Debugging the FAQs (Startup Stories 16.01)

When I was in high school, and even most of college, I never really thought about what I wanted to do for a living. I mean, I THOUGHT about it, but my thoughts essentially wandered toward being a programming hero somewhere between a Tony Stark level celebrity-inventor and Steve Wozniak level genius-inventor (and no, it hasn't happened... yet). Having said that, I think regardless of where you are, you probably have some ideas about the type of place you want to work. Anything from company size, culture, industry, technology, almost any aspect of a company. For someone like me, a pretty serious introvert who wanted to work for a small, innovative company, that's a pretty tall order for a first job. Especially being that many of us don't have much of a network that is often required to find these companies. Once in a while, though, you get a little lucky. For me, that happened in the form of Hacker Fellows.

Prior to Western Michigan University's Engineering Expo (September, 2015), I'd never heard of Hacker Fellows. That's in part because they were pretty new on the scene (the first class had just started their job) and they'd never been to my school before. I found them while combing through the roster of companies, and as soon as I started reading, I knew it was something I wanted. What Hacker Fellows offers, at its core, is the opportunity to work at a tech startup in Michigan. I think we all have our ideas about start-ups. Whether it comes from media like "Silicon Valley", "The Social Network", or hearing about success stories in the industry like Uber or Airbnb. These small, innovative companies that encourage innovation and hard work, often having to learn on the fly. That's what I wanted, and through Hacker Fellows that's pretty much what I've gotten. I picked up even more on the way. Now, I work at BEET Analytics. We’re an auto industry startup in Plymouth, Michigan that’s been bootstrapping its way through the ups and downs for over 4 years. As a developer, I have freedom to be creative and to learn as much as I can while working on the flagship product with a small team of experienced developers.

The last thing I'll say is this: This program has been an awesome experience both for me and everyone I know who has gone through it. But I want to try and make sure that you know what you're getting into, and to explain what this program is all about. I hope I can answer your questions, whether it's in the below Q&A or by e-mail. Good luck, and I hope I'll see you in the Hacker Fellows class of 2017.

A startup, isn't that pretty risky? How do I know the one I'm going to will last?

That's true and a part of startup culture. But one of the goals of this program is to put all of its fellows in the best place possible. Just like the fellows, the companies have their own screening process to do as possible to ensure they can fulfill their side of the bargain. The last thing they want is to onboard you with a failing company.

Did you say one year? What happens after the fellowship ends?

Great question. One of my biggest concerns was that the year would end and I wouldn't have a job anymore. But I'll refer back to what my 2015 Hacker Fellows Buddy (Nicholas, Tome) told me. Which was essentially that these companies are making an investment into you. It's true that resources are precious, and by taking your first year of development, they're molding you into a developer that they can really use and can contribute at a high level in their environment. That's something I've heard over and over again. One of the fellows this past year asked his company, which was filled with experienced people, why they wanted a guy who just graduated with a bachelor's degree. To which they responded, "we want someone that we can mold to the company. Not someone coming in with set ways they have to do everything. We can teach you what you need to know if you're willing and able to learn it."

Having said that, you're also not locked into a 5-year contract. This is a soft-landing into the startup world and an introduction into the culture of these companies. Maybe you want to start your own company with an idea you've had for a long time? Awesome. Maybe you met someone through the program and there's another opportunity for you? Amazing. Just know that there are options after the first year whether you choose to stay or go.

So… I’m still not clear on the perks

Yeah, there’s a lot to process there. Let’s run through it once more.

First, there’s the baseline benefit of working for a startup. Working at a small, innovative company where you can learn and participate at a high level from day one. In combination, 5 weeks of training and networking that you get before walking in the door to get you as prepared as possible. The program also keeps you involved throughout the first year with further networking and career building opportunities. That’s the career benefit.

The other immediate benefit is financial. The bootcamp is worth about $7,000 in total for room, board and the training itself. So while that money doesn’t go into your bank account, it’s still an investment into you. On top of that, you will receive a stipend during the training period of about $1,100 to cover meals and fun. At the end of the training, you receive $1,500 to help you get moved in and start your job.

Finally, after leaving boot camp, you start your real job. To ensure your salary will be competitive with other offers, Hacker Fellows contributes $15,000 to your salary. There is a recommended salary of ~$60,000, but by the nature of the process, the exact figure depends on you and the company.

This sounds too good to be true...

I still think so too and I'm in the middle of it. I guess sometimes awesome opportunities just come along. But here's the thing and this is the reason it's not too good to be true: This is hard. It's hard to get in. There were around 200 applicants last year. The program takes 15. If you get into the 15 you have more interviews to do competing now with 14 people from all over the state and some from out of state who are all awesome programmers.

BUT, before I crush anyone's dreams, I want to offer some hope. I would not have been the first choice of anyone to be the first Bronco in this program, and I probably wasn't the best programmer we had to offer. But I'm here. Along the way I had a few points in the application process when I thought there was no way I'd make it to the next step, and even after I was in the fellowship the interviews were a battle. One of the things I've learned in the last year is that passion can take you a LONG way. So if this has spoken to you, then just find the application and do it. Just go for it.

Should I apply?

Oh most definitely, yes! I recommend it to pretty much any CS grad. I've had an amazing time with my fellowship so far. But my thing on it is basically this:

If you're the right kind of person for this, I think you'll know.

Steve Jobs had a quote at Stanford Commencement, "As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it." I'm not sure if everyone felt like that right away. But I did.

Maybe that's a little too much of projecting myself into this. I knew right away. But here are some characteristics I think represent the program:

  • Love challenges and is a creative thinker
  • Has worked on cool projects and learn new technologies
  • Ok with working at a smaller company
  • Potential and drive to be a future entrepreneur
  • Loves Hackathons and Startup Weekends
  • Has had experience developing products
  • Wants to preserve their creativity and individuality in the workplace

The thing is, none of these mean you should or shouldn't apply, it's just what I saw both in myself and the others in the program this year.

I still have so many more questions!

Awesome, hopefully that probably means you’re interested. Definitely read through the Hacker Fellows website. It's a pretty good place to start. Otherwise, feel free to shoot me an email,, and we can set up a time to talk because I've had an awesome time in the program thus far. If there anything you want to talk about whether it's about applying, interview tips, or any specifics about Hacker Fellows, heck, I'll go the full ternary and say if I can't give you the answer (at least with regard to the program) I can probably point you to someone who can.

Tyler Pease is a 2016 Hacker Fellow and 2015 Computer Science graduate from Western Michigan University. He currently is a software developer for BEET Analytics, a company that analyzes data for the advanced manufacturing and automotive industry.