What's It Like To Work At A Startup?

May 02, 2013

Square’s own Engineering Manager Zach Brock recently participated in a live webcast entitled Startup Life. The webcast was organized by Readyforce, who helps connect students with startups. Zach spent an hour answering questions from students about what it’s like working at a startup and giving interview tips. You can find the webcast here.

Zach didn’t have time to get to all of the questions during the webcast, so you can now find answers to some of them below. Keep in mind, this is one person’s opinion – feel free to add any additional insight or questions in the comments below or tweet @joinsquare.

Q: I'm not much of a graphics programmer. Is that a problem for my project portfolio, or is showing a strong engineering aspect in my programs good enough?

A: Not a problem – cool libraries, Project Euler solutions or open source contributions are great examples of your abilities.

Q: Are there online resources that provide industry-level code examples in the different languages that startups and big companies use?

A: Yes, check out open source projects that companies have released. You can find a list of all of Square’s open source projects at: square.github.com

Q: Is it better to pursue a startup first or a long established company first? How does each option affect career paths?

A: I would recommend beginning your career at a startup. In my opinion, startups give you more opportunities to learn and grow early on in your career, as long as you’re self-directed and self-motivated. If you need more structure to thrive personally, you may want to start out at a bigger company.

Q: Is there a sample listing of programming questions/problems that an engineer candidate for Square may be expected to know during the coding part of the interview?

A: Not currently. In our interview process we focus on working through problems rather than the traditional Q&A interview format. Candidates spend the day pair programming with several Square engineers, writing in the language of their choice. The goal is to give each candidate a chance to work and collaborate with engineers from several different teams so they have a better sense of the people they might be working with one day. With these interviews, our goal isn’t to stump people but to see how they solve realistic problems.

Q: As a marketing student, how can I better prepare myself for a tech company? What types of skills would a non-technical student need to know in order to interact with different sectors of an organization?

A: Have a friend who’s a programmer? Sit down with them for a few hours, observe, and ask questions. You’ll start to find patterns in their code and understand how programming languages result in actions. Also, get involved in the tech community – read tech blogs and reddit, stay up-to-date on the latest apps, and meet with people who work at startups.

Q: What about business students? What are you looking for when interviewing non-engineering students for internship/full-time positions?

A: We often say that we’re looking for T-shaped people – people who have breadth as well as depth. The ideal candidate is strong across a number of areas, but at the same time has an area of expertise so they can have a big impact.

We often ask many of the same questions to both our business and engineering candidates: Are you capable of working in a fast-paced environment? Are you flexible? Do you understand and believe in our mission? Can you think of creative, simple solutions to complex problems?

Q: I don't have much extra time for side-projects. Should I spend a few months trying to shore up my side project portfolio before bothering to apply at startups?

A: Side projects are the best way to prepare both for the interview process and working at a startup. Any side project, no matter how small, is valuable. The experience of turning an idea into something real is the best education a software engineer can get. Remember that your project doesn’t have to be world changing to help you grow as an engineer.

Q: Any ideas on retaining startup culture as a company scales?

A: Maintain transparency, encourage collaboration, and stay sharply focused on your mission.

Q: How does attempting to start and work on a personal startup over the summer rather than, say, an internship look on a portfolio when you are hiring?

A: The question you should ask yourself is: where will I learn more? If you will learn more from the trial-and-error that comes with tackling your own project, go for your startup. If you’ll learn more by surrounding yourself with people who have a lot of great experience, an internship might be better for you.

Try not to think too much about what a company is looking for. The truth is that you can learn a lot from both experiences, and at Square we hire students from all kinds of backgrounds. Spend time on things you’re passionate about.

Q: What's the benefit and risk of moving from a large, established company to a startup?

A: At a startup you can make decisions quickly. You’ll often find fewer layers of management, an open workspace, and more transparency. Startups are inherently collaborative, which is a great way to learn really quickly from the people around you.

On the other hand at a startup you’re probably going to have a lot more individual responsibility and opportunities to fail. Personally I love having the freedom to make a big impact, but I think some people find it overwhelming.

Q: What is the best way to create a network with professionals in the Silicon Valley area to help with opportunity searching if you are not located on the West Coast?

A: Here are a few ideas:

  • Contribute to open source projects. Showing is much more powerful than telling.
  • Alumni networks: Many career centers offer access to online alumni databases. This is a great way to identify alums in Silicon Valley and beyond working for companies of interest. The best way for a company to grow is through referrals. You can help your chances by identifying a “champion” who can advocate for your candidacy and pass your resume directly to recruiters.
  • LinkedIn: Similar to above, this is a great way to connect with people in Silicon Valley and is often underutilized by students.
  • Attend conferences: But don’t just go to listen, be an active participant by introducing yourself to attendees, following up with speakers, etc.

Q: You have recommended doing side projects a number of times. Where can one get ideas about side projects?

A: Engineers in particular have the ability to solve the problems and pain points they run across in everyday life. Any time you find something annoying or frustrating there’s probably an opportunity to make it better through software. For example, my roommates and I were frustrated at the manual task of settling up bills at the end of each month, so we wrote an app to help make it easier: www.billcrush.com.

Zach Brock
Building great commerce experiences all around the world.

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