For some reason, I've always liked the idea of starting an important new company or building something really cool that everyone will use. In college, I became interested in founding or joining a software startup, but had no idea how to do that. I had read a few random books, such as Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure and Steve Jobs & the Next Big Thing, but I still had no idea how to go about starting a company or even how to find a good one to join. Really, all I knew was that the cool startups seemed to be located in Silicon Valley, and so the only plan I could think of was to find out where this "Silicon Valley" was located and move there (I went to school in Ohio). Luckily, my friend Chad had recently taken a job with Intel in Santa Clara, and he reported that Santa Clara was in fact a part of "Silicon Valley", so I joined Intel too.
That was in 1998 -- I kind of assumed that the streets of Silicon Valley would be "paved with startups", and that I would probably run into them all over the place. As it turns out, that wasn't exactly true. After almost a year spent in the cubicles of Intel, I was ready for something new. I still didn't know much about startups, and the ones that I read about in "Red Herring" magazine all sounded really boring. Fortunately, working at Intel meant that I had plenty of time to read Slashdot, and so rather than do some kind of intelligent research, I simply sent my resume to the handful of local startups I had read about that seemed technically interesting.
I never heard back from most of those startups, but one actually offered me a job: Google. At the time, they were just a small team of people in a little office on University Ave in Palo Alto. Their "business model" seemed pretty unlikely to me, but I liked the product, the people seemed smart, the work sounded very interesting, and the office had a bright and high energy feel, a nice change from the two shades of gray at Intel. I didn't understand how they could possibly beat Altavista, which had more users, more money, more engineers, and more everything. If Google did start to take off, wouldn't Altavista simply match their product and kill them? So I pretty much assumed that Google wouldn't make it, but it seemed like a fun job and a great opportunity to meet new people and learn more about startups. Maybe I could find a better startup the next time around. As it turns out, I was only half-right: Google was a great opportunity to meet people and learn about startups (and technology, and products, and more), but of course the whole "Altavista crushes Google" thing didn't happen.
What's my point? You don't need to have it all figured out right now. The important thing is to keep moving forward. Seek opportunities to learn or try something new, something with uncertain outcomes. If you're interested in startups, don't sit around waiting for the perfect opportunity, just go find one that sounds interesting and get a job there. The startup will probably fail, but you will succeed because you have learned a lot more than you otherwise would have. (This isn't to say that you can't learn things in a big company -- you can. For example, you can learn how to be a worker bee.)
Where does my path lead now? Last year I decided that life at Google had become too predictable, and too typical. I quit. It was time to move forward to something new, something uncertain.