There is a thread on Quora that I subscribed to when I first signed up for the question/answer service asking for personal experiences about Silicon Valley during the dotcom bubble burst, and it somehow crossed my desk again today. While I wasn’t in Silicon Valley at the time I did experience a micro version of the headiness and exhilaration followed by fear and disappointment that marked that period in history. I felt particularly inspired to summarize my experience today and am re-posting it here for posterity, as Quora itself is another investor-funded startup that may not be around to tell its own tale someday. This blog, however, survived the last boom/bust cycle and seemed like a more permanent place for my thoughts. 😉
Original posting here, my comment below. There are many great personal stories in the thread that I recommend perusing, also.
I experienced it only on the fringe, but still appreciate the chance to have felt some of the energy and to have learned from the mistakes.
In the spring of 99 I was still in college, working my way through a BS in Computer Science. Even 4 semesters away from graduation I felt like the hottest commodity in the world, as any warm body that could write a line of code was in massive demand all over the country even without any real-world experience or specialized skills. I visited a friend in Seattle over spring break and was awash in a smaller-scale but still frenzied version of the Bay, literally receiving competing job offers over dinner to forgo the rest of my degree and start immediately. I remember being completely shocked by the Kozmo.com personal concierge service – a delivery person on a bicycle brought us 2 pints of Ben & Jerry’s and a 6-pack of beer 11 minutes after we placed an online order – and thinking both “how on earth can they be making money doing this?” and “this is what life is going to be like from now on.”
During the winter and spring of 2000 I barely had time for school as I was too busy entertaining the advances of potential employers. Every company had a sales pitch for young engineers, touting their casual offices, pool tables and arcade games, on-site massage, free food of all kinds, lists of crazy perks. My friends in other fields of study were frequently aghast at the extravagances afforded to me as part of the interview process alone, and even more so at the exorbitant salaries offered even for internships when many of their careers would start with unpaid internships followed by years of ladder-climbing to match my post-graduation earning potential.
I knew I should be skeptical and objective, but it was just so easy and so exciting to feel like a rock star. That’s what everyone was saying – software engineers are the new rock stars, and millionaires could come in any shape but would most likely not be wearing a suit.
It was also easy to let the headiness inflate your confidence beyond a healthy level. I flatly turned down any job offer that wouldn’t let me finish my degree on schedule, or that wasn’t close to adequate downhill skiing; such demands seemed perfectly reasonable to everyone involved. I passed on multiple internship offers at Microsoft and Hewlett Packard because I wanted something smaller and sexier. I leased a brand new car, figuring from this point on my life would be a series of frequent upgrades to my vehicle – along with everything else. I bought frivolous things like giant speakers, treated my friends to dinners and rounds of drinks, and even bought an entire bar drinks one night just because it was fun to see their faces. I was still a full-time college student and only a part-time software intern during all of this, so I hadn’t even begun to indulge in the things I expected to once my degree was complete and I dove fully into the workforce, and yet I was already living a life that solicited envy from friends with respectable, well-paid careers ahead of them in medicine, civil engineering, finance or architecture.
I waited too long. Or rather, the boom didn’t wait for me. By the time I graduated in May 2001, my internship-hosting startup declined to extend me a post-graduation offer, instead issuing layoffs to many of my full-time colleagues. Recruiters that I had been teasing for months were suddenly no longer with the company, and entire headhunting firms disappeared completely or ceased operation of their tech hires divisions. I, too, was glued to FC but for different reasons – desperately hoping that the places I still had active recruiter contacts didn’t make the list. I was still too full of optimism and false confidence to believe that eventually they all would.
Interviewing became my full-time job. I was determined to find something and spent 7 months working 50-60 hours per week entirely at the business of getting hired. I had family near Seattle that generously offered a spare room, and so my efforts were concentrated there but I would have gone anywhere within 2 days’ driving distance of Thanksgiving dinner if anything had materialized. I managed to land several first interviews per week simply by being energetic and obsessively persistent, but the dejected and often terrified recruiters I met with never called me back for second meetings. I was competing for entry-level software jobs with experienced veterans recently departed from hot startups, and frequently in the time elapsed between the job posting hitting Monster.com and persuading my way into a meeting, the entire department hiring for the role had ceased to exist. Sometimes, the company, too. I remember a particular recruiter at Adobe that had made the mistake of leaving me with a glimmer of hope after an initial meeting; every Monday for the next 4 months I literally stalked him in the Adobe lobby, waiting for him to take a lunch break so I could follow him to his car, inquiring hopefully about any new openings. Eventually he stopped going to lunch… or else perhaps he was laid off, as well.
When I finally gave up on the tech industry (at least for a few years) and accepted a job adjusting insurance claims, I had completely worn out a cheap suit, filled 5 credit cards completely to their limit paying for gas, coffee, and laser printing, and learned more about my own limitations and the challenges of the real world than I ever expected to in my first year out of college. Today I am never intimidated by a job interview and I can tolerate great professional disappointments, as I will never be rejected so much as I was rejected that summer and especially after building such large expectations of success.