First job at startup, good idea?
March 16, 2011 2:09 PM   Subscribe

I just got an offer to my first job ever, a small startup with a good pedigree. Now I'm panicking a little, and I need some advice.

1. The company is currently very small: everyone sits in the same large room and can see everyone else. I can be charming and amicable when I want to be, but I've never been good around people, especially in a high-performance environment. I feel like the potential for social repercussions is much more severe in this case. What if I don't make acquaintances and remain completely passive, as I so often do?

2. The company is a game company, and the genre of games they make isn't one I play very much. I'm passionate about game design and development, but I'm worried that my ambivalence for the final product would eventually make working there a drag, especially since the hours are fairly long (10-11h per day). Is this necessarily the case?

3. I'm most concerned with my performance. Since the company is so small, any mistakes I make can have a huge effect on the finished product. I've never had a job before, let alone a programming job, and I'm afraid of what would happen if I don't manage to keep up. (That's not to say I don't believe in myself, but these are untested waters.)

4. I'm worried that there'll be no escape route. What will happen to the company if I decide to leave? Will I be able to quit in a year and travel the world, if I so wish? What if I decide after a few months that the job is not right for me? I don't want the company to implode because of me, as unlikely as that may be. (Please tell me just how unlikely this is! I need to know!)

Basically, I'm panicking about the fact that this would be my first job, combined with the fact that the company is a tiny startup. Is this even a good idea? Any advice would be much appreciated. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You're panicking about the unknown. Take a deep breath. I imagine after the first week, you'll not feel the same way.

Look, they hired you. Obviously they think you're bringing something positive to the table. Just avoid being an asshole, be human and work hard and everything else should work itself out.

As for escape, unless you've signed a contract, you can quit at any time. Don't worry about the company. If their house of cards is so precarious that you taking a leave or quitting causes them to fail, they were probably close to failing anyway.

So stop getting in your own way. Enjoy the new job smell. Congratulations. Welcome to the land of the employed.
posted by inturnaround at 2:18 PM on March 16, 2011

I'm worried that there'll be no escape route. What will happen to the company if I decide to leave? Will I be able to quit in a year and travel the world, if I so wish? What if I decide after a few months that the job is not right for me? I don't want the company to implode because of me, as unlikely as that may be.

Likelihood is not an issue. This is not your responsibility as an employee. Unless you're a co-founder, I don't think that there any ethical implications for quitting your job. The management and owners are responsible for ensuing that this contingency is covered, and if the company collapses because of the departure of a single junior-level developer, the management have failed rater severely at their own jobs.

Once you take that away, and consider that you have no other offers on the table, I'd say to go for it.
posted by schmod at 2:21 PM on March 16, 2011

You don't have to love,love,love every project, but you do have to respect the work and your colleagues. I sure don't enjoy every client and project I get, but I figure that they deserve my best efforts, just as much as those things that I'm wildly enthused about. You don't have to be charming all day long, but amiable, courteous and professional (which isn't starchy and stiff) will make you a valued member of the team.
Everyone makes mistakes. Own yours and do your best. Unless you've wildly misled the company, they don't expect you to know it all from the first day.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:24 PM on March 16, 2011

There is no better time to work for a start up. You are young. If the start up crashes and burns, you learned a lot and you can move on. Presumably, you don't have a wife and 2 kids counting on your to pay the mortgage. There will come a day when you want to chase a start up, but can't because of other responsibilities like kids and mortgages.

Also, you are an at-will employee. You can quit at any time for any reason. And they can fire you at any time, for just about any reason. Your responsibility is to do your best while on the clock. If they give you 10% of the company some point in the future, that equation might change. You shouldn't worry about what they will do without you. I can guarantee you that if they decide you aren't a fit, they won't be worrying about how you will buy groceries when they let you go.
posted by COD at 2:30 PM on March 16, 2011

So in order.

1. These environments are actually more insulated then you might think. Most people just throw on some headphones (the big over-ear ones are nice) and get to work. Don't feel you need to be extroverted in these scenarios. There's a ton of introverts that do just fine despite the lack of walls, in fact they do better since its easier to communicate with people.

2. Can't answer this one - you will figure it out ... but - what most engineers find is that even if they aren't passionate about the end product (and this may be most of them) they still find solving the challenges they face more then enough motivation. They also tend to become more passionate about the end product by virtue of having worked on it (it becomes their baby).

3. This isn't your problem. I don't mean to be callous but you're a junior engineer. Your job is to do the best on what you are tasked with. Their job is to make sure you are doing it up to standards.

4. Don't worry about it. Employee churn is high at startups. Leaving after a year is not atypical. Once you start thinking about leaving plan a graceful exit (give them plenty of time to replace you - help bring new hires up to speed) and leave on good terms.
posted by bitdamaged at 2:45 PM on March 16, 2011

If you're in Silicon Valley especially, people job hop like crazy. Some people only stay at a job for a couple months! So no worries about that, if it's not a good fit you can quit/move on.

As COD says, this is a great time in your life to work for a startup. My first couple jobs were at startups -- they all failed, but it was a good experience and a lot of fun. They can be a lot of work and high pressure, but they often generate very friendly work environments, everyone spends a lot of time together, etc. This may sound kind of imposing at first, but it's a kind of "trenches" mentality that will likely come naturally as you work together. This is often less present at larger companies with less at stake. So don't worry about being passive, my guess is you'll get drawn in anyway.

And keep in mind, they know this is your first job. They're not expecting you to carry the entire company and you shouldn't feel like you have to. Even longtime key employees can be replaced, your success/failure won't make or break the company. However, you _will_ have the opportunity to make a big impact if you want, and that can be awesome for your career. Your work will be noticed more than in a big company -- again, can be intimidating but can also be quite rewarding.
posted by wildcrdj at 3:00 PM on March 16, 2011

1. So long as you're not actively hostile to people then your workmates should respect your personality and it shouldn't matter whether you're outgoing or passive. Apart from anything else, a team works better when there are a mix of personality-types in it, so you should never feel like you have to conform to a particular type.

3. I think most people starting a new job (particularly if it's their first) want to knock it out of the park and avoid being a "burden" to the company. The thing is, no company hires a superstar to carry the rest of the staff (or they bloody well shouldn't) so as long as you're competent, ask questions about stuff you don't know rather than suffering in silence and document your work so that someone else can pick it up should you decide leave at any stage, then it'll be fine.

Good luck with it. It's more that likely that you'll find the job remarkably normal (though hopefully still fun) within a week.
posted by MUD at 3:02 PM on March 16, 2011

I'm just going to speak to the first issue and throw out some tips that might help.

- keep phone calls to a minimum and know that everyone will be able to hear them so if it's confidential, call on your cell away from the office.
- at least fir the first couple of weeks, accept any and all offers to go out to lunch or even just go accompany someone on a walk to the corner store (within reason of course). You don't even have to talk much, just small talk is fine here.
- some small talk questions and conversation starters: "do you live close by?" or "I just got the new [whatever] game/cd/book and liked it"
posted by dawkins_7 at 3:29 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't fuss. Work hard. You'll be fine.
posted by ovvl at 4:26 PM on March 16, 2011

Working 10-11 hour days on a product you don't like will definitely be a drag. However, it's also pretty much the only way in this industry to get an opportunity to work on a product you do like. (Yeah, the game industry is exploitative, volatile, and has a super-high rate of burnout. However, if it's your thing, take your five years before you flame out and run with it. )

A couple other points:

- Network like mad. If some of the guys in the office are meeting ex-coworkers for drinks, going to an IDGA meetup, or if you get the chance to go to an industry convention, jump at it. This is how you will get your next job.
- Expect the job to last, at most, a year. Save accordingly.
- The company will absolutely, positively not implode because you leave. This is your first job. Therefore you are terrifyingly replaceable. Particularly in the game industry, there are literally dozens of people slavering at the thought of taking your place.
- Once you ship a product, go find a job at a company that doesn't require 60 hour workweeks. God, I hate this industry sometimes.

If you haven't watched this, do. Have fun with it, but be realistic. The game industry is a hairy mess most of the time.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:30 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Expect the job to last at most a year. Save accordingly.

This. Some additional game industry notes from someone with friends in it:

- nothing wrong with working on a product you aren't into. I have a friend who's doing this (after having worked on some better-known games that he actually wanted to play) and it's the best job he's ever had because his coworkers and work environment are great. Your passion for the end product as a consumer != your passion for the creative process.
- someone hired without any experience is not going to be the lynchpin of their creative team. If they can't replace even someone who was hired out of school, that's a massive failure on their part. Succession planning is the employer's responsibility, not the employee's.
posted by Lady Li at 6:21 PM on March 16, 2011

You're panicking about the unknown. Take a deep breath.

I'm 51 and I still panic a bit whenever I take on some new professional endeavor. So much so that I've come to expect it as a regular part of the adaptation period.

The breathing advice is good.
posted by philip-random at 7:10 PM on March 16, 2011

1) As an introvert who has worked in a few big open office situations, I can relate. However, if this is a company that's actually getting work done then any social interaction that happens as the result of the "everyone in one big room" arrangement should be secondary (people tend to be chatty for a few minutes while settling in for the morning, breaking or coming back for lunch, or splitting at the end of the day, but otherwise they should be focused on work). As bitdamaged said, headphones are your friend and shorthand for "please don't bother me unless it's important." Be sociable up to a point, but don't stop being yourself.

2) Use this as an opportunity to learn everything you can about this genre - even though it's not your favorite, you will probably pick up some insights that are directly applicable to genres you do like, and you may be able to bring some insights of your own to the table. Working within your chosen industry but outside your comfort zone is a really good way to acquire new skills and domain knowledge, which is a very good thing.

3) I'm assuming you'll be reporting to a producer or project manager - if this is the case, then you need to do two things to allay your fears: a) After turning in your latest batch of code/assets/whatever, follow up with your direct superior and ask them if everything is OK. If there's a specific part you're nervous about, ask about it. b) If you need help (don't fully grok an API you're working with, just don't have time to finish what you're working on by the deadline), then ASK for it before things reach a crisis point. It's much better to reach out than to privately panic and wind up putting everyone in a bind.

4) Assuming you're in an at-will employment situation, what happens to the company after you leave is absolutely, 100% not your concern. As a conscientious employee who cares about the well-being of your coworkers and the fate of the hard work you've all contributed, it can be very difficult to think in such a dispassionate manner.... but it's true. Always remind yourself that if the tables are turned (if your company needs to lay someone off for financial reasons, for example) they will do so without hesitation. If you start thinking about leaving, do so gracefully; give a couple of weeks' notice and work with your team to hand off whatever you've been working on, and give the company time to start looking for a replacement.
posted by usonian at 6:05 AM on March 17, 2011

My first job was with a startup as well in very similar circumstances. Some advice:

- If you're new to the programming game, it's likely they counter balanced employees like you with at least one veteren. Find that one person and be open and ask for honest criticism. In big companies it's often hard to get that one on one mentorship. But in a startup your success is tightly tied with everyone else's.

- The open office plan and potential for high impact are a good thing. In big companies a young employee will often struggle to get noticed. But in your case, your positive actions will easily be known by everyone. Kick ass when the company is small and as it grows may see your responsibilities (and your paycheck) grow with it.

- Long hours and a small team make blowing off steam as a group extra fun. Don't go out to a kegger, but grabbing a quick beer with your coworkers on the way home is extra fun when you've all been "in the trenches" all day.

-I quit the startup after a year because I had a chance to start my own company. I gave them a long lead time and they were very supportive. Chances are, your bosses left a job to start the company you work for now. If you were a good employee they'll be sad, but they'll understand and be happy. Who knows, you may end up partnering with them again down the road.

Mostly, don't worry. Use this unique situation to have fun, stretch your boundaries and have a impact on your industry. Not bad for being fresh out of school.
posted by Blandanomics at 8:59 PM on March 17, 2011

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