Saying No to Silicon Valley

As a college student, I spent most of my time working on side projects, either for research labs at school or for local clinicians and scientists in the Pittsburgh area. I did this as a way to learn new skills and figure out what I was interested in.

Eric Zhang

As a college student, I spent most of my time working on side projects, either for research labs at school, or for local clinicians and scientists in the Pittsburgh area. I did this as a way to learn new skills, and figure out what I was interested in. I ended up learning a ton from these experiences, although they ironically taught me more about what types of work I disliked, rather than what I liked.

The Post-Grad Dilemma

Like most seniors, I had an internal existential crisis on what I’d be doing after graduation. I considered three options: do more research and pursue a masters or a PhD in engineering, complete a coursework based masters degree for added depth in a specific field, or apply for full-time jobs and continue learning from work or on my own time.

I immediately rejected the prospect of continuing research, as my previous experiences were excruciatingly slow-paced. Although many of my former labs studied interesting scientific problems, the experimental process typically consisted of boring and menial work. This would require at least two years of commitment (MS/MEng), and upwards of six (PhD) with what I saw as minimal added value and learning.

The prospect of a coursework masters, however, was more compelling. I briefly explored aspects of mechanical, electrical, and software engineering for various side projects and was curious to explore the theory at greater depth. However, there was no way of knowing if the things I’d learn would be relevant or practical in the workplace, or if I’d even enjoy doing that work full time without first having job experience in that field.

I decided to search for a full-time role in either engineering or project management, which as someone who had only ever done research internships, was a bit of a conundrum. Even generic titles like “Entry Level Software Engineer” can have a great deal of variety across companies. What kind of software? Front end or back end? Are you looking for an actual developer or someone who can write scripts on Excel? What is the the company culture and reputation like? Compounding these types of questions, across industries from aerospace and defense to healthcare and across roles in engineering, product design and project management, quickly made this problem out to be a lot hairier than it first seemed.

It took many interviews and over six months of introspection for me to acknowledge that the sort of “normal job” that most college graduates take, would be too boring for me. Several of my interviewers reached similar conclusions, and shared direct feedback alongside “normal job” offers that I eventually turned down. At this point, it was mid February and my status as being potentially unemployed was beginning to stress out my parents, so I decided to take a more aggressive approach to my process.

The Venture for America Adventure

I submitted my application to Venture for America during the last week of the last round of applications. I had been aware of VFA from friends in the program, but hadn’t considered it seriously until after I was accepted into the fellowship. What stood out to me, was the full scope of companies listed on the Match portal - from venture funded to bootstrap, sized as small as 3-5 and as large as 50, and in every field conceivable, from hospitality, to virtual reality.

Attempting to dig through 500+ companies forced me to generate a quick list of priorities, both personal and professional. Proximity to New York (home) was preferred, but Pittsburgh was acceptable, as I had spent 4 years in the city for college. I blacklisted any medical device/healthcare companies and prioritized other roles in engineering and technology. IoT companies immediately bumped to the top of my list, as I did a lot of IoT tinkering for fun, and ran workshops on Azure (Microsoft’s Cloud platform) for other students at school.

At this point, it was March, I would be graduating in April, and planned on being offline and traveling in May.  I was intentional about being quick and decisive with my process, and voiced this during my interviews. I reached out to three companies and was pitched by four more. From my initial email and phone conversations, Leverege was extremely responsive and straightforward. In contrast, other companies were much slower and clearly lukewarm about having to make a decision so soon.

So why Leverege?

  • Fast-paced and friendly work culture (bonus points for informal dress code!)
  • Human-centered design approach to enterprise/customer side of IoT
  • Opportunity to incorporate my side projects as a part of my real job

All three of these points are deal-breakers for me, but the last bullet is something I wasn’t expecting to find until much later in my career. Fast forward to present day, and all of these points still stand, and I’d even add another:

  • Opportunity to work on projects and push the boundaries of knowledge in ways that I would never have imagined if I stayed in research or academia

If you go to sleep on Sunday excited for Monday, you’re in the right place. Leverege is one of those places for me, and I’m super stoked about building the future of IoT with the rest of our team.

Eric Zhang

Director of Data Science

Eric enjoys experimenting with all sorts of development hardware. As a former teaching assistant, workshop coordinator, and Microsoft Student Partner, he is constantly searching for better ways to deliver educational tech content to the masses.

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