Like many PhD students, Raj left prior to completing the degree because he found a passion to pursue. In this case, that was the Internet. His first venture was with @Home, the company striving to bring hi-speed broadband internet access to residential areas. Raj details some of that experience, including some key differences between the academic and business environments he faced.
SM: Where did you go when you left? Did you move on to a project you had been “dipping your toes in” as you referred to earlier? RV: Yes, I left to continue working as a web consultant. I had another bit of luck strike about 6 months into my new “career”. Mike Schwartz, an ex UW alum, had recently joined a startup called @Home, and had contacted some UW professors looking for people to join him there. Thus, through the UW connection, I ended up in March 1996 at what was then a group of about 30 people trying to bring up one of the very early broadband-over-cable networks. Well, I’m not sure we’d invented the term “broadband” yet, actually…
SM: What was that experience like – getting involved with an early startup? RV: Hiring is hard in the Valley, and was particularly so at that time. So, if you’re at @Home, and you have about 30 people, and you’re trying to bring your service up within the next 6 months, you may let some guy fresh out of grad school do any number of things you have no business letting him do.
I helped design and implement many of @Home’s early systems, began to run teams that built others, and generally learned how to operate in this environment, and yes it was very new to me. There were some pretty big differences between a startup and the academic world. First, a research idea could end up generating either a positive (it worked) or negative (it didn’t work) result, but one could write a paper in either case, since either was potentially interesting. With @Home, whatever it was, it had to work.
Second, a researcher can exercise more control over the particular problem being investigated, and can largely define or choose what the scope is. With @Home I suddenly had these things called “customers” whose characteristics I couldn’t necessarily constrain. Finally, working with @Home there was a lot of “by the way, that has to be done by Tuesday”, meaning the deadlines were much more intense.
SM: So it was a different kind of learning environment for you. RV: Absolutely, @Home turned out to be “Valley boot camp”. Circumstances dictated that I be thrown into the deep end learn to swim on my own, yet I was also surrounded by any number of more experienced “startup veterans” so at least I knew what good swimming looked like. The huge advantage of joining @Home when I did, when it was very small, was that I had direct (and, as the company grew, continuing) access to these people. So either directly, or just by “being in the room”, I learned a tremendous amount about managing a fast-moving, rapidly growing, company.
SM: Readers may recall one of my prior posts, The Path to Entrepreneurship, where I suggested that young people interested in entrepreneurship ought to go work for startups, not large companies. See why?