Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Book of Job

Rumors had been whispering for a month. The new financing round hadn’t gone well, the expected deals hadn’t materialized, and something had to give. Free lunches had been cancelled, the weekly company updates had changed to biweekly and the last one of these had been mysteriously cancelled. I started updating my resume.

One Tuesday I learned from backchannels that there would be “a layoff of not insignificant size” the next day. Despite some reassurances from a colleague that I should be safe, that night I tossed and turned until 3am, when I firmly concluded that I would be laid off. A mix of terror and exasperation hit me. I’d been laid off just a year previously, and I didn’t want to be unemployed again. When I awoke Wednesday morning, the commute to work felt like marching to the gallows. 

The process was efficient. Half the startup was called in 1 by 1 to private offices, handed exit papers and told to turn in our badges and laptops. By 10am I was out of the office, and by 11 I had rendezvoused with other ex-employees at the Friendly Toast, where the bar was empty but open. The ensuing hours reached a level of day drinking rivaling my senior year St Patrick’s Day.

When I sobered up, I was sad, bitter, exhausted but excited. I was sad because CiBO had been my most enjoyable job. I had done interesting work with smart coworkers serving a great high level mission. It paid well, hadn’t been too stressful, and I could run to work on occasion. It had even taken me on a crazy 1 day trip to Malaysia. While the job didn’t trap me in the office long, I found myself home practicing Scala and studying the growth stages of corn. It bristles me now how fruitless this effort feels. Furthermore, the immediate termination was much rougher than the 1 month notice GE had given me. I had no time to mentally prepare to wake up the next day with absolutely nothing to do. I was bitter that after this long journey of changing careers, having spent so much time reflecting on what I wanted and then working so hard to actually get there, I had ended up with nothing. Twice. And during winter again. My browser cookies still remembered the Massachusetts unemployment website. I joked that I was now an expert in company collapses, of all different sizes. I got plenty of sympathy laughs, but when faced with the reality of yet another job hunt, I was exhausted before I even began.

Considering how much I care about my career, it’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent so much time funemployed that I've named each period. Leaving Hong Kong, backpacking around Asia and returning to the US was my SabbatiCal. The period between GE and CiBO that involved two international trips were my Callivanting days. This period? More like a Calamity. While I’m lucky to have had so many employment breaks - so many of my friends haven’t had any - this one was ill-timed and unwelcome.

However, I was excited because I had options, because in 2019, data scientists are in short supply.  CiBO had been a fantastic tech environment where I’d worked closely with great software engineers. I had accrued enough confidence that I was a pretty badass data scientist and almost immediately began working with 20+ recruiters. I quickly realized though that I wanted, and had enough savings, to take my time. I wanted to explore transitioning out of a technical role, perhaps into strategy or product management. I wanted to return closer to the energy sustainability domain. And I wanted to move back to Asia. It was a tough multiple-criteria decision problem to optimize.

The best part of this Calamity was the many people who reached out to me and helped. It seems like I caught up with 100 friends that first week, juggling all time zones to the east and west. I chatted with friends about their professional lives and gained valuable insights into how other jobs worked. I had plenty of deep conversations that convinced me that my heart was still in Asia. I specifically targeted Beijing, Shenzhen, and Saigon, cities where I felt I could find cool jobs and cool people.

Saigon had vibed with me when I first visited during the SabbatiCal. I knew there was a decent tech scene, with a large concentration of foreign “digital nomads” utilizing the abundance of talented (and cheap) local coders. I wasn’t sure what the options were for someone with no local country or language background, but my Saigon-dwelling friend Sam Axelrod connected me to someone who’d know. This guy gave me a rundown of the work international consultancies were doing, the locally-disconnected digital nomad scene, and the rapid government-backed digitization across the economy. He inadvertently went on a rant against those big name consultancies collaborating with government officials and multinational corporations to perpetuate modern colonialism. Having also lived in an Asian former colony, this rant won me over - he had expressed my views, albeit much more profoundly and eloquently. When he told me that in his previous role leading a UN bureau, he had made all his employees learn Vietnamese, I was sold. Then the conversation took a turn. “I lead a startup consultancy now. We have a Taiwanese manufacturing client and only one Chinese speaker on staff…and all of our work is really about using data to drive decisions….actually we could really use someone like you.” And so the informational chat turned into a job interview. A week later, I booked tickets to Ho Chi Minh City.
This is a fine ad for funemployment

In the meantime, I had already had a trip to New Orleans to visit my friend Jason Siu and partake in Mardi Gras. I took my employment frustrations out on hurricanes and Sazeracs, and somehow found myself walking down 10 blocks of Bourbon Street double fisting beers looking for Jason. The next morning, I awoke wearing a bushel of beads and needing to dry heave. I had scheduled a handful of recruiter calls before a late afternoon flight back to Boston. As I laid down on the couch in utter pain, I talked to Amazon on speaker phone and tried to go through my work history. I didn’t get a second interview. I barely made it to the airport, where I passed out on the dirty floor while JetBlue delayed us for 2 hours. When I took my middle seat, the old man sitting window asked me, in a volume indicating he was hard of hearing, “Did you enjoy the parades?” I did my best not to puke on him.

Back home, I planned an Asia trip to be part fact-finding mission and part friends catchup tour. I eschewed traveling to new places in favor of looking for jobs in familiar cities. I initially outlined a Saigon to Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Beijing to Paris to London trip, allotting myself 3 weeks. When my friend Doug Heimburger sold me hard on his 40th birthday celebration, I swapped out Shenzhen for Tokyo, then dropped Paris. I realized my dates in Hong Kong would coincide with Tosscars, the annual awards ceremony/party for the Hong Kong ultimate community. The ceremony’s hosts are secret until the event itself, and I had never been a host. I texted the organizers, and asked them if they wanted a super secret host. They replied that the theme was Carnival, and asked me to bring over Mardi Gras party supplies. Coincidentally I got that text while in a cafe in New Orleans, and walked outside to see a street vendor hawking party jackets. I got a sympathy $20 unemployment discount, and that jacket has proven to be one of my best investments.
I made a pun so bad, Vietnam decided to banh mi

Even since 2016, Saigon’s change was noticeable to me. There were more foreigners around District 1, Southeast Asia’s tallest skyscraper on the horizon and flat whites served in some coffeeshops in District 3. My first sight was a continuous stream of motorbikes street with no crosswalks and I had to relearn street crossing in Vietnam (with confidence and without eye contact). 

The startup consultancy was located above a clothing store and consisted of 6 employees. Though I’d be the only non-Vietnamese speaker, I knew I’d fit in well. My main worry with the role was whether I would stagnate technically. Though I was excited to learn about the Vietnamese economy and management consultancy in general, there was a good chance that the clients wouldn’t be ready for any interesting modeling, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to give that up. On my last day there, I was offered a role as an analyst, with the expectation that if I proved I could adapt to Vietnam, I would create and lead the company’s analytics division. There was a lot to consider. Between the motorbike traffic, lack of a subway (coming in 2020!) and inexorable heat, Saigon life is not without its challenges. But the food, coffee, nightlife and people I met in 3 days convinced me I could adapt to love the city.

Saturday morning I flew into Hong Kong. I had told myself that I shouldn’t move back to Hong Kong, that it wouldn’t be good for my career. But as my taxi zoomed down Gloucester Road past the pretty buildings, I thought to myself, I could carve a good life for myself here again. A few hours later I was in my party jacket hidden on the top floor of the Winery in Sai Ying Pun. It had been weird keeping my arrival a secret. As I heard the voices of my friends entering from below, I so desperately wanted to burst out and shout my presence. I managed to contain myself until Donna Doubet announced a surprise guest from America, and I flew down the stairs, threw some authentic New Orleans beads into the crowd, and awkwardly raised my arms, a little uncomfortable with the sudden attention. This was only my second time back in Hong Kong since I left, and I couldn’t imagine a better rewelcome party.

The next several days consisted of as many as 7 appointments a day, catching up with friends and family. I also got some intel on the work environment, and while the tech scene is growing rapidly, I confirmed my suspicions that interesting and high paying data science jobs don’t exist in Hong Kong yet. 
Doug popping his cherry blossoms
Doug’s party in Tokyo was a Hanami 見花, meaning cherry blossom viewing party, because of course Japanese has a word for that. We had rented out space at Yoyogi Park, roped off and carpeted to enforce a shoes-off policy. Organizer Niji had arranged for a small arsenal of whiskey, champagne and a buffet of sandwiches. To meet the formal dress code, I paired the New Orleans party jacket with grey suitpants. Even at this party, I met a programmer who tried to recruit me. I realized that having a skillset unbound by geographies or business domains could be a blessing and a curse - too many options means you have to restrict yourself to stay sane. I decided not to pursue working in Japan. 

Taking place a month past his 40th birthday, the Hanami was really a farewell party for Doug, as he had just accepted a promotion that would relocate him to Seattle. We spent the entire weekend bemoaning the challenges of managing an American career while smitten with Asia. Discussions with him and Austin taught me that for us, location can be more important than job, and wanting to learn a language is a legit factor in deciding location.

In Beijing I was fortunate to get connected with good tech people. My friend Joohee had moved from Hong Kong, and it was only face-to-face when I learned she now worked in Chinese tech venture capitalism. She connected me to the CEO of an AI startup trying to develop the flying car, and through another friend I met the former head of data science at Mobike. I learned about the speed of China’s 9/9/6 tech culture, the role of WeChat in everything, the way government-led directives influence entrepreneurs, and the sheer abundance of data available. Joohee evangelized her bullish views on China, and I was reminded how much I missed the uniqueness of Beijing life when I found myself telling my life story to an attractive group of film producers in Mandarin. I seriously wondered if I should focus on returning to China. However, barriers included the vast amount of competing Chinese programmers and the increasingly domestic nature of China’s tech scene that render multilingual people like me no longer highly valued. And this is before getting to all the moral and logistical complexities enforced by the Chinese government. 

By the time I got to London, I was exhausted. I met with friends there in interesting companies, and tried the city on for size. In my most productive conversation, I talked with a former coworker and ultimate teammate about how moving to Vietnam might mean missing weddings and/or an ultimate tournament in Amsterdam that I’d been invited to. “Oh, you have to go to Windmill.”  And so I did. I returned from my round the world trip with lots of renewed friendships, and lots of discussions comparing the social joys of living in Asia, the family warmth of staying in the east coast, and the asymmetric way America treats international experience. While Asia would always respect my US work experience, the converse was not necessarily true. I decided I needed to at least explore interesting jobs in the US to compare with the offer in Ho Chi Minh City.


I was full of energy the first month back in Boston. I pursued all those things I never have the energy to do when working. I read voraciously, studied languages, attacked the gym, played ultimate and went through a TensorFlow tutorial.

The second month was harsh. The job interview process plodded along frustratingly slowly, and all my hard work towards self-improvement was largely irrelevant to the interviewers. It became difficult to sustain such intensity, and the uncertainty slowly ground me down. Not knowing where I’d live or what sort of income to expect made it difficult to plan things, date or try new activities. 

The Vietnam offer was still outstanding, while two local options were in play. One was a tech startup where I had wanted to work back in 2016 that was now recruiting me. They had given me a dataset assessment back then, and I laughed when they sent it again, virtually unchanged. With years of practice now under my belt, I did a way better job on the assignment. In the followup interview, a kid just out of college review the assignment with me. It was a little stunning to see 2018 as his graduation year, but he introduced to me a little trick transforming linear variables like date or time into cyclical variables, by taking the sine and cosine of them. The interview went well and they indicated they would bring me onsite. Then without explanation, they wished me luck and rescinded the onsite interview.

The second was a large tech firm where my friend had internally referred me as a product manager. I was excited to pivot away from straight technical work, which often strained my extroverted personality. That firm’s HR operated slowly, and weeks elapsed between followups. Finally in mid May, they brought me onsite for a marathon session of interviews. While the experience was largely positive, I reflected over the weekend and realized I needed to follow my heart to Vietnam. With that realization, I then booked my Europe trip for Windmill.

That following week my brother and sister-in-law visited, and I told my whole family that I was moving to Vietnam. They did not take the news well. They mainly believed that the low salary, distance from tech thought leadership and lack of any incredible valuation growth were wrong for me. Only my father, who had spent a decade working in Shanghai, considered the possible upside of being in a growing economy at the right time. The next day at breakfast, my brother asked me if I was happy at my last company. I had been, because we had been working towards real global impact, and that in the months since I hadn’t come close to any company that excited me like that. “Oh there was this company in New York that tried to recruit me last year. They’re using machine learning to solve city sustainability issues. Would that interest you?” “Uh, yeah, no shit that’d be cool.” “Damn, I should have remembered to bring this to you earlier.” “Yes, you should have."

I figured it was too late to apply as I had already interviewed onsite at the big firm. But my brother emailed the CEO, who responded extremely quickly, and the next day I spoke with the head of their urban analytics team. The conversation went shockingly well and I learned that this guy’s previous role was leading analytics for the city of New York. A Google search revealed him to be kind of a big deal, as well as a visible minority in the field. It’d be really cool to work for him. They sent along their dataset assessment and told me to take a week on it. I pulled an all-nighter and turned it back in a day and a half, producing some of the best modeling I had ever done including applying the cyclical transformation trick I’d learned just a couple weeks before.

Finally on Monday, a full two and a half weeks after I’d gone onsite, the big tech firm gave me an offer. It was at the level that I had wanted and legitimately thrilled me. It’s funny how much more interested I’d become in the role when the offer became tangible. Still, I made arrangements to speak with the Vietnam CEO and sent an email to the New York startup informing them of the offer. Again they got back to me right away, and I soon had a call scheduled with the CEO for Wednesday morning. The Vietnam CEO also asked to speak Wednesday morning, and I had a followup with the big tech firm for Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday evening I would fly out to Spain. It would be the most eventful Wednesday since the CiBO layoffs, and similarly, I couldn’t sleep at all the previous night. I had 3 separate timelines at my fingertips, with 3 very different cities and 3 very different roles.

The New York CEO informed me that they typically bring people onsite before offering roles, but he’d be willing to make an exception if I was committed. I replied that if they could meet my salary expectations, I’d also take an offer without coming onsite. He then said he’d have his people get back to me.

The Vietnam CEO and I had a good heart-to-heart chat, but he was not able to meet the salary expectation that I wanted. It was an enormous risk for both of us, and while I’m not exactly risk-averse, I realized that his startup probably wasn’t as ready as other places to get value of data science.

Finally, the Boston tech firm gave me their final offer and told me I had until Friday 5pm EST to accept it. After how long they took to get back to me, I was a bit resentful about the tight deadline they’d given me, but they had other candidates in queue.  I then proceeded to fly to Spain.

When I landed in Madrid on Thursday, I had emails from the New York startup. They wanted me to go on Google Hangouts with some more employees. Sigh. I wanted to vacation, but this was my future, so I said sure, how about 4pm EST/10pm Spanish time? Considering I’d done my final interview with CiBO in Tokyo, this wasn’t even unusual for me. I flew to Bilbao, met up with Antonio and his wife Raquel, grabbed a quick dinner and drink, then hustled back to get on Hangouts. The interview was full of challenging questions, but by now I’d done so many interviews I was almost on autopilot. In one of the last questions, they asked me how I approached a dataset. Tiredly, I asked back, did you see my assessment? Surprisingly, one of the interviewers excitedly responded, “yes, I thought it was awesome, it was so cool how you transformed those cyclical variables.” Fuck yeah, I thought. Finally I told them I had until 5pm tomorrow to respond to the tech firm.
¿Donde esta el email de Nueva York?
The next day we touristed around beautiful Bilbao. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, but the whole day I was aware of the time in New York. 9am... they’re getting into work... lunchtime….no email yet. 11pm Spain was my deadline. By 9pm we posted at a bar with wifi. I tried to be a fun conversationalist but the anxiety was real. At 9:30, the New York startup sent me an email…all it said was “hang in there, we’ll get back to you within the hour.” By 10:30, they still hadn’t. 10:45, the inbox was still unchanged and I’d lost the ability to make conversation. At 10:50 Antonio lent me his phone and I called someone at the company. No response. Finally at 11:00, I sent an email to the big tech firm saying, “I accept!”

The burden was gone. I’d be a product manager in Boston. It’d be a good life. I approached the bartender and said, “Tres tragos de tequila por favor. Tengo un nuevo trabajo!”

I brought the three shots back to our table and prepared to do a toast to the new job. Glass in the air, I sneaked a peak at my phone and glimpsed one new email. “Wait hold on! We have an offer for you!” I put my glass down and sighed.

In the ensuing telephone call, I admonished the New York startup for being late. They quantified their offer, apologized for missing the deadline by 5 minutes, and asked me to consider rescinding the acceptance. That thought literally made my heart quiver - I hate going against my word. I sighed, told him I’d sleep on it, and to please send a formal offer via email. When I checked my email that night, there was a formal offer that was slightly larger than what he’d said on the phone - turns out accepting the other job was a good negotiating tactic - as well as a response from the big tech recruiter revealing her joy at my acceptance. 

I did sleep on it, sent the offer around to my family, and ended up choosing the New York startup - Urbint. The email to the big tech firm rescinding my acceptance was the hardest email I’ve ever had to write - I had to get my brother to draft it for me. I clicked send on the train to Paris, and now, two weddings and a painful move later, I’m in New York City.

The Calamity was longer than desired, but was an invaluable period reconnecting with friends. My lessons learned:
  • It is so valuable having a strong, diverse peer network to inspire and raise you
  • It's important to be patient
  • It's important to be bold
  • It's ok to prioritize location
  • Jobs are like buses. You wait around for ages and then they show up all at once
I've chosen to be patient, to put off my return to Asia for an exciting job opportunity. Hopefully I'll be here in Urbint and New York for a long while. If I'm in this position again in a year, I'll know I'm truly cursed. But if that happens, I'll tell big companies to pay me to work at their competitors.

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