“Experiencing being “shown the door” in Silicon Valley four times.”
Huy Tran - Senior Software Engineer at Navan US; blogger at The Notorious Snacky
“Just when everything was going smoothly, why did I go to the US?” - That’s the question I asked myself when I moved to the US with my family in 2015. At that time, I had my dream job with a decent salary, and I was planning to get married by the end of the year. So what else was there to do? Build a house, buy a car, and enjoy a fun-filled life at the age of 26, following the ideal life standards of my peers.
But when my family was sponsored to the US, I thought, “Why not give it a try? It’s an opportunity.” I took advantage of the last few days in Vietnam to apply to a few tech companies in the US. I applied to quite a few US companies, but since my experience was entirely in Vietnam, hardly any of them bothered to respond. I still remember when it was 4:00 AM in Vietnam, and an HR representative called me to schedule a first-round interview. I was half-asleep at that time. Then, because there were many candidates waiting, the company said they would get back to me later for the second round, but I waited and waited, and there was no response. For the two weeks after I set foot in the US, I continued my journey of sending job applications to over 60 companies. I would say something, and they wouldn’t understand, and when they said something, I wouldn’t understand either. And to top it off, I didn’t have all the necessary documents to start working, so the companies thought I was a tourist, and one by one, I got rejected. It was truly disheartening.
The moment of utter despair, thinking I had to accept giving up on my dream job altogether, the company that seemed like a ghost during the first round of interviews in Vietnam sent me an invitation for the second round. The technical interview and salary negotiation went pretty smoothly. Who would have thought that becoming a software engineer in Silicon Valley - something I once thought was just a pipe dream - would become a reality. Holy moly, it’s exciting!
My first job in the US was as a front-end engineer in downtown San Jose. At first, I didn’t understand the working style in the US, nor did I know the level of expectations from my boss, so I was pretty relaxed at work. Maybe a bit too relaxed. Along with the “abuse” of unlimited vacation benefits, I became complacent, and after a while, my boss invited me to “take a break” from the job. That’s when I realized what they meant by “hire fast, fire fast.” It means there’s no room for excess baggage here, no one who doesn’t contribute to the team. It’s different in the US compared to Vietnam. Nobody pushes you to work, sets deadlines or tasks for you. Everyone has to take the initiative to get things done. And when I learned that lesson, I had to pick myself up and start over after the “first-life shock.”
In March 2016, my second job came pretty quickly, at a company in Fremont. However, after working there for a while, I found the environment to be quite dull. I had to endure long hours, from early morning till late at night, and my boss kept a constant eye on me, asking if the project was completed or not. I had to juggle between being a front-end engineer and a mobile developer because my boss didn’t hire anyone else after my colleague quit the mobile position. This boss had a peculiar way of doing things. He would leave the office around 5-6 pm and then come back at 8 pm to check if the engineers were still working. So, everyone in the company had to stay late without pay until late at night, and I thought it was normal. After being threatened by my boss to work even more, including working on Sundays, I finally made a difficult decision - to quit the job when there was still one month left before my son was born. At this point, I was already married, but my wife hadn’t been sponsored to come to the US yet. Before going back to Vietnam to visit my son, I managed to find a new job and signed a contract with a startup called CareSkore in Mountain View, with a six-figure salary.
After nearly a year of working there, everything was great. High salary, interesting job, and surrounded by good friends. There was nothing worth complaining about until the end of 2017 when the company announced that they only had cash for the next 30 days and a series of management changes. At that point, everyone knew the company was pretty much done for. The days that followed were a series of remote work without knowing when we would get paid, as the money in the account kept dwindling. I worked without pay for over three months, hoping that the company would recover like before. But when I couldn’t take it anymore, I made a new move - applying for a senior position, stabilizing my career, and staying away from new startups that had been operating for less than three years.
This process was not easy at all, especially when applying to big companies where the competition is fierce. In that moment, I persevered and submitted applications in batches, going through interviews with 4-5 companies every day. The number of rejections was even higher than the number of interviews I attended. But then, in the middle of February 2018, all my efforts paid off. I joined the next company, Loop Commerce. Just three weeks into the job, I received news that the company had been acquired by Synchrony Bank. I also received a sum of money, and with that, I was able to buy my first house in the US. However, after three years of work, I only received 50% of the total amount promised by the company due to lower-than-expected revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. My love affair with my third company in the US came to an end.
In 2021, I interviewed for the next company, which happens to be my current company, TripActions, in the heart of Silicon Valley. After working for about a year, the company had a project in need of backend expertise, and since I also had an interest in backend development, my boss gave me the opportunity to try it out. I had some knowledge in this area from my time in Vietnam. Gradually, in early 2023, I transitioned to working as a backend engineer, and I’ve been doing that ever since. The biggest motivation for me to switch from frontend to backend was realizing that even as a senior frontend engineer in the US, the salary would only reach a certain level and wouldn’t go too high compared to backend engineering (unless you’re a superstar like Chau Tran).
In the US, if you’re not working for big tech giants like Google, Meta, and other famous names, then usually startups clearly divide roles into FE and BE. I’ve noticed that there are few companies that hire full-stack developers because of the specialized nature of the work and the workload for each role. So, when you go for interviews or prepare for them, you should focus on a specific role. However, once you start working, you shouldn’t limit yourself to a fixed role. Expand your knowledge and skills to understand both the frontend and backend aspects of the product. This will give you a more comprehensive view of the product and help you work more effectively on projects.
After 8 years since stepping foot in the US, I’ve experienced all the ups and downs of tech companies’ startups. From being politely asked to “leave” a company to witnessing company bankruptcies and even being part of acquisitions and stock splits. I’ve worked for companies on the outskirts of Silicon Valley and for companies right in the heart of the valley. What I’ve learned is that all the advice, obstacles, and directions are just references. Where you are, what you do, who you are, and who you will become are all decisions you make. So, believe in yourself and give it your all!