Amin A.

Chapter 9 of The Unusual Candidate

By Amin Ariana — November 2019


"I previously interned at Google and talked to many people there. Some interns and official employees got rejected everywhere else except for Google. I think I'm experiencing the same thing for now" asked a candidate. I answered the following on Quora. Forbes published it .

That year after a decade, rejection finally pushed me too far. I bought a one way ticket and travelled 22 countries to get away from my past. Many interesting women became my friends along the way. And I wondered "why doesn't this happen at home?"

Finally Seattle became my new home. In its solitude, I found and chatted with a most beautiful person near San Francisco on a dating site. I made small talk with her and asked her on a date; she jokingly agreed because it was so unlikely.

Then I called her one day to say "I'm interviewing near San Francisco, go on a date with me". She accepted, and she liked me in person. Then I went back to Seattle. Nothing quite seemed the same. A week later, I called her and said "I'll split the plane ticket with you if you fly this time." She flew to see me in Seattle.

The third time I called her, I said "I'm moving to San Francisco."

Six years later, I asked her why she accepted to marry me. She said "the other guy was too busy feeling sorry for himself. You asked."

I used to be the other guy.

A lot of companies rejected me just after graduation. Other students turned their internships or higher GPAs into offers within three months. Invariably in the middle of most interviews I would stumble on the answer to at least one question that would cost me all my confidence.

The last unexplainable rejection I've ever had in my career happened six months after graduation. I had failed too many interviews and didn't think I could shoot for more than $15 an hour. My coffin of a used car that I had owned for a decade begrudgingly made the long trip to the interview one hour outside the city. I waited for the previous candidate's interview to be over, and saw him leave straight for the parking.

The lady at the interview asked me "where do you want to be in 5 years?" and I said "It's my dream to start a company." Within 30 minutes into the interview, having answered all her questions, I knew it was a "No". More resigned than ever, I shook her hand, nodded and forced a smile at her "we'll let you know". The pity in her eyes were like the last two arrows finally piercing my heart with their unspoken rejection.

As I was following the footsteps of the previous candidate towards the door, for the first time ever I turned around, and with the conviction of a man who no longer had any pride to lose, asked "listen, I know it's a No, but I've looked for a while and I can't figure out where I'm going wrong. Can you tell me what skill I'm missing for this job?"

She said these unforgettable words: "You're more qualified than my boss, and your ambitions are greater than what this job could ever provide. Why aren't you aiming much higher?" A long silence took over as I stared in the air at the words she had just spoken. A gigantic lightbulb crashed through the ceiling, hung above my head, and turned on, brightening the room.

I drove back home in my $500 car from that far away office. And that poor car died that day in the garage, never to start again.

Within a week, all the recruiters who were delivering "no" messages were calling in to gently disappoint me. I let every single one of them know "I appreciate your time. Just wanted to let you know that I'm no longer available for junior positions. I will only consider jobs that respect my qualifications." Two of them called me a week later with new mid-level opportunities. I interviewed and impressed both hiring managers, especially with my self-acceptance. They went to bidding war against each other, and I ended up in a prestigious downtown company getting paid double what I had asked for just two weeks earlier.

Two years later, I afforded the travels I mentioned, that led me eventually to the date in San Francisco. Two years after our first date (five years after my long post-graduation unemployment stretch), I paid for the wedding with my first three paychecks at Google.

Shortly afterwards, I fulfilled the promise to my career angel of rejection by starting my own company. Be careful where you tell people you want to be in five years, you just might end up there, more or less, in five years!

The man without self-acceptance doesn't endure the long road to meet his pre-occupied personal angel. He who has accepted himself will in the end discover the angel within.

There was an amateur engineer sitting at a respectable dead-end job about a decade ago. On the day he received his dismal "highest raise possible", he went ballistics -- but in a positive way with an upward career trajectory that younger engineers could use as a career growth heuristic.

His job was to write patch code and SQL scripts to maintain a large legacy financial system. He was grateful, but unfulfilled; especially considering his engineering skills weren't fully utilized and once he discovered that the difference in salary between him and a senior coworker with 15 more years of experience was about 33%. That's basically the inflation rate, compounded for fifteen years.

In other words, (1) the senior coworker hadn't had a real raise . Ever. (2) more importantly overlooked, the junior engineer, adjusted for inflation, was doing 33% worse than the senior worker was when he started. [1] That's why the amateur engineer went ballistic. Not through yelling and screaming, mind you; but through defying conventional thinking.

He decided to launch himself into the never never land of exponential career growth. He quadrupled his salary within a decade, then quit the corporate life and started a business. And it all started with reading more books and working on an escape plan.

One thing, he promised himself though: if the journey ever became a success, he wanted to share it with as many people as would believe him. The curse of knowledge -- not remembering what it was like to not know something -- kept that promise unfulfilled. That's why this story never came out; until a random day when a young person from a remote land asked the author:

"Can a software engineer who is not a US citizen and did not go to an American university get a job in Silicon Valley?"

The memories of living for ten years with the hopeless romance of career success hit me like a ton of bricks. I now remember exactly the questions I had as a 20-something year-old, with no job history and no credentials, living outside the US, hoping to become what I called at the time a "Technology Executive".

If you dream something strongly enough, you become it. I'm here to explain the simplest strategy that connected the dots. I'm the maintenance engineer, after going ballistics.

Yes, you can work in Silicon Valley without a US education or citizenship; that's probably the description of half the engineers working in Silicon Valley and even half the engineers starting companies.

When you're on the outside, you think about your disadvantage with the wrong mental framework. The benefit of being in the US is not some legal leg up for visa holders or some citizenship bias. It's much more helpful to think of it as Newton's law of universal job gravitation.

Newton's law of universal gravitation, and jobs

Any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Sir Isaac Newton

Newton had no idea that his law would someday apply to getting jobs from a distance. In other words:

Employers gravitate towards you based on their mass (company size) times your mass (your skill set); and more importantly, they get colder towards you based on the square of your distance from them.

This is because the larger an employer is, the more employee turn-over they have. So they need to be more open-minded about where they source candidates. For example, a typical large company with 100,000 employees has a 20% average turn over; i.e. it has to hire 20,000 people a year just to maintain its head-count.

At the same time, the more distant you are, the exponentially faster your distance is filled with your potential competitors. For example, think about how much more food a 16 inch pizza is vs. a 12 inch pizza, even though they're only 4 inches different in diameter. It's nearly twice as much food! By the same token, when you only slightly increase your distance from an employer, you're in effect doubling and quadrupling competition.

So if you're looking for a corporation to sponsor your legal work, you need to build up your skills, apply to the largest companies, and happen to be as close to them as possible. [2]

If you have hopes of working for startups someday and you're far away, the first step ironically is to aim for a large company. In space travel, to optimize for fuel costs, we leverage the orbital gravity of large objects in the same way, even if the final destination is some small moon.

I understand that this is probably difficult to execute when you're in a hurry. That's why for important decisions like this, you should be patient. Your primary quest over a long period of time investment should be to cut distance.

If you live in a different continent, your first goal should be to establish roots in the Western hemisphere, not to shoot directly for Silicon Valley. Once you've done the former, your second goal should be to move from wherever you are to California. The third goal is to move from California to anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. And the fourth goal should be to find opportunities in Silicon Valley. And in every step of the way, work with larger companies before you're close enough to attract small ones. [3]

To navigate your career to destinations beyond the horizon, follow the rules of space travel, within the realm of job opportunities.

Here's another secret: Two out of one hundred people will hear this story and say "Yes, that's going to be me." The rest will dismiss the author as a self-satisfied douche. That's probably why Silicon Valley is staying where it is for the foreseeable future, and why half of all new tech companies in Silicon Valley are started by immigrant minorities, who already believe in cutting the distance.[4]

Build up skills.

Aim for big things.

Cut the distance in half.

Let gravity do the rest.


  1. If the senior engineer is making the same "real" salary as he did when he started, he hasn't gone forward. If you accept the same nominal salary as his starting salary fifteen years ago, you're really accepting a pay cut. The same nominal salary buys less Big Macs today.

  2. As an aside, you'll find plenty of resistance from individuals who complain that you're competing for their local jobs. This is a valid argument for non-specialized fields; but most unemployment problems at the higher tier of the specialization are structural (a mismatch of skills).

    Just do a day of research to see companies starved for talent; you'll realize that the resistance is rooted in lack of skill adaptation as opposed to lack of local opportunities or too much competition. If you have the skills, you have an advantage. Don't let the nay-sayers distract you from adding your flavor of value to the world.

  3. I have taken exactly the formula I'm prescribing here. I afforded my US education after (not before) working in the US. The most important hack in this entire argument is to notice the word "square" in Newton's law. Let the square of distance guide your decisions.

  4. Immigrant Entrepreneurship Has Stalled for the First Time in Decades (due to immigration laws), Kauffman Foundation Study Shows .

How do you balance two extremely demanding undertakings while still maintaining a work-life balance?


The following is a historic representation of my thought processes while going through the Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley (CMU SV) class of 2011 in Software Engineering Management and Entrepreneurship. I did that program on a part-time basis while applying for, getting admitted to and working full-time as a Software Engineer at Google. The wise faculty had advised against rocking the boat while I was already stretched thin, but I've always made trouble.

I've been working on sharing this draft with future prospective students at CMU to help them understand the perils and peaks of the journey ahead. It especially took root when I was invited as a guest by the Director of the CMU Software Management program, Gladys Mercier, to demystify the after-life of making this commitment for then-current students. I found myself talking about having found a life compass through the experience. There were quite a bit of nodding in agreement from fellow alumni; but in the allotted time I could only transfuse a sense that there are glorious peaks to come, without a chance to get into the personal costs and perils to be paid. That's perhaps why I made so many new friends on that guest-speaker session. It was fine with my conscience. The class was already pulling tough shifts and didn't need me to tell them that double-shifts are coming, even if some of them were studying full-time. Advanced education increases your expectations from yourself.

But for months, I stopped the writing. My advice was too tactical. It had to become about something larger than a how-to guide: self-actualization, perhaps? Until someone in Quora asked it directly in the context of wanting to go to Stanford University while at Google, and needing to know whether there were special breaks for employees. Then the dilemma hit me hard: People wanting to do this think that it is normal!

There is nothing normal about wanting to go outside the mainstream. You're part of the 2% abnormal. The typical corporate employee is happy to make it out of the office before rush hour. They're not seeking the thrill of 16-hour days. Nor should they. I have every reason to write this essay. It falls within my modus operandi: illuminating a path less travelled.

I did a part time masters at Carnegie Mellon University while working full-time as an engineer at Google.

You may be thinking about going through a different demanding school while working at a different demanding company. The lesson here is not for this specific situation, but rather for how to survive, thrive and lead when you undertake what you consider too much.

Google encourages studying with tuition reimbursements

CMU Mountain View campus is right next to Google campus and relatively close to Stanford Palo Alto campus. The work loads are essentially similar, so this explanation should be applicable regardless of school choice.

Google has a standard tuition aid package ($12K a year at the time I was working there). The first $4K is approved by your direct manager and the rest is approved by your director. You need to apply for it, and the condition is that it adds value to your abilities towards your job or your targeted job after promotion.

Other companies also have tuition reimbursement programs. You can look into your place of work. Technically every company after the industrial age should have these programs, since the skilled employee is the real intellectual property. Many companies might not yet realize that the value they would gain from having such a program is worth ten times the cost of investment. As William Gibson says, The future is here. It's just not very evenly distributed.

The hardest part about studying and working at the same time is time management. I went to incredible extremes getting to know my limits and my spouse's capacity for sacrifice.

From work-life balance to study-work-life survival

You will have no evenings or weekends for two years, unless you guard them against wasteful meetings and activities with your life. You will learn to say NO to things that seem risky to say no to. You will trim down your belongings, friends and news consumption.

You will divide your personality into its 7 essential constituent roles (a survivor, a student, an engineer, a life partner, a child of your parents, an adventurer and a friend) and create a separate Calendar Layer for each one. You will color code each layer and that's how you will know whether your week is going to look balanced and you'll be safe under the pressure. If you don't do this, inevitably one of the two roles of "student" or "engineer" will dominate capacity for all other six roles and you will feel extremely alienated. You're going to learn absolute control over your time.

The school may understand your work pressures, but the work culture's understanding will last about a week. The deliverable deadlines will not be touched. Your coworkers will not remember your other responsibilities. And the best that you can hope for is that your manager will be the same person for longer than four months (managers change frequently due to career shifts) so that you can maintain your flexibility on rare occasion. Despite all this, it would be best to set expectations with your manager from the beginning to reduce later tension.

Adapting to your own ambitions

Your only protection from the pressure is the following:

1. Desire and Hunger -- Decide this is what you want to do. If you haven't decided, don't do it. You will need an iron will. There will be satisfaction in the journey, but all the financial rewards are strongly back-loaded, meaning it'll take years to realize how to reap them. You may be under the illusion that a masters will immediately boost your career. It's true, but you're likely off by a good factor. The real benefits of the education will come slowly but with acceleration, so you'll feel them four to five years out. There is nothing, neither in terms of satisfaction nor financial rewards to sustain you in the first two years. Your only savior is the absolute desire to do this because it's a piece of a puzzle that is necessary for your life story to be complete.

2. Faith -- There are people who have done this. My entire cohort at CMU, eighty people, were doing this. Each of them had a senior-level engineering or director role at a successful and high-pressure company. Some were single, some were married, some had three kids. The pressures for each of these situations is different (even the single person gets lonely). But realize that every year, hundreds of people are successfully doing this. They're not more special than you. Once you have the desire, you need to back it by blind faith: Faith that will carry you through on the 13th Wednesday of the quarter, when the release schedule is coming up for "cherry picking" bugs on one end, and your grad school teammates (if you do team work) are scheduling a 3 hour phone meeting from 7pm to 10pm, and you have to push the "date night" to 11pm with Pizza delivery and shorten it from a Netflix movie to a 20 minute Daily Show. Your only saving grace in this situation is a faithful smile that there is an end and you're getting there, while awake and even while asleep.

3. Imagination -- Only you can decide what this degree means to you. Before the rewards are validated, all the research as to what the past students have been able to accomplish with the degree are irrelevant to your personal life. Education is a gift that gives differently to different people, depending on who they are and what they imagine for themselves. Some of my classmates imagined promotions for themselves. They're on the way to get it. Some imagined charting their own way. I'm one of those. I left Google a year after graduating, with all my gratitude. And some others had twenty year plans to transform their lives. Once you can imagine who you'll be and what you're about to accomplish, small barriers such as schedule conflicts, performance risks, expectation management and keeping friendships find their own place in your new perspective. Staying at work overtime often becomes a silly synonym for unproductive pretense, while keeping coffee dates with strangers or calling your parents more often take more of a priority. This is the new you.

4. The Pareto Principle (80 / 20 rule) -- You will learn that for this imaginary place that you're getting in shape to go, you've long needed to get your work done in the first half of the day and learn new things in the second half. You never used that capacity. But now you have to, so you will. And though you never needed to "imagine" before, now you desperately need to, because it's no longer about daydreaming about a distant possibility of who you'll be. It's about visualizing it for surviving today, until you get there. I know first hand that volumes of email, pointless meetings and needless commute easily used to take up 80% of my productivity. I used to want to cut them out, but I somehow couldn't. When in survival mode, I somehow found the courage to say no. I would actually say to my teammates "I need to learn something here, please let me know if anything important was said during the meeting" and they'd gladly empathize without knowing my cause. I would tell my boss "I'm about two weeks behind on reading reams of email. If you need something from me, just tell me". He'd be happy to. I'd sometimes sign myself up for an independent project and disappear for a week, doing it from home, just to recover from commute. It's whatever you can do basically. But understand that by doing these, you're creating a new value in this world that nobody else is, when they're reading email or attending meetings. The last time I checked, most of the projects that those emails and meetings were about are scrapped, because better projects came along. Hey, that's progress. What's unique is that I actually learned to be a better person along the way. (A quick book recommendation: 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris)

The rewards that will forever change you

I wrote thus far mostly for someone about to go, or currently going through the motions. I'd like to end with a few things that have happened to me since actually accomplishing it:

  1. I did it! That's one more data point for me to know when I set my mind to wanting and desiring and hungering for something badly enough, I will get it. (See Napoleon Hill's book Think and Grow Rich, Chapter 1: Desire)

  2. I made great friends in the pressure cooker that I was in. I was new to California in the beginning. I now have forty friends I can call, just from school, when life priorities come into question. They know the answer.

  3. What I've learned, not just academically but also in terms of lifestyle, has become 90% of my mental inner-dialog. What I did in terms of work, I hardly even remember today. Good investment? You tell me.

  4. Most people choose to graduate with insane amounts of student debt. I actually worked off my tuition before getting any help from work. That's the whole point of studying while working: avoiding debt.

  5. I thought I was going to "save two years of my life" by creating this work / study overlap, and "get ahead". It turns out that after you graduate, you'll need two more years just to recover from the pressure cooker. So that motivation turned out not to be valid from a lifestyle perspective. But:

  6. From a currency perspective, I learned while doing. Traditionally you learn, then you look for a job, then by the time you do, you've lost track of the relevance of what you learned. I had a chance to go back to school the next day and ask "why the heck does this not work in the office?" and I'd get feedback in realtime.

  7. My relationships with my spouse, friends and parents are no longer one maintained haphazardly and casually. I call my parents (who live outside the US) strictly every single Saturday and make sure my presence is felt for them. I strictly maintain a "Date Night" with my wife on a certain week night every week that even the most important event in the world can't alter. When friends are going through tough times I'm sure to make myself available. I do all this because for every moment of going through the pressure, I sensed how fragile and short life is, and how only when you don't have time, you treasure it with others.

In the foregoing, I never once mentioned salary and compensation changes. They were coming. But I learned that I didn't want them. Quite a few friends have switched jobs or accelerated their career paths one way or another. Looking three years back, like the frogs in the boiler they may not realize the changes, but I do: they are far better off today than their cohorts who were happy enough to spend their time reading email and attending meetings.

But more important, from my perspective, is growing enough to realize the other dimensions to satisfaction. I discovered goals that I didn't know I had. And so I threw caution into the wind once more.

The goals you didn't know you had

I mentioned that I left Google a year after graduating. It was a most incredible career opportunity and I'm forever grateful for everything I experienced there, and all the challenges and opportunities. I would most certainly do it all over again.

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Part of my reason was the desire to chart my own path as an entrepreneur, a subject I was studying. But the other motivation was this incredible sense of life's potential. Google itself didn't happen by a bunch of guys sitting in a corporate office and playing it safe. It happened when people asked "what if" questions and went beyond what was asked of them. And when the answer to the "what if" question was a world of possibilities, they left their well-treaded path and pursued it.

So something similar to the formula I outlined above happened to me on the ensuing year. I worked on interesting projects. But my desire had shifted to "what if there's a whole other life out there that I'm not going to experience in this lifetime, because I got used to this routine?" The curious desire was there, but at first, the faith wasn't. I was comfortable.

But faith and imagination have an interesting interplay. I started imagining myself figuring out a repeatable formula for jumping into hopeless pressure-cookers, finding out the 80/20 broken rules and turning the hopelessness into success. Most people stop the madness of this thinking pattern at this point, because they ask themselves "how the heck does that maximize my outcome?"

I was asking that wrong question for about a year. But something wasn't feeling right inside. I read a lot about the psychology of people who "left it all on the table" and jumped into chaos. Until I came across a Jeff Bezos story, where he explained how he left a successful finance career to start Amazon, a faint idea in his head that didn't even have a name yet. He put it simply: he invented for himself "The Least Regret Principle". Instead of asking yourself "how do I maximize my outcome in life?" ask yourself "how will I be a person with the least number of regrets when I retire?" That was my answer. That retrospectively answered why I had chosen to put myself into that difficult work / graduate school program. It was also explaining why I would regret missing out on the opportunity to chart my own path.

So I waited until my department was going under a major transition and everybody else was going to other teams. And to everyone's surprise, I left Google without a backup plan. Just faith. And I'm writing this a year later, so you know I'm still surviving in the wild.

Word to the wise

How to turn a simple idea into a high-growth company; play #1 by Marc Benioff, Founder of Salesforce, in his book Behind the Cloud

Allow Yourself Time to Recharge

How to turn a simple idea into a high-growth company; play #1 by Marc Benioff, Founder of Salesforce, in his book Behind the Cloud

I took a long format to paint the picture, because this is not a simple decision. Only 2% of the human population will empathize with the undertones in the following answer. If you're one of them, just remember that perhaps the simpler advice is the following:

If you'll regret not doing it, do it. It will work out.

That's my answer to the most important what-if decisions in life.

Amin A.

Written by

Amin Ariana

A software entrepreneur from San Francisco