Justin Kan on whether you should work at a startup

Dear new developer,

Justin Kan has deep experience in the startup space, including at an accelerator called Y Combinator. He gave a talk about why you should work for a startup, and why you shouldn’t. Here’s the transcript,, and here’s a blog post based on it. If you’re looking for good management, avoid startups:

The management at startups generally sucks. I wish I was joking, but sadly it is very true.

On the flip side of that:

At a startup, you will get access to jobs that you are completely unqualified for and you might not be able to do well (yet).

(Possibly the two are related!) There’s a lot more good advice in there, well worth the read.

As a new developer, you may have a risk profile that allows you to work at a small startup. If you can swing it, you’ll never have an opportunity to learn more about how to build a business. The first few years of your career are precious and should be spent carefully. The more experienced I get, the less risk I want to take (all other things being equal), and I’ve seen that be the case for most of my colleagues.

How can you choose the right place? I’m no expert there, as I’ve fallen into several great jobs. But I’d recommend:

  • working at a place with no jerks
  • optimizing for learning

That’s about it. Yes, make sure you are paid market rate. Yes, make sure you are being challenged. Yes, don’t get taken advantage of. But for the first few years of your career you have the opportunity to take positions at pay levels and in areas that may be closed off later in your career.

Choose wisely.

Sincerely,

Dan

How to market yourself as a new software developer

Dear new developer,

This post from Corey Snipes, an experienced software developer, is well worth a read. From the post:

People skills help so much. It’s hard to overstate that. I am a competent software developer, but I am really good at working on a team and that has carried me to increasingly sophisticated and interesting work my whole career.

There may be some kinds of software jobs where communication is not important. Maybe something in academia? Maybe finance? I don’t know, but every software job I’ve ever been in has fallen into one of a few categories:

  • working on a team. Here communication is important as it helps keep the team aligned and moving toward the correct goal
  • working by myself. Here communication is important because I’m talking to customers about what they need.

So I agree with Corey that communication is crucial.

It’s important to be clear about your limits but also about your potential. New developers are hired for potential. Again, from Corey’s post:

Be honest about your capabilities. Some people will say “fake it till you make it” but that doesn’t work for me and I’m no good at it anyway. I’d rather work with someone who knows their limitations than someone who thinks they know everything, and that’s the sort of person that I try to be. Figure out how to acknowledge your inexperience without making it sound like a problem.

The post is full of other good tips for folks starting out. He talks about two different places where a new software developer can deliver a lot of value: a paid position in a large software team and a volunteer position building something for a small business. I’m not a huge fan of volunteering because I feel like people should be paid for value they provide, but I understand that when one doesn’t have a track record, one needs to build one any which way. Open source contributions are a great way to do that, but this activity is less focused and a longer play than finding a local business that needs a website and just putting one together.

Another tip that resonated was going to meetups and getting out into the community, but I’ve already written about that.

Sincerely,

Dan