Jacob interviews Zuhayeer Musa, co-founder of Levels.fyi, to discuss careers in tech, launching MVPs, and negotiating salaries.
J: What motivated you to build and launch Levels.fyi?
Z: Around 2 years ago, my co-founder Zaheer and I were chatting about what I'd do after college. I was looking at companies to apply to and had just joined an app called Blind (an anonymous community forum for chatting about the workplace). Zaheer was in the middle of looking for a new job and was complaining about how difficult it was to compare titles across companies. As we scrolled through Blind we noticed several of the same types of questions, "At what level can a Senior SDE/Level 63 at Microsoft be placed at Google?"
We realized this was a common question and decided to build a simple visualization to compare software engineer titles across companies. The next few times a related question came up on Blind, we shared a link to our site. In a matter of days, traffic picked up as other people began sharing the site in response to leveling questions. A few months later we began collecting salary data after noticing the same gap in knowledge. The site naturally grew as we shipped features to make career decisions easier. Since then, we’ve expanded into Product Management, Software Engineering Management, and Product Design career tracks!
What was your background before starting Levels?
I previously interned at Uber, graduated from UC Berkeley in 2018, and then eventually started working on Levels.fyi full time. Zaheer graduated from UC Irvine, where he worked on his popular app, TagsForLikes. After graduating he started at LinkedIn before joining Amazon Web Services (AWS).
How did you build the first version of Levels, and how have things changed since launching?
At launch, Levels.fyi was a completely static website with leveling info for just 3 companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon). We quickly realized crowdsourcing information was the only way we could scale and grow. We developed a process to continually review and refresh data on the site as users contribute career ladders and submit salary data.
We’re strong proponents of shipping the minimum viable product (MVP) first and iteratively adding features across the site. Most recently we added a dedicated page for compensation data where you can slice & dice our data (ex. product manager salaries). We found that users loved our website even when it was super minimal. A pretty website design is worthless if you can’t unlock significant value for users in the process.
Our vision is to bring transparency for employees and employers making career decisions. The market moves fast and companies are incentivized to keep information obscure. Employees have the lower hand. We hope that Levels.fyi can help level the playing field, but our work is far from done.
Right now, we’re working on regionalizing our data and visualizations. We have a significant user base outside of the Bay Area, but some users believe we’re only focused on the biggest tech companies. Although we do collect city information, we previously didn't normalize the data or offer any filters. Along the same lines, we’re working on sourcing data for more companies. I once heard, “Your best customers are the ones you already have.” Although it primarily was encouragement for up-selling, it’s quite relevant to traffic as well. Optimizing your landing page and maximizing conversions from existing visitors is far more efficient than advertising.
Software engineering and product management are increasingly popular careers. What advice do you have for people who are considering careers in tech?
Anyone can do it! Even if you don’t have a formal education, it's possible to get into tech by demonstrating your skills and that you’re willing to learn on the job. And a great way to do that is to work on fun side projects. Demand for employees in tech is at an all-time high and as more traditional industries become tech-enabled the demand will only increase.
Do you have any tips for negotiating a higher offer?
When evaluating opportunities, make sure you also properly evaluate yourself and know your worth. Nearly every employment offer can be negotiated, and you can probably command more compensation than you think. Fifteen minutes can earn you 5% or more in compensation (hat-tip to Geico). Having competing offers is usually the easiest way to negotiate but even if you don’t, do some research on salary bands and just ask. Not sure what the salary range for your position is? Check out Levels.fyi!
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