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Ask a Female Engineer: Joining a Startup (themacro.com)
58 points by cbcowans on Sept 21, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 73 comments

I absolutely relate to Klara's response. I joined as a "founding employee" of a startup, and over the next 3 years the team's biggest problem was being meddled with by the founder (just one, the second founder ducked out after about 8 months—with a sizable percentage of the company).

Eventually I was spending a solid quarter of my time running interference between the founder and pretty much every other team member, and when he eventually fired me over our disagreements (there was nobody to run interference between him and I, when it came to that) the rest of the team quit within a month. Solo, first time founders are a big red flag to me now.

The biggest red flag to me seems this: "second founder ducked out after about 8 months—with a sizable percentage of the company." The founders should have been on a vesting schedule to prevent this -- or every founder has an incentive to just duck out and keep all their equity. IIRC YC requires such vesting agreements, and for good reasons.

Really depends on what size able means. Let's say the founders split the company 50/50. They're on a standard vesting schedule. One of them leaves after 1 year. They will have 12.5% of the company.

Do you consider this sizeable? I certainly would, and this will happen even if you have all the standard mechanisms in place!

There's an argument I've seen that founders should be on a thoroughly nonstandard vesting schedule, for exactly this reason. Slower vesting, a longer cliff, an event-based cliff, or some combination thereof.

It's a decent assumption that all successful, unpurchased startups take at least 3 years to hit it big. Given that, you could reasonably put a founder cliff at 2 years (with early vesting on buyout) as a show of faith.

Of course, the other argument is that if a founder leaves with 12.5% of your company something else is terribly wrong regardless.

My first real job was at a startup that was at one time a one man show (though it grew and shrank over time). The founder was an ego maniac and a micro-manager who had big visions of financial success but no clue on how to achieve it. I heard a lot of stories of an endless parade of previous employees (which should have been a major red flag) and while I was there for only about 2 years the company cycled through people.

That's the case coming from my current job. Starting a new job on Monday. He had his fingers in everything, launched a product that was not ready for public release. Constantly micromanaged me out of using standard SE and EE practices despite my advisement against it and my push back. Suffered the consequences, manufacturers wary to sell because of all the problems with it. Can no longer support my employment because there have been no sales.

Have any tips for us solo, first time founders, besides "no needless meddling"?

In our case, the goalposts for what the product should be kept moving every 3 months, which was probably the largest single problem, it caused most of the friction imo. It didn't help that we were a hardware startup, so changes couldn't be made as easily. A solution to that would be to agree upon (and document) what the MVP is, and not change course until you've validated that the idea doesn't meet the market's needs. We had a single client/partner, their desires ended up driving a lot of changes late in development that ended up being incompatible with earlier engineering decisions, but the founder pushed them through. We ended up not being able to do environmental testing because of the time those changes took, and the first time it rained the cases for our electronics filled with water.

I'm also now a solo-ish founder and I only have technical/team management experience, so I'm learning too :)

This happens in non-solo founder companies too. In fact, I would expect it to happen slightly more often in companies with multiple founders, because they jockey over what the roadmap should be. When there's a lack of leadership at the company it's a big problem, but it happens at all types of companies, not just small solo founder startups. I think you are conflating the problem with the fact that there is only one founder.

Who puts you in line when you're in the wrong? Do you have a CXO who feels truly comfortable telling you something you don't want to hear, even if she knows she can be fired on your whim? Do you go to lengths to make it be known that you welcome all critical feedback?

make sure you have someone close by who feels comfortable telling you when you are wrong

Also, don't found companies with friends (unless you've successfully worked with them before), because people tend to let things slide with friends longer than they would with an average co-worker.

Know how to leadership.

Create a safe space for quiet negative feedback or misgivings. Avoid shooting messengers.

Delegate, then trust the people you've delegated to.

Have a plan, then stick to it. Changes in the plan must be communicated.

Hello, Klara here. I should have probably put in my answer that I would not join a startup without healthcare. I was recently offered a job that I was seriously considering. The caveat was that I'd be paid as a contractor and they would pay me the extra money for me to buy my own healthcare.

Healthcare for my husband and I would be $700-1000 a month. If we had a child, it would be closer to $1500 a month. Husband works at an early startup and doesn't have healthcare. ($1500 * 12) / (1 - 0.4) = $30k of extra income I would need to break even.

I cannot just buy Aetna insurance (in NY) because they don't sell individual plans. I'm not convinced that my other choices are good coverage (Oscar, NYS MetroPlus, etc).

Someday, we'll start a family and I want the best coverage possible.

Definitely feeling that, I had to switch to a much-less-effective asthma med because my bad startup company insurance doesn't cover the one I've used for almost my entire post-childhood life. Then, couple that with the typical startup office dogs, and... wheeze.

Having office dogs at the cost of employee heath should be as unacceptable as builders without hard hats.

It's so easy to provide healthcare now, that's a good criteria. Just send them to Gusto. Also 1099 / contractor is shady unless there's a really good reason.

It's easy, it's not however usually affordable for anything but the best funded startups. Consider that the average cost of employee heath care would add 2-3k per employee per year. Very significant.


Hi everyone, this is the second installment of our series. The first one was here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12455274. You'll notice a lot of the considerations discussed in this post apply to everyone, not just women, so there’s no need for the discussion to specifically focus on the “female engineer” part, though talking about that is fine too

I'm just wondering, then... Is the point to get a female perspective without specifically asking questions about being a female in engineering? Sort of like "Here's a different perspective without actually focusing on the elephant in the room"? Because I do have questions that I'd love to ask specifically about being a female engineer. Or if it's not that, then what is it? And why the specificity of senior female engineers instead of just a panel of senior engineers? Thanks.

The idea is just to ask women engineers questions readers send in and see what they say. If they say things specific to being female, that’s cool; if they say things that are more universal, that’s cool too. Please send your questions to ask@ycombinator.com or post them here.

I recently left a startup that had 3 female first time founders.

They forced me on several occasions to pass by qualified candidates for unqualified ones in the name of "diversity".

They were constantly complaining about how they weren't taken seriously by other founders, but then proceeded to schedule interviews with forbes about "Mom's in tech" and "running a startup from their kitchen".

They unilaterally decided to remove all males from the platform (a child care service), because some customers had the impression that a male child care provider was more likely to molest their child.

At the end of the day I ended up leaving, and the rest of the tech team within about a month. They replaced us with the tech team from a recently folded competitor, which was led by another "mom". Last I heard they were floundering and are somewhat of a laughing stock in the LA startup community, and have a reputation with recruiters as a dead end.

Are the aliases in this post used for the same people that were in the prior post, i.e., are the names globally unique?

Correct. Ada in the first post is also Ada in the second post.

Do more like these! I like how the questions and responses weren't about being women in tech while raising unique experiences

We would all love to get to the point where it isn't a noteworthy discussion, but for now allot of people need the SEO of women in tech so they can find something relatable

I just wanted to say I really enjoy these and thank you for doing them, it's very enlightened.

It's curious/disappointing that none of the respondents suggested that a good criteria for joining a startup is being on the founding team.

That may not be in the spirit of the question, but I've found that the best way of finding a culture & mission which really matches what I want/need from a job is to create it.

I like Ada'a response. It's very important to make sure that the startup team members get along and care for each other. Also if you detect BS in the vision or idea, its better to stay away.

>leaving me looking for a new job while on a work permit as a single mother of three


> When my kids were small, I used to do 4 to 6 hours a day of very focused work and would produce the same amount of work as others during an 8-hour shift.

I'd be amazed to find this at a startup - I find that it's usually the opposite. It's impossible to focus in an open-plan with dogs running around, music blaring, and people swilling beer, so everyone has to work 10-12 hours to get 4-6 hours of work done.

I'm also surprised there's no mention of rape/abuse culture as it relates to the startup culture of "drinks, bro!": https://annelibby.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/beer/

Is that representative of most startups? The only common elements I've seen in the startups I've been acquainted with is long working hours and below-market pay.

See also: Our Culture of Exclusion (2012): https://web.archive.org/web/20130808111450/http://ryanfunduk...

For some reason my experiences with alcohol don't seem to agree with this at all. I never feel uncomfortable around my coworkers, nobody really gets terribly drunk, and there's no predatory behavior. Maybe it helps that most people are a bit older and are married, not sure.

> What could be more enticing than the insightful conversation being had by 50 drunk introverts telling "that's what she said" jokes?

I feel like this is not related to alcohol at this point. I never see this at our drinking outings, but I have seen lots of this in, for example, gamer culture. Maybe there's a similar tech subculture that is expressed this way, and alcohol makes it worse.

Any indication that women are more put off by beer than men? At the last startup I have seen, the women were much more predatory than the men during beer nights.

Not that I like beer nights, but I dislike one sided blaming.

Besides, if people want to have beer nights, why shouldn't they have them? Maybe my main motivation to start my own company is that I get to have beer nights. Why shouldn't I be allowed to create company with a work atmosphere I like?

Well, if your main motivation for starting a company is having beer nights, seems like the company you should start is a bar.

> Besides, if people want to have beer nights, why shouldn't they have them?

They might unknowingly (or worse, knowingly) employ:

- recovering alcoholics

- people with religious restrictions

- people that were abused by someone under the influence of alcohol

- people that were abused whilst under the influence of alcohol

- people that just don't like alcohol

- people that want to actually go home after work (drinking is not work unless you're a beer taster)

Yes, you can make these outings "optional", but then it's all "we missed you last night!" and "you should come out next time!" guilting-type social pressure. There's no need for that in the workplace, so let's stick to building great things! Go drink with your bros, no one minds if you do that!

I could not agree more. The thing is I actually like drinking and socializing, but having it mixed up at the workplace led me to drink more than I should, which I didn't like. And a few times I had conversations I felt weird about the next day. When I wanted to drink less it was annoying walking past beer all the time and people drinking it, because again, in the right context I do enjoy it. And I definitely know people who didn't drink, which was fine, but they felt socially alienated because of how many people were drinking. And several people got fired for sexual harassment, which is never cool, but it only ever seemed to happened at late night events with alcohol.

I actually decided I was drinking too much at that job so when I quit I took a break from drinking. One of the jobs I interviewed with had their happy hour as part of the interview! It's an insane "culture fit" test because of the many valid reasons you mentioned people might not be comfortable with it.

Like you said, people can go drink with their bros. Good not to tie your social life to work anyway so you can leave without losing all your friends.

I think putting beer out for an hour or two at an event and having a culture of 1-2 drinks sporadically is fine. But I'm avoiding any employers with a keg in their office, beer in the fridge every day, a happy hour culture etc.

If I tried to mandate "cycling nights", everyone would think I was crazy. Not everyone can ride a bike! Not everyone's comfortable riding a bike aggressively in Manhattan traffic! Okay, but I can and am, and everyone should be like me! Cycling nights!

Well, not everyone can drink alcohol. Not everyone's comfortable drinking alcohol. But "drinking nights" are fine.

Fortunately not all beverages are alcoholic.

Sure, you can follow behind us with your training wheels if you'd like. There's no way you'll feel alienated.

I rarely drink (just for health; I don't have any specific health reasons or religious reasons for doing so) and don't see a reason to get offended. I usually drink some kombucha or apple cider when I join other folks. I'm never forced to drink and I don't think anyone will look down on me or inquire further if I said I have personal reasons for avoiding alcohol.

Segueing the topic of beer nights to a discussion of rape(?) culture makes it seem like you're unnecessarily trying to find a way to be offended.

These nights might help an overworked team relax and coworkers have another chance in the week to interact. And guilting-type social pressure is always going to happen at a workplace, whether it's an optional team outing to a park or a beer night. It's up to you to handle these trivial social issues, not the management.

It's definitely management's job to prevent employees from harassing each other! Although that doesn't help if the pressure is coming from management.

Some women are understandably less comfortable around drunk people because drunk men are more likely to be creepy and potentially abusive. Some, of course, are not. I'm a male and I'm less comfortable around drunk people, because drunk people tend to be in bars, which are usually not comfortable - they're dark and loud (why don't we have afternoon tea outings?).

I don't have any hard citations for this, it's just from various exasperated women in the tech industry that I've read on Twitter. Here's this, though: https://medium.com/@betsythemuffin/drinkups-are-rape-culture...

I understand that the management's job is to prevent harassment, but to preemptively stop casual events because some people might be creepy or abusive? That seems overly protective.

The best course of action when someone is inappropriate during a team outing or beer night or whatever is to inform them privately and/or talk to management/HR. I understand that drinking can lead to these situations but treating every male as a potential abuser is not only alarmist but sexist.

I understand that many (both females and males) could be bothered by this, but the Medium article you posted draws similarities between someone egging a person to drink to an abuser coercing someone to give oral sex. I get what she's trying to say, but it seems like a bit of an stretch in an attempt to get people incited.

I think the world is better served by different companies with different types of cultures. I'm not a drinker myself so I wouldn't work at a company with a "beer night" culture. At the same time I think it's good that such a thing exists. And market forces should result in a world where exactly as many "beer night" offices exist as the market demands. Market forces will also potentially put "beer night" offices out of business if that's something that makes them not competitive.

The problem that I have it's that it's very hard to find a company with:

- Talented employees

- Good product

- Interesting problems

- No corporate hierarchy/org nonsense

- Liberal policies ("no, you don't have to ask your manager about PTO for a doctor's appointment or whatever, of course not")

But without all of the other negatives (distracting environment, asking employees to give up their nights for outings, etc.).

For example, my company has a giant beer fridge. We also have uncomfortable chairs and flimsy, wobbling desks, and a rattly old air conditioner. We don't have dual monitors. The beer fridge does not improve productivity in any meaningful way. The other things harm it. Yet, we still spend money on the beer fridge instead of improving out environment, because #startup #crushing, or whatever.

You just laid out YOUR version of a perfect company. There are, of course, plenty of people who disagree with you.

On the other hand starting a company with beer nights (or "drink ups" a la Github) could be an excellent way of finding people for whom it is a cultural fit as well as eliminating the overly stodgy types. I suspect it's probably a net positive based on startups I've read about and seen over the past decade or so.

Sure, Andrew Mason caught flack[1] for drinking at a meeting while addressing employees and investors as CEO of Groupon and sure there have been various dramas and culture clashes at other unicorns. But you know what? The default outcome of startups is failure, and Groupon, Github and others got to be multi-billion dollar companies in a short span of time. In Groupon's case, there was even a moose head that would appear on the screens as an alert that there was an unscheduled opening of the bar right in the main shared office at their Palo Alto campus.

I say, let a thousand company cultures form. Some will be run by Mormons and have strict rules about even having alcohol on the premises and others will be run by Japanese and practically require that you go drinking with the team (and maybe even karaoke). As long as it's a free labor market, people will find and stay at the places they find most comfortable.

>"Yes, you can make these outings "optional", but then it's all "we missed you last night!" and "you should come out next time!" guilting-type social pressure. There's no need for that in the workplace, so let's stick to building great things! Go drink with your bros, no one minds if you do that!"

This is needlessly ethnocentric and linked to your own assumptions about employees wanting to drink with "bros" rather than the people they spend most their waking days with.

>"Well, if your main motivation for starting a company is having beer nights, seems like the company you should start is a bar."

I would counter that if your main motivation is preventing your coworkers from going out for a drink after work, then perhaps you should try living in a theocratic country that would take care of policing your coworkers' lifestyles for you.

[1]: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20160901/BLOGS11/1609...

I'm not convinced Github did so well in the long run after "eliminating the stodgy types."

If you want cultural diversity, startups aren't a good place to find it.

If going from zero to a billion dollar valuation and domination of new social networking niche in a few years is unconvincing then maybe it's better for start-ups not to convince you ;)

> Well, if your main motivation for starting a company is having beer nights, seems like the company you should start is a bar.

That doesn't make sense - you would be working at the times you want to be drinking and socialising with your colleagues.

Depends on the bar, but I definitely see bartenders and/or bar owners drinking on the job and socializing with each other and with their customers.

Where does the assumption come from that every company should be a perfect "fit" for every possible employee? Is that even possible? If that utopian goal would be reached, I guess we could eliminate job interviews - all candidates would automatically match all companies. That sounds like a good thing - except that I find it unlikely to be possible.

Therefore I am more in favor of diversity of company cultures. That makes it more likely for any given individual to find a matching company they like.

Yes, I know that there is a perception the you HAVE to work long hours, that's why I am always publicizing my example: I only started working longer hours when I could. Yes, as I always say, "I had to be THE BEST" to get this treatment, but I was always treated exceptionally, like being allowed to WFH, when it was almost unthinkable (early 90s). But that's to my point - that was the kind of startups I was choosing. And not startups only, but the workplaces in general. And I never faced the "rape/abuse culture", probably because both my US startups were founded by female :)


Gender certainly doesn't reflect engineering ability, but it totally matters. It would be nice if it didn't. This kind of content is interesting because women have _much_ different experiences working at startups than men.

What you'd rather see is a world that doesn't exist yet. I'd like to see it too. :)

Allow me to take the risk of elaborating on the Parent's thought:

I believe the sentiment the Parent post is trying to get at, is that by constructing more walled gardens which are "women only" or "for women", such as women only conferences, or women only talks, women only groups, etc... it actually has the opposite of the intended effect. It's a self-induced form of segregation and therefore discrimination - and serves only to make the inherent segregation stand out as being perceived as "normal". By putting one group "first", you inherently put another group "second".

I think it's safe to say majority of men would love to have more women in the industry.

In an ideal world, the title of this series is "Ask an Engineer", and it would just so happen that a woman wrote the post. Being a woman doesn't somehow qualify the article author in any way to discuss startups - having started a startup or working for one, does. Nobody would think anything of it so long as the information was well presented, and it certainly wouldn't attract all the negative attention this thread has started off with.

But this isn't a post written by a women nor is it part of a walled garden, it's a question posed to several women, with their longform responses.

If it were titled "Ask an engineer" and all the people asked were women, I wonder what the response would be? I ask that without any snark or presupposition, I'm not sure and I'm curious.

> If it were titled "Ask an engineer" and all the people asked were women, I wonder what the response would be?

Well, it should be (and I assert would be) considered "normal" because women can be engineers too (obviously).

By putting the "woman" qualifier in the title, it immediately discriminates against half of the viewership... which is particularly infuriating because the information is good and valid, regardless of who's telling it.

It is laughable to assert "half of the viewership" would be male when they make up the majority of the workforce in engineering roles.

Right? Women in comp sci is a statistical anomaly [1] at this point, and it's interesting to see how this influences their experiences in the industry.

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-...

In Sweden, only 10% of people work in a profession with a minimum of 40% men and women. ie, using similar language, working with someone thats not the same gender is a statistical anomaly.

> It is laughable to assert "half of the viewership" would be male when they make up the majority of the workforce in engineering roles.

Does that not make my point even better?

Sure, all men should be interested in hearing a woman's perspective on being in the engineering field, but if we're honest with ourselves, most likely skipped right over this thread after reading the title.

To be even more honest with ourselves, we must admit if the title was "Ask a Male Engineer", most women would skip the article as well. It's simply because you either belong to the mentioned group or you do not... some will be curious enough to read anyway, but the rest... it just serves to alienate.

This thread largely turned into a flame war instead of commenting on the content of the post... all because of a word in the title.

If the presence of the word "female" in the title prevents males from reading it then, in my opinion those males are being dismissive based on gender. I believe that's a bit sexist. I also believe it is a ridiculous generalization and as a male find it a bit insulting. I mean, this isn't like saying people who aren't TypeScript programmers will more often than not avoid a blog about TypeScript...with the exception of a few curious ruby hackers might. Maybe a devops engineer here or there...

...you are talking about being disinterested in an article titled "Ask A Female Engineer"...because it has the word "female".

Speaking as a dude who pays attention to things, I certainly do not feel discriminated against.

This isn't "women only", though. It's interesting content and possibly quite valuable to anyone who values diversity in a workplace.

> Being a woman doesn't somehow qualify the article author in any way to discuss startups - having started a startup or working for one, does.

But it does qualify them to discuss "being a woman engineer at a startup". Which is, I think, the point.


Eh. Maybe don't project your problem on an unrelated bit of content? This article has nothing to do with sexism towards men or segregation.

You're getting downvoted by people who don't want to argue. Not for want of an equal society, but for want of the _appearance_ of an equal society that doesn't actually exist.

Your first post is not clear on what you mean by "I'd rather see...". I assume the downvotes read it as "You should not do this kind of post".

If I were a female engineer, it seems like the last position I would ever accept, is one whose preference is weighted to a female applicant.

If you don't want to be treated like a token <minority noun>, don't interview with companies searching for a token <minority noun>.

If I were a female engineer, it seems...

The fact that people think it's even remotely acceptable to start a sentence like this is strong evidence that we need to spent far more effort seeking out the perspectives of women.

And the fact that you think it's even remotely acceptable to dismiss the personal offense that a good 50% of the population takes to something as clearly passive-aggressively hostile as "ask a female engineer" is strong evidence that you should go about it a different way.

No, 50% of the population doesn't take offense to hearing the perspectives of an underrepresented group who all too often have their points of view talked over, elided, or outright stolen. A small, bigoted percentage does take offense, but that's really more their problem than anyone else's.

When I was studying computer science in an American university 10 years ago, white people were (massively) underrepresented. So you think it would be "ok" for me to do an "ask a white computer science major"? Of course, I already know the answer.


Aren't we all equal?

Not yet.

>We searched for Junior/Mid Level

Just curious, but which specific engineering positions, languages/stack etc. were you looking to fill?

Java / Scala Web Development

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