Why I Turned Down a Six-Figure Salary in Big Tech to Stay at a Five-Person Startup
Two years out of coding bootcamp and I had an incredible offer from one of the world's most highly-regarded tech companies… and I declined it.
Table of contents
- How it started
- How I made my decision
- Final thoughts
On paper, it was the dream job. Hell, it would have been the most "adult" job I'd ever had in my life so far. Stocks, bonuses, incredible benefits, prestige and an incredible all-remote team. It would absolutely sky-rocket my career; the name on my resume would open doors, opportunities and a path to further success. I would never have to worry about how to pay my bills again.
It took me six interviews and a take-home project to get this offer. So why did I decline it?
To turn down a role like this was no small decision, especially considering the financial implications. Personal anecdotes from others helped me to make my decision and I wanted to share my story and process too.
How it started
Who am I?
Hi, I'm Annie. I'm an Australian multi-disciplinary designer who graduated from a Canadian front-end development bootcamp in July 2019. I was also an English instructor in Japan, among a variety of other random jobs.
My first developer job out of bootcamp was at a small WordPress VIP agency, where I worked for a little over a year. I then moved to a B2B SaaS startup, Pastel, as their first hire in October 2020. (I'm currently the Front-end Engineering Lead here.) In July 2021, I got an offer from one of the world's biggest and loved tech firms.
It's been a wild journey.
It's May 2021. I've just received an email from the manager of a large tech company, asking if I was interested in a developer advocacy position on their growing team.
I instantly think they've made a mistake.
Clearly, they didn't mean to email me. After the initial shock, I realise they've taken the time to fill out the form on my website. Slowly it dawned on me that yes, they did mean me.
At this point, I barely knew what developer advocacy was, but I was curious about it. They had found me through Twitter and the role sounded like it would involve a lot of the things I was already doing on the side. I mean, who wouldn't want to get paid for the things they do in their free time, right?
However, I was really happy in my new job and was initially going to turn down the chance to interview. I shared the news with a good friend, an experienced senior engineer I trusted. Long story short, he yelled at me in all-caps and reminded me to, "always be interviewing".
And that's how it started.
Deep-diving into Developer Advocacy
Over the next couple of months, I did my due diligence researching everything I could on developer advocacy/relations. I was keen to understand the role and what it would involve. I read many articles, including this very helpful Q&A with Angie Jones, a Senior Director of Developer Relations.
I was extremely fortunate to be able to reach out to current developer advocates through Twitter and my wider connections. I sought opinions from people with years of experience in the role. On calls and through messages, they shared growth ladders, salaries, experiences, expectations and the pros and cons of the position.
I scribbled notes on random pieces of paper and soaked it all in, trying to build an all-round picture of what my day to day might look like, both in the role itself and at the particular company in question.
The interview process
The first thing I did after talking to my friend was to schedule a casual call with the manager who had reached out. I got a good impression of what the team was trying to achieve and felt this was someone I could work well with.
I decided to proceed to the first formal step, which was speaking with the hiring manager. Here, I was given a high-level overview of the team and their current initiatives. It was a chance for me to ask more questions and get a feel for the people I'd be potentially working with. Afterwards, I had to sign an NDA before progressing any further, so I won't be going into any detailed specifics.
The next stage was a take-home project. I was given two weeks to put together a presentation for the company's Dev Rel team. I chose a couple of technologies and concepts, merged them together and added my own unique spin to teach and advocate for the platform.
I learned a lot for this presentation, as one of the platform's technologies I chose was completely new to me. To understand it better, I had to deep dive into several other concepts. Not someone to do things in half measures, I poured hours into this outside my full-time job — researching, content creation and presentation practice —and it paid off.
The presentation itself went amazing and was well-received. Surprisingly, I felt confident and had a lot of fun with it! I don't have much experience with public speaking, so this had been a concern of mine.
At this stage, I could choose to drop out of the rest of the interview process if I felt the role wouldn't be a good fit. However, it was at this point where it hit me - I really could do this developer advocate thing!
I decided to go all-in, and my final four interviews were scheduled for the beginning of July.
It took just over two months from when the manager first reached out on May 11, 2021, to when I got the formal written offer on July 14th, 2021. Suddenly, the decision was brought into sharp focus, and I had two weeks to sign or decline.
How I made my decision
Trust that either choice is a win-win
It was quite stressful to be in a situation where the choice I made would have a huge impact on my life over the next few years. I lost sleep and my appetite was non-existent for a couple of weeks while I agonised over it.
However, at the end of the day, I realized there really wasn't a bad choice. It all came down to which experiences I wanted to have.
When faced with tough choices, I always ask myself the question, "What would I regret less at the end of my life?" It might seem a bit extreme, but honestly, this question gives me big-picture clarity to decide what I want to do with the limited time I have on Earth. What meaningful experiences do I want to cultivate during this time?
If I chose to stay, I'd be able to dive deeper into software engineering, help grow and shape a small company, learn about and get involved in business and product growth decisions.
For a while now, my professional goal has been to become exceptional at front-end development, while building knowledge in the back-end and dev ops to supplement this. I was very excited about Pastel's company vision and direction, and I knew how I wanted to contribute to it. In a startup, things move fast. With my CTO, we had long planned out my growth trajectory there - the kind of responsibilities I would have, the things I would do and what that would look like.
If I chose to leave, I had the opportunity to be more visible in the community as someone from a non-traditional background, a person of colour and a woman. It would send a powerful message to others to know that this Big Tech company hires bootcamp grads and self-learners.
I would increase my breadth of skill as I learn about various tooling to share them with the wider community. Building my network and helping others get better at what they do would be part of my job. I would get better at presenting and be doing things similar to what I'd already been doing in my free time, but now with the support and formal backing of a large company behind me.
Know your values
Who do you want to be in a few years and what do you want to be doing? After the presentation, I knew I could do the developer advocacy role and do it well. Years of design work, teaching/mentoring experience and diverse overseas living would give me some particularly unique advantages here. Plus, as an extrovert, spending time with people is energizing for me and I love connecting with people and seeing them succeed.
Yet, when I thought deeply about my personal values, job stability, status and a desire for prestige isn't among them. These were some of the top benefits the new company offered. I crave novelty, I'm not risk-averse and at heart, I've always been a creator. I want to build cool shit with cool people and have fun along the way.
In a startup - especially one pretty early on - the things you do from one year to the next change. There is novelty here. It's easy to be swayed by big numbers but money itself has never been a singularly motivating factor for me throughout my life. I view it as a side effect of creating value. That's not to say I don't negotiate salaries or seek to improve my financial situation - I just see it as one factor in a larger holistic list of considerations.
Coming back to my core values helped me make my decision.
Content creation and creative work aren't new to me - I've had practice as a designer working on multiple projects. On the other hand, engineering is out of my comfort zone and doesn't come naturally. In life, choosing the harder things are often the most rewarding for your growth.
I also figured the offer wasn't enough to offset the loss of my engineering career capital. By switching into developer advocacy now, I would lose whatever momentum I was gaining by being in the trenches and repeatedly doing development work. At this stage, I wanted to focus on building depth of skill, as opposed to more breadth.
I also thought about impact and legacy. In a big company, you make a smaller impact on a greater number of people. In a small company, you make a greater impact on a smaller number of people. Neither one is better than the other - just different. The viable level of impact I'm able to have in a startup felt pretty meaningful to me.
For me, it ultimately came down to being a practitioner who occasionally teaches, versus a teacher who occasionally practices.
Side note: Shortly after I turned down the role, Kelly Vaughn tweeted this and it strongly resonated, making me feel like I had made the right decision.
Don't let social clout cloud your decision-making
Having an online audience brings opportunities, but there's a cost to being in the public eye.
The developer advocate role is a fairly visible one, potentially requiring me to be more active on social media. I had not sought to "grow my Twitter following" when I first became more active on the platform and had concerns it might become difficult for me to untangle my sense of worth and value from the vanity metrics of social media. Not only that, I'm aware of the distractive impact of social media on deep work - something I value in my quest to get good at my craft.
At one point, when I seriously thought I was going to take the role, I had already imagined what sharing the news on Twitter would be like. Someone I knew had started a job at the company around this time and their profile had absolutely blown up as a result.
More than anything, something that played in my mind over and over again was sharing proof that big tech companies do hire bootcamp graduates and self-learners like myself. It felt like such an incredibly powerful message to get out into the world. It could change someone's life.
But at the end of the day, I had to do what felt right for me.
The grass isn't always greener on the other side
In conversation with a senior developer who worked at another big tech company, I realised what I had was rare and valuable.
At our startup, we barely had any company politics. With a lean team of only five people, Pastel currently has a very flat company hierarchy.
In a bigger company, many are vying for the kind of responsibility I currently have and struggling to be noticed by higher-ups. In another company, big decisions are made, signed off and passed down to be executed. Here, I'm an integral part of all roadmap plannings and product direction meetings. I have full freedom to handle and execute on the UI, UX and improve accessibility on the app. My voice and opinions are trusted and valued.
Second, to find a mentor who's deeply invested in your professional growth as an engineer, actively providing you with autonomy and responsibility, alongside a product you personally resonate with, isn't something you find every day. My CTO, as my professional mentor, has been coding since he was eight. He breezed through his computer science classes and turned down interviews with Google, Facebook, etc to work on his own thing.
True, in a few years, I could easily join another startup if I decide to move away from developer advocacy… but right now, I'm working on a product that lies at the intersection of design and development, much like my experiences as a designer/developer. Pastel speaks to me; it's a product I can get behind and it personally solves a pain point I've experienced myself.
Do your homework
As mentioned earlier, while trying to make up my mind, I reached out and spoke to a lot of people. Being in the middle of this seemingly momentous career decision, I knew there would be blind spots and biases I wasn't aware of. I wanted to make sure I had as much information as possible to make an informed decision that was right for me.
I spoke to numerous developer advocates to ask about their work and day-to-day. I spoke to people who worked at the company who made the offer. I spoke to people who had been in similar situations and asked how they came to their various decisions. I researched the new role heavily and by the end, I knew a lot about a path that had not previously been on my radar.
A notable point came out from one particular conversation with a very senior engineer, who had been a developer advocate for a while. While in that role, he would give talks at conferences and there would be people doubting his experience because he didn't have "engineer" in his current title. To give context, he's a white male who was fairly senior at that point. It gave me pause as to what people would think of me - female and without years of technical experience or a Computer Science degree.
Developer Advocacy is still a fairly new role in tech, and one of its hiccups is unfortunately people sometimes think advocates aren't as technically able as full-time developers or engineers. This is not correct. Those who do this work need to have technical ability, plus a range of other skillsets beyond that. Over time, I'm hopeful this mindset will gradually change.
Edit (Dec 29, 2021): Adding this section on risk mitigation, as a few folks were worried I'm getting paid peanuts or making a bad decision.
As with everything in life, whether you do one thing or another, there's some form of risk. These were factors I considered that reduced my risk of staying at a startup.
1. Counter Offer
Before you think crazy numbers, it must be stated that location plays a factor and I live in Canada, not America. There's universal health care here and salaries are lower than the American numbers you often see flaunted all over the internet. American tech companies have location-based salaries. To be transparent, while my offer was six figures in Canadian dollars, when converted to American, it would be five. Such is life.
If I was only making ~$55k CAD a year (the median salary of graduates from my bootcamp), leaving would have been a no-brainer. As it was, Pastel made a compelling counter-offer (which I negotiated) and this decreased the compensation gap between the two options. Hey, I'm all for building financial security in your life.
Many startups rely on investor funding without a market-proven product. Pastel is bootstrapped, runs on a subscription model, profitable before I started and growing. This decreased the financial risk of the company going bankrupt and me losing my job.
Additionally, while my title is still that of a developer, I negotiated the ability to dedicate 30% of my time doing developer advocacy work, should I choose to. I felt this was an interesting and calculated way to dip my toes into this world, beyond my side projects.
2. Long Term Game
If this was a straight choice between doing engineering at Company A vs Company B, the decision might have been easier. However, this wasn't a simple corporate vs startup decision. It was also a decision of the type of career path you want: Software Development vs Developer Advocacy.
You can absolutely build an incredible career through advocacy work. I know this through my research and those I see in the field. But this is also true for Engineering. Given that, when I compare the two career paths, truthfully I feel more excited about building depth in development than I do about organising and giving talks on it.
In his book, "So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love", Cal Newport shared an interesting idea; Control is one of the most powerful traits you can acquire when creating work you love. In order to keep that, sometimes you might have to say no to a raise.
What is the end goal here? To find work you love? Or to get a company name on your resume?
I also mentioned this briefly before, but it's worth reinstating; Beyond engineering, I want to learn about building and managing a business. At a startup, I'm on the ground shaping company culture, advocating for better product decisions, and possibly doing future hiring. I have greater say on how the company can make an impact in the world.
The learnings I'm acquiring in this process is no small thing and is worth a lot to me. I'll be able to take these skills, lessons and knowledge into my next role.
3. Professional Network
It's not a myth that people often get jobs through their network. Be it through a friend's friend, a referral or something else, many a job has been secured via a connection. Had I felt less confident about this aspect of my life, the company name on my resume would hold much greater sway over my decision.
As it is, over the past two years, I've slowly cultivated authentic industry connections I trust and value. Not for the purpose of getting work, but simply because I'm curious about who they are and the myriad of interesting things they're doing in the world. And yes, some of these good people work at FAANG and other big tech companies that shape much of our world.
When the time is right and if I'm no longer professionally challenged in my role, I'll think about my next move. Who knows, maybe full developer advocacy will be on the books.
Listen to everyone's advice... and ignore most of it
At the end of the day, your journey is your own. Oftentimes, you have a more nuanced picture of your particular situation than others. Do your due diligence but follow your gut and decide how your life plays out. Your values, needs and desires are different from others. Own your journey, and don't let others tell you what you should do.
About 90% of people I spoke to advised me to take the position- it wasn't easy to go against the grain and do the opposite.
Yet, only you can decide who you want to be.
Ultimately, this was an incredible opportunity. But it just wasn't my opportunity. Through this whole process of trying to figure out whether to stay or go, when I finally made my decision, it felt right for me. It was a very intentional decision.
I very clearly understood what I was giving up by declining the offer. In many ways, it gave me a stronger sense of purpose, confidence and energy with the current path I'd chosen.
Do I feel sad about turning it down? Of course! It's hard not to. The people I met throughout the process were all extremely kind and welcoming. I could imagine how much fun it would be to work with them. I'm grateful to have had this experience and the learnings I took away from it.
It's not easy but I'm excited about getting better at engineering. At Pastel, things are still tough right now, but the deep work I'd be doing over the next year or so to consolidate the skills I'm struggling with, are going to compound. In a year or more, I'll have greater breadth and depth of knowledge to build, grow and shape a company and product. This is incredibly energizing for me.
Watch this space.
I want to personally say the biggest thank you to everyone who was there throughout this journey with me. Thank you for your support, for taking the time to listen, weigh-in and consider options with me. I am beyond grateful you made time for me. You know who you are and I deeply appreciate you.