From startup CEO out of college to iOS developer at Yelp, Thomas Lextrait, shares his journey and lessons along the way.
When I was in college I founded a company called Studifi, a collaboration platform for students. We raised $100k in funding from angel investors and assembled a team of five. We had a few name universities pilot our software with some success. But mostly we struggled converting them to paid. So we pivoted the business model a few times and tried to go after multiple kinds of markets. Yet, we still had little success in creating a viable business. Looking back on this experience, it was a great lesson on being adaptive and searching for a winning formula.
I was graduating with my master’s degree in Computer Science and it was time to decide what to do with Studifi. I felt we had exhausted a sufficient number of attempts at different business models, target markets and so on that the right decision was to shut down the business.
The logical next step was for me to get a real job! With the startup experience and a few internships under my belt, I figured I should be able to find something cool.
As I shifted my mindset from being a startup CEO to looking for a job, I went through a short phase of confusion and wasn’t quite sure what kind of job I wanted to do. In the end, I figured out the most valuable skills I had at that point were my technical skills. From there it was clear that I was going to be looking for a software engineering job.
I interviewed onsite at Trip Advisor, Google, FitBit, Education First and two early stage startups in NYC and Shanghai. Except for the two startups, the interview processes were very similar and started with a technical phone screen where I’d write code in a shared editor online. Typically it would take around 1-2 weeks for me to get feedback and be invited onsite.
Trip Advisor was 4 whiteboarding interviews and a lunch at their Needham, MA headquarters. The interviewers cared a lot about speed. The interviews focused mostly on algorithms, data structures, math and bitwise operations.
Google, I did two whiteboarding interviews followed by lunch with an engineer and two more white boarding sessions. Three of my interviews focused on algorithms and data structures and the fourth one was system design.
At FitBit, I interviewed onsite at their new Boston office which they had just opened. They had just 10 people. My onsite happened all afternoon and I had seven interviews of varying lengths. A few were pair programming interviews and the rest were culture fit and project management related. The final interview at FitBit was a whiteboard question from the CTO, administered by the local VP Engineering.
My interview process with Education First was very unique. There was no official interview. It turned out that the technical due diligence they did on Studifi served as my interview. So there was no additional steps needed except for a short career discussion with the VP Engineering.
I also interviewed with two early stage startups. One in NYC and one in Shanghai. These interviews were much less formal and involved a few face-to-face chats and phone calls with no coding at all. These folks were mostly looking at Studifi on my resume while the bigger companies couldn’t care less.
The startups cared a lot about how I managed projects, solved complex issues, recruited people, and so forth. The large companies mostly cared about my ability to use algorithms to solve specific programming problems, at least during their interviews.
When it comes to early stage startup interviews, I learned that it was very important to not only be fresh on past projects/issues but also to have concise methodologies, principles and opinions that can be shared and explained.
For large companies interviews, it really comes down to preparing using practice coding questions using popular books like Cracking The Coding Interview.
A friend of mine who got a job at Google told me that he did every question in that book 5 times, which was a far cry from my going over just a fraction of the book.
The early stage startup in NYC offered me head of engineering, along with an $80k base salary and a 3% stake in the company. Coincidentally, the other startup based in Shanghai offered the same package. And Fitbit came through with an offer of $85k base and $10k in stock (vesting over 4 years). Sadly, I did not get an offer from Google nor Trip Advisor.
The most interesting thing happened next. Before accepting FitBit, I decided to reach out to Education First, which was the potential partner for my startup and I told them that I was on the market for a job. I had a short meeting with their VP Engineering and they extended me an offer of $100k base. The offer from Education First was different from FitBit’s in one critical aspect: they wanted me to be the tech lead!
I tried using the Education First offer to negotiate my other offers higher but it was unsuccessful.
FitBit said that the learning potential for me justified the pay. Also, it seemed that my startup experience had little to no value with them. The other two startups told me they couldn’t do more.
I did have a few small issues, not with the offers but with the actual jobs offered.
On the startup side, it was clear that I would have no technical mentorship and that was important to me.
At FitBit, it didn’t look like there would be growth opportunities for me and I had some mixed feelings about the company’s future. Plus, Apple was launching Apple Watch around this time. And my stock offer was only worth about $10k over 4 years.
I ended up taking the Education First offer as it was both the best fit and the most generous.
In retrospect, a couple years later, I’m completely confident that I made the right choice. My position at EF allowed me the opportunity to have a big impact which I fully took advantage of. Later on in my career, I was able to leverage that impact to get my next job in SIlicon Valley with 20x the stock FitBit offered.
On the Job
What followed after my taking the Education First offer, were a few personal issues that prevented me from starting on time. It was really unfortunate and led to some extended delays. The VP Engineering at Education First was incredibly generous and waited for me. However, the bad news was that they needed the tech lead soon and ended up filling the position while waiting for me. I was crushed temporarily but I was eventually able to start the job as a regular web developer on my original offer package. I challenged myself to work hard and re-earn my tech lead position from scratch.
It took me a few months to get integrated at Education First and gain a good understanding of the codebase and the business. I had a few wins and gained the trust of my peers. I decided to be proactive and looked everywhere for opportunities to improve the product, the codebase and processes surrounding it. I shadowed people in sales and customer support. I pinged various managers and directors and tried to learn more about their sides of the business over coffee. It was fairly new because I was just a web dev doing some backend work and Salesforce integration and people weren’t used to developers asking business questions or having an interest outside their domain. However, everyone at Education First was very open and eager to share with me. My shadowing experience allowed me to identify a UI flaw that nobody thought was an issue but the fix was very simple and saved support staff several hours each month, improving customer support tremendously.
Small wins like this allowed me to gain people’s trust and it showed I cared about the business and my ability to solve problems.
Fast forward a couple years, I started to think that it was time for me to leave Education First. My success had laid out a bright path forward but at the same time, Education First wasn’t a tech company and I wasn’t going to learn more technically. It was a really difficult choice but I decided to trade a bright career path for more learning opportunities.
Landing a job at Yelp
Pages: 1 2