What It’s Like to Be a Newly Rich Nvidia Engineer

How Nvidia Became ChatGPT’s Brain And Joined The $1 Trillion Club

Employees at the Voyager Park and Walkway at Nvidia Headquarters in Santa Clara, California, US, on Monday, June 5, 2023. Nvidia Corp., suddenly at the core of the world’s most important technology, owns 80% of the market for a particular kind of chip called a data-center accelerator, and the current wait time for one of its AI processors is eight months.
Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nvidia used to be the kind of company that only nerds and hard-core tech bros knew about. It designed high-end, specialized graphics chips for gamers, the kind who liked to take apart their PCs and tweak their motherboards. But, it turned out, these niche processors could do something else really well: handle all the complex work needed for artificial-intelligence programs like OpenAI’s Dall-E image generator and its text bot ChatGPT.  

That has put Nvidia at the center of the AI boom — powering not just Sam Altman’s company but Tesla, Meta, and every other Silicon Valley copycat. This year, Nvidia’s value in the stock market has nearly tripled to nearly $3.3 trillion, making the company the most valuable in the world — larger than both Apple and Microsoft. Recently, Intelligencer spoke with an Nvidia engineer in his late 20s. In December and May, when the company reported extraordinary processor sales in its quarterly earnings reports, his net worth jumped hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

When I joined in 2021, Nvidia was prestigious in that it was a well-known name, but it wasn’t as competitive as Google and nowhere near as competitive as Meta. The perks have always been very bare. You can’t get free lunch — it’s not like Google. And the cafeteria is only open till 2 p.m., but at Google I think it’s open all day. They just restarted the San Francisco shuttle, and we don’t get any commuter benefits. Plus it’s a hardware company, which is different from internet companies. But now, we’re getting so many applications for the few positions that we have that it’s impossible to look through all the résumés. We’re probably going to be very competitive now.

Watching the stock price go up was absolutely crazy. I definitely did not expect this to happen. I had thought of Nvidia as a gaming company — I had thought, Maybe it could keep growing. Obviously, it’s not a gaming company anymore.

My cash salary is just over $200,000; most of my comp is in equity. The first time the stock price shot up, I was doing the numbers in my head, like, Okay, if the average price for next year is $400, I’m gonna make $450,000 next year. That’s amazing. But the average is going to be less than $400. It’s not going to stay there. That was how I was thinking about it. Then, each time, the price just kept going up. After the December earnings last year, I didn’t have any more. I thought, Clearly, they’re not bullshitting and this is just gonna keep going. Currently I have $1.6 million in unvested shares that will vest over the next 18 months. After taxes, that should net another $800,000. If I had kept every share I was ever given, I believe I’d have an extra $1 million, possibly less.

I could not believe it. I always had the sense that I would never get lucky with the stock market. A few investments I made I lost a bunch of money on. My last company tanked right before I joined. I thought, Okay, it’s fine. I’ll just work for a wage, and I don’t need to get lucky. I could not believe my luck. I still feel that way every quarter. I sometimes do the math of how much I get paid per month with stock included, and the number is crazy. Plus I love working at Nvidia. It’s super-interesting. I don’t work on the GPU directly, more like a research-y project. I get to open a textbook — which I never did in my old job —and read up on the algorithms. And I don’t really work that hard either, like 30, 35 hours a week.

When the Nvidia stock was going down in 2022, there would be a tinge in the air at work; people were not happy about it. Now, everyone’s cheerful, happy. It’s kind of funny, though — at the office, we never talk about it. Maybe right after earnings, my manager will say something like, “Obviously, we’ve been doing really well.” I have one close friend who I’ve talked to about it, but you don’t want to jinx it, I guess. Plus you don’t know how much stock everyone else has. I think people with longer tenure with higher-level roles probably are doing great. They will get retirement money out of this, even if they diversified from Nvidia.

When Nvidia became the largest publicly-traded company in the world, I took screenshots of the stock price and sent it to my mom and girlfriend. It was pretty great. It’s kind of unbelievable. I also talked to one work friend about it. We were both pretty psyched. People at the company are silently happy.

Outside of work, it can be annoying when people hear I work there — they ask when I joined and try to guess how rich I am. This is gonna sound really douchey, but if someone asked me where I went to school, it’s a little bit awkward for me to say because it’s a big name. And this is sort of similar. If you say you’re working at Nvidia, they’re like, “Ooooh, okay. That’s who I’m talking to? How about that stock, man?” 

My parents are both highly educated, but I grew up middle class. My mom makes money but not a lot. I got into college on full financial aid, and I am paying for my sister to attend college at the moment. Until recently, I’d try to spend under $100 a day, maximum. But I’ve been failing. I’ve been going out whenever I want. I’ve been splurging, and It’s going to be a problem. I’ve been buying a lot of very nice gifts for people. For my girlfriend, I’ve gotten a couple of pieces of nice jewelry — very reasonable stuff, no gemstones or anything. My sister gets more age-appropriate stuff. Shoes. I got her a MacBook — she needs it for school. Once a month, I’ve been taking my girlfriend to a nice restaurant — one Michelin star, not the three Michelin stars. I just don’t get the value prop, you know? Those are like $2,000 for two people, but for one star, it’s like $800, $900. Every now and then, I take everyone traveling. I took my mom to Napa and stayed at a very, very nice hotel. I would have never been able to stay there — $1,200 or something.

I grew up abroad, and my mom still lives in that country, so I go there like twice a year. I really enjoy flying business class. I don’t want to fly economy ever again; I just don’t want to touch shoulders and share an armrest, you know? So the new expense would be flying business to Europe. Those tickets are, like, $6,000 or something. So far this year, I’ve spent about $30,000 on my sister’s tuition. $11,000 for travel. $14,000 for restaurants and bars. And then $8,000 shopping. Jesus Christ. I need to slow down.

To be honest, I don’t feel rich. It’s relaxed me a lot and made homeownership a possibility in the near future, but it’s not like I’m loaded now. I certainly can’t retire on the amount of money. Being unmarried with no kids, I now feel comfortable flying business and staying at high-end hotels, but I could not do any of that if I had kids. I’m renting an apartment in downtown S.F. I could comfortably buy a $2 million house by putting down $800,000 and getting a mortgage for the rest, but renting seems like a much better option.

What kind of life do I see for myself? I don’t really have an answer to that. I’d like at least two kids, maybe three to four. My goal has always been to have $5 million for retirement. I might stay at Nvidia if I got a couple more promotions, but I plan on moving to NYC when the equity cliff hits in 2026. I hate how soulless the peninsula is and how far San Francisco has been allowed to deteriorate. I still like S.F., but it’s not a quarter of the city it used to be and there’s no indication problems are gonna fix themselves. Like a cultural dead zone, you know? My parents have some friends in the area. When I visit, it’s this race to politely humblebrag about your last vacation or where your kid got into college or whatever. That’s not how I grew up. I wouldn’t want to raise kids in that environment. In fact, it would be ideal if my kids thought we were poor, just not going to school with superrich people. And by superrich I mean anyone who has a $3 million home in Menlo Park.

The school I went to had a lot of smart, ambitious people. Way more ambitious than me. A bunch of my friends were loaded through their parents and then some of them immediately went to Google. I was more middle of the road. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone anymore. I feel great. I cannot complain.  I just feel content and secure. That’s been a nice thing.

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