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I spent four amazing years at Google and was fortunate enough to be mentored by some now legendary figures. One figure, who was never short of amazing career advice, was Google’s VP of Product Management, Jonathan Rosenberg. His favourite sound bite was “Surf where the waves are big!”

Jonathan’s goal at the time was to encourage the brightest and the best to take a risk and join, what was at the time, a relatively young Google. The “risk” with joining any early stage tech company is that it might fail. Indeed it’s often reported that 9 out of 10 tech startups do actually fail. The result was that many talented engineers were happy sticking to their safe jobs at Microsoft, IBM and other blue chip stalwarts and were not, initially, keen to make the jump. 20 years later those that did jump are of course delighted that they did with many taking home $1m+.

However, now those engineers are sticking to their safe jobs at a very much bigger, and safer, Google. So it’s time to retell Jonathan’s sound bite …

Surf where the waves are big

If you surf where the waves are small, the chances are that you will catch every wave. You might come off a small wave a little earlier than planned if you are not so talented, but if you have talent, you can ride each wave slowly and quietly to the shore. But there is an alternative … you can surf where the waves are big! Those waves can be challenging to ride, even if you have talent, and they may suddenly fold and crash and you will fall and flounder in the ocean for a little while. However, the great thing about waves is that there is always another one coming just behind it. If you fall off, you simply get back on your board and catch the next one. You may fall off four, five, six, maybe ten times before you finally catch the big one, but when you do … well … you are going to have the ride of your life and the crowds will go wild! 

So tell me, where do *you* want to surf?

The career lesson for a young developer or engineer is that, if you want to be super successful in the long term, you should not be focussed on joining a specific company, but on joining a company in a specific sector. Moreover, you should not focus on the big household names, but focus on the smaller, earlier stage companies that have the opportunity to grow 1,000x! You might end up working for two or three small companies over a period of years before you “catch” a good one, but you will ultimately catch a good one and the ride will be amazing!

In many ways the earlier stage of the company the better, but one thing that is a must is that they must be “pre-Sale” and “pre-IPO” (a pre-IPO company is one that does not yet have shares listed on a public stock exchange). When you join a company pre-Sale or pre-IPO you will likely be given significant stock options. These grow most rapidly before a company is acquired by another company (is sold) or does their Initial Public Offering on a public stock exchange.

Starting your own technology company, as I did with my EdTech company Zzish, is also another option. Frankly, this is a super high risk strategy for success and not for the faint-hearted. The risk/reward ratio is far better when you join a tech startup that is already on the road to success. Perhaps the ideal time to join a tech startup is four to six years after they have been founded, when they already have a proven product and business model and are entering the “scale up” or “growth” stage.

There are three other great benefits from working for early stage tech companies on top of the much greater long term financial rewards …  

First, you have the opportunity to really grow and rise with the company.  In 2005, Google’s four VP’s of Product Management, were each responsible for billions of revenue and each had a team of thousands working under them. They were all four super smart, talented people, but they were also all one of the first 20 Google employees. Of the first 50 engineers that joined the company, most became engineering directors. This rapid growth in role and responsibility is only possible when you join an early stage company.

Second, you get to learn more and have a much more varied role at a smaller company. When working for a mature tech company, you are likely to work on one specific technology for many years. That certainly suits some people, but many engineers like to learn new things and develop their breadth as well as their depth of knowledge. In an early stage company, engineers have to wear many hats and naturally develop skills across many technologies.

If you do fall off a specific wave, these two benefits mean that you are a much more attractive hire to the big established tech companies as well as the smaller ones. When I was hiring at Google, we were always keen to hire engineers who had been in entrepreneurial environments.

Third, you get to have more impact and find more fulfillment. In a small early stage company, the work you do really matters. The engineering decisions that you make can either make or break a company. You get to have a much greater say in what happens and get to work more closely with a broader range of people. It can be far more fulfilling than working for a larger company. 

 The EdTech Tsunami

Just as important as joining a company at the right stage, however, is joining a company in the right sector. The sector must be early, have the potential to be transformational and have many early stage technology ventures vying to break through.

One sector that definitely fulfills the brief is EdTech (a shortening of Education Technology). This sector has seen explosive growth in the last two years. In fact the growth has been so strong, that it would not be amiss to describe it as a rising tsunami!

One signal of this rising tsunami is that the $350 billion EdTech sector is now the same size as the $350 billion digital advertising sector.  This digital advertising sector is the sector that powers the bottom line of some of the world’s most valuable tech companies, including Google and Facebook. It’s a valuable sector, but it is one where the waves are now much smaller than they were.

What makes the EdTech sector so exciting is that this $350b is just 5% of the $6 trillion that the world spends on education every year.  It’s no wonder, with covid making it hard for learners of all ages to attend “bricks and mortar” educational institutions, that EdTech has boomed during covid and reached the tipping point where learning online has become the “new normal”.  How much of that $6 trillion spend will move to digital education in due course? … opinions vary, but my view is that it will rise above 30% before the end of this decade.

If you need more evidence of this surge, just take a look at Indian EdTech leader ByJu’s. The company’s meteoric rise has led to a market valuation in excess of $20 billion already. Whilst this is impressive, perhaps a more pertinent point is that it is now the most valuable startup in India from any sector and was ranked as the 13th largest unicorn in the globe in December.  To put this into perspective, when Google IPO’d in August 2004, it was valued at $23 billion. Google is now worth a staggering $1.75 trillion, around 75 times more than in 2004.  Byju’s will no doubt be a trillion dollar company in due course and still a great company to join, but had you joined them when they were worth only $20 million, you would already have had a 1,000 times return from your share options and be a multimillionaire.

Kahoot and Duolingo are other new EdTech unicorns that you may be more familiar with. Duolingo recently IPO’d and reached a $4b valuation!

Making a difference

One thing for sure is that the waves are now getting big in EdTech and there are 100’s of EdTech startups joining the swell. But EdTech is not the only sector where the waves are getting big. Blockchain and AI, for example, are other strong candidates for your career. However, there is one factor that really separates EdTech from these other sectors, namely that when you work in EdTech you are able to use your talent to make a real difference to people’s lives.

UNESCO estimates that 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum levels of reading and mathematics. How can it be possible that in this day and age we still aren’t able to ensure that half the world’s children are given a proper education?  The problem is of course complex, but companies like mine, in the world of EdTech, believe that this is a problem that EdTech can solve and, moreover, that it is a problem that we can solve today. With the proliferation of mobile devices and smartphones costing less than $25 in countries such as India, there is now no reason that any child anywhere can’t have access to a high quality education digitally.

EdTech is on the forefront of harnessing new technologies, such as AI & Blockchain. Both of these technologies are key to the emerging EdTech sector and AI is at the heart of developing better and more sophisticated virtual teachers and virtual teaching assistants. My own company, Zzish, is at the forefront of developing virtual teaching assistants. We believe that every teacher should have a smart software agent that lives with them in the classroom and gives them real-time help so that they can personalise their teaching to every student. Such technology is truly transformational. Indeed tomorrow’s EdTech leaders will be the ones, like us, who invest in deep technology, such as AI and blockchain.

And finally, we’re hiring!

You wont be surprised to hear that Zzish is expanding. So if you are a frontend developer or a backend developer, a data scientist or an ML engineer, if you want to surf where the waves are big and if you want to make a difference too, then let us know. We’d love to have you on our team!

Charles Wiles

Charles Wiles is Co-Founder of smart data EdTech company Zzish. Googles first’s product hire outside of the US, Charles has a career’s worth of experience in disruptive technologies and high-growth companies.

Charles was inspired to build Quizalize, Zzish’s flagship product, when he witnessed his own son struggling at school. Zzish was born in 2016, and since then over 4 million learners have benefitted from the personalised learning experience that Quizalize offers.

Charles holds an MBA from LBS and gained his Ph.D. in AI from Oxford University. An expert in his field, Charles believes in the power of data-led insights and leads his Zzish team in their unified mission of giving all teachers around the world superpowers

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