It’s hard for an engineer to ignore the allure of working for a small, agile startup—especially if you’ve spent some time in the corporate world. Startups often provide an opportunity to be more involved the overall business, as well as less bureaucracy and a more flexible work environment.
That said, the engineering skills and personality traits that made you successful in a more traditional career path aren’t necessarily the ones that will entice a startup to hire you. While technical talent is in high demand, startups are (rightfully) cautious about hiring just anyone.
On that note, there are several attributes startups look for when hiring engineers. Read over this list to see if you have what it takes.
In young companies, there can be little structure and few best practices to draw from. So, hiring managers look for engineers who can make technical and procedural decisions without much guidance.
I’ve been with startups that screen for candidates who maintain their own independent projects, as it demonstrates that an applicant can create products without a concrete blueprint. Additionally, individual efforts can compensate for a lack of management experience, as they evidence a potential hire’s ability to steward a project to completion.
Another way startups test for decisiveness is to ask applicants to execute a coding project. Employers like seeing how potential hires will tackle difficult problems without clean solutions and how well a candidate can dive into an unfamiliar codebase and become productive.
2. Communication Skills
Communication is one of the most overlooked skills for engineers. Being able to explain why you are doing things a certain way and why it will make the product better (to someone outside the tech department!) is a huge asset, particularly in a startup.
Engineers must stand up for their work and their approach. Otherwise, non-technical entrepreneurs may suggest moving ahead too quickly, which ultimately leads to shoddy code. Not only should candidates hone their communication skills, but I would suggest looking for a startup that values employee input.
3. Culture Fit
In my experience, there’s no such thing as a “startup culture.” Every small company I’ve been with has had its own flavor, so just because an engineer fit in at Startup A doesn’t mean he’ll be able to hop right over to Startup B. Some startups are more process-driven and others are more spontaneous; some are open to remote working arrangements and others expect 12 hours in the office every day.
In order to test for culture, employers will often have candidates meet with several employees in different functions, rather than just interviewing with their direct report in engineering. If you get along with the majority of employees at the company, it’s likely that you’ll be a decent fit with their culture.
Fitting in with the company as a whole is important, but startups specifically need engineers who will be a productive member of the technical team. Working on a team of two or three engineers is a vastly different experience than being on a team of 10+ people. Similarly, programmers who have only worked as a lone wolf may not be suited to working in a cooperative startup engineering team—they might know how to work hard, but may waste a lot of time tackling problems their own way rather than asking another team member for insight.
For example, I’ve seen many good engineers join a small team and immediately want to rebuild existing infrastructure rather than learn to work with someone else’s code. (Hint: This does not fit with the tight deadlines and limited resources of most startups.)
A good way to show future employers that you can learn another person’s code is to point to experience contributing to open source projects. This will also help you see how others solve common problems, which will beef up your teamwork skills.
Working at a startup is tough—both mentally and physically. You usually don’t get paid as well as you would at a big company, you’ll probably work long hours, and you’ll constantly be pushed to produce more than you think is reasonable. And since hiring is an expensive process, startups look for candidates who are up for this and will be willing to stick it out through thick and thin.
So, an engineer who has jumped ship every year for the past decade will be seen as a risky hire for startups. Conversely, if you’ve stayed at the same company for years, be sure to mention it as a selling point.
6. Passion for the Product (and Field)
During the early stages, it’s likely that everyone from the CTO to the entry-level software engineer will be working with the code every day. There isn’t really room for a bunch of managers, and too many big picture thinkers may lead to an unclear vision for the startup.
That said, early stage engineers must understand and show an interest in the product they’re creating. Employers will look for people who have worked in the industry or who can show some familiarity with the problem they’re trying to solve.
Think about it: Why would a company with a tight budget hire a candidate unlikely to stay because she could care less about the business? If you show that you have a genuine interest in the product this company is trying to create—as well as the industry as a whole—you’ll set yourself up to be a front-runner.
7. A Network of Engineering Contacts
Hiring engineers is a difficult process, especially for non-technical founders in early stage startups. Recruiters are expensive and often don’t understand the specific kind of candidates small companies need.
So, if you can bring additional professional engineering contacts to the table, you bring the added value of being able to build out the team. This is especially true for upper-level hires on the engineering team, but it really applies across the board.
Some people think all you need to be a good engineer is solid technical skills. And while the ability to code is essential, if you want to be hired by a startup, make sure you also possess these lesser-known attributes.