Table of Contents
- Focus on soft skills, learn to communicate
- Just ask
- Move fast and don’t break things
- Don’t talk about issues, solve them
- Closing thoughts on work at a startup
Have you ever thought about working at a startup? This mini series will give you a few useful tips to help you make this leap. In this part, you will learn about one underrated skill and why it is important. You will also learn one simple tip to make work at a startup easier. Finally, you will learn about moving fast, fixing things, DIY mindset and listening to audio on 2x. Let’s begin.
Work at a Startup – How to Survive in a Rocket Ship part 1.
Focus on soft skills, learn to communicate
Are you afraid that you may not know enough about the programming language you are about to use? Or, are you afraid that you don’t know how to use some tool your teammates are using? If so, then stop. And, stop immediately. Worrying about topics such as these, or some similar, will never help you with anything. You will only put yourself under bigger stress than you probably already are.
What’s more, there are another two reasons why should not worry about topics such as these. First, all these topics that may be stressing you out are learnable. You can learn whatever you don’t know at this moment, and you need to know it. Second, no one expects you to know every piece of information on a given topic. Sure, there will be some prerequisites for knowledge and skills given by job position and description.
One simple example. Senior developer will need to know a different amount of knowledge, and have more experience, than junior. So, you should meet at least some average level of what your teammates and your employer expect. However, if you have this area covered, there is no real reason to worry. So, chill out a bit. Remember the first reason we discussed. You can learn whatever is necessary.
Communication, relationships and work
If there is one thing you should think about, again not worry about, it is communication. This is one of the so-called soft skills. This soft skill is important for two reasons, at least. First, when you start at a new job, and it doesn’t have to be work at a startup, one of your goals should be building relationships with your new teammates. You will work with these people and meet them every day.
Well, unless you found some job that allows for remote work. However, even in that case, you will probably meet at least some of your teammates via chats, calls and hangouts. You will almost always be in a contact with someone, probably. And, the best way to make these moments more pleasant, enjoyable, useful and fun? Yes, by building solid relationships with people you will work with.
The better these relationships, between you and your teammates, will be the more you will probably like your work. This is important especially in the beginning, to start in a way you will feel welcomed, respected and liked. Any accidental misunderstanding or being too shy or closed can lead to poor relationships. The result? Workplace where you don’t feel welcomed, happy and where you don’t want to work anymore.
Communication as a key to information
The second reason why you should work on your communication skills first? This skill will make a lot of things much easier in the beginning. What can you do when you find out you don’t know something you need to know? You can learn it. How do you know you are about to learn the right thing to learn? And, how do you know that the approach you chose is the most effective , and that it fits your needs?
The answer on both these questions is that you don’t. You don’t know if what you are about to learn is the right thing to learn. And, you can’t be absolutely certain about the approach you chose. Unless, yes. Unless you ask one of your teammates or employer. This is all what it takes to solve both these problems. First, to find out exactly what you have to learn. Second, to choose the best approach to learn that thing.
It is all about your ability to communicate with your teammates. It starts with specifying what you know at this point, and where you may have some weaknesses or gaps. Then, it continues by asking for what you exactly you need to know, and how can you learn it in the smallest amount of time. When you communicate clearly and without any misunderstandings, you will learn what’s necessary much faster.
It would be great if communication was all it takes. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is something more you will have to do. Communication is just a skill and it will not work unless you start asking. You may be more inclined to introversion. Maybe you are shy. Or, you just like to listen and you don’t like to talk too much. However, you will have to act against these traits, leave your comfort zone, and just ask.
Remember that your neither your employer nor your teammates can see into your mind. They can’t your thoughts, at least not at the current moment and with the best precision. Neuroscience is making incredible advances every day and we are learning a lot about how human brain works. However, we are still not at the point where we can say exactly what someone is thinking about just by watching his brain signals and patterns.
This means following. First, ask your teammates, and your employer, what should you learn first to do your job better and to become full-fledged part of the team. Or, to what weaknesses should you pay attention to. Your teammates will tell you as much as they can to help you get familiar with everything. However, there is still that, probably short-term, issue with reading your mind and your thoughts.
Your teammates don’t know if those information are sufficient. So, when you are in doubt, be willing to ask. Don’t settle with uncertainty or a vague understanding. It is always better to ask, even multiple times, to get full understanding and remove any uncertainty. Second, if you think that there is something you should learn to do your job better, ask if your assumption is correct, and what is the thing you should learn.
No stupid questions
This is the one thing everyone should understand and remember. There is no such a thing as a stupid question. Asking questions is a way to get smarter. So, forget about what others may think about you or your question because that doesn’t matter. Let’s say you have to ask the same question more than once because it is hard for you to fully grasp everything. You may look stupid for five minutes for some of your teammates, maybe. So, what?
Isn’t it better to ask and look stupid for five or ten minutes and become smarter? Or, is it better to stay silent, lack the understanding and remain stupid for the rest of your life? You will probably agree that learning is definitely worth the possibility of looking foolish. So, if you are in doubt, ask. If you are curious, ask. Asking questions will help you learn what’s necessary, become a full-fledged part of the team and do a better work.
Move fast and don’t break things
How many times have you heard, read or saw the “move fast and break things” saying. Since you are want to work at startup, chances are that you have. The same if you are interested in the startup world in general. This saying of moving fast and breaking was probably popularized the most by Facebook. And, it is so popular it even became a mantra for many startup companies and entrepreneurs. What if it is wrong?
I definitely agree with the first part. It is important to move fast, especially if we talk about a startup. In this case, there is the first-mover advantage. When you are the first at something, you are automatically a leader. Unfortunately for you, there is also the second-mover mover advantage also called fast follower advantage. When you create something new any startup coming after you can copy you.
The second mover doesn’t have to invent and research everything from scratch. That startup can take your solution, improve it a little bit and then sell it as its own product. This happens quite often in Asia. There is one originator, not necessarily from China, and what follows are dozens of copycats. Trying to compete with these second movers on price is a nonsense. It is a battle the originator can’t win. There is always a way to lower the price.
It is, therefore, important for the originator to compete on a different level, the level of innovation. Originator has to move fast and start improving his idea when it hits the market. Well, it is better to start improving before that moment. This is something you must understand if you want to work at a startup. Time is precious. There are probably dozens of other startups trying to do the same or a similar thing. You have to move fast.
Move fast and … fix things
What about the other side of the equation, breaking things? What is the problem here? The problem lies in semantics. It is the meaning of the second part what matters. Breaking things says absolutely nothing about what is next. It only says you are trying to take thing X and find a way to break it, find some flaw in it. This is the main goal. What are you supposed to do next? Who knows, probably find something else to break.
Breaking things for the sake of it is a nonsense. No, let me rephrase it. It is almost like a vandalism. How else should we call an activity its only goal is causing damage or destruction? What is a better version? Fix things. Move fast and fix things. Or, a bit longer, move fast, break things and fix them. This suggests that the breakdown itself is not the main goal. Instead, it suggests that the main goal is fixing and preventing the breakdown.
This is the mantra worth remembering and then following. And, it doesn’t matter where do you want to work. Whether it is a startup, big established company or just anything else. You will do a much better work and become a more helpful to your teammates. Moving fast is necessary. Get used to it and work that way. Then, look for issues by trying to break things and, most importantly, fix them. Remember, you are helping your teammates to build a startup, not break it.
Don’t talk about issues, solve them
There are two types of people (no jokes about binary please). The first type of people will find an issue and tell you about it. The second type of people will find an issue, solve it and then tell you about it as well as present the solution. What type, do you think, brings more value to the team and the startup? Yes, it is the second one. Saying that there is some issue will not solve it. It is necessary to do the hard, and funny, part.
Learn on the go
It is easy to say find an issue and fix it. Solving the issue can be a completely different story. Meaning, what if you don’t have the know-how or the skills? This is one of those things you must get used to if you want to work at a startup. There is often no other option than learning on the go. Trying to fix something when you have no idea how it works? This may be hard to hear for some people. However, this is common in many startups.
Why is it that people often learn so much when they join a startup? No, it is not because they have more time to read. They have usually less time for reading. Is it because they can attend conferences and meetups? Well, this might be true. However, they could do this before they joined a startup as well. The reason why they’ve learned so much is that they switched from passive watching or reading to doing.
The most effective for us humans to learn is by doing, by trying and failing and succeeding. Think about how a child learns to walk. She doesn’t read books about it. Well, she doesn’t know how to read so this is probably more applicable to learning to swim or ride a bike. How do you learn these skills the best? It is by doing. You sit on the bike and try to ride it. You fail a couple of times but, you get better with time.
What happens when you apply the same approach to learning a programming language, framework or tool? Your learning speed will increase. It may not happen in the beginning. There might be some parts that will require more time and effort. However, you will soon gain a lot of knowledge and your skills will start to take shape. This will happen much faster than if you decided to read a book instead.
Adopt the DIY mindset, and become a learner
Conclusion? One, adopt the DYI, “do-it-yourself”, mindset. When you find an issue, don’t just talk about it. Ask your teammates if you can help them fix it. Or, don’t ask. Get your hands dirty and try to fix right away. You will learn what you need as you go. Your teammates are very likely to appreciate this approach. In the end, you are working for a startup. You move fast, break things and then fix them.
Second, forget books. Books are very inefficient tools for learning. You can learn a lot by doing in a time it takes to read a single chapter, or even the introduction. Even if you do want to use some additional learning prop, I suggest either watch a video tutorial or listening to audio version (such as an audiobook), both at 2x speed or higher. I usually listen to audio on 2.2-2.8x and somewhere around 2.0-2.4x for video.
With video, there are sometimes problems with slow buffering and freezing on higher speeds. The player can’t keep up and audio can become out of sync with video. This happens usually at 2.5x and higher. These speeds may sound crazy. They are not. Some people go higher. It takes some time to get used to it. So, increase the speed slowly and have patience. One interesting side-effect. People will start to talk too slowly.
So, when you find an issue, solve it. Then, talk about it and show your solution. Adopt the DIY mindset and learn as you go. Remember that learning itself is just another skill, a skill you can learn, train and master. Where to start? First, we discussed some very useful learning frameworks in the first part, the Become a learner section, the DiSSS and CaFE. Read this section again and learn how to use these frameworks.
Second, there is a great course on Coursera called Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley. This is one of the most recommended courses on Coursera not only on learning, but in general. The best part? It is absolutely free, and with subtitles in dozens of languages. So, start learning. There is also a book based on this course, but you know have effective books are. Well, except audiobooks on 2x and higher.
Closing thoughts on work at a startup
When you decide to join a startup you are often entering a different world. This world lives faster, it is more chaotic and embraces rather the edges than the middle. Some people find it hard to cope with this. If you are nervous, that’s okay. Just be yourself and don’t let anything change you. You don’t have to force yourself to go to startup parties if you don’t want to. Team building is important, but not at your expense.
Work at a startup is an incredible opportunity. You will have a chance to meet and work with interesting and sometimes quite unusual people. It can broaden your perspective about how startups work, and the world in general. You will also have opportunity to learn new things, a lot new things. Embrace it and learn as much as you can. This will make you a valuable part of any team. Finally, be yourself and have fun.
Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Great! Please share it in a comment. Or, if you want to keep things more "private", feel free to contact me on twitter or send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.
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