What I Tell New Hires

One of the great joys in my career is building a team from scratch. I’ve had the privilege of hiring many technical employees into their first or second job. Because I run operations and support teams, I’m not usually hiring a developer or a designer, but instead someone with technical aptitude, empathy for the customer, and the ability to deliver solutions across multiple needs. It’s wonderful to meet and mentor technical generalists like myself!

Over the years, I’ve polished a set of talking points for their welcome meeting on the first day. Usually it’s their first experience with a startup and with iterative development practices. I want to make sure they understand what I expect from them and what they can expect from me.

Here’s the advice I give them to be successful.

1. There will always be too much to do, so just worry about the top priorities

Don’t get hung up on how long your to-do list gets. Everything after the first 5-10 items is noise, and only priorities one, two, and three really matter today. If you know those top priorities and are working on them, everything else will work itself out. If you don’t know your top priorities, ask me! Defining your priorities is a big part of my role as your manager. The list may change on a daily basis, even if some of the tasks require days or weeks to complete. Ask at standup or in Slack if you need context. It’s fine to tackle a low priority task opportunistically or when you’re burned out on the top priority ones and need some variety, but be sure you are always progressing on the top needs, and that you know how your priorities are evolving.

2. I will never fire you for making a mistake

Startups are chaotic. Everything is always in flux, very few things have been polished to a high degree (often including the product), and rough edges, dark corners, and mixed messages can pop up at any time. If you move cautiously enough to make no mistakes at all, your velocity is so slow as to be near useless to me. I’m here to help you learn to fail fast and fail early so that we waste as little time as possible on bad ideas, which we definitely will have. We will ask you to do things you’ve never done, and you won’t be great at all of them. We’re learning your skills as you develop them. There’s no way everything will go right all the time. Accept that failure is the cost of moving quickly, and learn from it. We learn much more from our failures than our successes.

3. We can’t fix what we don’t know is broken

Making mistakes is part of learning, but hiding mistakes prevents anyone else from helping mitigate or resolve the problem, and keeps the rest of the team from learning anything other than you can’t be trusted. I won’t fire you for making the mistake, but I will fire you for hiding it. Own up to the mistake as soon as you see it. Another part of my job as manager is to make sure that none of your mistakes can be fatal, but part of that calculus is that I be able to do damage control immediately. An unreported mistake can fester and multiply until it’s beyond my ability to contain. Don’t let that happen. If you are too shy or afraid to admit to a big mistake, then you probably aren’t ready for the strong self-management that startups require.

Similarly, if you see something, say something. We invited you to the meeting for you to learn, but also to get your perspective. Don’t stay quiet if you have questions or concerns. You will either bring an important issue to light, or you will open up a great educational opportunity for me to help you see the issue in a more experienced light.

4. Management supports the employee, not the other way around

You aren’t here to make me look good. Instead, I’m here to make sure you get the resources and the direction you need to be successful, and to shield you from the repercussions of your failures. My time is yours when you need it. The only people who can bump you off my priority list are customers in the midst of a high priority issue. Otherwise whatever I’m doing can and should wait. I manage my time to make sure I can give it to you when you need it, so please ask!

5. You are here to do things your way, not mine

I’m here to define goals and anti-goals, find and coordinate resources, interact with the rest of the company, and clear your path. I may have opinions on how you should tackle a given task, but unless you are headed for disaster I will keep them to myself (unless you ask). If we always do things my way, you never learn to think for yourself, and we can never make better solutions than I could on my best day. If I stay out of your way and you all create your own paths our solutions are as good as the union of the team rather than any given individual. We accomplish much more when you take ownership of the challenge and I lead from behind, making sure missteps are minimal and cheap.

6. Ownership means keeping the context, not doing all the work

I will give you ownership over challenges. That doesn’t mean you have to solve the challenge alone, or even that you are the most important person in the solution. It means when I ask at standup, “how’s the Project coming?” I need you to have the context and give me the status report. What has changed since we last talked? What are the current challenges and roadblocks? What’s the likely timeline for the next update or release? The responsibility for the Project’s success or failure remains mine, and I won’t give you that responsibility until you ask for it, but I can’t keep context on all of our projects. Ownership means you keep that context for me and the team. When needed, you can give me the synopsis so I can make informed decisions about priorities and resources.

7. Sustainable pace is important

Don’t give 100% every day, that way lies burnout and missed expectations. Just as our priority list is always evolving, we never know when an all-hands-on-deck situation may show up. If you are already giving 100% to the daily tasks, you’ve got nothing left to contribute when we need to step up and address a big reactive need. Also, if you give 100% every day, you are performing to exhaustion. If you try to stretch at the end of one day you’ll probably start making mistakes. Additionally, when you have an off day and can’t deliver 100%, it will throw off everyone who has come to rely on your 100% output, since you can’t deliver 110% tomorrow in order to compensate.

In my experience, about 85% is good as a steady state goal. You should be away from your work about an hour a day: taking lunch, playing foosball, talking GoT, going for a walk, planning your weekend, etc. You are a person, not a machine, and you work with people. Get to know them! Startups are too small for strangers. If you slack off too much I’ll let you know in our one on ones, so if I’m not bringing it up you can be confident I’m not concerned.

I hope that helps you get settled in. Welcome to the team! We’re excited to have you, and I wouldn’t bring you onto the team if I didn’t think you have a lot to contribute. I’m here when you need me. Any questions now?