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Background: I've worked in a quantitative financial consulting position for the past 4-5 years (financial modeling with Matlab, VBA, Excel mostly). I have a degree in Computer Science (BA) and Math (BA). I'm want to join a startup company to realign my career with my passion: technology. I lack the official "software development" (SDLC) experience but have very much programmed for work and personally (Python, PHP, C++, etc).

Question: How competitive are software engineering positions in startup companies?

Will I be hard pressed to find someone who will hire me not having "official" software development experience?

Does anyone have any tips for me in achieving my goal?

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Getting a job should be easy; getting paid well may be trickier. –  Alison Dec 1 '10 at 18:28
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No size fits all. Many start-ups fail for various reasons. –  Job Dec 1 '10 at 20:08
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8 Answers 8

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Question: How competitive are software engineering positions in startup companies?

Fairly competitive. When the successful implementation of your product rests on someone else's shoulders, you tend to have high expectations.

Will I be hard pressed to find someone who will hire me not having "official" software development experience?

If you can demonstrate that you are a skilled programmer and have the right personality, this shouldn't be a huge issue. However, you do need to have the skills they require. Most startups employ compressed SDLCs, if at all. ("Cowboy coding" and "fly by the seat of your pants" are two phrases that come to mind.) The process doesn't need to be pretty, it just needs to be good enough to get the product to market successfully and as quickly as possible/reasonable. One of the typical pains in the post-startup phase is implementing "better" processes.

Does anyone have any tips for me in achieving my goal?

Make sure you are willing, and prepared, to take the risk of joining a startup. Yes, the payouts can be huge, but failures are a dime-a-dozen. That doesn't mean that your time with a failed startup is necessarily a loss. However, if you're not prepared for the likely death of the startup it will be painful, at the very least.

I would suggest you begin by focusing on your strengths as a quant and looking for startups that could use that expertise. (I would actually suggest looking for established companies that could use those skills, as a software developer instead of a financial consultant, and making the switch to startup software dev-shop later.)

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Learn modern software development practices. I'm going to assume you can program, because if you can't do that this far into your career, it's probably too big a gap to bridge. If you want to work in a startup, it means agile test driven development. Learn to know and love current standard unit testing tools for your language.

Pick a language that's in use and focus on it. In practice, Java or Ruby are the two primary paths for a startup right now. Java for the backend, Ruby for the frontend. Python is a close runner up for frontend. I guess PHP as well.

C/C++ are likely to be rather specialized and less likely to want to bring on someone who doesn't have significant professional programming experience.

More obscure languages (Haskell, Scala) don't have enough people using them to be worth focusing on before you're working.

If I were in your shoes, I'd try to get in somewhere like Pivotal Labs. They have a very strict (but modern) development process which may be better able to absorb someone who doesn't have a lot of experience in software development.

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Nice, practical advice. +1 –  George Marian Dec 1 '10 at 23:51
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I doubt your lack of SDLC will hurt, but your lack of (start-up desired) skills will. Start-ups look for people who have already mastered technologies, and who can crank out copious reams of code using them. They'll want to get something out the door, not wait around while you come up to speed on jQuery or JSON or whatever else they're using.

If you're looking to get exposure to the latest & greatest tech, I'd look for a company that's expanding, or changing technologies. A place like that may have an entire development team learning something new, and may even spring for training.

If you really want a start-up job, you should certainly give it a shot. If you can learn their major technologies in the week or so before your start date, you're probably exactly the kind of person who will do well in that environment.

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Generally I don't think it's difficult to land a job @ a startup, but they're going to expected you to hit the ground running. The startups I was in had high turnover because a lot and a lot of hours are expected, and some of the harder coding tests I had to do were from startups.

If you can demonstrate your skill, you'll be in favor.

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Wouldn't know from direct experience, but every start-up founder I've talked to has told me that their biggest challenge is hiring people (okay, all the founders I know have read "Good to Great", so what they actually say is "My main challenge is getting the right people on the bus", but you get the idea).

Not sure how it is in your area, but I doubt a hiring founder in the Toronto area would be more concernened with your lack of credentials than with your output potential.

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The biggest challenge you'd face is finding those companies that want to hire someone like you. Where you got your degrees may have placement assistance for alumni that could be a way to get into a start-up assuming you live near where you went to school. I would be cautious of going through a lot of recruiters as I seemed to have more than a few that just took my resume and I never heard from them again, which kind of ticked me off in a way.

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Most recruiters are clueless, paper-pushers. Establishing relationships with good recruiters takes time, but it's certainly worth it. –  George Marian Dec 1 '10 at 19:19
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I don't think that startup jobs are competitive at all. At least, they're probably not competitive in the sense that you're probably thinking of coming from the financial industry. If a startup finds somebody they like, they'll usually find a way to hire them (assuming they have the financing). It's not like other job markets where you have candidates trying to get a fixed number of jobs.

That isn't to say that getting a startup job is necessarily easy though. They tend to be very picky about who they hire.

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In most startups I saw formal experience means less than actual knowledge and ability to show it, along which the right type of personality. So prepare to be asked to show something of your work and demonstrate your skills.

Social networking means a lot too - since success of the startup depends a lot on having the right people, knowing somebody who can vouch for you being "the right people" helps.

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