A Winter in Waterloo

Amin A.

Chapter 1 of The Unusual Candidate

By Amin Ariana — November 2019


Someone asked me "I am entering my third year at a top tech college and have not interned at any major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, or Google. Should I start thinking I'm an idiot and quit everything I have been working on?" I replied with this personal story. Forbes published it .

More than a decade ago I found myself in a top Computer Science university program, not making headway with any major tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, or Google. (Facebook wasn't even born yet, and very few people had heard of Google. Microsoft was all the rage.) [1] Everyone I knew had some fancy internship with a big shot company. Competition was fierce.

I decided I had a key insight about engineering that nobody else did: it's better to have a monopoly on being right than a competition on being liked.

I applied, instead, to work as an intern in a hospital for kids[2]. Everyone else ignored this unsexy employer and spent months hearing back from the hot shots. The hospital contacted me the next day and said "please come and help us. Nobody else would."

For a sum total of a year, I had the perfect freedom to build whatever I wanted at the hospital, while my friends had to perform bottom of the barrel projects at Microsoft and Google. We all learned to be engineers. But I also learned to be a monopoly value provider. I learned to understand my customer uniquely. I became an entrepreneur.

After graduation, it took me one year to get a full-time position at Microsoft. And three years after that, while I was working at a small company, Google contacted me, asking if I wanted to work there. You read that right, they contacted me. I actually rejected Google twice because I was happy with my job. The third time they contacted me (in six months apart intervals) I took the job. And both sides were happy.

It's been a decade since I decided to go the opposite path from everyone else. Those friends who got internships into Microsoft and Google? They're still working there, pleasing bosses, and deeply afraid of ever trying anything else in life. They clung to an initial success, and competed with others to build a cage around themselves. I let go of it all a few years later, looking for a type of customer to whom I'd matter again. I'm now building a startup company that provides a unique service to a neglected industry[3], and I write to inspire engineers about the paths not taken.[4]

At its heart, engineering is about making decisions that are right, even if they seem unlikeable and unpopular. If you find yourself living with the results of other peoples' thinking, you're not really the type of engineer that a top company is attracted to.

That's the paradox: successful companies are not attracted to the kind of people who are attracted to the aura of success. They're attracted to people who recognize what's valuable to do, when it's unpopular from everyone else's perspective. So they tend to hire people who have done unconventional things.

The classical image of an engineer is the first person standing under a newly constructed bridge. Do you remember the last person under the same bridge? Sadly, nobody does.

Success is thinking for yourself.


  1. University of Waterloo posted co-op positions in Needles Hall's first floor next to decades-old computer terminals. These terminals, on which we signed up for internships positions, used to connect to a core super-computer designed for hacking Cold-War-era encryptions. What used to be the building housing a massive super-computer is renovated today; it is called The Math Faculty. Peers and I spent many years inside it, learning Computer Science. I used to think it had the most bizarre and ugly architecture; I never understood that computers used to be literally the size of a building until after I graduated and looked back at the shape of the building, which looks like a CPU. It turns out that not only engineering interns, but also even engineering buildings, tend to be unpopular when they serve the right purpose.

  2. Hospital for Sick Children was where I first learned the large gap between what technology can do and what humanity needs. While I invented my first photo-sharing app there in 1999, the equipment to radio-scan a child's body cost millions of dollars. I changed my app to share radiology imaging instead of what came to be known many years later as selfies. This uncommon path became one of the most fundamental building blocks of my understanding of tech entrepreneurship.

  3. Our company, Sponsorbrite funds schools, teams, churches and non-profits using corporate interest and sponsorship dollars. It's the first startup to make fundraising a 100% free activity for social institutions, something that traditionally costs tens of thousands of dollars and incredible human energy.

  4. You can subscribe to my weekly essays, where you'll learn things that you don't yet know you'll need, or, you think you need, but you don't. I write when non-conformity smiles back at the norm, much like the intern in this story.

“Thanks for making it this far. We haven’t had a technical candidate make it to the seventh round in over six months. When my partner said you answered his Dynamic Programming question on the spot during the phone-screen, I ordered your flight from Waterloo right away” said the executive getting up from his chair behind the mahogany desk. I remained standing at the door, hiding my agony behind a smile. My entire right forearm showed second degree burns, but we didn’t talk about it. “I completed your questionnaire,” I said, offering the pad to him, “and looks like you have my resume.” “Indeed,” he said, sinking in thought for a long moment, “Indeed.” The red marker in his hand made me take a nervous in-breath.

“How do you enjoy Evanston, Illinois?” he asked. “I like it. The Winter lends a cozy atmosphere to the many churches I saw last night along the way” I said. “You must wonder why a Management Consulting company operates in such a small town?” he said. I smiled. He handed my resume back to me and said “Read that line”. I looked at my words inside his red circle. “Built a MIPS-based Operating System for a Virtual Machine” I read. “Did you build it all by yourself in college?” he asked. “Yes!” I said.

Him: You built an OS, with process execution, disk IO, memory virtualization, and networking capability all by yourself?

Me: Yes, with help from a professor.

Him: How did you code it?

Me: In C++

Him: How did you compile it?

Me: From the command prompt.

Him: In which Operating System?

Me: Unix

Him: So you needed an OS to create an OS?

Me, getting nervous: Yes

Him: What if you didn't have an OS to start with? What if you were building the first OS?

I paused in awkward silence. My left hand held a tight grip on my burned forearm. “Good question. I haven’t thought about it” I said. He tightened his lips together, smiling in the manner of Bill Gates, and without saying a word, made me understand that I wasn’t ready for him. I nodded in acknowledgement. I didn’t feel ready.

“How did you burn your arm?” he asked. “Last night I felt too hungry, so I microwaved water at the hotel for tea. The superheated water exploded when I opened the microwave” I said. “You know we expense candidate meals during their stay” he said. “I didn’t feel like I earned it, and I didn’t have money to risk a bill” I said. “You will,” he said, “after you find the answer to my question.” When you dismiss what you cannot explain, it explodes in your face.

“Not a fit for our firm,” the HR phone call informed me later that week. For a few weeks, I couldn’t explain what just happened. “Why should a CEO care so much about my understanding of the chicken-and-egg problem? What bearing will that have on the job of an engineer?” I asked my dad. “Where DID the first chicken come from?” he asked me. “The chicken and the egg were the same in the beginning,” I said in frustration, “They evolved. Just like Operating Systems, which evolved from binary instructions. You write a higher-level language’s compiler in a low-level language such as binary code; then you can compile anything in the high-level language, including the compiler itself. You never again need to write binary code. Nobody needs to remember how it all began, when you reach a higher plane.”

“Kind of like he doesn’t remember how you feel at the beginning of your career?” he asked. I turned white. “That’s what he meant!” I said. “What?” he asked. “He meant I should quit the chicken-and-egg problem of proving experience for a first-ever job.” I said. “But how?” he asked. “I am my first employer,” I said, holding the right-handed mouse with my left hand, “and I will suffer the pain of learning.”

Amin A.

Written by

Amin Ariana

A software entrepreneur from San Francisco