This is my first week at Stripe. I’d like to share why I decided to end my hobo life style, return to the tech world and why turned to Stripe as my gateway.
Why tech resurgence
I’ve made my mind about my tech comeback a year ago during my hitchhiking trip. When I was putting my backpack on over a year ago, I wanted to experience the life of Sal — the main character of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I was curious how closely I can echo Sal’s voyages except I would be trying to wander across Europe instead of the US and in 2015 instead of late 1940s.
During that trip, I tried to stay away from tech as much as possible. To prove my point, I refused to use the GPS in my iPhone. I was getting lost in variety of locations across Europe and I was thrilled with the feeling. On one occasion, I got lost in Provence mountains in southern France. However, this time around strangers didn’t meet me with an admiration and an envy for my idea of camping in the wild but with dread. Soaking in September’s sunshine, I was unaware of a forecast of a bad storm that was forming. It turned out later on that it was one of the worst storms southern France experienced in years. I was rescued the same day by the couple who met me in the mountains and dropped me off in a nearby town. I found a shelter in a dorm of a local high school.
The dorm was nearly empty due to summer holidays and was watched by just a janitor. In the morning, another janitor who was doing the second shift came in. He was curious about this guy currying a backpack with a stack of cardboards strapped to it. He tried striking a conversation with me but we weren’t going far. I don’t speak French and he didn’t speak English. The hand waving wasn’t getting us anywhere — I couldn’t understand his opening question. Then, he pulled an Android phone out of his pocket and spoke something in French to it. The English version of a concerned sentence came out of the device: “The storm during the night was very bad. It broke some windows in the building. Are you ok? Weren’t you hurt by a shattered glass?”. We spoke for over 20 minutes until his phone lost reception. Before heading out for my next caper, I grabbed the journal I was carrying and I jotted down a note on the feeling delight with seeing janitor’s amazement with my hitching stories.
I’ve been cynical about YouTube ads released by Google about its products. You know the script: somebody goes to a remote place, maybe in India, and uses Google’s Translate app to ask for the price of a mango fruit. A local person answers to the phone and an economic exchange happens afterwards. The prosperity of humanity got increased as a result, everybody is smiling, and you hear a lighthearted, acoustic music in the background. To my surprise, in my attempt of testing and questioning the value of the tech world, I threw myself into a situation that made me change my mind. I didn’t flip immediately but revaluation of my convictions crept in through my stubbornness, eventually.
It dawned on me that thanks to my skills and abilities, I’m in the minuscule slice of humankind who can go and build great tools like Translate. And I was ready to admit that these tools indeed make a real difference in peoples’ lives. My hitchhiking trip made me think harder whether a wholesale criticism of the entire tech world wasn’t shortsighted.
I learnt two things. I wanted to get into what people call “AI” nowadays to work on problems computers are not good at but are of value for people to be solved (translation is one example). And I wanted to zoom into my contempt of the tech world to understand what undermines my appreciation of all wonderful inventions tech companies make.
Initially, Stripe wasn’t an obvious choice for me. I wanted to dig into the modern machine learning so a natural place would be one of the current powerhouses of AI research — companies like Google or Facebook. In fact, I interviewed with both and I was delighted to receive offers from Google Brain and Facebook. However, I kept hearing about this lesser-known company called Stripe that some of my friends from the Scala community work for. And I kept hearing only great things about Stripe. Even though processing payments didn’t sound exciting or aligned with my long-term goal of working in AI, I was curious to find out more so I got in touch with “Stripes” (as people working at Stripe call themselves).
Every single interaction I had with Stripe was superb. The recruiting process was challenging in a good way. All the people I spoke with at Stripe left me with an impression that I would like to spend more time with them both at work and in any other context. People at Stripe are exceptionally good at their jobs but do not make it an excuse to pick an austere outlook on how happiness of a tech-optimist should look like. I felt that although the majority of the tech world runs dry on empathy, Stripe sticks out as an exception to this gloomy norm. I’m planning to write more on this subject in the future.
The more I learnt about Stripe as a company, the more I understood how off I was thinking about Stripe as “just payments”. Stripe’s mission to increase the GDP of Internet not only sounds cool but hits the sweet-spot of being incredibly ambitious and specific. Creating an economic backbone of the internet is an immensely interesting problem to think about and work on from both engineering and business points of view. As a bonus, it will give me an excellent reason to get back in touch with my friends who are economics nerds.
Giving up on the other offers was still hard. They were all very good. As I was reflecting on where I am with my life and what my next step should be, I looked back at the talk I gave at the high school I went to. In my talk, I distilled some of the lessons I wish I was taught during my high school years. One of the things I wish I understood earlier in my life was the notion of joining good clubs that give you the right things to copy. I was surprised that long past my graduation from high school, this particular advice still rang true. And I realized I was developing a gut feeling that Stripe is the club I want to join.
The last reason why I picked Stripe over the other offers I received was that Stripe really listened. Once I gave in to my tech comeback, I thought I might as well put the pedal to the metal and move back to tech’s nucleus: the Bay Area. I made it clear to everybody I was speaking with that moving back to San Francisco was my top priority. And I felt that Stripes were the only ones to truly understand how important that was to me and took time to learn all zigzags of my life story beyond what I had put on my CV.
Stripe offered everything that was in their power to overcome immigration challenges and bring me over to San Francisco. I got an offer back in February. We first tried the common H1B visa process but I didn’t win the visa lottery. Then we decided to file for the “exceptional ability” O1 visa that is much more difficult to get and is very time consuming to prepare an application for. I’ve got O1 visa granted last week thanks to the effort of first-class people Stripe offered access to for me.
Stripe is also self-aware. They understand that going out of their way to help with immigration as a competitive advantage.
What at Stripe
Stripe does a fair amount of machine learning and is more likely to do more in the future so my shift towards ML is what Stripe would support. Most of ML infrastructure at Stripe is written in Scala. Given my rare understanding of the Scala compiler and tooling surrounding it, I figured I could contribute something unique and of high value nearly from day one.
My initial focus at Stripe will be figuring out what does it mean to build a world-class Scala developer experience with focus on supporting machine learning infrastructure. Most of other code at Stripe is written in Ruby, so I’ll be also thinking about how to provide a world-class cross-language developer experience.
Longer term, I will be thinking about ways how Stripe can make an extensive use of Deep Learning or Reinforcement Learning. I’m confident that to become a true economic backbone of Internet, Stripe will need help from all advances in computer science it can get its hands on.
After being a hobo for over a year, I’m joining the Developer productivity team at Stripe. And I’m proud to switch from calling Stripes “them” to “us” from now on.