tl;dr: Is it possible for an introvert engineer to be successful?
I’m a generalist developer and I’ve been through a number of organizations as a software engineer. I have a conventional Computer Science background and a lot of years writing enterprise software. I’m that person who is in the corner fixing bugs, writing up notes for others to use, figuring out how to solve customer issues, and trying to stay out of the limelight. I do the stuff many other people don’t want to do, and the most common comment I’ve heard about my work is if you give me a problem, it’s as good as solved. But they aren’t typically high-profile personal accomplishment type problems. It’s hard to talk about that time you solved something by asking the right question rather than responding to the request you were handed. Multiply that by the thousands of similar tasks that happen in the life of a company.
A few years ago I was a modestly early employee of a startup that went big, and after a good long stay left to try something different. That something ended up the unfunded startup of a friend of a friend, where I was the second engineer after the founder. Along with a couple other devs soon after me, we took the founder’s proof of concept and turned it into something that would actually survive contact with users (of which there eventually were a few.) But the founder was Very Much In Charge when it came to technical decisions. Sometimes I would bring up something I saw as a concern (user privacy, mobile resource usage, server scalability, well-known platform standards and practices) but if the founder didn’t generally agree already, my opinion was not well received. A few rounds of trying and I drop it and move on.
I turned into a worker bee who took instructions and tried to find the best solution within established constraints and in an environment that routinely changed out from under me without warning. I built internal tools for myself that were poo-poo’ed as a waste of time (until they saved someone’s bacon.) Given that I was ostensibly a co-founder, this wasn’t what I was expecting. (It didn’t help I wasn’t getting paid, and when the paperwork finally came around I was given paltry equity.) It dragged on for a while while I waffled about what to do. Some “Life” things happened, and I extricated myself as neatly as I could to go handle that. We are ostensibly still “friends.”
Now, some months later, I’m looking for the next thing.
I can talk to any number of established companies filling up my inbox but, as a generalist not fresh out of school, running the gauntlet of their recruiting processes is not enticing. (Did I mention I’m an introvert? Whiteboard markers make me break out in hives.) My experience has been if I haven’t already done exactly what they are looking for, it’s not pretty. I can go this route, but it might take a while.
I can also talk to friends, founders in their own right, and meet early startups or potential co-founders. A bunch of random skills together in a technical person willing to jump in seems a reasonable option if one is steeped in Bay Area tech culture. And I’ve been around the block enough to not have rose-colored glasses about joining another startup. I can handle not getting paid a while longer (but not forever.)
So I can rationally consider joining another startup, presuming the personalities and potential matched. The question is “Would this be a good thing?” I realize there isn’t any meaningful “normal” way a startup functions, but from what experiences I’ve had I wonder if my thoughts about how things ought to go are somehow not matching reality.
The biggest frustration on my last project was feeling like I was asked to be a co-founder but the relationship ended up being more a “do what I tell you” consultant. I’ll freely admit that I’m not great on the business side. It’s not that I can’t talk to people (and I’ve spoken at conferences) but it isn’t my natural realm. I’m also a terrible, terrible salesperson. But I had my hand in literally every other part that was not business, a good bit of it things I’ve not done before. Yes, of course, I was terrified. That part I think is normal.
I also thought that the founder (and us) would be spending more time talking to users, finding out for real what does and does not work for them, and trying to address those things. Not so much signing up for pitch competitions, filling out incubator applications, and talking about how great something would look to potential funders.
If that’s what it’s really all about, I’ll stick to the headhunters in my inbox. Do I misunderstand what happens day-to-day with an early stage company?