Reflecting on my first startup job: Part 4 - The Ideal Next Job

20 August 2014

(This is part four - the last - of my series reflecting on my first startup job. The first post was about surprises, the second post was about regrets, and the third post was about lessons learned.)

Part 4: What I'll look for in my next tech / startup job

I consider myself pretty lucky to have found my previous job; I was coming from a business / finance background, and was originally applying for an analytics- / business-side role. Never would I have imagined being offered a position where I could learn to code and work so intimately with the company's core consumer product. Obviously I very much enjoyed my job, so much so that I hope to return to the startup world, or the wider tech world, after finishing up an MBA (if the entrepreneurship bug doesn't bite me first). Having worked for a startup already, I now have a sense for what characteristics about a company matter to me, and these are the traits I'll be looking for in any future tech company I work for.

An open, quantitative bent

As I previously mentioned, my startup experience was a surprisingly quantitative one. We ran split tests on all new features, we had a ton of internal analytics being collected every second, and everyone had an eye on the company's key metrics. I think being in such a quantative environment simultaneously helps everyone stay on the same page and empowers everyone to come to informed opinions. As long as the company's metrics aren't kept secret, they are also a way to keep everyone honest - there can't be any turf wars or (too much) irrational attachment to a specific feature if the numbers aren't working out. Perhaps it's all too natural for a former banker to enjoy wallowing in numbers, but at the end of the day they measure the health of the company.

An established qualitative feedback system to balance the numbers

Numbers don't lie, as they say, but they don't always get the whole picture either. I hope that my future company has an established system for gathering and processing qualitative user feedback. This is much harder than it sounds. Often just coming up with the right questions to ask a user takes a lot of careful thought. And, once you get responses from some users, how do you go about incorporating those into product decisions? Through my last job, I've come to appreciate how important it is to listen to users, and how they will often give you great ideas.

Careful attention to the product development process

There are many ways a product development process can be set up. Who comes up with the ideas? Where do these ideas come from? Who gets to decide which ideas are allocated resources? How and when do you test an idea? I don't know what the best process is, but I will be looking for a company that pays attention to the process they have and is open to improving it. For example, my last company tried the product development process created by Pandora (summary here), and although it wasn't perfect, we tried improving and adapting it.

A company mission statement that employees believe in

When you work for a company, of course it's best that you use or at least like the product you're producing. But, there's another level beyond that. Sometimes a company has a mission built into its core, one that encompasses more than just the company's product(s) and which feels more like a philosophy. If employees buy into that mission, there's a certain excitement and energy in the air, and they feel like they're part of something bigger and more long-term. Projects are then no longer just about increasing metrics by a little bit in the short term, but about addressing that mission. I'd be really interested in experiencing that kind of environment.

Balance between product and profit considerations, leaning towards product

A company has to make profit in the long run to stay alive, but along the road there are always tempting, low-hanging fruits that pop up. These fruits promise profit, but sometimes at the expense of weakening the product in some way. The reverse is also true - sometimes you know what to do to improve the product, but that improvement might decrease revenue. This is not to say that all product and profit decisions are fundamentally at odds, but I hope that my future company will be able to strike a healthy balance between the two, or decide in favor of product slightly more often. The past couple years have convinced me that if you have a product that provides a real service to people and solves a real need, improving the product is probably always going to be better in the long-term. Short-term business decisions certainly can't be ignored, but ultimately the product is for your users.

The last four posts have been my attempt to boil down almost two years of experiences and learnings into a few topics and lists. It's hard to believe that I'm about to go back to school, but I'm incredibly excited for the next two years of MBA, and for whatever lies beyond that.

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