You may have read about the transition from agency to startup from a designer’s perspective. Since I’d just made the same move myself, I took a lot of it to heart. Processes and culture differ dramatically between agencies and startups, and adapting to the faster pace is critical. But the transition works a little differently for developers.
Here’s what I learned from making the move.
You have to care about what you’re building
In the agency world, I was a pro. I’d mastered every step of the process.
First, we’d set a crazy, but not too crazy, project timeline. We’d meet clients at kick-off meetings and stay in touch with status calls. Then we’d go heads-down and try to build what we’d discussed.
A lot of great things that can emerge from that. Every new project offers up a blank canvas, just waiting for you to create something great. Whether you do that or make a “camel” depends on how well everyone works together.
After over a year on a single agency project, I started to develop a strong attachment to it. I cared about more than just building something I could put my name next to. I started caring about how much traffic it got and how many new users signed up. I cared about how those users were engaging and interacting with the product. I was getting the bug to be constantly building, measuring, and making something better.
Turns out, this is the perfect attitude to take with you to a startup.
I was getting the bug to be constantly building, measuring, and making something better.
You’re going to have a lot of irons in the fire
On my first day at Whittl, I met the team and immediately noticed a common theme: everybody was working on a bunch of different things at once.
When I pointed out the obvious, I got the perfect response from our cofounder, who was showing me around:
It’s no surprise that a team building a product from scratch is going to be full of resourceful people. People who know how to multitask. Working on UI features and improvements, we’re working on a bunch of projects at once. When you’re building something new, there’s a seemingly endless product road map. And when you get helpful customer feedback or uncover an annoying bug, you have to be prepared to react. To build something great, you need to self-manage, focus, and communicate.
Your brain will feel full—but you’ll keep learning
The sheer number of new tools and techniques I’ve come across and learned in the last 3 months is a little dizzying. That’s not too surprising, because it can take some of the latest and coolest technology to solve complex problems. Some things stick immediately, others you’ll learn over time. Some haven’t sunk in yet and of course, I’m still learning.
All the libraries, frameworks, and plugins you come across keep you busy. On top of that, we use a lot of tools for debugging, caching, tracking, analytics, A/B testing, feedback and usability. You’re always looking for an opportunity to watch, measure, and improve. It takes a lot of tools to build something from scratch.
Communicating your strengths and weaknesses and filling gaps where you can becomes incredibly valuable.
I’ve found that learning by doing is the best way to get familiar with all these new tools. If you want to use a technology just to use it, chances are you’re only going to skim the surface. But if you’re learning in the context of building something, the pieces start to fall into place a lot faster. The other important thing is to pair up with people who are a lot smarter than you and can show you a thing or two.
If you’re learning in the context of building something, the pieces start to fall into place a lot faster.
Recognize where you need to improve
It’s a balancing act to stay productive while you’re being constantly challenged. Everyone has a different idea of what a front-end developer’s experience and skills should be, so I made sure I was open and transparent about my skillset. Communicating your strengths and weaknesses and filling gaps where you can becomes incredibly valuable.
There’s always a lot to do at startups. Balancing late-night work with spending time with the team outside work becomes vital. You’ll create something every day, get it out into the wild to get feedback, and make it better—constantly. You’ll switch from giving input and making recommendations to another team to taking ownership of a product at a moment’s notice.
I’m very much a startup newbie—only a few months in, tackling new technologies and problems. At the end of the day, relying on previous experience to take new challenges head-on will get you most of the way there. The rest is what you make of it.
by Brian Krall
Brian is a Senior UI Developer at Whittl, an awesome startup in Chicago, IL. He has been working in the web for 7 incredibly fun years. Brian writes at Sideproject.io, speaks, and plans and builds websites for a living. He went to school at the University of Iowa, and spends his free time with his lovely wife and slobbery golden retriever, Kirby.