How I left behind my silicon dream for a saner place to work

It all started in September 2015. I had recently graduated from DePaul University in Chicago, where I had studied Information Technology, and I was flying out to San Francisco to join the ranks of Silicon Valley — the promised land for any twenty something tech hopeful. “All the biggest and best companies are out there. That’s where I want to be,” I told myself.

I always knew I’d be working in tech. I had my first computer when I was about four years old, and I vividly remember the look of MS-DOS as I watched my father install a Star Wars X-Wing simulator on it. I’d always been fascinated by computers, and finding out how they worked. It only made sense that I’d make that my life profession and move out to Silicon Valley.

I planned on being in the Bay Area for two weeks. After my first week, I knew it wasn’t for me. I went to countless Ruby, Rails, and other tech oriented networking events, talked to some founders, and set up some interviews. None of it felt right. I felt like a number, a cog in the tech machine. It was all about making it big and getting that next round of VC funding. That’s not what I envisioned it to be like. On top of that, I felt hostility when telling people at the coffee shops that I was there to get a job in tech. It was as if people wanted nothing to do with me once they found out I was trying to implant myself there and contribute to the decline in culture and rise in tech that has proliferated throughout the Bay Area. I wanted out.

I stayed for part of the trip with a friend who worked at Google. I used to dream of working at a company like Google when I was in school… but seeing the reality of it made me question that dream. At Google, my friend said he’d routinely put in 80-hour work weeks. That’s insane! It was like a badge of honor to people out there. Granted, part of that was his two hour bus ride to and from Mountain View, but still, there was no way I was going to be doing that, even if that’s what it took to be a Googler.

I no longer wanted to be a cog in the Silicon Valley machine. I wanted to be a human, working for a company that valued me, and enabled me to do meaningful work that would help me make my small dent in the universe. I went home to Chicago and refocused. I started to think about what type of company I wanted to work at. I wanted to work somewhere that would care about me as a person, enable me to positively impact other people’s lives, and preferably do some sort of work with Ruby on Rails.

One morning in January, while doing my usual job-hunting, I saw DHH tweeting about an internship program for the Summer of 2016. This was my shot. I’d dreamed of working at Basecamp, and maybe the internship program would give me that edge I needed to get started with my career in Ruby on Rails. It wasn’t the full time job I was looking for at the time, but after reading the internship description, I was in love. I knew this was for me. It was everything Silicon Valley wasn’t. Basecamp was hosting an internship program that treated their employees like humans, and like real professionals. This was a far cry from the traditional “go get me coffee” or “file my papers” internships you hear about. We’d be solving real problems the business faced, given a foundation to learn and grow, and be treated like the managers-of-one they were looking to bring on board.

I finally heard back about a month after I had applied, and to my excitement, they wanted to interview me! I prepared for the interview by going over my Ruby on Rails knowledge, practiced the FizzBuzz test, and went over past interview questions I’d gotten with other companies while out in California. None of that was needed. That’s not the Basecamp way… I should have known. I’d read REWORK and REMOTE after all — we don’t hire programmers based on parlor tricks, so why I thought their internship interviews would be any different is beyond me. Perhaps I was still stuck under the delusions of Silicon Valley — I forgot this doesn’t have to be the norm.

Instead of whiteboard problems and FizzBuzz tests, I had a very human talk with two different Basecampers. We talked about why I wanted to be an intern at Basecamp, what projects I’d done in the past, and even got nerdy and did a deep dive into how I did geolocation for a weather website I’d made. I left the interviews thinking, “That felt like talking to a friend, not like an interrogation.” That’s how an interview should feel.

During my internship, I was given complete freedom to work on my own while helping build out internal tools that helped make fellow Basecampers jobs a bit easier. I remember my first day, I asked, “Where do I start?” and my mentor looked at me and said, “Wherever you want.” It was on me to find a problem, set my own direction, and build out a solution. The type of work I was doing wasn’t meaningless grunt work like most internships I hear about, but instead I was doing work that impacted people every day. Feedback like, “This is such a wonderful feature that will get a ton of usage. Your work will have a meaningful and positive impact on our day to day work lives for a long time,” was the norm here.

As my internship came to an end, I looked back on the work I had done and realized I was beginning to make my small dent in the universe. I’d had the opportunity to work on all of our internal tools, and even got to make a few entirely new ones myself. The things I made are being used every day, and they solved real problems we faced as a business. I was able to do meaningful and rewarding work during my internship. I was treated with respect, given autonomy, and in return, I was able to put my best work forward to make Basecamp the best company and product that I knew how to make.

At Basecamp, I was treated as a thoughtful tech professional. They believe in a 40-hour work week, so that I could enjoy my time outside of work just as much as I love sitting down at my computer to write code. It’s that type of culture that has made Basecamp such a great company, and that same ethos oozes into every part of the product. I found myself at a place that cared much more about the customers than the bottom line. It’s incredibly inspiring and refreshing to see that. I’m now working at Basecamp on Team Data, and I’m looking forward to making my dent, on my own terms. Being at Basecamp is the anti-Silicon Valley, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Interested in becoming an intern at Basecamp during the Summer of 2017? We’re looking for brilliant managers-of-one who are interested in making a difference while working on real business problems, with a passion to make Basecamp a better place. If that sounds like you, head over to our internship page and apply!