The New Normal

The “new normal” is what I’ve named a phenomenon I’ve seen multiple times in my life. It’s an event where your perception of normality is changed by the people surrounding you. Consequently, your ambitions and chance of achieving those ambitions change as well. Actively seeking a new normal can steer you in a direction you never thought you’d take.

Looking back, four critical events of acquiring a “new normal” define my life today. They can be summed up as: serendipity, opportunity, choice, and confidence.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that many of my friends appear to be following a similar pattern, even in non-technical fields. Contemplating these moments of achieving a “new normal” is a fun thought experiment to see how you’ve grown and steer where you’re going next.

Event One: Serendipity

My first critical new normal happened when I was 12 years old. I participated in an online BBS dedicated to writing cheat programs for a popular web-based game. I would spend two to four hours per day after school on this BBS, socializing with a group of people that spent their free time finding ways to exploit web games and writing simple Windows programs to automate these exploits.

By the age of 14, I started a business with a friend from this BBS – that I had never met in person – creating web game cheats and selling them to people for $25/month. I made over $400 per month as a freshman in high school, felt fabulously wealthy, and continued this until I received a cease and desist order from a few companies and was forced to shut down (mostly at the insistence of my confused parents).

None of my real life friends understood what I was doing, and my parents were concerned that I was acting abnormally. I had unintentionally changed my perception of normality to spending every waking moment (that my parents let me or didn’t know about) honing my programming skills in order to cheat video games. After all, that’s what all my internet friends were doing. It was normal!

Event Two: Opportunity

By the time I was 18, my normal was set: I was programming every single day, spending a majority of my time with open source, and blogging about anything and everything. I even submitted a detailed proposal to PHP’s Zend Framework at night while on vacation in Tokyo. I knew I had found a passion.

My activity in the PHP community and popularity of my now defunct PHP blog (which at its peak had over 10,000 subscribers) helped lead to my first opportunity: a short two sentence email asking if I wanted a job as a Ruby on Rails programmer.

After a few weeks of talking back and forth, I got the job. This company specialized in building MVPs for new tech startups. This was my introduction to the world of startups. I worked as a developer for this consultancy at at least four different tech startups a year, helping build their MVPs.

I started building more and more web applications targeted at consumers rather than simply building cool technical projects or working purely on open source. My normal shifted again: Build useful web applications for people, ship fast, and charge for it. I fell in love with startups.

Event Three: Choice

Closing in now on graduating college, I knew I had to move to San Francisco and work for a startup. This was a fundamental shift in how I previously reached a new normal. Instead of waiting for things to happen, I chose to take the initiative and move to a new city where I had no friends in order to surround myself with what I wanted to become.

Coincidentally, through the same friend I started the web game cheating business with, I met Brian Wong in 2010 and became the first hired engineer for Kiip. I moved to San Francisco in 2011.

At Kiip, I had courtside seats watching Brian raise funding. I was able to meet venture capitalists and founders of dozens of companies through social events. I met young successes, up-and-comers, and industry veterans. Each showed me a piece of what defines San Francisco tech.

Normality had changed again, this time by choosing who I surrounded myself with. It was normal to relentlessly follow your passion. It was normal to believe that you could chase big dreams at unsurmountable odds and succeed. It was normal to start a company, at any age.

Event Four: Confidence

In mid-2012, after working at Kiip for just over two years, I made the decision to leave and start my own company: HashiCorp.

This was never part of any plan. I thought I’d be at Kiip for at least four years and I thought Vagrant would forever remain an obscure side project. Instead, the rapid increase in popularity of Vagrant, the pressure from companies for certain features and support, and my desire to work on it more hours of the day pushed me to make a change.

I was told many times before that I should start my own business working on Vagrant. But it wasn’t until my perception of normality changed from my choice to move to San Francisco that I was able to gain the confidence to really take the leap.

And this is where I sit today. I believe I am on the cusp of another change in normality. I do not know when that will be or how my behavior will change, but I’m excited to look back and see how my decisions and ambitions are steered because of it.