Fall 2018: Reflections

December 30, 2018

Bixby Bridge “The sun rises today and sets again. A flower that bloomed in the morning, falls from the stem. The sun sets today and rises again. Flowers bloom to fill the land. But not the flowers of yesterday.” - Mushishi

I distinctly remember heading to the airport on September 2nd, visa paperwork in hand along with copies of every document pertaining to my identity. Did I forget anything? Am I too early? Too late? Landing a job in California is a goal I have been working towards for years, a milestone sought after by my peers at school and the culmination of many hours spent studying and mock interviewing. The high proportion of notable tech companies, weather, and salaries are just some of the reasons which make working in the San Francisco Bay Area desirable.

It’s been a week since I returned home from San Francisco and I’m still struggling to find the words to succinctly describe the last four months. I say this not in a romantic “I had the best time of my life, I don’t even know where to start!” way, but more so to illustrate the nature of change, which brings about a slew of pros and cons. For the sake of posterity, and admittedly to avoid giving an ill-conceived answer every time someone asks how my term was, I figure that it would be beneficial to organize my thoughts while they are still at the forefront of my mind.

life at yelp

This co-op term, I had the privilege of working at Yelp as a software engineer. My previous work term was spent at the satellite office of a smaller company, and as such, Yelp was a much different experience than what I had been accustomed to. Going from knowing nearly everyone’s face to walking by strangers every day was an adjustment. This came with the benefit of always getting to meet new people, but at times I felt like a cog in the wheel.

When I got the offer, I was given a selection of teams to choose from. I joined Ad Creative (later Ad Platform) doing work in a full-stack capacity. The impetus for choosing this team was a desire to work on product-facing features; I previously worked on internal tools at PagerDuty, so I was curious to see how this would compare. I definitely felt a greater sense of gratification working on things that consumers directly interact with. This is in part due to the ease of selecting appropriate metrics which provide direct insight as to how an experiment is performing. Going onward, I would like my next role to have a focus on back-end development but still have opportunities to work on front-end tasks (perhaps an 80/20 split respectively). While I want to continue to sharpen my skills by building beautiful user interfaces and robust components, the challenges that concern working on application logic are more appealing to me.

With regard to Yelp’s culture, I found the environment to be quite relaxed with most people working 7-8 hours per day. I did work a string of 10 hour days towards the end of the term, but that pressure was largely self-inflicted and a function of the time-boxed nature of internships. Almost everyone I worked with was friendly and willing to help when I ran into obstacles. I’m appreciative of my mentor and managers for granting me the flexibility to work on projects that were oriented towards my learning goals. Having weekly meetings with my mentor and bi-weekly meetings with my manager helped with aligning my interests with ongoing team initiatives.

In terms of seniority, it seemed to me that most teams I interacted with were fairly bottom-heavy with the majority of people having <5 years of experience. This does not present a concern for current me, but I definitely recognize that future me will likely prefer a balance of more senior mentorship on a team level.

As a final note on Yelp’s culture, I found that the company is much more people-centric than other companies in the area—perhaps caused by the absence of flashy perks. For instance, not having catered lunch provided an incentive for people to go out with coworkers for lunch instead of eating at their desk. Beer on tap and company happy hours served as a catalyst to hang out with co-workers after the workday as opposed to a selling point for joining the company. That is not to say that food, on-site massages, and the myriad of other cushy perks found within the industry are unwelcome, rather it is important to acknowledge the trade-off between having these things and fostering a sense of entitlement among employees.

One key takeaway for me is that I will likely never be able to source a deep sense of purpose in the overarching mission of a company. Fundamentally, the goal of most tech companies in the web space is the same: grow the user-base. I could only ever find passion in this if I was growing a company of my own, not doing so for someone else. More local factors such as the goals of my team/org, the impact of my work, and a sense of ownership will be the major considerations for me going forward.

Finally, I must give a special mention to the Yelp Intern Program (YIP) and the company’s commitment to ensuring that every intern has a great experience. A reoccurring joke at Yelp is that “Team Intern” is the best team to be on, and while I do not have the contrasting experience of a full-time, I am inclined to agree. The YIP coordinators did a stellar job planning events once or twice a week in an effort to get us to see more of San Francisco and the surrounding area. Hiking, bowling, mini-putt, magic shows, mixers, football games, dinners—there was truly something for everyone.

Yelp Fall 2018 Intern Class + YIP Team Yelp Fall 2018 Intern Class + YIP Team

new places, new faces

After being thrust into a foreign environment with few familiar faces in my immediate vicinity, I naturally had to interact with hundreds of strangers. I consider myself to lean more towards introversion than extroversion as I very much value spending time in solitude. Nevertheless, I challenged myself throughout the term to start conversations and form relationships with new people and I am glad that I did.

The progression from stranger to acquaintance to friend is something of great interest to me. When learning an entirely new subject, one cannot start reading academic journals without gathering some initial context on the field. Human relationships are much the same. Small talk parallels the preliminary reading one must do, with intimate conversation being the equivalent of an academic journal in this analogy. I believe that allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the key to forming meaningful relationships. Humans are more similar than we like to admit, and talking about your passions, thoughts, concerns, and beliefs is a great way to build rapport and trust.

I met many fascinating people at and outside of work and learned more about other countries, the arts, technology, wine, the mating behaviour of elk, and a variety of other unrelated topics. The diversity of people’s experiences was refreshing and made for good conversation. Spending time with people who have similar thoughts as you do does not do as much for shaping your worldview as talking to people with a different mindset. Like a tourist collecting souvenirs, there is something to be learned from every interaction one has with another person.

One challenge that I must overcome is a reluctance to spend time with new friends. I have been blessed with such a close-knit friend group since elementary school that I often ask myself, “what’s the point of hanging out with _____ when we’ll never be as close as I am with my closest friends?” I am also in constant contact with my friends via group chats and voice calls, meaning I almost never feel deprived of a relationship with others. I don’t feel compelled to invest time into another relationship when there are other people in my life who have had a decade-long head-start; inside jokes and fond memories are my gluttony. This is a naive way of thinking though. Relationships don’t progress in a linear manner and ultimately, you can forge a strong relationship with someone in a matter of weeks or over multiple years. I hope that being cognizant of this will lead me to say “yes” more often when a newer friend asks me to do something with them.

san francisco

Collage of places visited in SF and the surrounding area Japantown, Big Sur, Land’s End, Pier 7, Point Reyes, Angel Island, Muir Woods

I was surprised upon arrival to find that the temperature is not as warm as I expected it to be. When the word “California” comes to mind, many people envision sunny, hot days. This was not the case as the San Francisco Bay keeps the climate temperate. Interestingly, the terrain and oceanic effects in the city lend themselves to the forming of microclimates. There could be a 15°C temperature difference between locations only a few miles apart. Wearing layers became a necessity for days spent outside. Summers are very dry while winters are foggy and rainy. The largest Californian wildfire to date, dubbed Camp Fire, occurred during my stay. The public was advised to wear respirator masks outside as a result of the poor air quality and the image below illustrates just how devastating the effects were even from hundreds of miles away. Although I miss the warmer weather now that I’m back in the midst of an Ontario winter, I have found an appreciation for the presence of four distinct seasons in Canada. The passage of time feels more impactful when accompanied by drastic climate changes. The proximity to a variety of different landscapes is one of the main reasons why I’m attracted to San Francisco. One can easily drive and access mountainous terrain, coastal views, woodlands, wetlands, and more. I was able to cross off a lot of landmarks from my bucket list and I hope to get to the rest soon.

Camp Fire effects on air quality in San Francisco Camp Fire effects in San Francisco (photo by James Morrin via Wikimedia Commons)

San Francisco is renowned as a cultural hub and a place that embraces quirkiness and difference. The political climate is very liberal and I found that people care more about healthy living, the environment, and the outdoors more than anywhere I have lived before. The food is phenomenal with a wide selection of cuisines to choose from in every price range. No matter how niche your interests are, there is likely a meetup group within the city which caters to them. In addition to this, the tech scene in the San Francisco Bay Area is world-class, and although other places in the world are making major strides in this regard, Silicon Valley and San Francisco by extension are still undoubtedly the places to be to obtain venture capital and scale a start-up. Furthermore, it is no exaggeration when I say that a competent software engineer can find a job at a renowned company within a matter of days here.

The public transportation infrastructure in the city is pretty good relative to other American cities of similar size. Between BART, Muni, Caltrain, and SamTrans, travelling within San Francisco and the surrounding area is fairly hassle-free and I feel as if owning a car would even be an inconvenience. It’s worth noting that the cost of Uber and Lyft rides is very reasonable and a fraction of the price one would pay in Toronto for a trip of the same distance. Although I did find taking the TTC to be less reliable than Muni and BART when I worked in Toronto, TTC subway stations and vehicles are an order of magnitude cleaner than those in San Francisco.

Perhaps the most off-putting aspect of life in San Francisco is the high population of homeless people. The smell of urine permeates the downtown air and biohazards such as needles and human feces are not an uncommon sight. I feel as if my compassion and empathy for the less fortunate slowly began to wane, like a flame being extinguished. Some of my friends got their belongings stolen and hearing people yelling to themselves became somewhat of a background track to my evening commute. The housing prices in the city are astoundingly high and the distribution of wealth within the city is incredibly skewed. The causal factors of this problem are well-documented, and as a transplant, I do not think I would be able to dissect these issues elegantly. This article provides an insightful summary.

parting thoughts

Overall, I had a great term filled with new experiences and realizations. To anyone that gets the opportunity to spend a term in San Francisco, I would definitely recommend it. The city is not the utopia that it is made out to be by peers at school, but it does have a distinctive charm to it. As for the future, I want to live in Seattle and South Bay during my upcoming work terms to get a better sense of where I want to be after I graduate. In an age where travelling is more accessible to the general public than ever before, I highly encourage those who are able to venture out of their city to do so and see what life is like elsewhere. Whether within your own province/state, country, or internationally, putting oneself somewhere new is a means of achieving growth and fulfillment.

Thanks to Zarina M., TJ Y., and Tiffany Q. for proofreading this post.

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