Joining a start-up in its early stages can change the course of your career... but the probability of success is highly uncertain!
To help you succeed in this path, we have designed a two-part practical guide based on the testimonies of 5 developers who were among the first employees of their company.
The first part was dedicated to the questions you need to ask yourself to choose the right project. This second part is about your first months as a first developer and how to use this experience to boost your career.
🕐 10 minute read
- What your attitude should be during your first few months
- The types of profiles best suited to this type of experience
- The best ways to evolve in a new and growing start-up
- The positions you can apply for if this experience goes well
- The advantages and disadvantages of the role
- Gabriel Klein was the first developer for the online bank Qonto, which he joined in March 2016. Since then, he became VP of engineering at this unicorn and has been Chief Tech & Product Officer of the rental investment scale-up Masteos since September 2021.
- Marie Terrier, who has ten years of experience in software development, was appointed in 2018 as the first developer and CTO of Yelda (6 employees), a platform that provides voice applications for companies. We also interviewed her colleague Naomi Paulmin, the company's second developer.
- Since 2020, Adrien Siami has been the first developer and CTO of Ecotable, a company of around 15 employees that helps restaurants adopt eco-responsible practices. Previously, he was Engineering Manager of Drivy, now Getaround (car rental between individuals).
- Vladimir de Turckheim, also known as Vlad', joined Sqreen, a security management platform, in 2016 as the 4th developer. He is now Staff Software Engineer at Datadog, which was acquired in February 2021.
So you’ve decided to join a start-up as one of the first developers. Welcome to the entrepreneurial adventure!
Now let's look at what you need to do concretely to start off on the right foot and maximise the company's chances of success.
"Many start-ups died trying to do everything right, with developers spending more time looking at the code than the product."
- Vladimir de Turckheim (Sqreen / Datadog)
"One of the co-founders once told me that when you're a partner, you either build or sell," recalls Marie Terrier of Yelda. Obviously, the first developers are expected to work on the first part of the project: building, and above all building quickly, even if it means sacrificing the quality of the code at the beginning.
"You have to go very fast to get the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or the first key features out the door, even if it's nerve-wracking as a developer to see what you're shipping. You have to know how to let go, especially if it allows you to sign your first clients," says Marie, who was doing production releases every three days at the beginning.
“Many start-ups died trying to do everything right, with developers spending more time looking at the code than the product. You don't have to be afraid of the technical debt, it can be dealt with later," adds Vladimir.
This will probably be the first difference you notice compared to working as a developer in an existing company. "As a developer in an established company, you always arrive in superman mode, thinking that you can do better than the people before you. But when you are starting from a blank page, you have a much better understanding of all the difficulties and you realise that it is not so easy to find the right compromises to achieve the delivery objectives," says Gabriel Klein.
"As the first developer, it's often up to you to make the product," says Marwan Rabbaa, Technical Lead of the Cashbee savings application. Of course, the founding members of the team will have a clear idea of what needs to be done at the outset... but if you position yourself as a simple executor when you join an emerging start-up you would be missing out on the main appeal of the role.
At Ecotable, this was an important point of discussion at the interview stage for Adrien Siami. "I clearly wanted to be involved in the product process. If you don't like talking to users and only want to focus on the technical side of things, I wouldn't recommend this position," says Siami, who spent his first few weeks in focus groups and interviews with customers and prospects.
More generally, Vladimir thinks it is a shame to join a company as an early employee if you are not aiming to go much further than what is usually expected of a developer. "At Sqreen, I spontaneously went to speak to customers and to conferences, I participated in many meetups and wrote blog posts. It's not your main job, but you can't be blamed for going the extra mile. If you are, you're in the wrong company!"
"The idea is not to adopt a trendy language but to have a solid base that will allow you to start, recruit and develop your product over the next 5 years"
- Marie Terrier (Yelda)
Having said that, what we have just mentioned is only valid if you "fully bear the tech responsibility of the company", to use Gabriel Klein's expression. In concrete terms, this means that you must take responsibility for the choice of technology and the production environment. You need to bring your expertise to the table. This often means starting with the basics: the hosting solution, the databases, the pre-production and deployment environments. And even beyond that.
“If you are the first tech person in the company, you can quickly end up with IT person syndrome,” smiles Adrien Siami, Ecotable's third employee, alongside the founders. At the beginning, you are really the Swiss Army knife who has to set up the whole operational system. With both a short and medium-term approach.
"This is not the time to try new things, there are enough problems to deal with as it is. You have to make the most rational decisions by mastering the chosen technologies and putting the project and the business first," adds Gabriel Klein. "The idea is not to adopt a trendy language, for example, but to have a solid base that will allow you to start, recruit and develop your product over the next five years," says Marie de Yelda.
“No one will be overseeing what you are doing, in particular the technical foundations”
- Adrien Siami (Ecotable)
The challenge here, especially if there is no CTO in the founding team, is to have initiative and self-confidence! "Everything you're going to do, especially the technical foundations, you don't have anyone to validate it with," says Adrien Siami. He is speaking from ten years of experience. But above all, he kept ties with tech communities (Slack, networks, etc.) to avoid finding himself alone.
Another solution to break out of solitude: recruit! If the company has the necessary means, of course. Most of the people interviewed hired a second person 3 to 5 months after their arrival. "Time enough to bring out an MVP and bring in some money for a senior profile. A team of two gives you more peace of mind and allows you to compare your ideas," says the CTO of Ecotable. "The difficulty is that you are nobody at the beginning, so there may sometimes be a discrepency between what you are hoping for and what you get,” mentions Gabriel. Not to mention that the time spent recruiting represents as many hours not coding and therefore not building your product!
The product path of a tech project
Now that you know more about what goes on behind the scenes in the life of a first developer, let's look at what you need to do to maximise the "return on investment" of this risky but potentially far-reaching adventure.
First developer is clearly not for everyone. Here are a few guidelines to help you decide if it's for you or not.
"You need to be as well-rounded as possible: a good architect, a good coder, a good manager, a good recruiter... As a junior developer, you are naturally less likely to have all these skills at your disposal"
- Gabriel Klein (Qonto / Masteos)
Let’s start with the question of experience. None of the people we interviewed said it was impossible for a junior developer to take on the role. But, being more experienced definitely has its advantages. "You need to be as well-rounded as possible: a good architect, a good coder, a good manager, a good recruiter... As a junior developer, you are naturally less likely to have all these skills at your disposal" says Gabriel Klein before clarifying: “Scale matters: a small project will be easier to tackle than a highly ambitious start-up in which you will very quickly have to manage a lot of complex issues.”
This opinion is shared by Marie Terrier: "It's possible for junior developers to do this, but it will just be more complicated for them because they'll be faced with technical problems they've never seen before and no one to mentor them." Naomi Paulmin, her junior colleague who was hired just after her end-of-study internship, has found this experience to be very formative: "When I talk to other developers who were with me at school, I notice that I have more freedom of action and that I have been able to touch on many different subjects," she says.
"If you're looking for the same comfort levels as you would find in a big company, then you should join a more advanced company," says Vladimir, who on his first day at Sqreen, did not have a work computer available. "I've seen people ask for meal tickets or childcare: forget it, the team doesn't have time to deal with that sort of thing at the beginning!”
He also points to the intensity of the work. "If you want to stick to 35 hours a week, the business will never take off. If you're not prepared to make that effort at the beginning, as all co-founders do, it's best to do something else," Gabriel continues.
However, being involved doesn't mean burning out. "My CEO always told me that it's not a sprint but a marathon and that you won’t help anyone by having a burnout after six months. I've been coding for 12 years now and I manage to deliver much more today than I did in the beginning," reflects Marie de Yelda.
Finally, in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz, a famous entrepreneur and investor in the company Andreessen Horowitz, indicates that the first employees of a start-up are as much entrepreneurs as its founders because they are fully involved in building it. This implies a stronger than average sense of initiative and autonomy.
"It's like a video game: each stage unlocks a level with rewards and further opportunities. There's no point aiming for level 10 if you haven't finished level 1"
- Gabriel Klein (Qonto / Masteos)
Choosing the right project and making sure it starts to gain traction is a great achievement in itself. Tracking its progress at each stage and evolving it to meet new business needs is another part of the challenge. The part that will ultimately make the difference to your career.
First, you have to be clear from the moment of the job interview about your possible career path, according to Adrien Siami. "It may seem strange to be the first developer and to have to recruit your CTO some time later... In my case, I said from the outset that I wanted to recruit and manage a team in the long term." He became CTO a year after being hired and has already recruited two people.
"Your job is going to change and your permanent dilemma is going to be: adapt or leave" - Vladimir de Turckheim (Sqreen / Datadog)
For Gabriel Klein, the challenge in this growth phase is to go through the development stages in the right order. "It's like a video game: each stage unlocks a level with rewards and further opportunities. There's no point aiming for level 10 if you haven't finished level 1," says the man who rapidly became VP of Engineering of the future unicorn Qonto with a team of 50 developers.
What about complexity? Each step requires very different skills. "The first step is to get the MVP out of the way by going into the details of what needs to be developed. The third step, for example, is recruiting and managing 15 people," he illustrates. You have to accept that you will make mistakes... but you have to correct them quickly. For example, Gabriel realised at one point that he was doing too many direct reports and that he had not anticipated the creation of a middle management level to support the scaling up of Qonto.
To achieve this, our interviewees talk about mentoring with external coaches or peers who have already experienced this type of hypergrowth from the inside. However, you have to want to take on these new responsibilities, which are specific to the managerial path! "The more the company grows, the more your operational scope will shrink as more and more specialised people are recruited. "Your job is going to change and your permanent dilemma is going to be: adapt or leave," Vladimir remarks.
Sometimes you have to face the facts: just because you were the company's first developer doesn't mean you'll necessarily be the best person to help write the next stage of the adventure. Maybe because you don't have the skills anymore or because you don't want to. After more than five and a half years at Qonto, Gabriel Klein realised that he had lost his enthusiasm. "With the scale and the rigidities of banking, I had lost the excitement of the beginning and the contact with the field," he shares. It was the right time to move on!
What can you expect as an ex-first developer? In other words, can this type of experience open doors or, on the contrary, will it confine you to nascent projects in the eyes of recruitment professionals?
If Adrien Siami is to be believed, it's the former. "I still receive as many requests on Linkedin, especially since I added CTO," he smiles. I'm mainly offered Engineering Manager or VP Engineering positions."
Obviously, the more successful the start-up is, the greater the acceleration effect. "When the company is successful, you earn a kind of badge of honour in the world of development," Vladimir laughs, citing for example Sylvain Utard, the first employee to become VP of Engineering at Algolia, who is now Head of Engineering at the Sorare unicorn (who we interviewed in this article).
As for Gabriel Klein, he moved from the neo-bank Qonto to the rental investment platform Masteos, 400 people including 50 in tech, as Chief Tech & Product Officer (CTPO). A company in a scale phase where he will be able to bring what he has seen and learned from his previous experience. "It has certainly opened doors for me on both the managerial and product side: I know what mistakes not to make!”
Vladimir is even more optimistic about the opportunities that arise from this type of experience: "If it goes well, you won't be talking to recruiters anymore but to VCs directly and to lots of entrepreneurs who can introduce you to other companies.”
Let's summarise a few important points from this guide to give you the fullest possible picture of the role. This is so that you can make your decision with all the facts and so that you have the best chance of succeeding in your project!
Vladimir adds one more frustration: the permanent emotional rollercoaster! One day, you have good news and you are on top of the world. And the next day you feel like you've made the biggest mistake of your life. “That's why it's important to know why you're doing all this," he admits. He laughs, "It's hard, but when it works, it's worth it. It just doesn't work that often!"
- At the beginning, your objective should be to build your product quickly, thinking about business before code scalability
- Having experience beforehand saves precious time even if a resourceful junior developer can also be suitable for this role
- Being among the first employees of a company does not guarantee a VP of Engineering position in the long run. You have to be able to increase your skills AND want to do so.
- The success of the company, for which you are fully responsible, will determine your "resale value" on the market
In this article, you are invited to reflect, and discover what truly motivates you professionally. This is an essential step in defining the direction you want to give to your whole career.
Joining a start-up in its early stages can change the course of your career... but the probability of success is highly uncertain!
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