and then we did a panel style discussion with them, answering their questions. Questions like what types of backgrounds we had that lead us to where we are today, as well as some other more role specific questions.

 

It was an honor for me to be able to chat and discuss these things with the next generation of tech leaders.

 

Later that day, I had a message in my LinkedIn inbox from an entry level employee in the tech industry. He told me that he started following my blog posts and my LinkedIn posts back when he was an undergrad at Cornell university and said that I was one of his top sources for guidance and inspiration.

 

I’m always happy to receive messages like this and on that particular day, reading that message right after talking with the Wharton MBA class, I realized two things. First is the power that a socially connected community has. The second thing I realized is that at some point during my ten years in the tech industry, I became an industry veteran. While it does make me feel a bit old, it’s still a pretty cool feeling.

 

The generation that is coming into the industry now,  will be the future leaders of tech. I have seen that this generation values and appreciates hearing stories of triumphs, failures, and the experiences learned through them both. They are willing to learn from the mistakes of the people who came before them. Because of that, I think they are already off to a great start!

What I Learned From Working At Google

For almost 6 years I could take the Google shuttle to work, eat all of my meals at one of Google’s many cafes, and sit at my desk, which had a window view of the cool Android statues that everyone comes to take photos with.

 

During those 6 years, I worked on many teams and projects inside of Google. From unreleased products that were still in stealth mode, to flagship products with millions of users, like Google Maps. I even got to have a few quick chats in the kitchen with Marissa Mayer when we both worked on the Google Maps team, before she became the CEO of Yahoo.

 

My badge was red colored which meant I was not a direct employee of Google. I was a contractor/vendor. The truth is, there was nothing different about my day to day work that was different than a direct employee. I participated in discussions on product development, roadmaps, and production releases.

 

I’m grateful for my time at Google. I literally worked side by side with some of the most brilliant people in the world.

 

After I left Google, I evaluated and reflected on what I had learned in those 6 years. Aside from the obvious technical, project, and management skills. There were two surprising things that I had learned.

 

First, I learned how to spot truly intelligent and helpful people amongst the people who simply just know how to talk. Secondly, I learned how to appreciate humble intelligence. In the Silicon Valley, smart people are common. It’s the ones who have humility that are a rarity here. 

 

After reflecting on my years at Google, the realization I had is that it’s not the product, the free meals, or the perks that count. It’s the people you are working with everyday that matter.

Why I Am Not A Salesman

I’ll be honest here. I am not a cutthroat business man. Never have been and never want to be. In fact, I think the human element needs to come back to business. When I say human element, I don’t mean learning the latest tips and tricks on how to manipulate people into buying what you’re selling. I mean having compassion for people. Even strangers.

 

Maybe that’s the reason I never went into sales as my day job. How long do you think I would have lasted being such a compassionate person, caring about people’s feelings more than the bottom line? I could never knowingly take advantage of someone or manipulate them into buying something they didn’t really want or need. You either care about people or you care about your bottom line. Now I’m sure there are ways you can do both. Eliminating a sales quota would be one example. But then again, I’ve never done corporate sales, so what do I know?

 

My only sales experience was on my own. Pounding the pavement and knocking on doors. When I was on my way up and building my wealth, I had to hustle and sell things. I flipped cars and I sold insurance door to door. But at the end of the day, no matter how much I needed that money,  I knew there was always a bigger picture.

 

I was never that guy to do “whatever it takes” to close a deal.  I’d rather make $1 and everyone walks away feeling like they got a fair deal instead of making $2 and the other person feels like I aggressively bulldozed them, ripped them off, or didn’t care about their feelings.

 

Honestly, I don’t even need to know someone in order to care about them. I remember one time when I was flipping a car, I sold it not to the highest offer but to the second highest offer. $1,000 less to be exact. Because I could tell that they were a struggling family. A single mom with young kids.

 

This is the way I act in my personal life as well. I might be missing out on a few dollars here and there that I could put into my bank account if I wanted to be a jerk, not care about people, and only care about my own bottom line. But for me, it’s a small price to pay in order to be a good person, care about other people, and treat them well.

 

Poverty Is Not Numerical

It has been a long journey for me, from humble beginnings to where I finally landed at 30 years old and I learned a lot of things along the way. However, when I reached the end of that journey, I felt something that I had never expected to feel. Guilt. I realize that might sound strange. So let me explain…

 

I was born into a lower class, blue collar family. The type that lived paycheck to paycheck and barely scraped by. So naturally, I had identified with being poor and low class my whole life. I hated “rich” people and blamed them for my family’s problems growing up. Looking back, I’m sure that was a mix of being envious of them as well as not quite knowing how I could become like them.

 

After coming from nothing, when I became what most would consider “wealthy”, a part of me felt that I had lost something I had identified with for most of my life.

 

By the time I was 30 years old, I had become the most successful person in my family. Ordinarily, that’s nothing to feel guilty about. But growing up watching my parents scrape together money just to pay the rent or listening to my mom on the phone pleading with the electric company not to shut off our electricity, I now felt a sense of guilt for being wealthy.

 

I didn’t know how to identify with my new sense of self. When people asked me what kind of car I drive, I told them I drive a pick up truck, even when I had a brand new Porsche sitting in my garage. There was a part of me that didnt want to admit I wasn’t that poor, blue collar, kid anymore. I didn’t know how to shed that view of myself. And I felt guilty trying to do so.

 

The only way I can describe it, is that it kind of felt like survivors remorse in a way. Being the one in my family to escape the cycle of poverty. But I knew I had earned it. It took hard work, sacrifices, late nights, stress, hustling, and sacrificed time with my family in order to escape.

 

I think the most important thing I learned on that journey was learning that poverty had nothing to do with money. The chains were mental and emotional, not numerical. Those chains were broken not by the number in my bank account but by shedding my previous view of myself and my previous view of the world around me.  

People Or Profits

As a high level employee at a previous company I was involved with, I had a lot of responsibility to help facilitate the growth of the company and increase the bottom line. Eventually, we started to receive pressure from the top to begin outsourcing a lot of the work to India. This was my first experience being involved as a decision maker on whether or not to outsource American jobs to another country.

 

Now, I have nothing wrong with outsourcing work if it makes sense financially and we don’t need to lay off existing people, in order to do it. In our case, it didn’t make sense because it was less efficient, we were delivering (in my opinion) a lower quality of work to our customers, and we were phasing out loyal American workers.

 

Some of the people we’d be phasing out were directly under me. They were people who I had grown to trust and rely on. They had done great work. If anything, they deserved a pay raise. The change was never explicitly said. It started subtly and with different teams but I knew exactly what the endgame was. When it came to my team, I had their back right through the day I left that company. Because for me, people will always be more important than the bottom line.

 

The irony here is that our company had positioned itself in the market to be the more expensive but higher quality alternative to the companies who outsourced. I felt almost as if the new business model was just to have an American as the face to the customer and have the work done by people in a cube farm in India.

 

I made my opinion very clearly known to my colleagues and to the top brass that if we justify our rates based on the “you get what you pay for” concept, then we better make damn sure we continue to deliver higher quality results than our lower priced competition. Because the day we stop doing that, is the day we’re finished as a company.

 

I think what many companies don’t realize is that when they cut corners to save a few dollars, one of the corners that also gets cut is the human element.

Honor In The Office

Some years ago, I had the chance to get a promotion in the company where I was working at the time. All I had to do was point out my colleague’s mistake.

 

We were partnering on a special project together and we knew whoever did better on this was the one who would get promoted. A few weeks in, he made a huge mistake. There it was. I had won. I could get the promotion (and much needed pay raise). All I had to do was throw him under the bus by pointing out the mistake he had made.

 

But I didn’t do it.

 

Trust me, I really wanted that promotion but I didn’t want it that way. It’s just not me. It’s not my style and it’s not the way I was raised. I wanted to get a promotion because I was awesome, not just because my competition had failed.

 

In the end, it all worked out like it was supposed to. Life has a funny way of doing that. The moral of my story is don’t worry about beating your colleagues. Don’t lift yourself up by pushing others down and never sacrifice your integrity for temporary gains. Titles, positions, and salaries don’t last. Character and honor does.

 

I know we all get caught up in our own success and that can easily lead to a temporary lapse in our morals and character, in order to achieve it. Instead, focus on making yourself awesome. Success tastes sweeter when you’ve earned it honorably.

Being The Son Of A Veteran

My dad was a helicopter crew chief in the U.S. Navy. I grew up hearing phrases like “fire in the hole”, “taking liberty”, “shit on a shingle”, and “hit the head.” When I was a kid, he even used to say “prepare for take off” whenever we would get onto a freeway onramp. Many of the things I remember from my childhood are directly related to him being in the military. He use to even run through  a “preflight” checklist of our car anytime we’d take a roadtrip.

 

I grew up in Mountain View, California. Which is about an hour drive from San Francisco. If you were to make that drive, about half way through, you would pass the Golden Gate National Cemetery  on your right hand side.
This is a military cemetery that holds many medal of honor recipients.  Everytime we made this drive,  my dad would say to my sister and I sitting in the backseat: “eyes right!” and then he would salute the cemetery. My dad did this every time we drove to San Francisco, without fail. Now that I am grown and have children of my own, It’s funny those little things that I remember. There is no doubt that my patriotism was instilled in me by him.

When my dad was 18 years old, he was drafted into the military because of the Vietnam War. I’m sure like most 18 year olds he had other plans that did not include being drafted into the military in a time of war but he went with his head held high and served his country honorably. He didn’t talk very much about his time in the Navy but I do know that he was in four helicopter crashes and I do remember one story in particular.

He was a crew chief on a search & rescue helicopter. That crew had shift schedules just like any other job. My dad had a baby at home (my older brother) and was scheduled to fly one Christmas Eve. His coworker, who didn’t have kids, offered to trade shifts so my dad could be at home with his son on Christmas. So they traded.

That flight crashed and everyone on board died, including the man who took my dad’s place. That man’s name is on the Vietnam war memorial  wall instead of my dad’s name. I’m here and my kids are here because that man traded shifts with my dad.

Anytime I feel like I’m having a rough day at the office, I think of the people who have jobs like my dad’s – military, police, firefighters, first responders and it puts it all back into perspective.

The Troubled Waters Of Poverty

Some kids grow up and their life is a calm stream. Others, like me, had rough and tumultuous waters with opposing currents. I grew up most of my life allowing those waters to take me where they wanted me to go. I thought that was life. Growing up this way taught me to see life not as a beautiful thing full of happiness and potential, but instead as something to be wary and fearful of.

 

It’s hard for a child to have big ideas about the future when the extent of my horizon held questions like will my parents have rent money this month? Or how is my brother doing in jail right now?  This type of childhood lead to my teen years being angry at the world. I felt there was as system in place to keep the poor working class families like mine, in a cycle of poverty.

 

These families work hard but end up just spinning their wheels and never moving forward. Stuck in low paying jobs. Dependent on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Getting themselves into debt, not because they wanted to buy something expensive but because  they might have been sick and missed a few days of work. These types of jobs don’t pay you if you don’t show up and clock in. Financially, missing a few days of work can be life changing for people like this.

 

My parents were good people, why did we have this kind of life? They were allowing the current to push them through life. A current that wasn’t designed by them. It was designed by something else. Some other system entirely. To keep the poor working class right where they belong. Downstream.

 

For my dad, downstream was working a blue collar job for 40 years, unable to save anything for retirement, and barely living paycheck to paycheck most of my life. For my brother, it was never graduating high school and spending more than 50% of his adult life in prison. For most in my family, it was an addiction to alcohol, tobacco, and in the case of my brother, drugs.

 

For me, when I was 21 years old, I was an overweight smoker, depressed, and working as a janitor for $6 an hour. With $10,000 in debt and a baby on the way. I had solidified my place downstream and had firmly positioned myself to pass the cycle of poverty on to my children. Eventually, these waters would pull me under and drown me. Until the day I taught myself to swim. To guide my own life and destiny.  

 

I learned that no person or system can take me out of that cycle other than myself. Because when you pull yourself out on your own, there is a mental growth that happens during that process. A change to your psyche. The purge of your previous mindset and beliefs. A change that only people like me, who did it on their own can understand.

 

If you really want to change your life, you can’t be a victim. You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make the change for yourself. Learn to swim. No matter what hand you were dealt in life, you can always change it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it or you aren’t good enough. Your childhood does not need to define your adult life.