Transitioning from Academia to Tech & What I’ve Learned Along the Way
Table of Contents
Making the Decision to Cross Over
Academia offers the chance to explore some areas that might be impossible to explore while working in business. Most of the time, a researcher has the freedom to use a wide range of new technologies that might be immature or not supported by an active community of developers. And that’s ok because academia mainly focuses on building strong underlying scientific principles and then creating some pilot use cases as a “proof of concept”, instead of implementing long term support and maintainable services.
That said, the thing that I really did love while working in academia was the time spent reading scientific papers and my experimentation with extremely new technologies. Of course, this cannot be done in business, since each company already has its own technology stack, with widely-used, solid software components.
For me, it was an easy choice to make the switch from the academic world to the tech world. I wanted to participate in building software that is widely used by a group of people, solving a real-world problem, instead of creating pilot use cases that might end up being nothing more than a demonstration to a group of limited individuals.
Finding the Right Company for You
There are some companies out there that truly value you as an individual. They see you as a true colleague and they show it to you through their actions – instead of typing it in a Slack message or describing it in a job description.
In these types of companies, you’ll see signs like:
- In the interview, they behave as if you’re already a member of the team, and make you feel comfortable and treat you as an equal.
- The people you meet are genuine.
- They invest a lot of time to make your time worthwhile: the technical exercises are well thought out and customized. They give you detailed feedback on your code and answers.
There are companies out there that truly, deeply believe in growth and evolution. They deeply want you to grow and be challenged. You can see this through how much they care about their codebase itself; they view it as its own “product” and have a clear vision behind it. If they have a monolith, they want to evolve it. They don’t just focus on what the customer wants but instead invest in scalability and maintainability.
In these growth-centric companies, you’ll see signs like:
- Routine breaks from the roadmap to invest in their people.
- Cross-team knowledge exchange and coaching (e.g. DevOps Workshops & Lighting Talks, Slack, cross-team sprint reviews).
- They organize hackathons and encourage you to try different languages, and they truly want you to evolve in multiple areas.
- They despise, as much as you do, being stale for 30 years, writing in a single language, and having the same set of responsibilities.
And then you will find all kinds of companies in between, so the important thing is to ask yourself, “what is it that you care about and what is it that fulfills you?” For me, I realized that I deeply need to be challenged. The moment of truth came in my interviews when I met people who truly challenged me and I remember how much I appreciated it and wanted to work with them.
When this moment happened, the choice became clear and I realized the following:
- The difference between my first and third choice of employer was huge. Not because they had changed, but because it became evident which employer best aligned with what I was looking for.
- Some companies (like Transifex) don’t talk too much about their work. So, if I didn’t spend time meeting with them, I wouldn’t have known just how amazing the work they do is.
- It might be harder to work in a technology company than to conduct research, but it’s an order of magnitude more fulfilling. It’s like exercising at the gym: you might be hesitant to do it, but at the end of the day, week, month, you feel more fulfilled having done it.
Interviewing With & Getting to Know the Right Company for Me: Transifex
Throughout my job search process, I was lucky enough to have adequate time to meet and interview with different Greek software companies to see which one would best fit my needs. After multiple interviews with various firms, here are two of the simple, but important things I noticed:
- A company that really does invest in its employees will usually start with an engineering assignment and then carry out multiple interviews for finding the most suitable candidate.
- Companies with dynamic role openings will not only ask candidates several algorithmic challenges but also be eager to learn about the candidates’ background and personal goals.
I also noticed that the vast majority of companies recycle the assignments that they send out to their future software engineers. It was a bummer for me to discover that I got exactly the same engineering assignments as some of my friends had received when they applied to the same companies some time ago. I know that it is time-consuming for companies to create unique assignments for each job position, but they should at least update them more often.
My Transifex assignment, however, was clearly customized and closely related to the role that I am now working in today (a position supporting the new API that was recently built). Then, came the interview.
Before going to my first interview at Transifex, I hardly knew a thing about the company. In fact, I first came across Transifex from this random Reddit post on the “Best Greek Software Companies,” and began to read more about what the Transifex team was working on. I was impressed by the product, so I decided to give it a shot and apply.
During my first interview, I met two engineers from the team and immediately all my expectations were exceeded. The excitement and the pride that they have for their product was real. One of the engineers described the (very impressive!) way they implemented their new API, and the other shared how the company was making great efforts to evolve their current infrastructure. It was clear that these guys don’t just focus on what the customer wants, but invest in the true scalability and maintainability of their product.
I also really appreciated the fact that the Transifex team invested a lot of time reviewing my technical exercise, and gave me detailed feedback on my code during every step of the interview process from beginning to end.
Working at Transifex: Team, Transparency, and Knowledge Transfer
As of today, I have just passed my 1-month mark here at Transifex and I am now experiencing first hand all the things that I loved about the company when deciding to join:
- Really great people (both from an engineering and human perspective)
- A wide range of activities that break the daily routine (e.g. workshops, hackathons, lighting talks, dinners)
- Great benefits (food, parking spots, and private insurance)
However, I would also like to focus on two things that one might not necessarily look for in a company: Transparency and knowledge transfer.
As a guy who spent his academic years building software systems that aimed to boost the transparency of the public sector (Diavgeia, Nomothesia), transparency within a company is of crucial importance to me. On a day-to-day level, we can see this transparency on Slack and in meetings: every single activity that happens at Transifex is available to everyone inside the company and is not just limited to a certain team or individual.
Another strong asset of Transifex is the cross-team knowledge exchange and coaching environment that has been built. For example, internal workshops take place regularly to enable backend developers to gain familiarity with the DevOps technology stack and get even more hands-on experience. Another example is the latest company hackathon. Engineers from different teams at Transifex formed a “Hackathon team”, in which each engineer had a different technological background. The team I was in wrote the project in Go, a language that I had never used in the past. Trying different technologies is important to me, as one can evolve in multiple areas.
All in all, a career in academia might be ideal for people that want to experiment with new technologies or love reading scientific papers, but they will rarely have the chance to build impactful software systems that affect the daily lives of real users. The developers that currently work in academia and have no previous industry experience (like me), have a lot to learn from the business world and might feel like they are drinking through a firehose during the first weeks on the new job. It might also be harder to work in a technology company compared with research, but it’s an order of magnitude more fulfilling.
It’s like exercising at the gym: you might be hesitant to do it, but at the end of the day, week, month, you feel more fulfilled having done it.
The Transifex team is always on the lookout for forward-thinking, technology-minded individuals. To learn more about life at Transifex and job openings, please visit www.transifex.com/careers.