in Coding

On Poker and the 250K Offer From AirBnb

Over a month ago, I came across a blog post of a guy who left his job teaching coding at a bootcamp to accept an offer from AirBnb with a total compensation package of $250,000 for the first year. Interestingly, he had no professional experience as a software engineer, and was effectively hired on as a “junior”. Haseeb also lacked the formal computer science education a person would receive from a top tier four-year university (he was an English major). His computer science education consisted of going through App Academy, where he excelled and was asked to even teach the curriculum – a post he held for what I recall to be longer than a year. Make no mistake though, he had the raw knowledge and technical ability of someone coming out of a top-tier university.

When Haseeb decided it was time to switch into an actual software engineering role at a company, his own students were in a position to recommend him for interviews at their own companies.

Here’s an exchange from the final offer by AirBnb accepted by Haseeb.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. I habitually checking my phone, email, everything. I was driving my car into Austin, bumper-to-bumper in traffic when I got the phone call. It was the Airbnb recruiter.

“Haseeb? This is Janice.”

“Janice! What’s the word??” I held my breath.

“I made the magic happen. 250K. 130K salary, 25K signing, 95K a year in RSUs. So you’re in?”

I almost swerved into the car next to me from punching the air so hard.

“I’m in.”

Before making the decision to code, Haseeb was a professional poker player.

Matt Damon’s character in the movie Rounders quit law school to go pro. The movie was released in 1998, but back then, a career in law looked solid. The tech boom was in full swing, and the economy was healthy enough for firms to hire unlike today. Essentially, the character in Rounders quit law school because he was brilliant at the poker table.

Though seemingly more risky, poker is a skill based game, which has elements of risk taking which can fall below gambling given the time and opponents played, the character quit law school to pursuit a professional gambling career because it was the rational decision.

Like law now, professional poker also isn’t like what it once was. The hardest hit was online poker. It’s difficult if not impossible to play poker online for money in the United States with legal tender. A friend, who was also a pro poker player turned coder, described how one morning years ago that all of his funds were frozen, and he knew he needed another way to make a living.

Going back to Haseeb’s transition, it demonstrated the dramatic wiggle room a person has in a given situation to maximize their gains. In poker, when you know you have the absolute highest hand possible (or a very strong hand left on the table), it’s in your best interest to exploit the opportunity to capture the maximum value. It could mean stringing your opponent along, or starting a bidding/betting war of sorts. In the negotiation phase, it wasn’t until Google expressed interest that the other companies were willing to do what they can to get him hired.

The game theory involved in Haseeb’s situation including being out about the negotiation process is pretty incredible. To note, he practices effective altruism, and commits to donating most of his earned into to charities. He has to get the highest paying job to make the greatest impact. Revealing what he has on his blog may be slightly taboo, but I think he reasoned that doing so would work in his favor as opposed to against it. Backlash from any of the companies involved at this point would be bad press (and illegal). Practicing EA, and revealing that fact/motivation actually protects him.

My take away is that Haseeb shed the light on a process that was highly secretive and discreet. Such a system disadvantages non-natural negotiators, particularly those not even privy to the game. Many people do not know how underpaid their engineering salaries are relative to what they earn for their employers. He also introduced the concept of EA to thousands of readers who may want to practice something like it. He performed a highly complex social ballet and shared it with us.

So would Matt Damon’s character from Rounders quit poker to code today? Yes. But he’ll also know that the opportunities to maximize the gains lies beyond just pushing code, that the game is still about performing the social ballet, something that knowing how to code would get you to the table to play. This is a reason why people become managers, startup founders, investors, and stakeholders.

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