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We met with Romain Guy, Cassidy Williams, and Jon Atack, three tech leads with very different backgrounds. In 7 questions, they share the lessons they've learned and the insights they've gained throughout their careers.

Our guests :

Romain Guy is Director of Engineering for the Android Toolkit, the team responsible for the platform's graphical components. He has been working at Google for 15 years. After studying engineering in Lyon, France, he joined the Mountain View company as an intern and took part in the creation of Android. Check his GitHub.

Cassidy Williams has nearly ten years of experience as a software engineer in the United States (Venmo, Amazon, CodePen, Netlify...). She is a startup advisor and investor, and she also publishes a tech newsletter every week. Check her personal website.

Jon Atack is a major open source contributor (Top 100 Ruby on Rails), he has been a freelance software engineer for over ten years. Since March 2019, he has been actively involved in the Bitcoin Core project. Check his personal website.

Our 7 questions 

  1. At the beginning of your career, did you have a specific career path in mind?
  2. How have you negotiated your salaries throughout your career?
  3. What are the lessons you have learned from experience in terms of compensation?
  4. What is the best advice you have received and/or applied in your career?
  5. What is the biggest mistake you have made in your career?
  6. Looking back, what was the biggest influence on your career?
  7. If you were starting your career today, would you do anything differently?

1. At the beginning of your career, did you have a specific career path in mind ?

Romain Guy

No, I didn't have a career plan in mind. I knew I loved programming and I had one quality that helped me a lot at the time: curiosity. I wanted to do lots of things and I realised that at 25, you have nothing to lose!

I hadn’t planned to make a life for myself in the United States, but then an opportunity came up and I just jumped on it... and now I'm going to be 40 and I'm still here. Only now I have a house, a family, a wife who has her own career... In other words, it's easier to take off and discover the world when all you have to do is pack a few clothes! Of course, it's scary but, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If it hadn't worked out in the US, I would have gone home and done something else.

Jon Atack

As a kid, I imagined something very different. An astronomer, astrophysicist, or microbiologist.  As a college student, I thought I might be a CEO or startup founder. Being sponsored to do open source R&D was an option that didn't exist at the time.

Cassidy Williams

When I was in school I was helping a lot of other students to learn how to code and I also enjoyed speaking at school events. But I didn't fully realise that it could be a job! And so when I was applying for roles initially, I said I wanted to do software engineering because that is what I had been studying. 

“You have nothing to lose by negotiating. Worst-case scenario: they say no.”

- Romain Guy 

2. How have you negotiated your salaries throughout your career?

Cassidy Williams : Even though it is a scary thing to do, I have always negotiated my salary. The way I approach it is to show that I’m grateful to work for the company… but I ask for more money than what’s being offered anyway. For instance, I’ll say: “My take it now price is this, can you get me close to this number?” Sometimes companies will simply say yes, that's great. And sometimes they'll say they can’t but they will offer stock-options to compensate. You then generally have to go back and forth which can be quite uncomfortable. 

Romain Guy : I remember negotiating a raise at the very beginning of my career in France, in Lyon. I was very active in the Java community, I was doing conferences. I felt I was contributing a lot and I gave them a number... They told me it matched the company's salary scale for Paris but not for Lyon. To which I replied: "That's not my problem" (laughs)!

Generally speaking, you have nothing to lose by negotiating. Worst-case scenario: they say no. In your career, you have to be your own publicist, your main advertiser. In other words, you have to know how to showcase your worth and let people know what you are good at. But that doesn't mean you should be boastful either.

Jon Atack : Aside from my teenage and student years, and my first job after leaving university, I haven’t had salaried work. I have come to understand that I'm unhappy if I work directly for money. Freedom is the true luxury.  Money is only a means to that for me. 

Nowadays I have a few sponsors that each provide open-ended annual funding. I suppose it is important that what you are doing is rare, valuable and consistent enough to be free in that way, if it is your goal.

“One question is always worth asking: How does this salary compare to the rest of the team?”

- Cassidy Williams

3. What are the lessons you have learned from experience in terms of compensation?

Romain Guy: The first thing is obviously to do some research to get an idea of your worth and to make sure that you are being treated like others on the market. In large structures like Google, everything is fairly standardised. But in smaller companies, you have to know how to take care of yourself so that you do not end up being undervalued.

After that, let's not forget that a job represents 8 hours of your day and a large part of your life. The salary should therefore not be your main criterion. Personally, if I were offered four times what I earn today for a less interesting job, I wouldn't take it.

At the beginning of my career, when Google invited me to join the Android team, I remember that Sun Microsystems was offering me 20% more. But I still chose Google. It was more risky, Android didn't exist at the time, but I felt there was more to learn and that success would be more rewarding if it became a major OS. Looking back at Google's trajectory, I'm very glad I took the 20% discount!

Jon Atack: Don't be afraid to change employers or missions. And take reasonable care of yourself; don't expect an employer or company to do it for you.

Cassidy Williams: One question is always worth asking: How does this salary compare to the rest of the team? It’s a good test to see if the company values transparency and equality. It's a scary question to ask, but one that can have a true impact on the company’s internal equity.

I would also say that money isn’t everything. There have been times where I've been able to negotiate a really high salary. I thought it was going to be amazing to make so much money, but then quickly realised that the team culture wasn’t as good as where I would have made less. It can be very tempting to follow the money but you shouldn’t be blinded by it. In my opinion, if you can afford to, it is worth taking a lower paying job with a better team. 

“Don’t waste time. Life goes quickly.”

- Jon Atack

4. What is the best advice you have received and/or applied in your career?

Jon Atack: I have found stoic philosophy helpful, particularly Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Don't waste time.  Life goes quickly.

Cassidy Williams: A mentor of mine told me “lift as you climb.” What defines you as a leader is your ability to pull others up with you. In practice, this could mean creating as much documentation as you can, by writing a blog post every time you have fixed a particularly tough bug for instance. Even if it’s only a few paragraphs it could help people, make the industry better, and contribute to creating a better community around you.

Romain Guy: Instead of citing advice I’ve received, I’d rather talk about the importance of having good people around you. In 2007, when I joined Google as an intern, during my fifth and last year as an engineering student, I ended up on the Android team, which was still a secret internal project. I was working with people who had already created operating systems, who had worked on the first Xbox... You can imagine how much I learned in a very short period! 

The best thing to do in a case like this is to observe and learn how successful people do it. This helped me realise how much work goes into these projects and the importance of a true work ethic. 

But although these people worked hard, they also helped each other out a lot. They were fully committed to the common good of the team and the product. The best way to grow is to help others grow. You learn a lot when you feel comfortable asking for feedback from people you respect. By definition, they know things you do not know yet. 

“It is very important to know what you want… but also what you don’t want. Otherwise, you might spend your life chasing after something that won’t make you any happier.”

- Romain Guy

5. What is the biggest mistake you have made in your career?

Cassidy Williams:  I'll allude to what I said before. There have been times when I have followed the money or a big title instead of privileging a team culture in which I would learn better and thrive more. I have learned this the hard way. 

I have worked for companies thinking it would be good for my resume and my bank account but it was not necessarily good for me as a person. Luckily, in those cases, I was able to leave and go to a company where I was much happier. 

Jon Atack: There are too many to list. I lost far too much time not knowing myself and my strengths and weaknesses. Networking and people are key and I've generally not done that enough. 

Romain Guy: A few years ago, I wanted to explore something other than Android and I joined Google's robotics division. I only stayed for a year. In the end, I didn't like it that much. I came back to the Android team in a new position, to do new things. So it was not a serious failure. I had to give it a try... 

What did I learn from this? That it's very important to know what you want... but also what you don't want. Otherwise, you can spend your life chasing something you'll never get and that won't make you any happier. I have come to realise that there are many jobs above mine that I would not like to have. I find it liberating to know that. 

“Being open with people encourages them to help you.”

- Cassidy Williams

6. Looking back, what was the biggest influence on your career?

Jon Atack: Independence. The desire to be free. The advent of micro-computing and open source software. Kind, empowering, reluctant, modest leaders.

Cassidy Williams: I would say the chance encounters which required me to put myself out there. For instance, I happened to meet one of the mentors I have now had for about ten years at a hackathon. I had sent her a thank you note saying “hey, it was nice to meet you. I hope we can meet again soon.” One thing led to another and we became friends. She has more experience than I do so I occasionally ask her for advice. 

This is how I started advising startups and how I found my current role! I chatted with the CTO of Remote and said “I really like what you’re doing. I’m not looking for a job right now, but maybe someday…” and two years later I was working for him!

Putting yourself out there can be hard, especially if you're introverted. I am as well. But being willing to chat, provide resources, or simply say thank you can lead to great opportunities. It's the next generation of networking.

Romain Guy: This is not an easy question to answer, as I tend to go by instinct. However, what I have noticed is that most people who have careers at Google are not so much focused on their advancement or promotion, but rather on doing their best for their users. This may sound a bit earnest but it is true and very important.

Another thing I've noticed is that these people don't simply do what they're told. They also identify problems, propose solutions and persuade teams to work on their project... This is something that is unfortunately not taught much in school, at least not in my time: you have to know how to bring people together.

It doesn't matter if you're the best programmer in the world, if you don't know how to explain your ideas and work with product managers, UX designers, and others to give substance to your ideas, you will not make much progress in your career.

“If I had to do it over again, I would have learned about stoicism earlier.”

- Jon Atack

7. If you were starting your career today, would you do anything differently?

Romain Guy: We all have regrets but they are part of who we are today. So I wouldn't necessarily change much. One thing I would definitely do again is make good use of my free time to try things and learn about myself. 

When I was in high school, I spent many years writing for the computer press. I ended up translating books, getting involved in the community, giving talks... I remember asking my university professors if I could take a few days off to go and give a talk in Boston! It's easier to do when you have nothing to lose.

That's what led me to move abroad, which opened up so many opportunities. It doesn't make your life easier, but you do learn more about yourself. 

Jon Atack: I would have stayed in tech rather than the long forays I made into other fields, and I would have learned about stoicism earlier. 

Cassidy Williams: I think if I were starting my career today, first of all, I would figure out what I like the most in tech by experimenting with web development, iOS development, DevOps, etc. 

And after figuring that out, I would find the communities — whether it's on Discord, forums or social media — where people hang out to talk about these things. I would use these platforms to ask questions or to share what I know. Being open encourages people to help you. You can get a lot out of it. They might recruit you or know the people who will. I would definitely recommend this “people first” approach focused on the tech that you want to learn. 

What we have learned

  1. Know who you are and what you like. At the beginning of your career, the most important thing is to get to know yourself as early as you can by experiencing as many things as possible.
  2. Know your worth and what you want. Negotiating your salary conditions will show that you know your worth. But it should not be the main driving force behind your career.
  3. “The best way to grow is to help others grow.” Choose inspiring mentors rather than a fancy title or salary. Watch them. Learn from them. And give back to the community.
  4. Be friendly and... opportunistic! The best opportunities come from meeting people. Reach out, contribute to the community and build your professional relationships.

We hope these stories will help you steer your career in the direction you want! To finish, a few words of encouragement: if someone has a job you'd like to have in 5 years, do not hesitate to send them a message (LinkedIn, email...) and ask them to meet for a coffee or over the phone. This happens more often than you'd think! Their advice will be invaluable as it will help you understand how they got to this position. Good luck!

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