What it’s like being an engineer at a startup

This post was originally seen on Tech In Boston, a community about sharing learnings on building a company, product, sales, marketing and more in the Boston area.

Tech startups and engineers go hand-in-hand. At the core of any tech startup is a group of engineers. Engineers are the ones that put the ‘tech’ in tech startup. You don’t have to look very far for the mystique of the coder type. Even Hollywood is starting to get in on the action. But what is it actually like to be an engineer at a startup?

Three Qualities of An Effective Startup Engineer

1. They need to be involved in more than just writing code.

One major difference between being an engineer at a startup vs being an engineer at a large established company is the opportunity to do more than just write code. Startup engineers have many different tasks and half of them do not involve code. For example, depending on the size of the company, there might not be a dedicated designer. That means, as a programmer, you will have to do everything from creating mock-ups, to designing prototypes all the way down to the colors of the buttons.

Before we had a full-time designer at Privy, I designed and implemented each part of the product that I worked on. That was true for every engineer. We had to figure out not only how something was going to work, but how it was going to look.

This is accurate outside of product as well. When a company is small, developers are involved in all parts of the business. Your skills will be required for marketing, sales, and customer support. There are no walls between departments at a startup, both literally and figuratively. Startup engineers have to dig in and help out in every way they can.

2. They need to adapt quickly.

Everything moves fast at a startup. That means an engineer has to be capable of adapting to changes quickly. Sometimes there will be new customers in the pipeline that require a particular feature and it gets bumped to the top of the list. Engineers need to be able to realize the impact it has on the business and drop everything to implement the feature quickly.

New people join and leave your team. When you are at a startup that is growing fast some employees will be joining the team and others will be leaving. You need to be able to get your job done with 2 people or with 10 people. Wherever gaps occur, you need to be prepared to fill them quickly. Sometimes that means doing backend work even though you are a frontend developer. Other times it will mean you have to learn new processes in order to be on the same page with a larger team.

Sometimes customers come across bugs that prevent them from getting their job done. These are the type of fixes that require programmers to drop everything they are doing and get a fix out asap. Fire drills happen and you need to be ready for them at the drop of a hat.

3. They need to get shit done.

It might be a little cliche but it holds a lot of truth. When all said and done, the most important quality of a startup engineer is to get your work done. Startups do not have long timelines. Most startups live and die every few months. Whether it is implementing new features in order to close a round of funding or fixing a bug that could cause customers to lose money, engineers at startups need to get shit done.

At tech startups this is especially true because the company depends on your work. You do not have time to sit around all day debating ideas when your business is hanging on by a thread. New features need to go out, bugs need to be fixed, and marketing needs help building that landing page. There is always something that needs to be done.

To be clear this doesn’t mean do crap work just to get something out the door. Instead, I mean that you have to do great work at 5x the speed. Sometimes compromises will have to be made but the effort you put in will be noticed and appreciated by the rest of the team.

Being an engineer at a startup is exciting. Few other positions offer the combination of the ability to influence multiple departments, learn at an accelerated pace, and have direct customer impact.