There is a modern adage that many students who are entering college today will graduate into jobs that don’t exist yet. The same could be said of Ben Darnell who, subsequent to completing his undergraduate degree in computer science from NC State in 2002, launched his career at Google – a company that was founded mere weeks after Darnell began college in 1998. Likewise, at that time one could not have conceived of most of the employers – Friendfeed, Facebook, Brizzly, Dropbox – that followed Google on Darnell’s résumé, despite many of them becoming household names in the past decade.
What is noteworthy about Darnell’s professional track record is the interconnectedness of stops he’s made along his career path, from Silicon Valley to his current role with Viewfinder in New York. While a tech industry icon like Google employs thousands, Darnell’s experience suggests the field is a small world after all.
“Google was definitely the core of my career so far,” he said of his seven-year stint, during which he had the opportunity to build products from the ground up and lead an engineering team on the Google Reader project. “It was an invaluable learning experience – in addition to being a wonderful place to work – and provided the foundation for everything that came after, both in terms of an ongoing technical education and personal connections.”
In fact, three of the companies Darnell has joined since leaving Google in 2009 were founded by people he met while working there. He initially met Viewfinder’s founding engineers ten years ago, when he was on his first project team at Google. When they visited San Francisco last year and showed Darnell a demo of their work, he found it interesting and decided to make the move to New York to join them. His work at Viewfinder centers primarily on their iPhone client app. While he’s faced with a new set of challenges compared to those he encountered in his previous server-side development work, Darnell is energized by the change in pace.
“It’s fun to work on something that’s more visual and tangible than what I’ve done before,” he said.
When reflecting on his experience as a Park Scholar, Darnell again highlighted personal connections as a key takeaway.
“I actually think that the most valuable part of the Park program was that it wasn’t directly focused on professional opportunities,” Darnell said. “It pulled me out of my computer science bubble and introduced me to incredibly smart people in a variety of areas.”
The notion of drawing upon the collective knowledge of “incredibly smart people” has become especially important as Darnell’s work has focused increasingly on open source code in software development. His tenure at Friendfeed was relatively brief prior to its acquisition by Facebook; however, Darnell acknowledged that their move to open source was influential to his career path.
While today’s college students might not be able to predict the as-yet unheard of jobs they will hold in the future, Darnell sees the growing trend toward open source as a step in the right direction. When asked what advice he would offer to current students interested in pursuing a career similar to his own, he noted, “There are plenty of jobs in the tech industry, but the best companies are still pretty competitive. Working on open source projects while you’re in school can be one of the best ways to stand out amid a pool of other recent graduates.”