Lessons from a Top 1% Engineer's Journey

How to Break Through the Comfort Zone and Thrive in Tech
February 19, 2024
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Ten years ago today, my life took an unexpected turn when the startup I worked at, WhatsApp, was acquired by Facebook (now Meta) for a staggering $19 billion. This unexpected windfall turned me into a multi-millionaire overnight, forever altering the course of my life. In this blog post, I'll share a glimpse of my journey, from the excitement of the acquisition to the key lessons I've learned and the strategies that propelled me forward in the dynamic world of tech.

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The Day Everything Changed

Picture this: I was deeply immersed in coding, the comforting hum of Spotify filling my noise-canceling headphones, when our head of business burst into the room with an infectious wave, calling us into a conference room. The atmosphere crackled with anticipation, but whether it was good or bad news hung heavy in the air. We all knew something big was about to happen!

As our founders, Jan and Brian, prepared for their announcement, my mind raced. "This can't be an acquisition," I thought, clinging to Jan's past pronouncements about his commitment to staying independent as a startup. My heart pounded. What else could it be?

Little did I know that moment would forever change my life. As the news of the acquisition unfolded. I have to admit, it didn’t truly hit me until Mark Zuckerberg walked into the room when the realization slammed home: My world was about to be changed forever.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone: Embracing the Risks

While luck undeniably played a role in my journey, it wasn't solely a stroke of fortune. It involved taking risks and pushing beyond my comfort zone.

My path wasn't one of privilege or Ivy League connections. I didn't come from a background that opened doors effortlessly, and my journey didn't involve any family or friend ties in Silicon Valley. Despite these seemingly traditional avenues being present, I carved my way into a “unicorn startup backed by Sequoia”, a name I hadn't even heard of before joining WhatsApp!

Before WhatsApp, Sequoia or VCs weren’t even on my radar. But after exploring diverse corners of the globe and interacting with professionals from various backgrounds, it became clear: Silicon Valley was where I needed to be. It wasn't about fancy backgrounds or prestigious schools but about being in a hub brimming with opportunity, technological innovation, and infectious hope and excitement about the future. I craved to surround myself with people who, like me, were excited about endless possibilities.

Coming from the stability of IBM and navigating the aftermath of the 2008 market crash, conventional wisdom urged me to seek comfort in established companies. However, my instincts told me otherwise. I saw potential in WhatsApp, a belief in the founders, and a product that I could contribute to. It was about embracing new challenges and believing in a journey that unfolded into a life-changing opportunity.

Welcoming Continuous Learning: Never Stop Growing

Let me share another chapter of my journey. Back in school, smartphones were nonexistent, and the idea of mobile technology becoming a revolutionary force never crossed my mind.

Fast forward to WhatsApp, where I found myself navigating the dynamic world of Android and iOS, armed with minimal knowledge about EITHER. I became my teacher, delving into online resources and books to bridge the gap in my understanding.

Countless nights were spent immersed in learning, making mistakes, and relentlessly seeking solutions. The turning point arrived when I completed a project, marking a pivotal moment in my career. A surge of achievement washed over me as I realized the power of self-mastery, knowing I could pick up new skills independently.

In the world of programming and problem-solving, change is constant, surprises abound, and challenges morph into opportunities. Unfamiliar challenges, intricate projects, and emerging technologies are inevitable. What's cutting-edge today may quickly fade, requiring you to adapt to new languages or technologies.

The process can undoubtedly feel overwhelming, but such is the nature of working in the tech industry. Embracing continuous learning isn't just a choice; it's a necessity in this ever-evolving landscape. The ability to navigate the unexpected, learn on the fly, and stay abreast of emerging trends defines the resilience needed to thrive in the fast-paced world of technology.

Beyond Technical Skills: Communicate Your Impact

The tech industry is ever-evolving, and success requires more than just technical skills. Being more than just a coder involves understanding and effectively communicating your work's broader impact. As your career progresses, coding skills become less central, and managing the perception of your work becomes paramount. Developing a solid work ethic, going above and beyond, and consistently meeting deadlines are crucial for standing out in the competitive tech landscape.

Mastering the art of programming is merely the starting point; successful project execution hinges on more than just technical proficiency. Even armed with impeccable coding skills, unforeseen challenges may emerge, potentially derailing your progress.

Ask yourself:

  • Can you collaborate effectively with your team?
  • Can you articulate your ideas clearly, persuading your colleagues to rally behind your approach?

It's not just about comprehending the broader impact of your work; it's equally important to communicate its significance effectively in a way that resonates with others.

As you progress in your career, the spotlight on your coding skills gradually dims. What takes center stage is your ability to shape the perception of your work and its impact. This shift emphasizes the escalating importance of practical communication skills, collaboration skills, and the art of promoting your work. These skills are no longer mere additions but rather fundamental components for navigating the nuanced landscape of career progression.

Setting Your North Star: Find Your Guiding Light

In the ever-changing world of software engineering, the key to success is figuring out how to align with the industry's changes while staying true to yourself. Your experience and passions might align with what's popular, but sometimes they won't. Instead of blindly following trends, know what you stand for and define your values and priorities. This clarity helps you chart a course that aligns with your aspirations and career goals.

Imagine running at breakneck speed without knowing your destination. You might end up nowhere fast. This idea echoes Steve Jobs' philosophy: "It's not the customer's job to know what they want." He led Apple to success by creating groundbreaking products like the iPhone and iPad, not just following the crowd.

Similarly, Warren Buffett's investment approach focuses on finding long-term value, not reacting to short-term market fluctuations.

In software engineering, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. The best career path, timeline, and ideal workplace depend on your unique aspirations, past experiences, and the current job market. When people ask me for advice, I always ask, "What do you want?" I cannot answer that question for you.

Sometimes, people get caught up in business without understanding their "why." That's where you need to begin. What's your north star, your guiding light in your career? How does it influence your choices? Share your thoughts in the comments – I'm eager to hear from you!

Overcoming Fear and Learning from Mistakes

Finding your north star often comes through experience. We're all familiar with the fear of making mistakes and failing – an instinct to shield ourselves from harm. However, rather than letting fear hinder your progress, experimenting and embracing the journey is the best way to discover your path.

In the world of software engineering, there's no magic formula for success, unlike the neat certainty found in math. Following a set of rules won't guarantee perfection; instead, you must experiment, make mistakes, and learn what truly suits you, what you're passionate about, and what excites you.

I interned at a tiny startup with just three people during my college days. It wasn't a bold move, but it was the only opportunity available with no prior experience. The startup aimed to compete with YouTube during a video-sharing trend, but it didn't succeed. This taught me about the unpredictability of startups.

Later, after graduation, I sought stability at IBM, only to find the corporate environment challenging. Feeling like a small cog in a machine, I realized the importance of balance. This journey guided me to make wiser career choices, eventually leading me to WhatsApp – a startup that struck the right balance of autonomy, challenges, stability, growth, and learning opportunities.

You won't truly understand your needs and desires if you don't step outside your comfort zone and learn from failures along the way.

Building Meaningful Connections: The Power of Community

Building a network goes beyond seeking help when you need it. Experts emphasize that having a supportive community is crucial for overall well-being and success. Life isn't just about individual achievements; it's also about the meaningful connections you build.

These connections shouldn't be superficial or driven solely by self-interest. They should be rooted in genuine care and mutual support. Surrounding yourself with people who genuinely care creates a valuable and nurturing community.

Such a community acts as a safety net during tough times and a source of joy during shared experiences. It's where you find emotional support, share achievements, and navigate life together.

Building relationships can be risky, and not everyone you meet will become a lifelong friend. However, encountering "failures" is worth the risk even in our pursuit of connections. While not every connection may turn out as expected, most people are well-intentioned.

This network of friends and colleagues becomes a valuable source of mentorship, collaboration, and inspiration. It's a space for exchanging knowledge, exploring new ideas, and collectively working towards success. Together, you can support each other in both personal and professional growth.


Remember that success isn't a linear path as you embark on your tech journey. Embrace challenges, embrace learning, and build meaningful connections along the way. What are your thoughts on finding your north star in the tech industry? Share your experiences and questions in the comments below! 👇

This article was also posted on LinkedIn.

Also checkout my advice for software engineer on a recent video where I share my tips - How to Get Ahead of 99% of Software Engineers

Exaltitude newsletter is packed with advice for navigating your engineering career journey successfully. Sign up to stay tuned!

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