You have to put yourself in a position where luck benefits you

A couple of weeks ago I joined Facebook as a Front End Engineer. There are many people in the world that envy that position. Plenty of my friends told me that they do. And I should consider myself lucky. — But should I? Should I consider myself lucky? How much luck was actually involved in getting that offer? And should I humbly consider myself lucky or can I feel proud abou what I have achieved?

If I was Dom Camus, I would ask my cat, but I don’t have a cat. And I don’t have a time machine either. So I will have to answer this question ordinarily.

Some people would argue that with enough effort, you can achieve anything. But I strongly disagree. We live in a world, where some people – arguably a majority – are born into positions where no amount of effort invested would ever allow them to achieve what they are striving for. And on the other hand there are people born into positions so privileged, that they may fail over and over, harder and harder, again and again, without ever having to worry about their future. So I should consider myself lucky, right? Well, yes. But then again, no. Let me explain.


I was definitely born into a privileged position. I was born into a middle-class family in Germany, received over 20 years of education, got my first own computer around the age of 10 and had access to the internet as early as 1998. Not many people in the world have these excellent preconditions for landing a job at a big tech company. And you don’t achieve such preconditions. You have them, or you don’t have them. It’s chance.

I was hired by Facebook after a Facebook engineer stumbled over my Github account. He liked what I worked on and the commitment I invested into my projects there, so he decided to reach my name over to recruiting. There are probably hundreds if not thousands of Github accounts that would also qualify their owners for the Facebook recruiting process. But I was the one who was contacted. By chance.

And then came a long and hard recruiting process. Every single interview was hard. And I know a lot of smart and good people fail during the course of these interviews and are rejected. A lot of them probably much smarter and with stronger coding skills than me. However, due to chance, I did not fail. And not because I am better than them or they worse than me, but because I was lucky. And this even is intentionally. A lot of big tech companies will rather have false negatives in their recruiting process than false positives. That’s why they usually encourage their rejected candidates to reapply within a year or so. Chances are, they will be one of the lucky ones the next time.


So there definitely was a lot of luck involved. But was it only luck? I’d argue no. While luck will always strongly affect your fate, will set boundaries, minima and maxima, you will always require effort to achieve that great goals – if you have them (and I believe it is legitimate to not strive for anything great, but this is a different discussion).

While I may have been lucky, I also invested a lot of time and effort. I learned programming at the age of 14, I spent weeks and months programming random stuff in high school, when my colleagues at college used their Windows PC for gaming after finishing their assignment, I used my Linux machine to write a patch for an open source project and when they watched the latest episodes of “How I met your mother” I watched JSconf recordings.

Effort can offset some of the luck required otherwise. Luckily I never perceived it as an effort, since I love what I am doing. I enjoy programming, like others enjoy reading books or watching sports. So it was easy, even fun, to invest that effort. But I don’t think effort can replace luck.

In the beginning I referenced an article about The Role of Luck in Magic. Not only is it a very well written article, very entertaining and somewhat related to the topic of this article, but I originally read it, when I was still playing Magic: The Gathering competitively. We had a small team of competitive players that would attend leagues and tournaments together. We played, tested and talked a lot about Magic at the time. One of the things we did to get better at Magic was to create and gather small “wisdoms” around the game. Rules that you could recall to help make difficult decisions in matches. One of them was Put yourself in a position where luck benefits you. And this Magic wisdom puts it in a nutshell: if you want to achieve, what you are striving for, you will have to invest effort. Because when that lucky day comes, when that Facebook engineer looks at your Github profile, you better have some cool stuff there.

Renting an Apartment in Silicon Valley

I have a new job. On October 8th I started bootcamp at Facebook. Working at Facebook is simply amazing. But I don’t want to talk about my job at Facebook yet. What I do want talk about is renting an apartment in the San Francisco bay area. Since the day of my arrival here in California I have been looking for an apartment. In the beginning I looked mainly in the Silicon Valley area, that is Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Mountain View. I looked at a couple of apartments but did not like them. They where too expensive for what they had to offer. Little did I know that they where probably some of the best offers I would ever get here.

I arrived on Saturday October 6th in the bay area. I had opted out of the managed relocation package, that Facebook had offered me, so I could take care of my own business. I had booked a motel in Redwood City and rented a car fo 10 days. The car would help me get around to look at apartments and help me get to work. My goal was to find and rent an apartment until the end of those 10 days. After 10 days though, I hadn’t found anything yet, so I prolonged the stay in the motel and the rental of the car.

Checking out San Francisco

At about the same time I decided that it might be a good idea to look for an apartment in the city, instead of the Valley. Not only would there probably be a much better selection, but living in the city would be much nicer in many ways. Bars and Clubs to go to at the weekend and lots of people to meet. The towns in Silicon Valley are a bit sleepy in comparison. So I started to look for an apartment in San Francisco. The prices are higher and the shape of most apartments is terrible. But instead of finding an increased selection of apartments I only found more competition among potential leasers. Whenever I went to an apartment to look at it, at least 3 other people where already there also looking at it.

I thought not having an US credit history would be less of an issue with an offer letter from Facebook in my hands. Not so much though. I applied for a couple of apartments and did not get to lease any of them. Since my motel was in Redwood City I had a rather long drive to San Francisco whenever I looked at an apartment. Add the cost for gas and the usual application fee, those trips to San Francisco quickly became expensive and very time consuming. So I decided to start looking in the Valley again.

By now my third week in the States had started. I had extended motel and car once again until the end of the week. And costs for the motel and especially for the car where cutting into my budget. I needed to return the rental car soon or it would eat up all my savings. The problem was, without a rental car, looking for an apartment is pure pain. And since my motel wasn’t located very conveniently, I was depending on the car to get to work. Also, living in the motel was really beginning to stress me out. I needed to find an apartment very soon.

A glimpse of hope…

On Wednesday that week I went to a very nice and modern, freshly redone apartment in Menlo Park. The owner, Teresa, was very nice and we talked quite a bit about my German origin and my issues trying to find an apartment without having a US credit history. She explained to me, that her husband is also originally from Europe and that they faced exactly the same problems when he moved here. She was very appreciative and understanding. I applied for the apartment and was rather hopeful that it might work out this time.

The very next day while I was at work, listening to a tech talk, my phone rang. I left the room and answered the call. It was Mike, the realtor working with Teresa. He told me he had some good and some bad news for me. He started off by telling me the bad news: the apartment I looked at yesterday was already rented out to someone else. “Damn it”, I thought. The good news however was, that the apartment right next to it was still available and I could have it. It is exactly the same apartment other than currently still being overhauled and redone. It would have the same nice bath, the same modern kitchen and the same big bed- and living rooms. The only drawback being that it would take another three weeks before it is ready for move-in. I was a bit reluctant. “Three weeks?”, I didn’t want to wait that long to move out of the motel. Also, if I should stay in a motel, I would have to relocate to a more conveniently located one, so I could get to work without being dependent on the car, which was really eating away at my reserves. I thanked Mike for the offer and told him that I would think about it and call him back.

But really, what are three weeks of waiting, if you know you’ll have an apartment for sure. Also the apartment was really nice, I liked it very much. So I headed back up to my desk and started looking for a motel closer to one of the shuttle pickups. And I found one. I rang them and asked if they had a room available for the next three weeks. And they had. Just 30 minutes after Mike called me, I rang him back. “Hey Mike, Daniel here. I thought about your offer and I would like to accept it”. Silence on the other end of the line.

… shattered

“Well… there’s one problem”, he finally replied, “I have already leased it to some girl now”. What?! I was shocked. Stupid me. Why did I not immediately give him a clear yes?! What was I thinking?! I was so angry of myself that I nearly missed the consolation offer he made me: “Hey look, I would love to give you the apartment. That girl agreed to sign the lease and pay the first month’s rent as well as the security deposit by 5pm tomorrow evening. If she fails that deadline, you’ll be the first person I’ll ring”. “Fair enough, I guess I’ll have to get lucky then”, I replied and hung up.

I was devastated. And so incredible angry at myself. How could I have missed this opportunity? Why was I so reluctant? This was the poster child of an epic fail.

The next day I was hardly able to get anything done at work. I constantly looked at the clock and wondered if Mike would call. I didn’t believe in it, but I was so hoping he would give me that call I was waiting for.

Being lucky

Then, between 2 and 3pm my phone rang. It was Mike: “Must be your lucky day, the girl just canceled the deal”. In that exact moment I was the happiest man on Earth. I couldn’t believe my fortune and just replied “Oh wow, that’s great I guess!”. Mike replied “Listen, I’ll need you to sign the lease by 5, latest 6pm today. And I’ll need payment for the first month’s rent and the security deposit. Together thats 4,1000.00$. Either a cashier’s check or cash will do it. Do you have that money?”. Of course I didn’t have that amount of money. But it was Friday. My first payday. I was waiting for my first paycheck to arrive at my desk the entire day. “Not right now”, I replied, “but I should have my first paycheck by the early evening. I will be able to pay you”. “Great, see you this evening!”, Mike hung up.

So my paycheck should arrive on that Friday. Since I did not have a set address yet, I gave the address of the Facebook offices to deliver the check to. Usually we get mail delivered directly to our desk by noon. But on that Friday there was nothing. I kept waiting until maybe 3pm, when I started to ask other bootcampers if they knew anything about the paychecks. Nobody did. I wrote HR an email and asked when or where we would be able to get our paycheck. But the mail stranded in a ticket system without any sign of a soon reply. I was about to walk to where the HR desks where located to ask them personally when I found a thread in one of our internal bootcamp groups by someone asking the exact same question: where or when can we receive our paycheck? And somebody was actually able to answer it there: grab them in the lobby of building 10. So I packed my stuff and headed out to building 10 to grab my first paycheck.

Account issues

I received two checks. A smaller one with my first 2 week payment. And a bigger one with my relocation bonus I got instead of a relocation package. So I had the money to pay the realtor. But these paychecks won’t cut it. I’ll need to turn them either into cash or a cashier’s check. So I headed out to the First Republic bank where I wanted to open an account anyway. I explained to the clerk that I wanted to open an account, deposit both checks and then have him pay me a cashier’s check for 4,100.00$. The clerk replied he could certainly open an account for me and deposit these checks there, but they wouldn’t clear until a couple of days later and so he would not be able to issue me a cashier’s check. “Damn it”, I thought again. “Is there no other option?!” I asked him. “Well, these checks are issued by Bank of America. They have a branch right across the street. They should be able to cash them for you right away”. I was so amazed by the kindliness and support by the clerk, that I opened an account with First Republic anyway and deposited the smaller of the two checks. The other one was more than enough to account for the apartment.

So I headed over to Bank of America. I explained to the girl at the counter that I just received my first paycheck and I needed the money immediately to pay for my lease. I asked her for a cashier’s check amounting 4,100.00$ and the rest either as a normal check or in cash. “We can only give you a cashier’s check if you have an account with Bank of America. Do you have an account with Bank of America?” … WTF?! Of course I did not have an account with Bank of America: “Erm… no”. “Would you like to open an account?”, she continued. “Well, actually I just opened an account with First Republic about 5 minutes ago…”, I replied. And again she went on: “Well, we could pay you the check entirely in cash, if you like.” … o.O

Like a gangster

About 10 minutes later she handed me an envelope with roughly 6,000.00 Dollars in cash. The envelope was so thick, it looked like it contained a fucking brick. I left the bank and got in my rental car. There I opened the envelope, looked inside and thought “WTF am I doing here, carrying around nearly 6,000$ in cash?!”. Whatever, it was close to 5pm. I wanted to be in time to meet Mike. So I drove to the apartment and stopped the car at the sidewalk. I had to count 4,100.00$ to pay Mike. So I did. Sitting in the car, I counted 41 100$ notes. I probably looked like some crack-selling gangster. I for sure felt like one. I packed Mike’s money into the envelope and the rest into my backpack and went over to the apartment. Mike and Teresa where already waiting for me. Teresa was just as nice as always. I signed the lease and paid the money. Finally.

I headed out soon again though, since I still had to check-in at the new motel and also had to return the car. I arrived at the motel and agreed to rent a room for two weeks. Paying the 1,000.00$ upfront made every seventh day free, so I agreed to do that. I handed the lady my credit card. “I’m sorry Sir”, she handed me back my credit card, “it won’t take it”. I was perplex: “Are you sure? It should work… want to try it once more?”. But again: “Nope, won’t accept it”. Really? I was already figuring out which bridge I’d choose as my home for the next three weeks, when it suddenly came to my mind: I have nearly 2,000.00$ cash in my backpack! “Would you mind if I paid cash?”, I asked her. “Not at all”, she replied. Apparently it’s normal to motel owners that people with huge amounts of cash walk into their lobby and rent a room for two weeks. I, again, felt a bit awkward in this situation. However, I paid her, left my bags and stuff in my room and headed out to return the car at the airport.

About an hour later I was sitting in the Caltrain back to Menlo Park. This was a crazy day. This probably was the craziest day of my life. Renting an Apartment in Silicon Valley.

Specific Opportunity with Facebook

Specific Opportunity with FB. This was the title of an email I received roughly 5 months ago. It was from a Facebook recruiter. He told me they where seeking out new front-end talent and I might just fit in. I was stunned. I am some average guy, living in an standard sub-urban town in the middle of Germany, visiting an ordinary college in Frankfurt and jobbed at some pretty mediocre companies. I mean, just a couple of months earlier I applied as a part-time front-end guy at some random companies to go alongside my school — and got rejected by them. Why would they contact me?

Nevertheless, I answered that I was interested. Due to time difference it was a bit cumbersome to arrange a phone call, but we managed. A couple of days later I found myself in the middle of the Facebook interview process. I sent in my resume, mastered a programming challenge and had a couple of phone interviews. Then I got an invitation for an on-site interview. A couple of weeks later I was sitting on a plane to San Francisco. Me. Some average guy. Sitting on a plane, travelling to an interview at one of the coolest tech-companies in the world.

During the time of the phone interviews I read a lot about how other people took the interview process. How it was very challenging, but also rewarding. Even after receiving the rejection. And most people who wrote about it finally got a rejection. I was very excited about the whole thing, but I was sure: eventually, I will get my rejection as well. After all, I am just some average guy. How could I compete with those great minds actually getting those jobs? But I had fun during the interview process, so I kept going. I had nothing to lose after all.

At the Facebook HQ I had an interview marathon. I got a break at noon to get lunch after which I was shown around the place. At lunch my recruiter asked me about for how long my school will continue. I had just begun my masters course. It was another 3 semesters. But I told her I was willing to ditch it, should I receive an offer I was happy with. She said that Facebook would not want me to quit my masters course, but I insisted that I made up my mind about that already before even answering the first mail. After all: what reason would there be to do the whole interview process, if I wasn’t willing to accept an adequate offer in the end — except maybe getting sponsored a weekend trip to the Bay Area. She laught.
But it was true. That’s what I actually thought. When I’d receive my rejection – and I was still sure I would eventually get one – I could still tell myself “Well, you had a good time, you traveled to the US for the first time in your life and boy, you can maybe even put that on your resume when applying for a job at one of those mediocre companies again!”

The interviews where exhausting and I still had a nearly 12 hour long flight before me. Sitting on that plane home, I actually thought about it for the first time: what if I do receive an offer? I mean I had thought about it, but I never really envisioned it. Some of my friends of course knew about the interviews and some of them were pretty excited, but I always kept saying to them — and myself: keep it low, we’ll have to see what happens. Since in the end, I very well may fail. After all I am just some average guy. But on my way home, I realized: this is it. The interview process is over. There will not be anything more to wait for. I’ll now either get a rejection, or an offer.

A couple of days later I had an email from my recruiter in my inbox. Emails usually aren’t a good sign. Rejections come by email, offers by phone they say. It was a short mail. I was asked if I had time to receive a call later that day.