I'm going through a very interesting period in life. It's very exciting and terrifying at the same time. Two weeks ago I left my dream job at Google X, moved out from my favourite flat, and now trying to find my next big thing in life. This article is an attempt to document my journey, difficult decisions I've made, share learnings, discover new ideas and like-minded people.
Google X time
I've been a Software Engineer at Google for the past 5.5+ years. Last 3 years working at X, the moonshot factory (formerly called Google X). Our team focused on tackling the biodiversity crisis of insects.
Everybody knows that the bees are dying, also bees are responsible for the majority of food we have on our tables. We started about 3 years ago listening for the bees buzzing with IoT devices and trying to figure out insights into their health (see small glimps into our initial work). Then we started scaling towards more and more different species, trying to figure out AI-driven insights about them.
There's a massive biodiversity crisis of insects (and not only). The biggest driver of biodiversity decline is the use of pesticide (more in this book). It's super important to reduce the use of pesticides and shift towards more sustainable regenerative agriculture/forestry/aquaculture practices. We did a lot of progress figuring out novel monitoring solutions, organising data, modelling population dynamics with AI and producing actionable insights. I can't share too many details, unfortunately, but I want you to get the overall spirit!
It's been my true dream job. So many great stories like: we can't have a meeting with clients because bears broke a fence around apiary and trying to steal the honey. Once we had a hardware bug: a hole for the mic in our hardware had honeycomb shape - so bees didn't realise it wasn't their honeycomb and started dumping honey there - it took a while to figure out why the audio stops working haha.
Imagine being surrounded with brilliant people, passionate about helping the world! You're flying business to California often. Hanging out with academic professors and architects. Visiting farms and apiaries!
Your day-to-day job as an engineer is also fascinating, you have e.g. 100s TB potato images or a lot of audio or time-series data, and often develop various e.g. computer vision pipelines from scratch, or mobile apps with TF light models in a just few days, or web apps. It's been a hackathon mode every single week! You are also free to use any tech on the planet, you don't need internal Google infra - just use what you like to solve the problems! X's creative culture is incredible.
It was a super meaningful and fun job. I'll write a separate post about it at some point, just wanted to give you the general feeling. I happened to be an early engineer on the team, so I'm super grateful and feeling lucky to experience everything from the front row sits!
After some time it started to become a new comfort zone. It started to feel like it's time to move on, and maybe try starting something else, still ambitious, but now outside of X. Don't get me wrong, X is an incredible place. Here I tasted a true experience of working on something meaningful that could make a big difference in the world. Also surrounded by incredible people, felt like in Hogwarts.
Yet, it's still a corporation, which has its pros and cons. You have a bit of a safety net to make mistakes. Important bit - you usually don't have a full sense of ownership in the project, as opposed to startups. E.g. if you're a founder of a startup, you'd have a lot of shares. You have to constantly fight against various processes and policies which slow you down.
Over time you start asking yourself, why not create an ambitious startup yourself instead. You have experience, you know investors, you know amazing people, you can raise money for compute resources, etc. Also with the project it started to feel like it's a logical break, a good time for the new chapter.
After all staying in the corp is not a way to become the new Elon Musk or Richard Branson.
I look at the big tech as a platform, which has a lot of resources and opportunities. So if you join the platform, it becomes kind of surfing:
- You can catch a great wave, which gives you a lot of power and you can make great impact in the world.
- Or you can drown in the bureaucracy of internal policies, etc.
Leaving is not easy - you have a lot of responsibility for the baby you created, a lot of people put trust into you, a lot of money involved, and you want to break the least amount of bridges as possible. You don't want to close any doors.
It was many hard but honest conversations. I'm truly amazed by X's leadership to handle everything professionally with a lot of humility and trust. I feel I still might come back to X in the future, for a more senior position, as it's a really good place.
I can't share a lot of details, as it's all confidential, but if anyone going through a similar experience, which could be very nerve wracking - I've been there and happy to provide my support.
Love over fear
Initially I was super excited, my main option was to try creating a new startup outside X with a good friend from the team, after leaving X. Finally, for the first time in my life, I was about to become entrepreneur and have my own company solving world's biggest challenges!I had a lot of other ideas in mind like, maybe try creating some effective NGO, or go to the uni again to double-down into research, or do some consulting gigs, etc. Writing my own compiler for fun. So everything felt under control!
But there was no clear path with the original idea, so the new idea and plan turned out to be completely different. I still tried to move forward with it, as it felt the only sensible option. I didn't sleep well these days, had a lot of stress (my HRV was super low), and a few days after I had a first panic attack in my life, which I didn't attribute to that. I couldn't recognise myself in the next weeks, full of fears, a lot of dreads, imagining how I have all the health problems in the world.
It took me two weeks to recognise that I'm simply not passionate about the new idea (thanks to my GP and a good friend Alex Zimin). I realised that I simply made my decision from the place of insecurities (chasing money, fame, status), but not from the place of love (because I'm passionate about the idea). I.e. I could become a CTO of my new company soon, would have great investors, clear business plan, amazing teammates, etc. But working on something that doesn't mean much to me.
If you're a founder, it's a commitment for many years. How would I be hiring people if I'm not excited myself. I would be making connections in the new area, and I'd rather do them elsewhere.
So, I've made a very hard decision to quit this path too. Without any plan. Choosing "love over fear" (inspired by Yes Theory).
Important learning for me. Sounds obvious, but it wasn't obvious for me for two weeks:
When you're making any important decision, ask yourself, is it coming from the place of fear, or from the place of love?
I had to made this kind of big decision only a few times in my life. And so far I'm proud to be choosing love. But I'm not sure if it's an ultimate advice for 100% of situations. Maybe sometimes it makes sense to choose the safety too. It's my experiment in life, let's see where it's going to bring me.
I used to consider myself as super stable mentally and stress-tolerant. But it turned out to be not true.
First of all, last year was hard:
- Constant war on the background, a lot of friends from Ukraine and Russia impacted.
- Super worried for my parents.
- My grandma died in the horrible car crush, and I couldn't even visit the funerals.
- Projecting health problems from my friends to myself.
So if you add on top:
- Leaving your dream job which used to bring you a lot of meaning.
- Leaving your dream flat - when you spent so much time designing with interior designers etc.
- London Winter darkness.
- Figuring out what to do in life, a lot of uncertainty in life.
Things could span out of control. We're all people. I started having a lot of dreads, strong anxiety and fears:
- What if there's something wrong with me? Why my heart is racing so much?
- What if I become mental or die, who would care for my family?
- What if I'm not able to create a team or find another dream job?
- What if I blew up my career? what if I can't find another job at all?
- What if I forget how to work?
- What if my new insurance not gonna work and I have something serious?
- If it's all over, but I'm waking up at night and shaking, why am I in the constant fight and flight mode...
- and the list goes on and on...
Two weeks after leaving I'm feeling better, but it's still a challenging time. That's why I decided to share my experience and document this journey. I think that:
- It's OK to not feel OK. It's OK to ask others for the help, have therapist, talk to the friends.
- Sports help a lot - I'm now going to the Lift the Movement- very inspiring place.
- Building up my new routines from scratch. E.g. walking at least one circle in the park every day. Meditating and doing breathwork. Having these rituals tremendously helps me!
- Building up the confidence by doing something useful everyday.
- Practicing gratitude. Journalling and self-reflection.
- Quality time with friends.
Leaving corporation to create a startup is like jumping out of a plane with the parachute. Though, I decided to throw away my parachute because I simply didn't like the idea haha.
Imposter syndrome is very real - especially when your nervous system is drained, a lot of things starting bubbling up. At times it's hard to believe in yourself. But it's important to see it as a learning experience.
Many people don't understand it, thinking that you have a grand plan, and through everything through. Maybe I'm stupid, but if something doesn't work, it's OK to quit without the plan and start everything from scratch. Yes, it is miserable, but I believe it would worth it. See this "How to quit, why quitting matters and my quitting framework." episode 52 of the Dairy of a CEO by Steven Bartlett.
I'm happy that I pushed myself hard enough, to the point of failure. I guess I don't need to push further, but it's important to learn from the experience and grow stronger.
Figuring out what I love
It's not always easy to know what you truly love and want in life (see my post about unknown unknowns). Now I'm on a kind of a spiritual journey to figure it out.
From one side I want to have a job that has a lot of positive impact. But it's not enough. E.g. developing alternative meat could be super impactful, though, I don't feel passionate about working on it.
My current plan is to stop worrying about the career and other nonsenses. Recharge, take couple of months off, simply do nothing apart of travelling and exercising. E.g. go diving somewhere to Indonesia. I have to push hard to avoid temptation of jumping into another job straightaway, because there's this void now.
As an exercise, I decided to write down things that spark interest in me. And then ask myself: why it attracts you? what about it do you like?
Here's a few things that I find cool, as an example.
1. Underwater world
Someone famous told: there's a job, there's a career, and there's a calling. I feel like I have a calling to the ocean (my story of freediving). We all depend on the ocean a lot, yet there're a lot of problems like overfishing, pollution, acidification, etc. Ocean is incredibly beautiful and diverse, so many wonderful ecosystems. It could help feeding the whole planet sustainably. It gives us half the oxygen we breath. I want to learn more about coral restoration, figure out how bioluminescence work, and just dive more, have great adventures there. It would be great to apply cutting-edge engineering to protect the ocean, and help humanity.
Why: being with nature, not against it. Important for humanity. A lot of complex beautiful ecosystems. It's like being an astronaut, but in the ocean. A lot of tech challenges and adventures. Maybe it's a good story that could inspire more people to do good for the wold.
I'm planning to go volunteer for Global Corallition to help them build coral restoration facility in Dominican Republic – they build art installations and use science to revive corals. I'm open to other places as well. The Global Fishing Watch looks like an amazing project to join. The Project Seagrass is incredible. And the IndoOcean Project looks like a dream too – you can dive with incredible rare species of fish and help with conservation efforts.
I'm planning to recharge a bit, learn more about the ocean, and hopefully come up with more startup or non-profit ideas. If you have any ideas on that, please let me know!
2. Space, drones, aircrafts, blimps
Since I was a kid, I always wanted to become a designer of aircrafts or spacecrafts. I love everything that can fly:
- I tried learning how to fly on airplanes and gliders.
- I have my own freestyle FPV drone - we spent a few years with friends other engineers building ones for fun. Maybe building cargo jet drones would be my thing.
- The Airlander (zeppelin) looks absolutely incredible - would be great sitting there with a laptop while floating above the Greenland.
- UPD: check out Zipline urgent delivery in Rwanda (by Mark Rober)!
- Swarm intelligence with drones to build something looks dope to work on!
- I even love diving because it feels like you're in the space.
Though it feels already a bit too far from the nature sometimes.
3. Bio something
I watched this Lex Fridman podcast episode with Michael Levin and it absolutely blew my mind. They are taking frog cells to create xenobots (it's like swarm intelligence in robotics). They can do a lot of freaky cool things by manipulating bioelectricity (potentially treat some types of cancer, grow new limbs, etc). Look at this short demo about electrical blueprints that orchestrate life. It's fascinating to see that how the bound between living creatures and artificially created robots is fully blended. I feel there're a lot of exciting things in that direction. What if we could merge living things (e.g. trees) with AI (say by attaching IoT devices) and make them help each other, to live a better more sustainable life.
Why: curiosity (learning deep truths about the nature) and engineering of life.
4. Data flows through space and time
Distributed systems, stream processing systems (e.g. differential dataflow), realtime materialized views, functional programming, dependant types – not sure how to describe these things with one word. I guess I enjoy:
- systems that move information around in an elegant way (check DreamQL),
- and organising data – see personal knowledge management.
5. Health optimisation and longevity
6. HPMOR, EA, rationality, probabilistic programming
There's something exciting about using rationality in life. There're really cool decision-making frameworks - you can declaratively define your assumptions and get good results. HPMOR is my fav book.
Open-source is very inspiring. Creating and sharing software with others, finding interesting people through it. I'm planning to double-down on that now.
8. Storytelling, educational content, teaching
The whole my family are teachers, and I enjoy teaching as well. I'm planning to work on educational content this year, maybe to start a YouTube channel.
This blog is an experiment I was running over a year. I found it super fruitful and planning to double-down on that (my initial motivation).
9. Connecting people
I enjoy connecting people. I think it's really cool and important. Maybe having more thoughtful approach here would be good. I've read a book The Art of Gathering (thanks for Ahmad Butt for recommending it) recently, planning to apply the skills.
I'm good at ML infra, but not at ML itself. It would be nice to play around with all these Stable Diffusions, write my own transformers, etc. I think it's fascinating and has a lot of engineering problems.
Do you use any similar exercises to figure out what you want to do?
Leaving big tech is not easy. Especially without a good plan.
On one side, I have some skills, but it's hard to find a good way of applying them. Maybe I should hire an agent, like writers do, to figure it out :)
After all these years, I feel more like I'm a machine for solving problems, but completely not optimised for coming up with problems. Need to work on that.
At the moment I'm at a crossroads moment in my life, but I trust the universe, that I end-up doing something cool and meaningful again. For now excited about restoring corals. Let's see what's next!
If anyone needs a technical co-founder for a cool project, let me know!
Please help me improve my writing 🙏