You’re a developer who is looking for their next role and you are thinking about what kind of companies to talk to. One of the first decisions you have to make is whether to join a startup or a bigger, more established company. Here’s a quick case for startups:
The earlier you are joining the company, the higher the financial benefits can be. If the startup does well, your share options can be worth a lot of money. The people you’re going to work with are often very entrepreneurial and innovative (and since you’re reading this article, you probably are too). You can learn a lot being around other creators, sharing ideas, and discussing things openly. It’s a stark contrast to more corporate processes and environments.
It’s not all paperwork and sitting in meetings. At a startup “agile” is an adjective — not a time-suck. We release our software early and often, and maintain a very short cycle between pull requests and releases. It’s a very exciting environment, with a lot of opportunity to see your work come to life — and fast! Working for a company that wins a startup competition feels differently than being one of 5000 employees in a giant conglomerate. Although I’ve only experienced the former, I can extrapolate that getting 20% of the credit feels better than getting 0.002% credit.
If you’re joining a startup, you can also expect to be able to influence the technology choices, the culture, and many other things that you would not be able to influence otherwise. Most of the processes are a blank slate, which require you to take charge and make the calls yourself. This includes a lot of things — hiring decisions, processes, technologies, and the list goes on and on.
Another great aspect of working at a smaller company is that you’re much closer to the folks who use your product. Being able to more easily obtain feedback is a gift to help build things that closely align with your user base.
At a startup, you have a big impact as an individual contributor. If you’re joining a team of 5 engineers, you’ll become ~17% of the team, and your work and ideas carry a lot of weight. Taking on this responsibility gives you an opportunity to hone your skills, master more parts of the stack, and gain confidence and great experience. Opportunity presents itself where responsibility is dropped, or, as it is in many startups — where someone did not claim responsibility for something yet. There is a lot of joy in diving into a codebase and finding a part of it that can be made better, and there’s no one but you to guide that part of the project.
This sounds exciting … For some people. Responsibility is a double-edged sword. Being an owner of a feature comes with being able to rule over your domain, but you also need to answer for your decisions. However, most of the time, it’s very beneficial and a great learning opportunity to lead features and projects. You learn a lot of important lessons very quickly, like having to deal with a lot of existing codebase… Most of it, written by you!
Mentorship is critical to accelerating your career. Often your manager (who may be your CTO too), will be in charge of a small team, resulting in a lot of attention given to you. In a corporate role, it’s not unheard of to be talking to your manager as infrequently as once a month, for an hour. In contrast, it’s common practice in a startup to give you both a lot of 1:1 time and opportunities to better your craft through their feedback and help.
With that kind of support and independence, you will find yourself being empowered to choose the projects you want to work on, and choose how exactly you want to do them. From creating a new internal service in a language you like the most, adopting a pattern that you enjoy working with, to suggesting marketing copy changes, the startup life is rife with opportunities to do things the way you like it.
Another important consideration in whether or not you’re ready for this kind of job is your willingness to teach yourself anything. Since the team is quite small, even when your mentor makes themselves very available, there will still be a lot of things that you will have to pick up on your own. Where a big company would provide you with a rigorous and lengthy training program, in a startup most often you’ll find yourself having to not only teach yourself what’s necessary, but also figuring out what it is that you have to learn to fill in the gaps.
Startups often get a bad rap. When people complain about working for startups, they often mention long hours and low pay, lousy culture (and no HR department to fix it), opportunity for employees to burnout quickly, and general chaos. As much as many of those points are true for some companies, they’re not exclusive to startups.
Working at a startup is likely going to be rewarding. The connections you will make with other people are going to be invaluable, and most startups are much more lenient in letting you choose how to do your work, whether that means choosing all of your equipment or setting up your hours according to your lifestyle and preferences. You’ll develop your decisiveness, communication, and adaptability skills. And that’s all on top of the broad spectrum of technical skills you’ll pick up along the way, alongside with a great job title and a list of achievements that you can confidently say were yours.
Special thanks to Danielle Heberling for helping out with the content.