Why I left Facebook to join Assemble

Joe Pena
October 22, 2021
  • 9 months ago, I left my role as a Software Engineer at Facebook to become a Founding Engineer at Assemble, a seed stage startup.
  • In this blog, I'll talk about why I made the transition to an early-stage startup, how my day-to-day has changed, and how it's made me a better engineer.

Leaving Facebook to join Assemble

Prior to joining Assemble, I was a Software Engineer for Facebook — it was an amazing opportunity that I scored right out of college (I'm a proud grad of the University of Florida!) Before that, I held an internship at MongoDB. These tech giants were my first foray into the inner workings of tech infrastructure.

At Facebook, I got to work on a few projects, but the one I was most excited about focused on machine learning data infrastructure, or, in simpler terms, taking impression data (i.e. views and impressions on ads, videos and posts) and turning that into data our machines could read so that they could better serve you ads that cater to your likes. In even simpler terms, if you've ever heard the phrase "Instagram/Facebook/My phone is reading my mind" — I was part of the team working to make it feel as though that were happening.

I never wanted to leave Facebook: the pay was great, the company was awesome, the snacks... unbeatable. However, although I really valued my time there, being part of an established and well-known company meant that I was spending more time in meetings planning what we’re building, and explaining why we're planning what we’re building. I had less time to actually code, or take on new projects. Plus, the path to growth was super prescriptive: it was based on specific projects, and tracks. That might work for some folks, but I really want to be able to explore my options and creativity as an engineer.

All in all, I learned that I really loved thinking about complex issues and scalability, and I wanted room to be more autonomous and inventive in my problem-solving. Rather than having to push through roadblocks or outdated processes, I wanted to be able to build sound processes from the ground up. When Assemble reached out, I knew I had to take the call.

The search for the startup — why Assemble?

When Lisa, the Co-Founder of Assemble, reached out to me, I had already been seeking out late stage startups. While I was having great conversations, I wasn't jived by any of the products or missions I was hearing about. I know that if I'm having second thoughts about something, it's a gut feeling I need to trust — I probably won't be happy or motivated in the role. Plus, I wanted to find a place where I could grow and learn quickly, and it seemed like later stage startups had similar roadblocks to growth as I'd already been experiencing. Assemble was building something really revolutionary: a compensation platform designed to empower teams to attract, retain, and motivate top talent with fair and equitable pay.

I remember in our initial interview, Lisa asked me: "What could you contribute to Assemble?" While a valid question, I turned it around and asked her the same thing: "What could Assemble provide for me so I could grow as an engineer?" Through more conversations with members of the team, I learned a few key things that stood out to me and solidified my decision to join:

  • The team was filled with people that were humble, kind and communicative — they're also really fun! I knew I could build and work alongside them.
  • I was compelled by the product: we're taking an outdated process, revamping it, and making it ten times better. More on that below.
  • I heard team members mention that there was a true open door policy, and I'm happy to say that that's only become more clear over the last nine months. Feedback isn’t personal; if something doesn't work, we know how to iterate and move forward together.

Here are three more reasons that joining Assemble was the best decision I ever made:

1. I'm building way more.

It's my experience that at more established companies, engineers take on disproportionately more administrative work. This can range from filling out task templates, documenting every single change, and setting up meetings to discuss every step of a plan. While useful in larger organizations, working at smaller startups like Assemble means I'm spending less time in meetings and more time coding. I'm able to think about problems in depth, instead of spending time discussing the logistics — simply because there are less people involved that need to be updated/tracked down. I also get to focus more on design, meaning that I feel like I'm legitimately creating something, not just updating what already exists.

2. As an early team member, I'm able to help create a supportive and blameless company culture.

As the founding engineer at Assemble, I have a lot of say and impact in the culture of the company and the engineering team as a whole. At larger companies, talking openly about what is and isn't working might be a closed book topic — there are either other things that take priority, or they need to go through formal review processes in order to get changed. At Assemble, handling challenges is as simple as having a conversation with a team member, or sending a message over Slack to resolve a question or brainstorm solutions.

When it comes to engineering problems in particular, we focus less on blame and more on the composition of issues in the system that allowed it to happen. If something breaks, we narrow it down to: why does the system have something in place that can break vs. why did you break it. We know that everyone will make mistakes, so it's a matter of foolproofing our product so that it prevents mistakes from happening in the first place.

Something else we do that's really helpful is host weekly roundtables to evaluate company-wide issues, even if they're owned by another department. This facilitates an environment of growth, constant curiosity and regular feedback.

Part of the Assemble team taking part in an EPD Round Table

3. I'm creating products that have a huge impact on our team and our customers.

At Facebook, I was working on improving products that already existed. At Assemble, everything I build and every bit of code I write has a huge effect on the product — I mean, we're building the product from scratch. The work is so much more rewarding, and I feel a greater sense of ownership over what we're creating.

This past year, I had the autonomy to ideate and spearhead a project that will aid in creating equity across tech roles in any industry. This equity module allows our customers to assess the effectiveness of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in their organization. It allowed me to combine two things I'm really passionate about into one: equity in the workplace and coding. It's not enough to say you're hiring equally across race and gender — you need numbers to show for it. While this module is only open to Assemble customers, I hope that one day it'll become the norm for any company hoping to create a fair and equitable work environment.

Right now, I’m 8 months into my new job and am loving every minute of it. These days, I split my time between building out my team, coding, ideating and pitching in on the company’s strategy whenever I learn something new. I’m getting a ton of hands-on opportunities to develop my engineering muscles.

For those interested in making the jump into the startup world, I hope you'll consider Assemble in your search. If you have any questions about my experience or more questions about the company (or want to join my team!), I’d love to connect and hear about your story!

Joe being Joe

If you’re curious about Assemble, please pay our website a visit.

If you want to contact me, feel free to message me through LinkedIn!


Joe Pena
I'm originally from Florida and ended up moving to Seattle, on the complete opposite corner of the country (sorry mom). I’m a big fan of hip-hop and reggaeton so you will always catch me coding while dancing in my seat while I’m working. When I’m not working you can find me tinkering in the kitchen with my wife, binge watching a show, or sharpening my meme-game.