In the middle of 2009, Brian Acton was the software engineer that no one wanted to hire. Despite a dozen years of experience at Yahoo and Apple Computer, he got turned down by two of the Internet’s brightest stars at the time. First Twitter said no in May. Then Facebook rejected him in August. Today, those snubs are looking like a pair of $3 billion mistakes.
When Acton couldn’t find work at another big-name company, he took his chances on the start-up route instead. Teaming up with another Yahoo alum, Jan Koum, he cofounded WhatsApp, a Mountain View, Calif., start-up that has become the king of cloud-based messaging. WhatsApp is in the headlines this week because Facebook has agreed to buy the company for a stunning $16 billion in stock and cash, along with as much as $3 billion in restricted stock units for the founders.
With slightly more than a 20% stake in the company, Acton stands to collect at least $3.2 billion in the transaction. That rebound isn’t just good news for him. It’s certain to become a legendary story of hard luck, persistence — and vindication — among job-hunters worldwide. It’s also likely to cause recruiters and hiring managers some anguish. Hiring the right people is a chancy exercise even in the best of circumstances. But no one at any big company want to become famous for having let “another Brian Acton” slip away.
It turns out that Acton’s rueful acknowledgements of his job-hunting setbacks are still findable on Twitter. And as news of the WhatsApp-Facebook agreement spread Wednesday, thousands of social media users discovered the story of a snubbed job-hunter who got the last laugh. By 5:30 p.m., Pacific time, more than 1,100 people had retweeted Acton’s August 2009 update about his lack of luck finding work at Facebook.
Many of the retweeters added their own commentary. “What an epic comeback,” one person wrote. “I love this! Don’t give up,” another added. “This proves how hard (broken, even) interviewing really is,” a third remarked.
As Acton’s reversal of fortune heads into the legend-making machine of Silicon Valley, there’s one more detail that deserves to be preserved, just the way he expressed it at the time. Instead of voicing frustration about Facebook’s inability to realize what he could contribute, Acton in August 2009 wrote: “It was a great opportunity to connect with some fantastic people. Looking forward to life’s next adventure.” It took a while, but eventually his optimism paid off.