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On my first year in a startup

Jun 01, 2012 | 4 minutes read

Tags: blog

Exactly a year ago this morning, I joined one of Ireland’s emerging startups. I was a 22 year old, starry-eyes graduate.
Ok, I lie – I wasn’t very starry eyed. Having spent some 15 months in a large blue-chip, and run a small business for six years previous years, I had some industry experience – but none of it in a startup.

What follows is a reflection on what exactly a year is like in a startup environment, and how it compares to anything I’ve experienced previously.

The first thing that strikes is the complete lack of ‘red tape’. Beauracracy is non-existant in a startup – even from the very beginning I’ve been given the change to contribute at a level far beyond a typical ‘junior’ engineer. In fact, I’ve grown wary of the term ‘junior’ –  engineers can simply be divided up into good ones and bad ones, and experience quickly becomes largely irrelevant.

There’s no need for board approval to use a new framework or tooling – once it’s appropriately licensed, away you go! No more antiquated version control system, no more VPN’s and no more bloatware on my machine. The barriers to getting your work done are non-existant, and it makes for a much more productive environment.

The furniture, as I like to call the folk who make a career out of hiding, doing as little work as possible, don’t last. In fact, they typically won’t make it past the door. A startup is the perfect environment to weed out such terminal careers. Everybody contributes, if you’re not wiling to, best find another job!

I’ve read quite a few posts about the web, usually from new-age hipster hackers convinced that working a 20 hour week, sipping vitamin drinks from the courtesy fridge, is how a startup should be run.
Reality is, I don’t think that’s how the game goes. My typical working week is a mere 50 hours, but that’s regularly gone anywhere up to 80. I’ve worked most bank holidays this year. The hours are long, and there’s an expectation everybody will go above and beyond. This normally isn’t present in a larger company, where long hours are strictly the exception and not the rule.
The sense of reward on completion of any work is so much more tangible however that the long hours go unnoticed. I’ve always made sure I find what I’m doing stimulating and enjoyable – without this, such hours would be impossible.

An i7 Macbook, and lot’s of shiny Apple hardware. NodeJS, MongoDB, JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS3. Sounds like a full stack wet dream? It’s also a typical day. Few other workplaces would offer the opportunity to work with such an exciting and emerging set of technologies.

Perhaps the starkest contrast between a startup and a larger company is the pressure. Stress is more than an occupational hazard, it can probably be assured. At times, it can be pretty immense. Because you’re dealing with a smaller team, often delivering a vast product, expectations are much higher. Often, you are the team. Failing to deliver really isn’t an option.
This is hardly surprising in a startup environment, but can’t be understated and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s also, in my view, one of the best bits.

One of the greatest things about a small startup is my employer is quite happy for me to work on an open source project, contributing back to the community. This could be both in my own time, and if it’s in the course of a project, during working hours. Some of the work I’ve done is even released as an OSS project. That rarely happens in large software companies. In my last role, a restrictive NDA prevented me from even looking at the iOS SDK, heaven forbid contributing to any open software projects. On the contrary, since last June, my GitHub portfolio has grown at an exponential rate.

Looking back on the past year, joining a startup company is one of the best career moves I’ve made. I could never go back.
It’s certainly not for everyone, and working for a big company isn’t all bad. I learned an awful lot working in a large corporation – my first delve into JavaScript, performant DOM manipulation, and even discovering the fact that I enjoy working in software so much!  The hours are reasonable, the pay’s good, there’s benefits, health care, a pension.. But seriously, I’m 23. Boring, and pension funds of late haven’t been the most reliable investment here in Ireland!

A startup environment is by far the greatest place to be for anybody who loves working with technology, and if you’re not already doing so, go now.

p.s. still hiring