David Casarez came west to Silicon Valley with his life in a van and startup dreams in his eyes. Within months, the web developer and would-be entrepreneur was hugging Apple CEO Tim Cook and interviewing at the legendary tech firm.
But no job offer came, from Apple or any other company, and Casarez found himself sleeping in stairwells and on park benches, surviving on pouches of tuna and ramen-noodle cups, twitching at every night-time noise and weeping over his plight, he says.
Now, after a random photo of Casarez standing with a job-search sign beside a Mountain View intersection went viral, he's fielding expressions of interest from some 200 companies, more than 70 in the Bay Area.
“I was just out there at the intersection hoping that somebody at least would take my resume and give me a job offer in the Bay Area,” said Casarez, 26.
From Austin, Texas, to rock bottom in California, and back up to his current perch sifting through the many missives from potential employers, Casarez embodies the classic Silicon Valley reinvention tale of dreams pursued, dashed, and dreamed again. He has, in tech-talk, failed upward.
When Casarez arrived in California from Austin in September, he was already working to develop a food-service startup. He figured he'd get a job at another startup while he continued to build his own. He had three years' experience in tech jobs at General Motors, a bachelor's degree in information-systems management from Texas A&M, an old iPhone, a strong faith in the “lean startup” method, and US$20,000 (RM81,512) from cashing out his 401k, he said in an interview this week.
“I felt very confident,” he said.
At a networking event, he met an investor interested in his startup idea, but a budding deal fell through over differences in vision, he said. The hoped-for job interviews weren't happening. He lacked connections, and concluded outsiders have a tough time getting tech work in Silicon Valley. Then an idea arrived, a way to make valuable industry connections by making a splash at a high-profile event.
For three days in November, Casarez camped out in front of an Apple store in Palo Alto to be first in line to buy the just-unveiled US$1,000 (RM4,075) iPhone X. He succeeded, and made a very powerful connection when CEO Tim Cook wrapped his arms around Casarez in a congratulatory hug. Soon, Casarez was invited for an interview at Apple's campus. But the job, he said, went to someone already working for the company.
The downward slide began. Casarez was sleeping in his van in Mountain View to save money, and had calculated the “burn rate” at which his cash reserves were dwindling. He'd figured his nest egg would last six months, maybe seven.
“I was barely scraping by in March,” he said. He started to miss payments on his van. In early June, the vehicle was repossessed, and he was on the streets, sleeping in a park, he said.
“It was very hard, because when I was living in the van I had the safety of knowing I was enclosed,” he said. “I was literally at the very bottom.”
He'd never imagined his own choices could bring him so low. Depression took hold. “I was crying a lot – 'How did I let it get to this point?'” he said. “It really got to me.”
He held onto a gym membership so he could shower, but as his savings vanished, he had to sell the iPhone X. Deep inside, he held onto hope. And he decided to fight back against his self-created disaster.
“I told myself, 'I'm not going to let this break me',” he said.
That's when he decided he needed to do something new to stand out. So he stood out, on the sidewalk where El Camino Real and San Antonio Road come together in Mountain View, and held up a sign saying, “Homeless Hungry 4 Success Take a Resume”. He was not taking money, he said.
That was on Friday, when passerby Jasmine Scofield asked permission to take his photo, and posted it, along with a photo of his resume, on Twitter. The social media platform went mad. As of Tuesday evening, Scofield's tweet had been shared more than 138,000 times.
“I didn't think people were going to think anything of it – there's people who stand at corners all the time, asking for money, asking for beer, asking for whatever,” said Casarez, whose Twitter profile now features his “Hungry 4 Success” mantra and includes an email for media inquiries.
Casarez's life was instantly transformed. Television and newspaper reporters were calling, and he had to limit his media availability after Monday so he could devote himself to responding to prospective employers who contacted him, he said.
“I really want to make the right decision, and take the time to do that,” Casarez said. “For it to have turned out the way it has, it's just been a blessing. It's just given me hope to move forward.”
One of those who saw Scofield's tweet was Austen Allred, CEO of Lambda School, a Pleasanton company that trains software engineers at no up-front cost, and operates a fund for homeless students in its programme. Casarez's story struck a chord with Allred, who in 2016 spent months living out of his car in Palo Alto after arriving from Utah in pursuit of a tech job.
“I view it as my responsibility to help the people who are in the same position that I was,” Allred said, adding that he admires anyone like Casarez who “searches for a job and just hustles”.
Lambda is providing Casarez with up to three months in an Airbnb and mentoring for his interview process.
Casarez's story appears headed for a happier ending than he imagined when he was sleeping in stairwells, but his struggle is not unique, said Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents businesses in the region.
“People desperately want to come here, work here, innovate here and succeed here, yet we're pricing out the folks who already live here and making it much more difficult for folks who want to come here, because for 20 years we've under-invested in the fact that workers and their families actually need a place to live,” Guardino said. — The San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service