Real Talk (Part II): Transitioning To Silicon Valley From Wall Street (or Consulting or ...)

By Houman Fardin, Director, Strategic Partnerships Wealthfront Inc. 


I just finished describing how there are no rainbows or unicorns in Silicon Valley. So why bother? Why go through the pain of reinventing yourself, developing a whole new network, taking a pay cut, essentially starting all over?

If you’re still reading, then you know there is a strong, often irrational force pulling you away from a lucrative and prescribed career track in finance, consulting or corporate America to an unpredictable career in the startup world. For some, this force is often an idealistic belief that the status quo isn’t good enough and there’s an opportunity to be a part of creating something better in [insert industry here…retail, weather forecasting, food delivery, healthcare, exercise, investment management, you name it]. This idealistic belief is rooted in a counterculture that established the Bay Area as the epicenter of technology and innovation. Some would argue this is the same counterculture which nurtured the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

"The way of the hippie is antithetical to all repressive hierarchical power structures since they are adverse to the hippie goals… Hippies don't impose their beliefs on others. Instead, hippies seek to change the world through reason and by living what they believe."  Source: Stone 1994, "The Way of the Hippy"

[Find] “hippie” [Replace] “entrepreneur” and the sentence above still applies.

If It Ain’t Broke, Break It (Then Fix It!)

Below are two companies whose founding stories exemplify this counterculture spirit. The people driving these companies appear to have the intellectual curiosity, audacity, perseverance, and passion to take on truly challenging problems. Their primary motivation doesn’t seem to be money but rather the desire to break the status quo. If you are excited by the idea of working with, being inspired by, and learning from people like the ones below, then you understand the why.

Example 1: BackRub

This example is a little dry, but worth grinding through. In 1995 two Ph.D. students at Stanford University interested in exploring the mathematical characteristics of the world wide web, built a prototype they called BackRub which “mapped out a vast family tree that reflected the Web links among pages” [Source: National Science Foundation]. These two math geeks then created a way to rank the links in this family tree, which they called PageRank.

“[They] realized their data might have implications for Internet search...BackRub's results were superior to those from existing search engines like AltaVista and Excite, which often returned irrelevant listings...Not only was the engine good, but [they] realized it would scale as the Web scaled. Because PageRank worked by analyzing links, the bigger the Web, the better the engine...They quickly discovered that search engines require an extraordinary amount of computing resources. They didn't have the money to buy new computers, so they begged and borrowed … a hard drive from the network lab, an idle CPU from the computer science loading docks. Using [a] dorm room as a machine lab, they fashioned a computational Frankenstein from spare parts, then jacked the whole thing into Stanford's broadband campus network.” Source: Wired

Punchline: the two Ph.D. students in this example are Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Today, Google has the strongest monetization strategy of any technology company. However, I would be willing to bet they weren’t motivated purely by $$$ when they created PageRank. The company’s enviable monetization strategy is the end result of intellectual curiosity and analytical rigor.

Example 2: Dark Sky

In 2011, two people dissatisfied with existing weather apps looked for a more accurate way to forecast weather. They decided to do it themselves.

I got stuck at a highway rest stop in a downpour. I'm talking buckets of rain, buckets of lighting…I wondered if I could just wait it out inside. It was easy enough to check: I opened up the radar app on my iPhone and sure enough, a big ominous red splotch hovered over my location. But the thing was, I had no idea how long it would last. I had the map right in front of me, but I couldn't figure it out! There had to be a better way. And if it didn't exist, we'd have to build the damn thing.”  -  Adam Grossman, Dark Sky Co-Founder Source: Kickstarter Blog

There was a minor problem – the founders had no experience in meteorology. But that likely made the challenge that much more compelling. After raising ~$40k on Kickstarter from over 1,000 backers, they were ready to figured it out for themselves. The end result is a disruptive app that uses your iPhone’s GPS coordinates to give you specific forecasts, such as “it will start raining lightly in 6 minutes and stop 20 minutes later.” The team behind Dark Sky is a great example of how the startup community is motivated by building something and undaunted by the unknown.

“I’m Not A Software Engineer, So What Do The Examples Above Have To Do With Me?”

You do not need to know how to write code to be an important and impactful member of a startup. Although products cannot be built without engineers, there are still plenty of critical roles where non-technical folks can make significant contributions. In my next post, I’ll do my best to outline how to make the transition -- specifically, how to think about finding the right company and role for you as you begin your career transition. Spoiler alert: making a full career transition is not easy, takes time and will test your patience. That said, the new network of brilliant and inspiring people I’ve met and work(ed) with, and the passion with which I now go to work every day has made the career transition worth it for me. There are rainbows and unicorns after all: you just have to know what they look like and where to find them.



[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]Houman is a Director, Strategic Partnerships Wealthfront Inc. Before that, he was Head of North America SMB Sales & Operations Dropbox. Before that, he was a co-founder Blue Zebra LLC, DBA MemorialPath and Quantified Medical, LLC. Before that, Houman, was doing Institutional Equities and Investment Banking at Morgan Stanley.[/author_info] [/author]