Thoughts From a Recent Grad: The Allure of Startups

By: Michelle Zhang — March 3, 2016

I graduated in spring 2015 with a Bachelor’s in Computer Science, and like most of my peers that preceding fall, I was daunted by the looming job search. I was daunted not because I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do (that people would pay me for), but because there was an incredible number of paths that I could have taken. And so, when winter rolled around and I finally started my job search, the first thing I had to do was narrow my scope.

Setting My Sights on Startups

I decided fairly early on, drawing on experiences from previous internships, that I wanted to be a “Software Engineer”(any specifics beyond that I wouldn’t have been able to give) and that I wanted to work at a startup. At the time, my reasons for wanting to work at a startup weren’t particularly revelatory (at least not, I assume, for those who had worked at or heard about startups in the past):

  • I wanted greater, more varied responsibilities, to own features from start to finish, and to have greater individual impact on the company
  • I wanted to work in a fast-paced, feedback-driven environment with a small, collaborative team
  • I wanted to build a product that I would want to use and that would change the status quo

Yet even with these filters in place, the range of jobs I had considered applying for was wide enough that I had the opportunity to really consider what it was that I wanted from my work. What I found was that I was less preoccupied by the nature of the engineering work I would do (so long as I believed in the product) than by the culture of the company I would ultimately work for.

What I (want to) think of when I think of startup culture

And no, it isn’t beer on tap, snacks, or games (though I do enjoy Abacus’ growing board game collection and eagerly await the day we have enough space for a ping-pong table).

When I think of startup culture, I think of a company that gives particular thought to the interests of its customers. A company that has accessible, responsive, and helpful customer support. One that builds a product that is fast, easy, and intuitive to use, does what it claims, and that is built to last, sustainable, and easy to repair. In short, a company that cares about its customers and their communities, and whose conduct (not just philanthropy) reflects that.

Secondly, I think of a workplace characterized by a particular willingness and wherewithal to recognize and problematize offensive or exploitative behavior. A company that pays fair wages, gives its employees representation, and is transparent. That fosters a culture that is inclusive and respectful. That problematizes not only egregious instances of discrimination, which many of us have been coached to recognize as clear HR violations, but also the off-handed, misguided comments that can make a workplace feel unsafe.

Admittedly, none of these practices are definitive of, let alone exclusive to startups. But I do think startups have an outsize capacity to embrace them.

I consider it axiomatic that (1) startup culture is personality-driven, particularly by the personalities of the company founders and that (2) startups are especially adaptable by way of their being young, small, and disruptive in nature. So what follows, then, if a startup’s founders prioritize cultural integrity as much as they do month-over-month growth? If they see the latter as the key to their survival but the former as their raison d’être? If they strive to change the status quo not just with their product, but with their culture?

For me, what follows is a company that I would want to work for and where I could find meaning in my work.

Working at Abacus

In the end (shameless plug), I ended up at Abacus. And while I don’t think my and Abacus’ values align perfectly, I do think that we have right-minded founders and I look forward to seeing how, as Abacus grows, we will define our culture, both for ourselves and our communities.

Originally published at on March 3, 2016.

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