I got this article by chance when I was opening The Jakarta Globe website to read an article that written by one of my junior. Reading this article make me remember with the late Steve Job’s speech on Stanford University. The spirit of this two articles is the same, about connecting the dots backward. Hope someday the dots will lead me to another accomplishment.
Why returning home? Because it’s home. But seriously, it’s really based on your metrics of life: What do you value?
● Salary. Jobs in developed countries are definitely more high paying. Stay there.
● Comfort and safety. Go ahead and live in developed countries as long as they’re not in economic crisis or other turmoils, unless you’re from an upper class family and can afford maids and drivers to take care of you.
● Family. Either you pull your family abroad or go home and get treated at least as a half-hero simply because you still show your allegiance to your home country after living in such a glorious prosperous far-away land.
● Entrepreneurial opportunity. I would argue the developing world is a much better fertile ground for new ventures because there are many unfulfilled latent needs and less competition. New startups that sprawl in developing countries tend to be those that are actually needed by the market rather than bets on speculative ideas. The startup wave in Indonesia has been especially hot in recent couple years.
● Contribution to society. If you stay in developed countries, you need to think hard about what changes to make on top of the already-glorious and prosperous faraway land. Or, you could go to a place that actually needs change, and in which there are no better agents of changes than those that have seen how changes really should be done in faraway land that has gone through the challenges.
But I don’t think someone who just graduated from school should think too much about this. I think you should work first for some time, network with friends, get involved in new things, reading news, reflecting on your true passion, and you’ll see your perspective on life evolving through time and your answer to this question changing.
I was born and grew up in Indonesia and has never been in the US before college. I got caught in an algorithm competition and ended up contributing medal in international competitions in my high school, which caught the attention of an Indonesian non-profit foundation, which eventually gave me a full scholarship to study abroad with the condition that I shall return home after study.
In 2006, I went to Stanford University. The first few years were among the most challenging times of my life. My belief system and perspectives were turned upside down and I had to interact with the people and the culture in a language that feels alien to me. I started seeing what’s really broken about Indonesia and its national mentality.
I was a natural builder but never thought of doing my own startup. I was offered to co-found a Twitter-like startup during my freshman year (Twitter didn’t exist back then. If only!), but I dismissed the idea due to lack of appreciation of tech startup at that time. I wasn’t too aware about the coolness of startup and ended up doing internships at Microsoft in 2008 and 2009.
When graduating a little early in 2010, I accepted a full time job at Microsoft, thinking that Microsoft was the only cool software company. I got ensnared in the comfort of high salary and stable job and I successfully proposed to delay my returning home because I felt I should stay at my job longer to save enough money and learn enough things.
During non-work times, I hung out with an Indonesian group of friends, from which a few became my best buddies for talking about potential startups we could do in Indonesia. Among them was my future startup co-founder. I was almost convinced by him to return home in late 2010 to start some kind of e-Commerce company but didn’t have the gut for it, so I moved on with Microsoft.
At times I saw ridiculous news about Indonesian government, stories of intolerance, crimes, conflicts and other pessimism-inducing news from Indonesia. At times I would question whether the weak flame inside me that told me I should return home could justify its belief.
Could I actually affect anyone’s life back home for the better? Do I really target the right set of people I want to help? Does Indonesia have hope for a bright future? Luckily, these periods of pessimism only lasted briefly, though when they attacked they felt convincing. At this point I was quite ambivalent about where I should be heading in my life.
And then I started hearing that salaries at Silicon Valley startups were actually higher and the work there was much more fun and startup-like. My parents obviously didn’t like the idea of me changing job so quickly just after I obtained it, but I dared myself to apply to Google, Facebook and a little later LinkedIn.
After being rejected by Facebook, I ended up with offers from Google (more cool factor, great culture, starting to radiate a big company feel and slower pace), and LinkedIn (less cool factor before IPO, unknown culture, still a “rather small” company back then).
After a great debate with my parents who thought Google was much cooler and much more well-known than LinkedIn (back then), which they’re completely unaware of and whose name they couldn’t pronounce, I accepted LinkedIn’s offer because they offered larger responsibility and seemed to have less of big company vibe. I think I was pretty lucky because:
● I was put into the LinkedIn Today team, which was among the hottest thing the company did back then, and which required a lot of building at a face pace with scaling concerns all over the place.
● LinkedIn was in a big transition — the IPO forced it to rethink its identity, team structure, engineering readiness to support faster release cycles, etc. I experienced the period of complete overhaul of LinkedIn’s engineering infrastructure and saw both how things were and eventually become.
● LinkedIn used Java and many open source libraries for Java, and also open sourced a lot of their in-house technologies for Java. Much later this turned out to be very good for my startup because Java and its technologies are so common and much easier to hire for, definitely much more than for Python/Go/other Google’s technologies.
● After the IPO, LinkedIn stock price jumped from $35 to $100+ so my stock option exploded in value — I had never been promised that much amount of money in my life.
In this period of my life, I became much more determined to make the best of the time I had at hand, because I started having the intuition that I would return home someday. I went through as much LinkedIn codebase as possible and learned its software patterns, build system, infrastructure, etc. and tried to cram everything into my brain. I challenged my manager to think about a new product that LinkedIn should tackle, prototyped new things in my spare time, tried things that I definitely wouldn’t a few years back when I was too comfortable.
In late 2011 and early 2012, my future co-founder has grown much more eager to return home and start a startup with me, and after a couple intense meetings both at Mountain View and at Boston (he was still a full-time Harvard Business School student at that time) that sometimes lasted until 3 a.m., I finally decided to take the leap of faith.
I promptly resigned from my job, and he applied for leave of absence at Harvard (in which he didn’t seem to have intention of coming back), and in February 2012 we returned home for good. We both made our sacrifices.
I saw my hometown, Jakarta, again for the first time since five years ago, and I was pretty astonished at what has changed. Many things haven’t changed but many things have, in terms of economic prosperity, city development, the cosmopolitan-ness and open-mindedness of the new young generation, the slow but steady political changes, the adoption of technology in education, among others.
It wasn’t too smooth in the beginning. We had to relearn the Indonesian manners (more like assimilating it with what I took from abroad), relearn the business landscape in the country, rebuild the Indonesian network, and got used to some loss of comforts and safety of living in developed countries.
We never looked back, started our startup right away after a short 1-week break. Today, our startup traveloka.com is 8-person strong with a seed VC funding, with a product that will launch soon.
Reflecting back on everything that happened, here are some take aways:
● One must keep growing. Before reaching certain levels of maturity, there’s no way a child could understand the usefulness of math, or the function of etiquette, or someone to understand the importance of career planning, or maintaining relationship with others. The time will come when you will understand one thing, then one more thing, then one more thing… For some, maturity comes faster in some aspects than others. It’s all good as long as you ensure that you keep growing.
● Discomfort precedes learning. If you become comfortable with something, it probably indicates you’re not challenged that much anymore, which means there are fewer significant unknowns you’re dealing with, which means you’re not acquiring new knowledge and perspectives as fast anymore. I think the best use of limited time at a foreign land is to explore and get involved in as many unfamiliar things as possible that you can handle before your time is up and you’ll have to settle with all you’ve only gained while abroad.
● Timing matters. Had I joined my friend’s startup in 2006, I think I would certainly fail and still hadn’t learned much what to be done better next time, because I simply didn’t have the exposure to industry best practices for creating agile teams. The cycles of startups in Indonesia are also pretty peculiar. If we returned home too early (e.g. 2010) or too late (e.g. 2014) I don’t think we can stick with our current idea for Traveloka and still have reasonable probability of success, because the business and market contexts may not make sense at those points in time. Joining companies at transitional times (not when they’re too risky or too big hence too stable) are also a very good opportunity for abundant learning.
● Connect the dots backward. You obviously can’t connect the dots forward. Doing the exercise of connecting the dots backward forces you to reflect on how you can apply what you learned in the past for the present situations. Learning is useful only as much as it is actually improving future outcomes.
I realize that my experience is probably quite specific for most people to relate to, but I still hope you can take one or two useful things that can help inform your decision.