5 questions developers should ask before joining a startup

Apple Computer

Things to think about before you take an offer.

Working with a startup can be an exciting opportunity to shape a new product, a fast-track to learning new skills, and can allow developers to get to the next stage in your career.
It can also be a nightmare of epic proportions, leaving you burnt out and frustrated. These are the questions you should ask before taking an offer from a startup.

What’s the structure of the development team and how much say do I have in what gets created?
There’s a very big difference between being one of the first few developers hired and joining an established team. Both have pros and cons. If you’re one of the first few, you will have direct input on the build of the product, have a chance at a large payout if the business is successful, and may be able to grow quickly with the organization, but you’ll face difficult timelines, a possible lack of management, and may need to be prepared to take on leadership roles as needed. An established team may leave you wanting when it comes to having more impact, but may allow you to be shielded from many of the high-level stresses the leadership team faces.

Within the team structure, there should be a clear(-ish) path forward for you in terms of setting yourself up for future career aspirations. Having access to and coaching from the management team is a huge plus, and feeling like you’re working among peers is helpful too. Try and get a sense of how the other engineers on the team work, both up and across the company, and that you think there will be opportunities to learn.

What’s their investment in technology?
The strength of the development team will have a huge impact on the technology you’ll be diving into. You want to understand how the startup views their technology, since that’s what you’re going to be spending all of your time on if you join. If the balance between meeting deadlines or dealing with user issues and building technology for the long term is off, you may start your first day off smack up against a good deal of technical debt.

You also want to think hard about how much you love the problems that the company is trying to solve, and what technologies they’re using to solve them. Is the code well-structured, clean and organized? Do you have the right tools to test and push code? Do you get to contribute to open source on the job? Are you given an opportunity to play around a la Google, and contribute new ideas to the business? In the startup world, these components are not always guaranteed, so weigh them out when you’re assessing a position.
When was the last funding round? And when is the next one?

As startups grow, they seek capital to finance that growth. That capital is what allows them to hire you. You want to know when their last funding round was and what their runway on that funding is. If they tell you their last funding round was a couple months ago and they are looking hard for funding now, chances are they are burning through cash really fast. If they tell you they’re in the midst of seeking funding now, you should be aware that if funding doesn’t come through, cuts will need to be made.

Startups are, by nature, uncertain, but you can mitigate the risk of taking a position with one by educating yourself on how they’re raising capital, how they’re spending it, and trying to get in on that sweet spot; right after a round is raised when confidence and expectations are high and salaries and compensation packages have a tendency to match.

Is it worth it if it goes bust?

We all know startups are volatile little beasts, and when they fold, they have a tendency to fold fast. Will your position allow you to build your portfolio? Will it allow you access to people, connections and industry knowledge that will benefit you in your next step? Will you be paid enough (not including equity potential) to allow you to save up a nice buffer in case you’re all of a sudden out of a job? If the answer to any of these is no, you should hold off on joining the team as your full-time position. Your startup experience should be an asset to your career and resume, not something you need to explain away.

What’s the work environment?
Free-space open office atmospheres are really in right now. Hotdesking is becoming a trend. Working-from-home is a big perk. All of these are great, as long as you aren’t trying to troubleshoot code while the marketing team is playing ping-pong, or your time is up at the desktop and now you have to move to another device in the middle of a breakthrough, or you are never at the office to make connections with coworkers. Some startups get so hung up on creating a super-cool company culture that they forget that the backbone of their organization needs to be able to focus for extended periods of time on the actual build. Make sure any startup you are considering joining sees their developers as the asset they are, and allows them the space and consideration they need to be successful.

Originally posted on the untapt blog. untapt matches tech talent (like you!) to hiring companies using machine intelligence.

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