Hacker vs. Hustler: Reflecting on One Year at UniKey

Me: I really like my new job.

Family: (incredulously) Really?

Me: Yeah. The people are smart, passionate, and the company seems promising.

Family: (sarcastically) Ok. So you’ll stick around for 6 months then?

Two Wednesdays ago marked my 1 year anniversary at UniKey, and as the above dialog suggests, this is pretty weird for me. I’ve never been at a job for a year before, so this 1st ever anniversary in my career has given me the urge to reflect a bit on a couple of questions:

  1. Why was UniKey the first place I’ve stuck around this long?
  2. What have I learned in the past year by sticking around?

Why UniKey?

A big part of why I’ve stuck around at UniKey has to do with the fantastic people and culture at UniKey. My words can’t really do justice for how great the work environment, people, and culture are there, but this video does a great job of capturing it:


When I reflect on the fact that I came to UniKey after failing to start my own business, another reason why I’ve stuck around this long becomes clear: UniKey has been a good place for me to learn lessons I need to know to have a better second crack at starting a business.

This reason for why I’ve stuck around actually dovetails nicely with the second question my unusual anniversary has prompted me to ask.

What Have I Learned?

This year has largely been about the struggle between my “inner hacker” – the part of me that wants to write beautiful code with the best tools and my “inner hustler” – the part of me that wants to build and be a part of successful businesses. In the last year, I’ve started to identify and shed some of my hacker ways that interfere with my hustler aspirations.

Generalists > Specialists, even at 50+ employees

Its basically a truism that at startups, you wear many hats.1 I knew that coming into UniKey, but because my inner hacker didn’t want to look up from my monitor, I didn’t notice that this can be true even at startups with 50+ people.

Sometimes the best thing I can do is to take off my android dev hat and be an iOS or web dev for a few hours. Sometimes I should take off my hacker hat entirely and be a graphic designer or a copy writer or a project manager for a few hours. Sometimes I even need to get on a call with a partner to really understand what they want and what they’re afraid of.

Don’t put the cart before the horse

My inner hacker wants to build scalable, flexible code and infrastructure. This is great, but it’s unhelpful if the business dies waiting for me to build a masterpiece. Sometimes the game is to write garbage, shed a tear, and move on because…

Technical debt probably isn’t going to kill a company

I’ve read a few things this year that suggest this2 and I’ve seen at UniKey that there are often far bigger dangers for a startup than, for example, untested code.

Two years?!

I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned and the people I’ve worked with this past year, and I hope that in my second year, I can keep growing into the kind of person who understands how to play the startup game well. If that happens, I’ll shock my family (and to some extent, myself) by sticking around for a whopping 2 years at a company. ;)


Notes:

  1. This is more than just “conventional wisdom.” Noam Wasserman, a Harvard prof with a massive data set on startups, reiterates this in his Founder’s Dilemnas

  2. I found the idea that technical problems are “blown out of proportion” in Peopleware, Microsoft Research’s “The Influence of Organizational Structure on Software Quality”, and TDD By Example