Interview with Maksim Stepanenko, Employee #21 at Coinbase
This article is part of a series revealing the stories of early employees from the most successful tech companies of the past few years. You’ll walk away having learned about what these individuals experienced, what they wish they knew, and the advice they’d give to others joining high-growth startups. Key takeaways are at the top and you can find the full interview below.
This interview is with Maksim Stepanenko. Maksim joined Coinbase as a software engineer in 2014 and worked there for five years. During his time at Coinbase, Maksim worked across Coinbase Commerce, USDC stablecoin, Coinbase Ventures and other projects. Below is an edited version of a conversation he had with us here at Compound.
- On Maksim’s first project – “We were starting to integrate with the European banks. My manager at the time, who was supposed to lead the effort, had an emergency come up. I was completely new to the codebase and ended up leading the integration. It was a mad sprint, my first project at Coinbase. But it also felt great – I just joined, and I'm here making this happen – launching Coinbase in 20 countries in Europe. That was really cool.”
- On self-organizing reading groups at Coinbase – “There were a bunch of self-organized paper reading groups that lead to discussions about different crypto projects going on. It created this culture where people were truly obsessed with what was going on in the broader space. People would read these on nights and weekends, and every lunch conversation was about that. And it wasn’t about any particular project – we read economics papers, we read philosophy papers.”
- On highly-effective small teams. “The number one thing was that we had the buy-in from the exec team. Balaji [Srinivasan], at the time the CTO, ensured that we had our own space and that we were removed from all the other meetings. We had a completely free schedule, completely free of any other company obligations – no interviews, nothing. So that puts you in the mindset of okay, this is a special thing.”
- On working through the 2017 crypto bull market – “I have very fond memories from that period. At the time, it was very stressful. But it was very focused chaos inside the company. Things were constantly crashing, people were working overtime a lot. But at the same time, there was excitement in the air, because things were going well.”
- On dealing with organization scaling as an early employee – “On a personal level, I cared a lot more about if I was working on fun, interesting problems and if my work was meaningful for the company. As long as those were true, and the company was doing fine, things were okay.”
- On staying with a startup for more than two years – “There are a lot of benefits to staying at a company for longer than a year and a half or two years. Even if the company doesn't work out, you see more and you learn more. Especially in smaller companies, just by the nature of you being there for two years, you become one of the most knowledgeable people in the company. Your capacity for impact compounds with the time you spend at the company, especially in the early days. And people leave too early without taking advantage of that.”
How did you first hear about Coinbase? What were you working on before? What made you decide to hop into crypto so early?
I first learned about Bitcoin when I was taking a distributed systems class my senior year of college in 2012. Someone sent me the Bitcoin whitepaper, I read it, and thought it was a very fascinating idea to have money that was independent of the state: internet-native currency. It was in the back of my mind for a while and I kept reading up on it in places like Hacker News and other forums.
I graduated in 2012 and moved to SF to work here, at a different startup. Around 2013-2014 I started spending more and more time on crypto – Bitcoin Talk was the popular forum at the time. I was finding it more and more interesting. And then, at some point, I decided that I wanted to explore working full-time in this space.
At that time, there wasn't really any legitimate company in the space. Coinbase was the only company that was already relatively well known, at least here in Silicon Valley. So I ended up joining Coinbase.
Was there anything in particular about the Coinbase team that led you to believe it was going to be a winning company?
Yeah, almost 100% of my decision was about the team at the time. Of course the product had traction already, but if you look at product screenshots from 2014, it was just pure Bootstrap -- it didn’t inspire confidence. But after I met the team, I knew that these people were extremely talented and serious about this company. I met Brian [Armstrong], Fred [Ehrsam], Olaf [Carlson-Wee]. Charlie Lee [the creator of Litecoin] was working there at the time.
And just talking to them, it was clear this thing wasn’t some scam, these guys were obsessed with the long-term of crypto and with building a real company. I don't know if you ever met Olaf, for instance, but he's one of the most interesting people out there to start with. He was the first employee at Coinbase. And just talking to him, he had this whole vision of how crypto is gonna play out, and it was very expansive and exciting.
So it was both the combination of this obsession with crypto, and a real long-term belief that it can be one of the defining new technologies of the next century. And the seriousness and intensity of the team.
Do you remember what your first project was during your first few months?
Oh, yeah, actually, that was fun. We just got the regulatory approval to launch in Europe.
And so we were starting to integrate with the European banks. My manager at the time, who was supposed to lead the effort, had an emergency come up. I was completely new to the codebase and ended up leading the integration. It was a mad sprint, my first project at Coinbase. But it also felt great – I just joined, and I'm here making this happen – launching Coinbase in 20 countries in Europe. That was really cool.
Were there any unique traditions or rituals that Coinbase followed that might seem ordinary but you think had had an outsized impact on the team’s success?
One of the unique things that Coinbase did was that instead of interviews, we had work-trials. Instead of a traditional Google-style interview, you would actually join the team for a week or more, and work on a real project in our codebase. There are more companies that do this now, including us at Primer. We were able to continue doing work-trials until we were 500 people or so, but then it got harder to scale it.
It made it easier to maintain the bar. It made it easier for both candidates and the company to make better informed decisions. As the candidate, you see what it's really like to work at this company, and the company gets to see what it's really like to work with you. It's not an artificial interview environment, it’s the real thing. It was very impactful.
There was another thing – it probably came a little bit later, but was pretty important for me. There were a bunch of self-organized paper reading groups that lead to discussions about different crypto projects going on. It created this culture where people were truly obsessed with what was going on in the broader space. People would read these on nights and weekends, and every lunch conversation was about that. And it wasn’t about any particular project – we read economics papers, we read philosophy papers. It went on for a long time and was very fun.
It’s just the nature of the space. Crypto ended up being at the intersection of a lot of disciplines. So the reading groups were just the extension of that.
Who are 2-3 people that had the biggest impact on you?
There are well-known people from Coinbase who were very impactful. I learned a lot from them. But there are also a lot of people who are builders and not as widely recognized, some of them are never on Twitter, but they were very impactful.
One of them is Julian Borrey. He joined us fresh out of college. Right now he works at Neuralink. There isn't anything specific necessarily that I got from him other than this very intense idealism about the world. He is very earnest about the work he does. If something needed to be done, he would go at it with very high intensity and generally had a do-the-right-thing at all times attitude.
Jori Lallo is another person that comes to mind. He is now the co-founder of Linear. I learned how much taste matters from him. He has really good taste. He was the person who moved us from HipChat to Slack when Slack was just getting started. He was the person who moved Coinbase to React (again, when React was just getting started). He has this unique ability to spot things early that are high quality and potential and then move the team in that direction.
There were a bunch of people in the early days who were really earnest and that's probably the biggest thing that I took away.
When you say your coworkers were “earnest” what do you mean by that?
Enthusiasm for the space was definitely a big part. People were at Coinbase because they cared about the crypto. And that's the nice thing about working in crypto in 2014: people who were working in it, were actually interested in it. That was a big part.
The other big part is the care that people put into work was very special. People genuinely wanted to build good products and believed we were doing it for the right reasons. Everyone was bought into the mission of the company and we were building this together. In the early days, there was never a sense of anyone coasting or being there just because it's a job. There was this sense of camaraderie and people were truly trying to do the right thing.
How was the transition from engineer to manager? Why did you decide to go that route versus going to the product team or the staff engineering route?
Interesting question. For me, I never explicitly wanted to manage people. That's not something I was aspiring to or anything. It was just the unique circumstance that there was a gap on the new team that was being assembled and I told my manager that I’d like to try building it. Coinbase Commerce was the product. It was a completely new team and there was an opportunity to (more or less) build this product from scratch.
Engineering Manager was the official title, but for me, it was about starting this project from scratch. I went out and hired the product manager (PM) and we built the team, the product, and the roadmap. The PM and I were like the co-founders of this thing. So that was more of my thinking rather than “I want to manage people,” if that makes sense.
Afterwards, I transitioned back to engineering. We also started Coinbase Ventures. I was spending part of my time on that, just because that's what I was already doing in my free time anyway. I was very interested in the space and had strong opinions. And so I spent some portion of my time on Coinbase Ventures (meeting with teams and stuff) and part of my time back on engineering.
How did Coinbase Ventures work? Did you enjoy it?
Initially, it was a very lightweight structure. It was just a few people doing it part-time, and the important thing was that it was primarily engineers, PMs, and designers -- people who were already obsessed with the industry. We had a lot of autonomy over the investments. It might be different now, because it's much bigger, but that's how it started. That was very fun as a side gig for me.
To go back to why I switched to engineering: I switched back to work on USDC. And that was one of the most exciting projects I worked on. We put together a really small team and everything got cleared from our schedule. We were put in a small room and for a month, we just went really hard. It was one of the fastest projects to launch at Coinbase and was a big team effort. That's the reason I switched back to engineering - it was more about getting to work on this cool and important for the company project rather than moving away from management.
What went on in that month with the small team that worked really well to ship USDC so quickly?
The number one thing was that we had the buy-in from the exec team. Balaji [Srinivasan], at the time the CTO, ensured that we had our own space and that we were removed from all the other meetings. We had a completely free schedule, completely free of any other company obligations – no interviews, nothing. So that puts you in the mindset of okay, this is a special thing.
There was a lot of pre-work already done before we started building. Decisions on how we wanted to integrate USDC and what the product should be. So there was a lot of pre-work and then the actual building was pretty fast. That helped a lot, because we knew exactly what needed to happen and had the buy-in from everyone. And because it came from the top, it was very high-priority for the company. The rest of the company helped quite a bit – it's not like the three of us did everything. There was a lot of help from other teams, just because it was a high priority. And then at the end when we did launch, it was a celebration for everyone.
Was there ever a time at Coinbase where you thought it might not work?
So Coinbase is a funny company. You operate in an industry that has large cycles. I was there for two and a half of these cycles. I'm pretty sure during every crypto winter, a significant majority of the company had this thought in their head that maybe this whole crypto thing might not work out. But the important part was for the company to stay on course. We didn't pivot to popular at the time ideas like enterprise blockchain, we didn't do anything like that. It was hard through this period, but we had the attitude of just keep building, just keep making the product better.
Were there any moments you saw “hockey-stick”-like growth at Coinbase?
Yeah the entirety of 2017 and 2018. I don't know if you’ve come across Brie Wolfson’s essay about the early days of Stripe and the period of outages there. 2017 was basically that at Coinbase.
I remember doing planning and making revenue projections for my project for the year. Within a few months, we had to throw all the projections out of the window. We did not anticipate that much growth.
I have very fond memories from that period. At the time, it was very stressful. But it was very focused chaos inside the company. Things were constantly crashing, people were working overtime a lot. But at the same time, there was excitement in the air, because things were going well
How did you (as an early employee) manage to succeed as the company scaled and the organization changed?
On a personal level, I cared a lot about if I was working on fun, interesting problems and if my work was meaningful for the company. As long as those were true, and the company was doing fine, things were okay.
As the company grew, there were definitely periods when I wanted to switch teams. Or work with some particular person, because I thought I’d learn a lot from them. It was more like that, rather than being worried about titles or responsibility.
In a hyper-growth company, you're working in a different company every six months. And I truly felt that throughout my time at Coinbase. We hired a lot of people, we needed to do reorgs. The company changes so much.
How did you know when it was the right time for you to split off and build your own company (Primer) vs continue building Coinbase?
I don't think I have a general advice – start a company whenever you feel like it's the right time. For me there were many factors. 2015 to 2016 was a hard time at Coinbase. It was the crypto winter. That was a hard time to be there. Lots of people were leaving, including people who I respected a lot.
But once you go through that, 2017 and 2018 we're so all-consuming that I never thought about leaving. And before Coinbase, I did want to start a company. So I always thought that I would probably start a company after this. But it just became so all-consuming that I wasn't thinking about that.
Eventually, the company got to a very large size. I love the experiences of building on small teams with a lot of energy. And that's why the USDC project was so fun. But after that was done, I thought it was time to move on. I wanted to spend some time exploring, and then I start a company.
I was fortunate that I could afford to take time off. I think that's really important. I took time off, I went deep into a few areas that were interesting, I didn't really have a timeline or a deadline. And then when I came across something that felt right, I started the company.
People don’t stay at companies long enough right now. There are a lot of benefits to staying at a company for longer than a year and a half or two years. Even if the company doesn't work out, you see more and you learn more. Especially in smaller companies, just by the nature of you being there for two years, you become one of the most knowledgeable people in the company. Your capacity for impact compounds with the time you spend at the company, especially in the early days. And people leave too early without taking advantage of that.