An engineer must be able to think critically, analyze options and create solutions for complex problems. But what sets apart a true startup engineer from the other engineers? My engineering career has spanned four startups and two as an early engineer. Though I don’t claim to be a startup expert, I have found seven significant traits exhibited by stand out Startup Engineers time and time again.
With its trials and tribulations, no wonder startups are compared to roller coasters with their constant ups and downs and burnouts. You will think of kicking the can and taking the easy road. Your friends and family will question or complain why you are doing it and you will find yourself often questioning it too. Your optimism and belief in the idea will be the light at the end of the tunnel. Think of money as the cherry on top, not the end goal.
“Understand that 92% of startups fails in first 3 years so you need to have a positive mindset, long-term vision and ability to take high risks. “ http://startupclass.samaltman.com/
“Understand that Saas startups are a 7-10+ year commitment” http://saastr.com
Be the Rocky Balboa of startup engineers.
Startups conjure up images of millennials huddling around bean bag chairs or friendly ping pong games but in truth, startup life is hard. Time and resources are often crunched in this epic David vs Goliath battle. Projects that typically take a couple months may be pushed out due to urgent fires. What will save you is being tenacious and determined to achieve things despite the odds. My suggestion is to make incremental progress towards the end goal as your priority and this can be accomplished with more frequent sprints.
Your tenacity will be the driving force to the finish line and this separates successful engineers from the rest of the herd. I have observed that in many projects doing first 95% may take you X units of time but it’s the remaining 5% that demands 10X cognitive effort and time from you. It’s this last 5% where people give up. It’s the finishers who keep the compass pointing to the North Star and never give up.
Curiosity may kill the cat but in a startup it is the lifeblood. Engineers are curious by nature, always figuring how things work and discovering new ways to solve issues. This quality plus being data-driven drives the best engineers to dig deeper into an existing problem. Sometimes you may be tempted to make a quick hack while fixing a bug but being curious forces you to ask more questions and fully understand the context before jumping to code.
Always Learning mode
If a startup is a 7-10 year journey then technologies will shift, markets will adapt and the engineers you hire will change. Be prepared to unlearn things and start over with a blank slate. It’s no surprise that the best leaders are constant learners. Having foundational knowledge is important but being open to leaving your comfort learning zone will help you discover better ways of doing things.
Persistence is greater than your IQ. Period. It is a greater predictor of success than intelligence or a privileged upbringing. But what is “grit” exactly? In her TED Talk, Angela Lee Duckworth defines it as “sustaining interest, passion, and persistence for a goal over the long term.” There will be many hurdles at a startup so it is essential. It’s not a surprise either that grit is the one main quality that VCs look for in startup founders.
Having a sense of ownership is a quality that should be part of the values of any organization and culture. It is especially valuable at a startup since there is usually more room for autonomy. Autonomy comes with great responsibility and the features you code are like your babies, you need to nurture them and watch them grow. But if they become sick then you need to tend to them whether it’s nights or weekends. Automation and good architecture principles like “Pets vs. Cattle” can help avoid most of these situations but outages do happen and having an Ownership mindset sets the right expectation from the start and reduces burnouts.
Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the “heart” of another. As an engineer you need to be sensitive to your customers issues, you need to understand how those issues impact the customer’s business and do whatever it takes to get them resolved. For engineers it is easy to deal with systems and technologies but It is difficult to understand how people work and this is where empathy plays an important role both personally and professionally. Empathy helps us communicate and understand the needs of others better. Being an engineer at a startup is not easy and being able to better understand people’s motivations will greatly help you in any hurdles you may face.
Engineering culture at Egnyte is built around Autonomy and our Engineers have a lot of responsibility for the areas they own. “At scale every hire is accretive”, we are hiring and looking for engineers interested in scaling complex distributed systems, check us out at Jobs Page and contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Egnyte architecture components read http://highscalability.com/blog/2016/2/15/egnyte-architecture-lessons-learned-in-building-and-scaling.html.