Mike Curtis: How a Barista with No College Degree Hustled His Way Into Yahoo, Facebook and Became a VP at Airbnb

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Mike Curtis didn’t have a college degree and worked as a barista serving lattes during high school, yet he still managed to hustle his way into Yahoo, Facebook and eventually become the vice president of engineering at Airbnb.

Curtis had no computer coding skills when he first started at the tech company across the street from the coffee shop he worked at. He landed a gig at iAtlas Corporation after convincing one of his customers to give him the internship. Curtis told Tech in Asia:

“I got to know some of the customers really well. One of them, this guy Jason, had a little tech company across the street.”

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Though he was initially turned down, his persistence paid off.

“I kept after him. And I kept after him. And I kept after him. And finally I got him to agree to give me the internship.”

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Curtis started off as a receptionist and answered phone calls for the company while he learned how to code, according to Business Insider. iAtlas developed a catalogue of searchable business information and was bought by Altavista in 1999. After the acquisition, Curtis set out to Silicon Valley to continue his programming career at AOL and a healthcare company.

He later made the switch to Yahoo where he managed 200 engineers before moving on to Facebook as the social media site’s engineering manager. Today he works at Airbnb as their vice president of engineering.

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Curtis established an extensive tech career before turning 35 and imparted a few words of wisdom to Tech in Asia about what he learned along the way. The VP also shed light on the growth of Airbnb and how it became the multi-billion dollar company it is today.

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Landing Job Interviews

According to Curtis, preparing for job interviews by thoroughly researching the company is crucial to landing a job. Those who schedule multiple interviews and don’t do their homework tend to struggle. He said:

“When I was interviewing at Airbnb, I prepared — a lot. And it really shines through in interviews.”

Early Days of Airbnb

Airbnb was slow to take off at the beginning, but the company laid its roots by focusing on the feedback of its early hosts and guests to improve users’ experience.

“If you look at Airbnb’s history, it’s been eight years. And if you look at the growth curve of Airbnb, you see that for the first three or so years of Airbnb’s existence, basically nothing happened. That was because there wasn’t enough supply in the marketplace to drive demand, and there wasn’t enough demand to drive supply.”

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Recruiting and Retaining Top Talent

Curtis doesn’t code as much as he used to now that he’s at Airbnb where he focuses on recruiting talented engineers and figuring ways to retain programmers. His philosophy is based on integrating engineers into the business process. He said:

“Ultimately it’s up to you to find the impact. Then suddenly you’re not just somebody who writes code. Suddenly you’re like a business owner. And that’s the exciting stuff. That’s where the creativity in the field comes from. And when you’re writing that code on screen you want to know why you’re writing it. It’s not just because it was handed to you, it’s because you know how this is going to drive the business you feel passionately about.”

The Right Trajectory

While employees are often preoccupied with what they have to offer their company, Curtis advised that they should also be asking what their company has to offer them. Looking back, he wonders whether he had stayed too long at certain companies or not been as recognized for his work at others.

“Always make sure what you’re doing is working hard for you.”         

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