I started working on Rapchat as a Junior in 2013 at Ohio University. The first (awesomely shitty) version went live to the iOS app store June 2014 right after I graduated. While it pained me, I had already accepted a job offer at Progressive Insurance to be a Systems Engineer so I moved to Cleveland and the data center at Progressive that houses billions of dollars worth of servers and equipment became my home.
The job was pretty insane. The concepts I had to learn were beyond complicated and like most other jobs, nothing in college came close to preparing me. Progressive runs all their own tech (kudos to them) so there are thousands of systems, teams, and jobs that connected back and through our team. The bar was high for new hires and I was having to things like how networks work, how servers talk to each other, how virtualization works, how systems are architected at massive scale, and more. I can’t remember the exact number but Progressive would lose something like $10m for every second the network was offline during outages so the pressure was real too and they put real responsibility on the new hires to carry out important tasks.
After I joined, I ended up on a few projects with a dude named Alex Basista who like me went to OU and was a few years into the game at Prog. He was a wizard who was insanely talented and rose the ranks fast. It was clear to me that this guy put in the hours not only at work but outside of work to give him an edge to perfect his craft.
At the time, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how he had learned all this so quickly and how he got to where he was. Again, what I was learning seemed like Chinese and the concepts were out of this world.
But one thing stuck with me, any time we’d get in the weeds working together on something (aka me just watching him) he’d ask “Do you want to be great?”
To which I had no choice but to respond yes. Then, he’d proceed to show me how to learn what he was doing or he’d give me a task to do. Or maybe he’d tell me about this random course he found or this crazy tech guru on YouTube who learned from. He would show me a bit of what it took for him to be great.
It’s a simple question he asked me 5 years ago that still sticks with me today. And for the record, I think it’s totally ok to not want to be great. To be content with average or whatever works for you, that’s your right and nobody should judge that and I’m sure there’s a ton of value in not trying to become the next Steve Jobs.
But if you do want to be great - you really have to do abnormal things. You have to put in an enormous amount of focused, productive work in. You have to make excruciating sacrifices. You have to learn different things. You have to fight through the most uncomfortable shit. You have to build something amazing not just average. The list goes on forever.
And in my opinion, with startups - the only way to succeed is to be great.
So it’s a question I often say to myself. It’s also a question I say to my team members. For example, to an engineer:
Oh, I see we’re missing a check for an error in this scenario and users could get stuck here with no way out. Maybe let’s show them a fun error message and give them a way out?
Good point but that’s not really going to happen that often right?
Right….but dude do you want to be great???
However, pursuit of greatness is stupid exhausting and hard so you have to be a bit careful about when to spend it and when to save it. But just reminding myself and others of this question when I’m at the 95% mark of having something done really helps.
And while sometimes I’m not Sam’s (or a few other people from YC) biggest fan, this post from him goes hand in hand with building something great:
Much love and hope this helps 🙏