Essential Skills for a Startup!
The overlooked aspects of working in a startup environment.
It’s been more than a year I guess since the last time I published an article. There have been tons of developments in my personal life since then. I changed two jobs, one of them was with the biggest fintech startup in India and the other being a startup in its seed stage. There have been tons of things that I learned in the process about working in a startup from dealing with management to getting a budget for your project, and much more stuff that mostly gets overlooked. These small stuff can be extremely important in the long run in deciding the overall experience you will have at the startup you are working at.
This is going to be beneficial for people working in a startup as well as for those who are about to join a startup or are interviewing for one. I have also added few extra notes especially for security professionals.
Demystifying the Start-up culture
After working in startups for the past three years which ranged from established startups with thousand plus employees to the other one which has nearly twenty employees I understood that there are certain skills that are much more important than the others. Start-up joinees who excel at these skills are sure to make their life a lot easier at their workplace compared to those who do not. I have listed down a few of them here.
- Managing Work & Timelines
The most important thing that you need to manage in startups is the work that has been assigned to you and the timelines attached to those. You need to understand that in the initial phase of startups no one would reach out to you and remind you to do your work or keep asking you for updates (Pro tip: If someone is reminding you of your work, chances are you need to up your game). The reason is because no one has the time for that, everyone is super busy with their own tasks at hand and is rushing against cut-throat deadlines to get things done. So if you are not motivated enough, startups are definitely not for you.
You not only need to do the work assigned to you but there are also high chances you need to understand the product your team is building, predict the next thing that might be required, and start working on it all by yourself. Hence being highly motivated and having a keen urge to keep innovating is one of the key characteristics for a successful employee at startups.
For security folks: Most of the time your work won’t have a direct impact on the product but you need to be far-sighted and keep implementing stuff that you deem necessary for keeping the company & the product secure. Mostly you will have weekly catchup with concerned people and all they want to listen to is how you can get stuff done without hindering the fast-paced progress of the development team, so you need to get innovative e.g. updating a pending OS update during the weekends, having several staging environments in case of machine crash, pausing auto-updates during the week of deployments etc. In-short meet your targets without being a being a roadblock and be accomodating of the needs of the other teams to a limited extent.
- Working with Teammates
This just might be the biggest difference you will experience while working in a startup and while working in a well-established multi-national company. You will need to maintain contact with nearly everyone in your startup which is just not possible in MNCs. Keep communicating with your colleagues to be in the loop regarding what is being implemented and the steps that are taken to get it done. Start-ups that scale up only manage to do so when each and every one of their employees establish fantastic communication.
I personally have regular conversations with the QA testers, the developers as well as less frequent conversations with the C-suite to have an understanding of what is happening in the startup. You might think it is absurd to be talking about it, because of how hard it might be to track everything going on in a workspace of ten to twenty people but trust me when everyone is working at breakneck speeds it becomes a huge challenge to keep everyone on the same page and aligned enough to work towards the same goal.
For security folks: You need to have regular conversations with members of other departments as it is extremely easy for security folks to get separated from the development process and work in a silo. One of the biggest disadvantage of this is that most of the the time you come to know about ingrained security vulnerabilities in your product when it is too late due to lack of comunication and thus increasing the cost and time required to solve those issues. It is because of these reasons that there are tons of products being deployed with known logic bombs and code flaws cause no one wants to fix these problems when their own in-house security team discovers them extremely late in the SDLC process. These bugs get sidelined and developers excuse themselves to resolve it in the next deployment.
- Dealing with Management
Apart from the work you do this might be the next most important thing you need to know. As I mentioned before in a startup no one has the time to keep note of your updates. So you need to make sure that you need not only do the work that is asked of you but also keeps in mind that you are able to present that work to the management in the most concise yet effective way possible. People decide your worth based on the problems you solve and in a workplace where no one is noting it down for you, it comes down to you to best represent your work and the effort you have put in to achieve it.
I have had colleagues who worked incredibly well and brought a lot to the table yet were not given the respect they deserved as they failed to explain the gravity of their work to the management. From the projects, you get to work on to your yearly salary hike everything will come down to dealing properly with the management and making them understand your importance and how beneficial it is for them to have you on their team.
For security folks: The work done by the security team sometimes can be seen by management as well as other teams as someone trying to hinder the rapid pace of growth at the startup. So ensure that you make the management realise the importance and the urgency of your work and try to list down every positive thing that will be the possible once your project is complete. Also mention the monetary benefits, let’s dive into it in the next section.
- Getting budget allocated for your project
Apart from the things mentioned above, this might be the next most important thing that you need to be adept at while working in a startup. Every startup needs to make sure to manage the cash they have in hand with the utmost care as they can’t waste it behind projects, tools, or services that do not justify the cost. (Pro tip: If your startup is burning through cash, be on the lookout for better job opportunities you might very soon require it.) Startup founders need to be cheapskate and that is understandable, this sometimes makes getting a budget for your projects extremely tough.
Don’t feel dejected about it, this is a part of the job and hence you need to learn to self-assess the monetary value of your projects and how once implemented it will help generate or save more money than was invested into it. Most of the time the management in charge of the decision will not be savvy with the skillsets required to understand the importance of your project, make sure to dumb it down and explain it to them in monetary terms something the C-suite tends to understand very well. This will help you get the budget you need and work on amazing projects that you always wanted to work on while helping the startup prosper.
For security folks: I personally have had issues to get budget for fancy new firewalls, dedicated fiber connection, pro version of certain tools, etc. The only way I have managed to get budget allocation for few of these is when I managed to make the management understand that how much will we lose if a faulty firewall allows certain malicious packets through on the office network, or the hourly cost we can suffer if the internet goes down in a tech focused startup, or the time lost to work on eradicating a particular vulnerability that might remain hidden in the product if we didn’t utilise certain paid tools to fish them out before deployment.
These small yet really important aspects of working in startups are something I would advise everyone to pick up. This has really helped me a lot at my workplace and is something that is an unsaid part of the job yet tends to become super-important on a day-to-day basis.
I wanted to share it with the tons of new folks joining startups mostly fresh out of college as knowing these minute things can really boost their career trajectory in a positive way.
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