Commit Graduated Engineering Partners, Thomas Zhou, Thiago Araujo, and Hai Haong.
Commit Graduated Engineering Partners, Thomas Zhou, Thiago Araujo, and Hai Haong.

6 questions Software Engineers should ask when choosing a new startup.

March 2, 2021 in Coaching

In my current role, I spend the bulk of my day interacting with CTOs who are hiring engineers and learning about their companies, engineering philosophies, and specific gaps in their team. I know a lot about the universe of potential jobs that exist for engineers at a per company, per role level, but ultimately almost nothing about if a particular individual should accept a particular job offer. 

Every day, I talk to at least one engineer who’s deciding if a startup job offer is right for them. And every day I point them towards a decision-making framework they can use, inspired by the Commit team’s experience choosing roles, as well as by Gokul Rajaram, and Marius de Beer.

Gokul Rajaram is a software engineer, former startup CEO, has led product at Square and DoorDash, sits on the board of The Trade Desk, Pinterest and Coinbase, and an investor/advisor to dozens of companies, including Poshmark. He is also Commit’s go-to-resource for running great All Hands meetings. Gokul sat down with Commit in October to share his thoughts on today’s challenges and opportunities for startups.

Marius de Beer is a mechanical and software engineer, with a decade of experience as an agile coach. He is also Commit’s go-to-resource for setting company values.

A Framework for deciding on a startup job offer

1. Is a startup the right choice for you?

There is a startup subculture that can make it feel like the obvious best option – Hacker News, TechCrunch, Twitter, etc cover startups with excitement and a sense of possibility that a public company doesn’t always receive. This atmosphere provides a valuable sense of meaning and camaraderie for startup employees, but it doesn’t mean that joining a startup is the absolute best decision.

Ask yourself, how important is stability in both your role and your company? Are you looking to optimize your cash compensation number? How much do you value work-life balance and boundaries? If those things are very important to you, you likely would prefer a more mature company (series C or later). But if those are less important to you than growth, autonomy and creativity, then you aren’t likely to feel that you’re making a sacrifice by joining a startup.

You should think about compensation as more than just the base cash salary. The earlier stage company you join, the more your potential equity could be worth. You have to determine for yourself if you’re willing to sacrifice some base cash salary today for potential equity growth down the road. And regardless of how important compensation is to you, “you must ensure that the total compensation in a role lets you take care of yourself and your family.”  – Marius de Beer

No startup is worth putting yourself into debt for.

2. Is the team not just VC-backable, but a group that you will thrive working with?

As an ex-VC, I felt a bit guilty realizing there were companies that I would invest in, but not work at. However, I realized that each of us have unique cultural attributes and personality traits, which companies similarly embody. I think it is table stakes to believe in management and their ability to lead and to like and respect the people with whom you will work alongside. But those factors alone don’t tell you if a company’s culture and values align with you, and will set you up to thrive.

We’ve built a list of attributes at Commit that we score engineers and companies against – you may find it helpful to see which attributes are core to your personality, and look for those attributes in the job descriptions and values of companies that you’re considering.

  • You are motivated by autonomy and independence
  • You feel a deep responsibility for code quality
  • You are customer-obsessed
  • You are most concerned with
    • Business context informing product decisions;
    • Stability and performance;
    • Solving hard technical problems; or
    • Beautiful design; 
  • You do best in opinionated, debate-heavy cultures versus you do best in organizations with clear top-down decision making
  • You prefer to work asynchronously via written communication versus you prefer to work through conversation
  • You want to lead and grow teams versus you want time and space to do your best work as an individual contributor
  • You thrive during setbacks and moments of transition versus you prefer to be insulated from shocks
  • Work is a source of identity to you
  • You want to hone your craft versus you are energized by exposure to unfamiliar technical patterns, systems, or languages

Regardless of these values, you should look for a team that is mission-oriented. A founder who embodies a mission has a deeply held conviction about why the company exists, what it aims to accomplish, and whom it helps. They emote this in their communication and – most importantly – they use the mission as a litmus test for tough decisions.

“When you talk to a CEO, you need to understand why they’re leading this type of company, and do they really believe in the mission themselves? Do they epitomize the mission? If you talked to Larry [Page], who was the CEO when I joined Google, you could see how deeply he believed in the mission. He was Mr. Search. He believed deeply in technology and investing in deep technology.” – Gokul Rajaram

3. Does this role advance your personal and career growth goals?

Your goals may be related to power, title, scope of work (ie. moving into a manager track or staying on the IC path), learning, creativity, and agency. Determine where you see yourself in 1, 3 and 5 years, and ask yourself if this role takes you closer to those goals or farther away.

Marius de Beer’s framework is to ask yourself:

  • What do you want to accomplish and see on your EP/LinkedIn profile in 18 months’ time? Describe it in a short paragraph.
  • Now, imagine you put that statement at the centre of a mind map. List below the possible success factors to achieve that statement. In other words, how would you know if you were successful at achieving this goal? Prioritize this list. 
  • What are the necessary pre-conditions to achieve those items? Again, prioritize this list. Be clear with the people who offer you the new opportunity that these pre-conditions exist – otherwise you will not be successful.

4. Are you excited to wake up every day and think about this problem space?

This applies even if you realized through question two that work is not a source of identity to you. Every day you will wake up to a new problem that must be solved. Do you like thinking about the problem? Is it satisfying when a breakthrough pops into your head in the shower or is it an intrusion? Will this company have an impact on an issue that is important to you? Are you interested in the product/service, or empathetic towards those who are interested in it?

Everyone will have a different philosophy on how important this problem space must be to them. Some will only want to work in an industry that is their most important issue. (Those people often start companies so you can expect this to be the most important problem space to the founders!)

“On the mission side, I realized that missions that resonate with me are the missions that are fairly universal and broad. At Google, the mission is around making information democratized and accessible. At Facebook it was around connecting the world. At Square it was around making commerce easy and helping small and medium-sized businesses and individuals—economically empowering them.” – Gokul Rajaram

5. Do you believe that the company will succeed?

Everyone has a different tolerance for how much the company must have succeeded to date, but you will want to have confidence that the company can succeed. There are simple signals like credibility with customers and notable partners, or performance against commonly accepted metrics.

“To judge if a company is on the right path, I really try to understand the business model and know what metrics to look for. Andreessen Horowitz has a good resource for different types of business models – https://a16z.com/2015/08/21/16-metrics/.” – Thomas Zhou, Graduated Engineering Partner.

“I’m a big fan of Amy Hoy’s techniques about uncovering customer pain and studying a market (going from pain to product).  The business team should deeply understand the market you’re in, the pains your audience experiences, and what they care about/how they solve their problems. That should guide every product decision.” – Thiago Araujo, Graduated Engineering Partner.

If you’re evaluating a very early-stage startup, there may not be any metrics or business traction at all. This is when you can lean on the founders, why they found the problem worth solving, and what is motivating them to build this company (a good answer is ‘to solve the problem’, while a worrying answer is ‘for the glory of being a CEO’).

“My ideal scenario is finding founders who come from the space the company is trying to solve a problem for. They were the ones who ran into the problem in their day-to-day and found that it was worthwhile enough to quit their jobs and start a company to solve it.” – Hai Hoang, Graduated Engineering Partner

“The most successful startups have a founder with a unique and non-obvious insight on this market.” You’ll know within an hour of speaking with them – ‘Aha!’ that’s the non-obvious insight about the market!” – Gokul Rajaram

6. Marius de Beer’s Final Test. Do you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

Imagine you walk into the office of your current boss to tell them you are leaving. You haven’t signed the new offer at this point so there’s no legal or ethical conflict. Their response is to say to you: “I’ll give you everything you’ve been offered and everything that you want out of that new job”. Do you say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? 

Yes? You’re not ready to leave. 

No? It’s time to go make a difference somewhere else.

Sarah Marion leads Founder Partnerships at Commit. She’s spent her career collaborating with early stage founders as they solve valuable problems.

We hire Software Engineers to build their careers with promising early-stage startups.