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I burned out at BigCo. Am I a fool for thinking I can avoid this at a startup?
156 points by thrwwy20120508 on May 8, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 131 comments
(been on HN for half a decade, but posting anonymously because I could be perceived as damaged goods and hence unemployable)

The story is a familiar one to readers here, so I'll spare the details. Abusive management, perpetual "crisis mode," promises repeatedly broken, entrenched technical incompetence, smothering bureaucracy, vomit-inducing organizational politics -- the whole nine yards.

I started as a wide-eyed youngster desiring to prove myself, went through the denial phase, and ultimately suffered a total loss of motivation. Since then I've left the job to spend some time recovering, soul-searching, and gathering what I can as lessons learned.

Right now I'd say that I have the (financial) risk tolerance to work at a startup, as well as the desire to work on challenging and meaningful tasks, especially with growth and learning opportunities and a level of ownership such that I can take pride in my work. But I doubt I have the dedication or interest in the business aspects necessary to start a company of my own, hence my willingness to give the startup employee route a shot.

However, given my experience with burnout, I feel that I may be excessively skeptical of what any employer would have to offer. Of the problems I mentioned before, everything other than the red tape could just as well happen in a startup. The obsession with "rockstars" and "ninjas" who have unwavering "passion" just smells like a search for naïve, exploitable labor willing to give up evenings and weekends for foosball games and beer. The prevalence of social bubble-worthy companies whose value propositions are little more than "cat pictures" suggests an inflated sense of self-importance among the founders, and I can't expect to keep my level of enthusiasm in line with their irrational exuberance. And while I don't need much job security, having the specter of financial instability looming over the office tends to be at minimum somewhat distracting and most likely quite demotivating.

Perhaps a startup that has gone through the vetting process with YC would have less of these issues, but even then I have some doubts. I'm not in any position to question PG's judgment, but after seeing some of the announcements of companies funded and the infamous "YC company seeks brogrammer" job post, I have a feeling that his evaluation metrics for founders may significantly diverge from mine.

I recently passed up an opportunity at a very high-profile technology company mainly because everyone on the team was required to carry pagers. It just didn't feel right, especially for an established business that claimed it was being run like a lean startup. But it did get me thinking -- why would an actual startup not require the same?

tl,dr: Can I expect to find a position with the potential professional rewards of working at a startup, while still setting strict boundaries on work to preserve my sanity? Or am I trying to have my cake and eat it too?

I went the opposite direction, burnt out by startups and went to a BigCo.

I have never been at a startup where you could remotely set strict boundaries on work. You have to be available at all times to deal with whatever crisis is happening.

Moving to a BigCo, they treat me way better than a startup, and there is less day to day stress. I have weekends and my time off work really is "off" again.

I couldn't be happier with the switch. Do I miss things about working at a startup? Sure.. but being treated like a professional and having a life again is more important than the chance at glory, money or being "the" guy to fix this critical unsolvable problem.

Now I'm one of many many people solving problems no startup I've been in could dream of solving.

Just my experience, I'm sure many people have divergent experiences.


I would also like to add a key driver to my happiness is that I'm in a position of change at the BigCo. It's not just endless meetings, and I have a great deal of autonomy, and am working on exciting things.

I had this in startups too... so I didn't trade usefulness for constant meetings.

Thought that was important to add, I'd feel differently if I didn't have a useful, interesting and rewarding job at a BigCo... which I could have never gotten without working in startups for the beginning of my career.

How did you go about finding that BigCo job?

Perhaps its down to the job market in the UK and .NET that everything is handled by recruiters that hide lots of details about BigCo jobs or make them sound dull.

The last time I did a job search, one of the questions I started asking in interviews was “what distinguishes an employee at your company who meets your expectations from someone who is truly outstanding”? If the response was phrased in terms of hours per week, I knew that was not the company for me.

This is probably the most important comment on HN this month. Seriously. Steal that line. Even if you /dev/null'ed the answer (which you shouldn't) the fact that you asked the question has significant value for you in terms of positioning.

As a manager, I personally stress having a sustainable work schedule and work-life balance.

In practice, over the course of 20 years, the developers I have managed that are "truly outstanding" work more at developing their craft and work habits, usually on their own time.

That usually manifests itself in being much more productive during work hours, which is what will actually distinguish them. I don't think that happens by accident and without working extra at it -- at least, I didn't find a way to do that for myself.

That's one to add to the quiver. Nice.

I'm not surprised that employees are judged by hours worked, but I'm very surprised that an interviewer would have the awareness and honesty to say so in an interview. Was it at least rare?

I (fortunately) didn’t build up a very large sample size, but there was one junior guy I spoke to who started his answer with “a normal engineer will show up at 9:00 and leave at 6:00...”. He did backpedal a bit when I questioned him more closely about the time expectations, and I had other reasons for choosing not to work for that company.

You talk of startups like they're only run by 20-something brogrammers. Find a small company that isn't, then work there. Find a company with a CEO / founder who's in their 30s, 40s, or 50s and has a family. There's tons out there. You'll find a better work/life balance and less foosball.

Don't be the first hire, be the 10th, after they've established themselves but are still small enough that it has that startup vibe. Don't expect stock options but the pay should be market rate by then.

At small companies, you ship. Or you go out of business. You also probably won't read about 99% of them on HN. Ignore HN (except for the who's hiring) and get to work building something awesome!

In the last year I left BigCo for the kind of company you describe. It's been mostly a positive experience so far. I've gone to a lot less meetings and learned a ton about technologies I never would have touched at my BigCo job.

At small companies, you ship. Or you go out of business.

This is important to keep in mind mainly because many people have a hard time with that sort of stress. Small companies, even profitable ones, have small margins of error. The upside is that in a small company you should have a lot more contribution to the success or failure.

I couldn't agree more. I am 20-something and have always worked for startups with older founders - I actually respected them and always learned a lot.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in some of the incubators is little better than a frat boy club house. Not really a work environment.


Many people seem to have this Platonic form in their head for "start-up", complete with brogrammers, X-box, and 70-hour work weeks (okay, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but you get this gist -- there are certain aspects with lots of hype right now). While those do companies exist and some of them are now in the spotlight, they are not actually a majority. Don't be fooled by that myth about start-ups. There are plenty of really good young, small start-ups in between that and big co, including some that are still small but already established in their niche, and these seem to be the sweet spot you're looking for.

Startups have their own pathologies, but I'm going to point you that if you think "perpetual crisis mode" is somehow a big-company problem, you're going to be disappointed. Especially at a startup that isn't profitable yet, you're essentially continually in "crisis" given that if you don't achieve profitability or sale, you're going to be out of work. It's a whole different grade of pressure from a big company where "crisis mode" rarely actually results in anyone losing their job.

Also, re this comment "The prevalence of social bubble-worthy companies whose value propositions are little more than "cat pictures" suggests an inflated sense of self-importance among the founders, and I can't expect to keep my level of enthusiasm in line with their irrational exuberance." ... I think you're over thinking this. There are silly startups because people (for one reason or another) are willing to invest in them, and generally those folks aren't the founders. Whatever startup you go to, you'd better believe in what they're doing, because you're going to be taking a huge financial risk and going through a lot of stress attempting to play out that belief.

If you don't believe in a startup, don't work there - but also don't denigrate whatever vision they're trying to implement, at least respect that they're trying.

I agree with this. No doubt there are crappy jobs and crappy bosses that can make a situation unpleasant. But in my 24 year career I've noticed that some people are perpetually discontent in their job and they feel like there is something more important out there.

People who are actually doing "important" or "exciting" work I don't think have this attitude - they consider whatever they're working on to be important and exciting. I've found this to be true from executive positions at corporations making a ton of money, all the way down to flipping burgers on a grill for minimum wage. It isn't specific to software development.

If I felt I was being mistreated or forced to work unreasonable hours, that would be different story. Aside from that I really do believe that a job is largely what you make of it.

> There are silly startups because people (for one reason or another) are willing to invest in them, and generally those folks aren't the founders.

I don't think I'd be happy at a company whose own founders don't believe in their mission and are only in it for the money. Built to flip, right?

Well, I was really just trying to point out that the fact there are companies whose "mission" he doesn't personally value doesn't mean that their founders have an "inflated sense of self-worth." It's the nature of startups that there are going to be a lot of long-shot and far-fetched ideas involved... if he happens to not disagree with the mission of a particular startup (or its valuation), he shouldn't then jump to the assumption that the founders are arrogant or self-important. He'd only be hurting himself to do that -- they could be perfectly nice people who happen to have stumbled onto a bit of a bubble in the market, and may be willing to help him out even if he's not going to directly get involved in their particular business.

It's just the nature of the Internet, and anything related to consumer entertainment, that there are going to be some really fluffy / inane things that become ridiculously popular / valuable. As long as the folks behind them realize they're not the new Shakespeare, there's no reason to assume they're any different from people working on more mundane or serious problems.

It sounds like you turned down Amazon, which was likely an excellent decision. (Full disclosure: I work at an Amazon competitor and I routinely hire Amazon refugees.) Amazon is (from my perspective) an environment that does not value the individual: their engineers are not permitted to blog or otherwise describe their work -- and participating in an open source project is so outside their culture that no one dare even ask the question. The good news: Amazon is the exception, not the rule. Other environments (large and small) empower the individual -- and I think that that is the essence of what you're looking for. So the questions to ask: will I be allowed to reasonably discuss my work at conferences, in blogs, etc.? Will I get the opportunity to work on open source projects? Will I get the opportunity to open source original work I develop here? If the answer to those is a verifiable "yes", you are likely headed to a generally supportive environment (be it established company or startup); in software engineering (as in government) sunlight tends to disinfect...

It sounds to me as if the causes of your burnout are not related to overwork and long hours, but more about poor management, too much bureaucracy and resentment. However, different companies have different attitudes to work boundaries, and it's up to you to find out what they are and whether those are aligned with your own attitudes or not. What are you willing to do?

In terms of general advice, coming back from burnout to a new job:

I'd advise you in the first instance to look for a workplace that is as free of assholes as possible. This is easier to accomplish in a small company just on a sheer scale basis, but there are still plenty of small companies that are full of assholes. When you interview, remember you are interviewing your coworkers as much as they are interviewing you. I chose my current job based heavily on this criterion, and I have never regretted it.

Next up, remember the three key things required for job happiness: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. You will generally speaking get more autonomy in smaller companies, although some medium - large companies have worked hard on maintaining this. (See the recently leaked Valve employee handbook for an example.)

Mastery - assuming you like to learn new stuff - is something you will be forced into at a startup, where everything is your job. It's mastery or failure.

Purpose depends on the company you choose. Basically this amounts to doing something you personally think is important. (I'd advise you to choose carefully here: I personally couldn't summon up enough passion to work on advertising-related products, for example.)

Spend time researching your options, and I hope you find something that makes you eager to get to work each morning. Best of luck to you.

I went through the same thing.

All the problems you mention could also happen at a startup, but it is less likely, it really comes down to the people. My advice is when you interview with companies, ask a lot of questions and if something doesn't feel right to you ... keep poking and poking until you get a clearer picture about the questions you have.

Trust your gut and if you don't feel all the way good about it, then don't join. What I've learned in my career is that those little things you overlook at the start of that shiny new gig have a way of growing into massive problems.

Over all things, try to find a place where you really really care about the work, where you're excited to go to work in the morning, or something close to that. And if things go sour, don't waste time trying to 'fix' things, cut the cord and move on. Staying will only make you resentful and tarnish your image/reputation as the quality of your work suffers.

I'll leave you with a quote that has come to summarize my world view these days.

"Life is too short not to do something that matters" --- Hugh Mcleod

Good luck.

Excellent post. Gotta trust your gut. Gotta trust your gut.

Can anyone recommend a resource or list of good questions to ask in addition to or similar to what's posted here?

Thanks a lot for this.

It really comes down to you and the things you care about.

- For example, I'm a night owl so a company like github that doesn't care about hours appeals to me greatly, http://zachholman.com/posts/how-github-works-hours/, I'll ask about their attendance policy, how late is late? How much do they frown on lateness. More importantly how does the guy supervising you feel about it.

- I hate forced pair programming, so that's the first thing I ask. if they pair program even 40-50% of the time, I'm out.

- I don't like companies that scrimp on developer tools, so I ask about the equipment they get for developers. What the budget is for each dev? How often they replace the equipment? Do they pay for developer conferences or books or their employees have to take PTO and pay their way?

- I don't like walled gardens, where devs can't influence product design, you know ... just-code-this-spec devs ... So I'll ask things like, what was the last feature a developer suggested that made it into production? This one usually stumps the fakers, you know the people who try to recruit rockstars and turn them into code monkeys?

- I ask Devs when they get time to catch up on HN and read blogs, or play around with new technology and from their responses I can usually tell if doing that stuff at work is frowned upon (No bueno) or encouraged.

- I also ask what sideprojects they're working on. just like that. If the dev looks shocked, I run. If they say something like ... "I have so many ideas and after mentioning them to x they usually become product features" ... that warms my heart. If they say something like, "I have some stuff I'm working on, but I'm still trying to see how to get it in front of people", then I'll dig deeper.

Just ask about everything and take time to actually interview the company, on the things that matter to you.

I have a prepared list of questions in evernote that I add questions to and delete stuff from as they pop in my head reading HN or just hanging out, one list for the devs, another for the managers and another for the higher ups (if I get a chance to talk to them). I have cultivated it over 2 years and it really helps me get a feel for how I'm going to get along with my potential employers, whenever I sit down to talk to anybody.

Startups are hard work, but infinitely more rewarding than BigCo. If you burn out, it will be on the work and not the politics (if you choose carefully).

But this post is a lot like the myriad "I am just getting out of a shitty marriage... Can I ever love again?" posts on the internet.

Of course you can. Job security for a programmer is a ridiculous thing to be concerned about (assuming you're in a startup/software hub). You can fall out of bed and land in three recruiters. You will never miss a meal.

That means you have infinite freedom compared to most other folks. So start interviewing! Don't interview at places that suck. Have drinks with folks at 6pm to see how many people are still in the office. Different companies drink deeper of the workahol than others.

And re: your judgement of YC companies. I know stereotypes are a real time saver, but why would you judge 400ish companies by the actions of a few? YC invests in a pretty wide range of folks.

I'm not painting with a wide brush here, I'm just acknowledging that blind faith in PG's stamp of approval is insufficient to make any determination of whether a particular company is worthwhile or not. I'm sure there's quite a few well-run YC-funded startups; I just have to make that call myself.

Totally reasonable. YC chooses companies based on a 1 page app and a 10 minute interview. Their hit rate (in terms of good companies and good human beings) is astonishingly good, but there are bound to be some misses.

> Abusive management, perpetual "crisis mode," promises repeatedly broken, entrenched technical incompetence, smothering bureaucracy, vomit-inducing organizational politics -- the whole nine yards.

Your choice here doesn't seem to be 'startup vs BigCo', it seems to be 'shit job vs good job'.

You may well find a startup that, on the surface, is compatible with your own wants and needs, but after a short period of being there, it's just the same annoyances that got you down in the last job.

Conversely you may well find a BigCo job that is the polar opposite of what you experienced in the last one.

I don't believe that answering your question with a basic 'yes, startups will be better' or 'no, stick to BigCo' will really help you.

What you really need to do is selectively apply for jobs once your research into the company (big or small) satisfies you enough. Read their website, blog, Twitter feed, employee opinions (if possible) and so on, and strike from your list any potential job that doesn't tick all your boxes.

After that it's up to you to ask these questions about a day in the life at the office to your interviewer, and to assess the working environment if you're interviewed on-site. If you're not happy, leave it. If you are, weigh it up against any other interviews you've had.

Remember that, in the bigger picture, you're after a good job for you. Whether that's startup or BigCo depends entirely on the impression you get from them.

I don't think you're mature enough to handle a startup.

There, I said it.

Startups aren't shangrilas devoid of problems you saw at a bigco. In fact, they amplify those problems in a small team. And you're going to be dysfunctional going forward dealing, accepting, and working around those problems.


Without HR, perfs, buses, or fridges full of Odawalla to soothe your pain. Maybe even without steady pay and health coverage. So yes, grip those cat meme pics tight, often it'll be your only distraction from being inside a fire.

Check your attitude first. Get that it's not you joining a startup it's equal parts a startup joining you. You decide where to cut the red tape--then deal with the political fallout of seeing the same 4 or 5 people every day. You decide when and where the crisis mode starts--then deal with the project failures. You decide the level of technical incompetence and smothering bureaucracy--then deal with the dilution.

Also get that YCombinator isn't just a vetting tool but rather a homework club. Passing out notes from upperclassmen and tips from product to launch to marketing to even... when to hire and not hire people that don't get it.

Be do go out and keep working. Find intelligent people working on problems you find interesting in a company that you can be proud of. Those are the real criteria, not labels, you'll need to worry about.

It'll take awhile though, and you're going to need a couple stumbles and wrong turns to figure out where that is.


I'll take your assessment at face value. What you said needed to be said, though I assure you that I harbor no illusions of startup-land being a worker's paradise.

That said, I'm not sure I understand -- what level of "maturity" do you expect from prospective startup employees, and how do you determine that?

I just went through a similar thing two years ago (burnt out from a startup that became a big company). I ended up taking off about 6 months and then pin-balled through a couple companies before finding something that makes me feel like Im on the road to being back on my feet. From that experience here is my 2 cents.

### If you are already burnt out, I would absolutely avoid the following...

- A startup that is doing something that is not all that exciting to you (no matter how cool the company is or how great their potential is)

- A big co. in the same industry as your past company (while not always, competing companies in the same segment tend to usually have similar operating procedures)

- Any company under financial pressure... that could be an over-promising startup with not enough funding/revenue or a big co. that is starting to tilt in the wrong direction.

### What I would suggest:

- If possible, any company that is doing something you find exciting. I'd probably lean more towards a larger organization in that the risk of getting doubly burnt out in a startup is probably higher. If it isn't somehow interesting or exciting, don't take it or quit after a week of trying it out. Also look at non-SV type companies. There are lots of interesting opportunities for technical folks in energy, education, etc. that after years of working on the typical startup stuff I've realized is way more interesting to me.

I've been in both worlds, and I can tell you they both suck equally. It all comes down to are you happy doing what you are doing, regardless of company size.

The people I work with, passion is expected. Because when you are no longer passionate, you are no longer happy, and nobody wants to see that drag out. However we understand people have lives outside of work. The only people "on call" are the CTO and myself (the ops guy). You might get a phone call if your project explodes in production, but I think that is reasonable in any work environment.

Shoot me an email at dessyohtiav@dunflimblag.mailexpire.com if you are interested in working at a sane startup.

I am a student who hasnt even landed a summer internship, so take what I am about to say with a grain of salt.

I take "I have the (financial) risk tolerance to work at a startup" to mean you have some savings built up. Why not just take your time job searching? All companies aren't the same. Instead of focusing on looking for a "startup" instead look for any company that fosters the type of environment that you want to work in.

You're confusing the issue that you have. From what you describe, you worked in an environment that is simply toxic to you.

I think you need to write down the things that you want in a job, wait a few days, and see if those things still make sense. Then figure out how you are going to get a job where you can have those things.

I've worked in small companies, fortune 500 and government. My satisfaction at these jobs had/has very little to do with the type of organization. It's a combination of the culture of the organization, quality of management, and where you are in life. The things I loved about working in a late stage startup at 21 are things that I would hate today as a 33 year old father.

You need to find the right role. You can even find gigs in government with a fast pace and minimal bureaucratic nonsense or hardcore operations roles that demand overtime and pagers.

> The obsession with "rockstars" and "ninjas" who have unwavering "passion" just smells like a search for naïve, exploitable labor willing to give up evenings and weekends for foosball games and beer.

Yes, that's right. I've worked at these companies. Avoid them.

Keep in mind that small businesses that have been around for a decade can be just as bad as some startups. I had a terrible experience at one where I worked 80-100 hour weeks for months before I quit.

I've worked at several startups and small companies, and it's a mixed bag, but none of them have been perfect. The main thing to keep in mind is that the personality of the founder is the single most critical factor in your happiness.

My best work experiences have been at companies that are out of the startup phase and profitable, with around 50-70 employees. They have the HR and reimbursement processes worked out, they don't flagrantly break employment laws, and the hours are closer to 40-45 a week. Just keep in mind there's an expiration on these jobs; eventually they inevitably become big, bureaucratic companies. When a mid-sized company starts hiring vice presidents the clock starts counting down.

Right now I work in a remote office with five other people, and the main company (60 or so employees) is in a different state. It's pretty much the best of both worlds.

It depends on the source of your burnout.

Are you feeling oppressed by endless meetings and the sense of being rendered ineffective by mountains of bureaucracy? You will get much more actual work done at a startup.

Are you feeling like you want to spend more time drinking beer at home? Startups are not for you.

"The prevalence of social bubble-worthy companies whose value propositions are little more than "cat pictures" suggests an inflated sense of self-importance among the founders, and I can't expect to keep my level of enthusiasm in line with their irrational exuberance."

i totally loled :)

organizations that expect unreasonable working hours from developers or sysadmins are a bad place to work. the only places i consider it somewhat reasonable to work employees over 50 hrs / week are professional services firms where the firm is actually gaming the billable hours of the employee involved.

remember that you have a choice about the amount of hours you work: don't let yourself get into a position where you're being chided to work countless hours. a good manager knows that working most employees over 40 hrs / wk leads to lower quality work product, but as i mentioned above, the only place where this consistently translates to revenue is a prof services firm. ppl are more likely to commit errors and generate crap product once you push them over an 8 hr work day. this is not to say some ppl can't work a 16 hr day and be nearly twice as productive as an 8 hr day worker.

don't get discouraged and don't let ppl push you around with respect to the hours you clock. i'm sure you'll find somewhere that fits you better than behemoth X.

TL;DR Yes you can find a rewarding, sanity-preserving job. And, it depends.


- a 90% chance that you're in a bad environment,

- a 70% chance that you're a cynic,

- a 40% chance that you'll criticize any environment, and

- a 100% chance that you can improve your situation.

First set aside your anxiety about making the perfect decision. There is no silver bullet that will make your life perfect. Your next job need only get you closer to understanding what you want. Follow the 80/20 rule. Make a good decision. There's some great advice in the responses here.

Avoid binary decisions. Job involves carrying a pager? What percent of the time, and how often does it go off? If you wear it one week a month, and the pager only goes off once a quarter, you are joining a well run company. If the pager goes off twice a night, run like hell. Ask several people. Does the manager give a candy-coated answer? Walk away. You learn about the company by drilling in.

No place will be perfect. Ask yourself, do I want to work with these people? Can I learn from them? Are they intellectually honest? Only you know the things that matter.

You'll find a healthy environment that lets you work 45 hours a week. Not perfect, but in time you will recognize it if you are able to set aside cynicism. I learned to set aside cynicism, and you can too.

EDIT: When you ask about the pager, be careful not to sound like you hate pagers. Make it a question about their systems and processes, not a "lifestyle" question. Even in a place with a great lifestyle a reasonable working hours, it looks bad when an employee focuses on it.

Thanks for your input, I do appreciate your insight.

I will argue that it's not just a 70% chance that I'm a cynic -- I'll admit that I am a cynic. It's something that I'll have to work on.

If you're still struggling with burnout and concerned your motivations and desires aren't going to line up with the company founder(s)' motivations, then listen to your gut! You know you the best, and you seem to be saying--via your post--you're unsure about jumping into the startup world at this point in time.

I understand where you're coming from, I've worked at BigCo. as well. If you want an opportunity that offers learning opportunities, task ownership, growth potential, and some policies of an established business (work/life balance, for instance), why don't you take a look at a small, growing "post-startup" company with <50 people? For purposes of clarification, post startup being defined as: Has at least one viable product or service being sold to and used by customers, established sources of revenue, corporate financial stability, been in existence for several years, and some level of defined business/HR practices. You get the benefits of working for a small company without the stresses of being in constant start up mode.

Such companies do exist, the industry they work in might not be glamorous and you will have to dig to find them, but if you find one you mesh well with, you'll learn alot. The most important part of this whole process is to ask questions about issues you care about and if you don't like the answer they give, ask a more penetrating follow up. Always make sure to ask to speak with someone you'd be working with, they'll have a trench level view of the system. And, at the end of the day, if you don't feel comfortable with the place and don't think you'd jive with their work environment, you don't have to take the gig. :)

tl,dr: Such places do exist, they just probably aren't startups, and you're going to have to dig to find 'em.

I've been in jobs like you've described. I've found that often the feeling of being "burned out" had a lot more to do with what I was working on and who I was working with rather than how much time I was spending doing it. There are limits to that, of course, but I find myself willingly doing extra on my current job because I love it so much.

Sure, I'm in a great location, but I had a window office at my last job and have 1/8th of a table here. Still, I'm sitting next to seven really smart people who all seem to "get it" in terms of work and technology, so I don't miss that office.

That brings me to your comment on PG's judgement, what he and YC seem to mostly do is make investments based on people. If you're with good people, you're off to a great start. There are certainly other things that matter, but in my opinion, coworkers are the core of the work experience.

Edit: to note that the quality of the people involved, and how you mesh with them matters at all sizes and ages of companies. You may be just as happy at a different "BigCo" as I have been happy at some very large companies and most of what I remember is who I worked with.

Boundaries and stability are unlikely to be found in a startup. Not my area of expertise, but it sounds like a med/large company with a positive work culture and less-toxic politics might serve you well for a few years.

Best of luck!

Pick startups which are run by experienced management (i.e., they were loved, respected, and very effective at their previous job) and backed up by top-tier VCs (Mayfield, Sequoia, etc.).

Basically, I learned that it is not about bigCo or startup: it is all about people.

And if a startup is correctly managed you will have 40-45 hour per week average with great potential to grow.

Being willing and able to walk away from it all to become an early employee is actually even less common than people who do it all to become a lone entrepreneur, so don't sell that aspect short.

Getting institutionalized in a toxic work environment is a good thing to escape, but it's important to recognize that making the transition to a startup requires casting a lot of the baggage associated therewith overboard; some of it doesn't even feel like baggage.

Many startups (like mine) don't crack the whip and force you to work outside the bounds of reality or past your optimum productivity. Just gotta seek us out.

My experience with startups (and started up and made its) has been pretty negative with respect to mental health and work life balance: I've got to tear myself away from the perf charts, server logs and IntelliJ to make sure I don't miss my sons growing up.

If you'd like a reasonable work-life balance with a lot of smart people, I can recommend my ex-employer, Guidewire. They don't work crazy hours and have a fairly adult work environment, and their recurring revenue model guarantees a level of stability underneath the technical innovation.

Burnout can take many forms and you need to identify what it is you are exactly burned out on. Is it the environment, the lack of recognition, the colleagues, lack of challenge, or it may just be simply you are actually needing a break.

If it is the last one, going to a startup isn't going to change things.

That said, not all startups are the 7-day a week, sleep under your desk slog. But, there are ones that are -- sometimes it is because you are all young, trying to run, and want to do so; other times it can be for reasons as you experienced -- poor management and poor planning. I've experienced both, and walked away from the latter when I realized it was the best thing for me.

If you are in an area with a diverse startup ecosystem, get out there and talk to people. Identify companies that might be interesting for you, network a bit, and see if you can engage the people in a conversation about their companies in a social (rather than interview) environment. Try and find out what the environment is like, how management treats the individual contributors, etc.

That said, startups will generally take more time and may be more challenging than a larger company. If, however, you are working with people you like and on something you enjoy, it may not be as noticeable.

All the same, as others have mentioned, there are startups out there where people do have life/work balances. For instance, Treehouse was mentioned last month -- http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3883268

Take the time to identify what you want and the type of people you want to work with, do some leg work, and see how it goes. Good luck.

After experiencing burnout many times, i've come to the following conclusion: if you want to avoid burnout stay away from toxic, crisis-mode management. Take things easy, and remember it doesn't matter if things take longer than you expected.

Given the realities startups however, this is not always an easy thing to avoid.

So basically you want all the upside of a startup without putting in any of the hard work/long hours required to make it a success?

As harsh as this may sound, working at a startup is often chaotic, if you can't deal with high pressure, it is probably best if you go back to being a cog at a BigCo.

I'm not saying that I can't handle pressure, but I firmly believe that just calling yourself a startup does not give you latitude to overwork your employees.

It is now 6:45 pm and there are only 12 people in our office. We have 65 people that work here in Seattle. This is totally unacceptable.

This company has far too much very important work to do to have virtually empty offices at 6:45 pm. If anyone thinks that everything we need to do as a company can be accomplished within an 8 hour day, then I think they fail to understand the scope and complexity of our venture. Anyone harboring such illusions should seriously consider a career change. I am sure that I could point to tasks for every single person in this company that would merit working past 7 pm every single night.


This is not a bank; this is not Boeing. This is a start-up and we are all expecting to be rewarded for taking the risk of a start-up. But, there will be no rewards without exceptional effort.

Given the severity of the situation, I am putting strict office hours into effect immediately. Until further notice, all employees are required to be at their desk from 8am until 7pm, with 30 minutes for lunch. There are no exceptions.

-- excerpted from email from MyLackey (http://web.archive.org/web/20070318005206/http://www.fuckedc...)

Sadly, I fear that situations like this are not an exceptional case in startup-land.

Perhaps that's the case at some startups, but my own and several others I know of are very flexible. Work the hours you want, from where you want. It's more about what you get done rather than how many hours you work. Someone smart can probably get twice as much done in the same time.

However, sometimes critical situations arise whereby you may need to work a few more hours or on a saturday. If you flat out refuse to do this, then it would come across that you don't care about the startup's success.

These critical situations are rare and often members of a startup will be more than happy to pitch in to solve something quickly when it goes wrong.

When you have a consumer facing product used by hundreds of thousands of people, you can't really wait till Monday when things break on a Friday night. Every hour counts.

My friends at investment banks often work 18 hour days and have a terrible lifestyle/hate their job compared to people I know working at startups.

I'm sure there are great BigCos and startups to work for, like everything in life, there is a good and a bad side.

Find a startup with financial backing and a significant runway (like 2 years). They have usually put out enough fires already to have some stability. With enough runway, the focus will shift from day-to-day to long term code stability and design decisions. It will still move quickly, but the likelihood of put-everything-on-hold-and-pull-an-all-nighter decreases. Avoiding burnout is a priority, as the founders came pretty close just to get the money. You won't see a simple 9-5, but you will see keeping weekends free and keeping a balance between home and work.

I think your gut is right-on; the issues you describe aren't just endemic to BigCo, you'll find them anywhere and everywhere...but...if you have the financial risk tolerance to work at a startup, why not start your own company instead? These days, it's really easy to get going and self-fund with very little capital if you can save up living expenses & tighten the belt for a year or so.

Set goals and a drop-dead date (i.e., if I'm not making money within $65_percent_living_expenses_depleted, time to head back to work) and I suspect you'll be happily surprised by the outcome...

> if you have the financial risk tolerance to work at a startup, why not start your own company instead?

I don't think I'm ready for that yet, and I'd like to think that working at a startup will better prepare me for starting my own.

What really sent me down this path was PG's comment suggesting that "you can titrate the amount of startupness you get in your job by the size of the company you join." (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1346224) It's not a binary decision, but a sliding scale.

I work at a startup that's been around for > 5 years. At this point, we're stable enough to not require back-breaking hours (of course, people give a shit and work hard, but no one's sleeping under his desk).

So far we've managed to avoid the morass of bureaucracy/red tape that tends to creep in when organizations grow. Case in point, no mandatory meetings for engineers -- meetings happen when stuff needs to get discussed. And it's par for the course for engineers to have ownership over the product/feature they're working on.

Feel free to contact me if you'd like more info.

The key to happiness when working for someone else is the happiness of your co-workers. Specific technologies and projects are just a minor consideration. Happy people can be a sign of decent management, decent hours, decent pay etc. Not a guarantee but a good litmus test.

Unhappy co-workers can ruin anything. Doesn't matter if your job is printing money on a yacht in the Caribbean. No amount of sunshine, drinks or swimming can chase away the awful feeling of seeing the same unhappy people day after day.

Is there any company that has the rewards you desire and has strict boundaries on work time?

I would get specific with the things you want, then you can analyse opportunities against those criteria.

The first company I worked at freaking sucked as well, it's soul destroying I agree, but you live and learn.

Lastly one of the biggest lessons someone pointed out to me is we teach other people how to treat us. If someone calls you at 10pm at night and asks you to do something and you do it. You have just confirmed to that person this is ok.

> Lastly one of the biggest lessons someone pointed out to me is we teach other people how to treat us. If someone calls you at 10pm at night and asks you to do something and you do it. You have just confirmed to that person this is ok.

So true! I still did it after vehemently expressing my displeasure and taking my manager's word that it was "just this time only" -- then he did the same thing the next week!

After that experience, I'd much rather risk getting fired than subject myself to that sort of abuse repeatedly.

Very similar experience. Burnt out at BigCo, started looking at startups last year. After a few interviews realized this will again be the same ending just a different storyline.

I am now working for a much smaller company (less than 200 people). Have direct impact on the bottomline so can see my usefulness very easily. Minimal bureaucracy and fight for visibility. And sane hours, most people have families so the balance automatically shows. And compensation is competitive. So far, am very happy.

My current employer is a midsize corp, and we are fairly 'sane'. We have hundreds of engineers and there are cubicles. We're not into rockstars, ninjas, or exploitable labor. Some groups do run in crisis-mode too much, but that isn't preferred. We are founder-run and take pride in high-quality work... our industry demands it, among other things. :-)

We're not a startup: we're not going to IPO or get acquired.

We are hiring, and have been growing for years.

Feel free to email me for a link to the careers page.

I found a blog post a few months back that made a lot of sense to me - basically they said that Burnout is caused by resentment. The more you resent your work (i.e. working too many hours, dealing with idiots, anything frustrating), the faster your will burnout. You should check out the post, its pretty short.


Good call on the pagers, although I didn't know anyone used pagers anymore.

You'll never know until you try it w/a startup. However, being composed of people, like big company's are, all the human failings are evident there.

The upside to startups over big co is not having to deal w/bureaucracy and usually (but not always, lotta big egos in startup founders) more of an egalitarian vibe.

Other than that, I think they are all over the map, just like bigco, some of which are very nice to work at.

We don't wear pagers in Startups because we're always connected. We use new forms of communications & technologies to make life easier (Twitter, SMS, Shit... even emails). The great thing about being in a startup is that you have the power to build things in anyway you want, which usually means in a way that will make your life easier, thus you don't have to carry a pager.

Also, I don't even know where you would buy a pager anymore...

it sounds like you need a break...perhaps you should take six months off and do some consulting, relax and then wait for the right opportunity.

No, but be prepared to walk away if it stops being fun. There are times it will suck (that just happens) but there is an intrinsic fun to working at a startup. But on that day when you can't see the end goal anymore and can't be convinced that it exists, get out. Maybe slightly before then, but that part's tricky.

Sympathize entirely with your situation, been there before many times. However putting up with this sort of environment for more than a few weeks in the current market for dev work is completely incomprehensible to me. Everyone is hiring, and they're happy if they can get fizzbuzz and a pulse.

Here's a nice article on figuring out what's important for you when you are looking for a job: http://ceklog.kindel.com/2012/04/26/the-job-decision-matrix/

Here's what works for me - jobs at small, established companies who want to Do It Right. Corporations are too burdened with bureaucracy, startups are too stressful (unless they make it worth it with a decent share of the business).

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: talk to a lot of people in the kind of role you want. Find out what their work life is like. You need to get this information from employees, not from employers-that's how you'll get honest information.

As someone else also mentioned, you're not comparing BigCo with a startup, but a shitty job with a good job.

Take it this way: what doesn't destroy you makes you stronger. Just take a break and find another job/project.

The problem is not the company you work at.. the problem is that you care.

To be happy at any job: Respect your self,Respect others, respect your work.

If you respected yourself from the beginning you would hav quit long time ago :)

Yes, go into academia. Do some research. That's the most comfortable job one can ever have. You have to like research though. Do masters in something you like. Just anything related to academia.

'It just didn't feel right'

If I had trusted this I would have dodged some 'bullets'

Likewise only by ignoring good advice have I learned to ignore bad...

Try a week long vacation with no laptop or phone. You'd be surprised what a week away from work can do for burn out.

Now it's late, you should read http://www.jailfreebook.com

Your health and your life are infinitely more important than any job in the universe.

You'll actually care about your startup. That's the main difference. The end.

Sorry - a bit OT but... who carries pagers anymore let alone startups?

In addition to the reasons already mentioned, they are necessary in certain secure environments (DOD closed areas and prisons, for instance) where only receive-only devices are permitted.

Engineers at Amazon. Seriously.

Last time I checked, which was awhile ago, Blackberry was the only non-pager that could guarantee delivery within a known time-frame. You can't run server alerts over SMS, since it might take an hour (I've heard of a 12 hour delay around New Year's), or it might not be delivered at all.

Seems like there might be a market here for an app which acknowledged receipt and publication of a message to the target's phone, coupled with a service which escalated to a phone call to the target if it times out waiting for the acknowledgement.

I think the guarantee is the tough part; you have to own the hardware and have at least some control over the infrastructure.

Anyway, I find Georgie's comment fascinating. Sounds like there's a way to guarantee SMS delivery, though. From Wikipedia on SMS/SS7[1]:

> Therefore, it is possible to avoid delays and message losses, offering full delivery guarantees of messages and optimized routing. This model is particularly efficient when used in mission-critical messaging and SMS used in corporate communications.


Urban Airship does do some sort of messaging thing. But, yea, agreed.



Shitty jobs happen. People don't always admit to them, but they're common. A lot of the most successful people seem to have pristine careers and nothing bad to say about any company where they've worked. That's called rewriting history. People want to be perceived as having an unbroken string of successes, but almost no one this in their actual track record. You had a bad job, and now you're depleted, and you probably think your situation is a lot worse than it actually is. No. This is not unusual, and I think 90% of the people reading this thought, "man, that could have been me at one time".

You're not "damaged" because you had a terrible job. This is as common as dirt. Don't take it personally and don't let it affect you emotionally. Almost everyone has had one. If you can afford to take two months off to do recover, do so. If not, then find a job that will allow you to work 9-to-5 and recover on your own time.

On work hours: most startups will have occasional spikes, but well-managed ones will try to keep a 40-45 hour per week average. When people are working 70 hours per week, the quality of work deteriorates quickly. It's a really short-sighted strategy. There are a lot of startups that push people to work 70 hours, but most of those are going to crash and burn.

Also, what happens to most people as they get older is that they have mostly negative work experiences, because most companies are badly managed, and they learn things to avoid. People learn things with experience like, "Working 70 hours per week for months on end doesn't actually work out well." IMO, that's what the 20s, for the smartest people, are actually about: watching people in power fuck up so you know what not to do when you're in charge. Eventually, you'll be in a position to do things properly. It might take a while.

Some things to avoid, going forward: (1) Don't take jobs where the company isn't willing to tell you what you'll be working on. That usually means you're going to be allocated to the least desirable projects. (2) Stay away from the VC darlings, which have (as of 2012, mid-bubble) been infested in MBA culture and are companies in which you're likely to get some insultingly low (~0.01% equity) "profit sharing" offer while making 60 percent of market salary. (3) Don't take an offer just because it's "a startup". Most of these hot startups won't exist in 5 years. Evaluate the job based on the people you'll be working with and the type of work you'll get, not the size of the company. (4) Don't think you're desperate or that your negative experience makes you less qualified for the types of jobs you actually want. Negative experiences are very common, and it gets easier to recover from them as you get older. (5) On job interviews, don't discuss the negative experiences or the bad employer. At all. Bad job experiences are too common to deserve the "silent shame" stigma, but nonetheless, a job interview is just not the place for that. Keep the conversation positive and focused on the future.

For the record, I don't think it actually matters what size of company you work for. There are groups within large companies doing amazing things, and there are awful startups. "Bureaucracy", in the toxic (rather than mildly annoying) sense, is about power dynamics and I've seen dysfunctional relationships in small companies and much as large. In 2006, it was pretty clear that startups were the place to go if you wanted to learn a lot quickly, because we were coming off a bust, startups were undervalued by labor as much as investors, and there were a lot of challenging technical problems in small companies. I don't think that's as true now as it was then. In Real Technology, yes, that's still true; but most of these VC darlings in "social media" are a joke and you won't learn much in them.

What seems to be a trend, in 2012, is that a lot of large companies are developing small and mostly-autonomous groups that I think of as akin to "honors colleges" in order to get a level of talent that would otherwise go exclusively to academia, finance, and startups. Right now, I think the VC startup scene is played out and these honors colleges are a better avenue.

"that's what the 20s, for the smartest people, are actually about: watching people in power fuck up so you know what not to do when you're in charge. Eventually, you'll be in a position to do things properly. It might take a while."

I like this. That is exactly how I feel and it's great to read/hear about it outside of my head. :-)

I appreciate your perspective and reassurance, and I agree with nearly everything you said, but wow, that's a pretty damning view of things. You made it sound like I've missed the boat that left in 2006! I do feel a bit antsy that once we have a high-profile collapse of a company like Groupon or Zynga that the rest of the startup ecosystem will be dragged down with it.

After reading your comment, I ought to clarify a few things:

(1) I have in fact been unemployed for several months, mostly because I needed the break and have decided that I should be more careful about where I choose to work next to avoid going through the same nightmare again. Even so, I'm not in a hurry to get a paycheck and am willing to take the time for finding a good match. But I'm aware that many employers look upon this rather negatively and will be rather "curious" about what happened.

(2) The "bureaucracy" aspect I was whining about was not so much dysfunctional relationships as it was pure cluelessness and red tape. Think 6-month wait times for a 15-minute procurement job, or crappy tools that were "standardized" in the company based on some sales pitch delivered at the VP level. I'd imagine it's this type of situation that is more easily avoidable at a startup.

I have a vague hunch of what you mean by "VC darling" and am taking all mentions of high-profile backers with a grain of salt, but I'm curious about what you consider "Real Technology" -- in what ways are the technical challenges, from usability to scalability, of a social media "joke" startup substantially different from those of a business that you'd take seriously?

Cluelessness and red tape are the symptoms of the dysfunctional relationships he's talking about. If the relationships were working properly, it'd be easier to get your 15-minute procurement job done, and nobody would be trying to standardize you on a crappy tool.

Don't worry about missing any boats. If you like a job take it, if not, don't. If you want to start a business, start it, and focus on making money rather than chasing techcrunch headlines and VCs.

If you're evaluating work at a startup, look at it like you're your agent:

1) What's the comp package? Equity, unless very significant, is basically a deferred bonus that you can't count on. Don't overrate it.

2) What skills will you get to develop? It's usually not worth taking a lower salary for X,000 shares of "i don't know". But it can absolutely be worth taking a lower salary now in exchange for higher skills later.

Well put. As someone who does a lot of hiring, I know I'm not talking to a candidate because they're happy with their current job. But at the same time, I want to see that someone has the necessary judgement and discretion to not bad-mouth their current employer, especially when I know that one day, that could be my company.

Also, when a candidate does speak negatively about their current employer, you're left with two possibilities: it's really that bad, or they're not a good employee. As a candidate, you don't really want to raise that possibility in anyone's mind.

  (1) Don't take jobs where the company isn't willing to
  tell you what you'll be working on. That usually means
  you're going to be allocated to the least desirable
I passed on a job at Google precisely because of this fear. I wonder if they've since changed that practice.

No, they have not. There are very many good reasons why they do things this way - I can elaborate if anybody cares.

However, you do get to talk to 4-5 hiring managers based on your skillset and their interests, and you get to rate them based on the group you want to join.

I've done that and it's worked out pretty good for me.

Please elaborate. I'm interested to hear if your experience is more than survivor bias.

So Google doesn't let hiring managers interview their direct hires because of incentive mismatch.

(Btw, this is all in the public - Stephen Levy's In The Plex is a pretty good resource)

If you have a fairly impartial interviewer, he's most likely trying to hire competent people - he doesn't have any other sort of incentive except to not hire stupid people.

However, if you're a hiring manager, you're under pressure to produce software and fill open recs. So, if you have an open position, the natural thing to do would be to hire a mediocre person cause hey, he's better than nothing, and we got a hole we need to fill for our next project.

As for my personal experience, I'm a bit of an outlier. I'm older (mid thirties), know a couple dozen people who already work here (know which groups to avoid), and my friend who I've worked for before personally recommended me to his current team (I know I'm landing in a good position).

Any other specific questions?

Can you tell us which groups are considered less desirable?

Nope. :-) I need this job.

Do you have any less specific questions that I could answer without getting canned?

It's hard to tell on a group-by-group basis.

If you work at Google, keep your head down for 12-18 months. Don't pay attention to big-company politics and (unlike me) stay the fuck away from eng-misc. Work hard and (unless you're on a good project) figure out what transfer opportunities will be available, and which ones will be good. At the 18-month point, try for a promotion. It makes it easier to transfer. If you don't get the promo, you can still transfer; it's just somewhat harder. If your performance ratings are still at "Meets Expectations" you should have a good story as to why. In that case, you need to find that middle ground of (a) making it obvious that your manager's appraisal of you is boneheadedly wrong, (b) without throwing him under the bus.

The objective sign of a decent manager is whether his or her reports get promoted. Good managers (at Google) get their reports promoted and bad managers don't. It's that simple. Look into this when you're evaluating transfer opportunities. If you find that a group has a lot of really good people stuck at SWE 3, stay away from it, even if the work sounds interesting. The truth about Google is that no one will consider you qualified to do anything actually interesting (i.e. you won't be considered a Real Googler) until you climb that ladder a bit, so your first few years should be focused on making Staff SWE. (The Real Googler line is somewhere between Senior and Staff.)

Piaw Na wrote some excellent material on the promotion process at Google: http://piaw.blogspot.com/2010/08/tips-for-noogler-engineers....

I've worked for large companies that do it both ways. When I knew what group I was going to, it often ended up changing within the first year of my arrival anyway through restructuring, re-prioritization, etc. So I've decided it's generally irrelevant - nice to have, but not actually that important. It's more important to be ok with the larger company culture.

I did that the first two times Google contacted me. The third time, I took the plunge - and I must say, they were great at finding a fit for both my skills and my interests. YMMV, but I don't feel like I've been shuffled of to an undesirable project. I get to work on some pretty cool stuff.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, management at Google listens very carefully if you say to them "I don't think I'll be happy doing that" or "I'm not happy doing what I'm doing." The thing is that you have to be the one to say that. If you let them move you around like an interchangeable cog they will. If you help management find you a job/project you'll enjoy, you'll probably find one.

Another thing to watch out for: (6) during an interview, if questions about work environment (e.g., “how do you manage unit tests?” which of course is code for “do you have unit tests?”) are answered with “that depends on the project/product/client”.

This is pretty silly thing to watch out for. Being a zealot about anything, especially something like unit tests, is certainly not a good idea when searching for a good job. Setting aside the fact that whether unit tests exist and how they are managed often does depend on the project/product/client (and the fact that many good web start-ups don't do unit testing for very good reasons), it's just a bad idea to discount a company based on some technical aspects you may disagree with (especially if you only have a few years of experience and really don't have a strong foundation for evaluating this).

Instead, you are looking for good co-workers, good management, a comfortable work environment, and a compelling or at least interesting-enough business. You are not looking for a company that merely subscribes to your pet programming philosophy.

So where is the line (for you) between not following a pet programming philosophy and incompetence?

If they don't use a bug tracker? If they don't use version control? If they edit the code on the live servers to make changes/add features?

(I've seen all these things)

I agree it depends a little on the specific project but a lot of these kinds of best practice stuff are more than just pet programming philosophies. If you are used to or function best in a place with a certain level of professionalism than working somewhere with some cowboys who just wing it or somewhere were the every piece of work is in a feature branch with a corresponding user story, conforms to a style guide and has proper tests is probably not a good fit.

Where a team falls on this spectrum is part of the company culture.

When I started at my current job 9 months ago (with me, there are now two programmers in the team), there was no bug tracker or formal version control. We still regularly edit the code on live servers for some bug fixes. The first two were (barely) workable for a one person team and got fixed once the team grew, and the third is honestly the right approach for the kind of software we write. The user base for most of our products numbers in the dozens, and I'd rather get a prod bug fix out there as soon as possible rather than having to mess with commit;cd $prod_dir;pull -u or having to deal with the complexity of having too many code environments. I have not yet succeeded at getting a proper testing framework in place - too much hassle dealing with selenium and we don't yet have enough tests written to justify spending more effort. It's the initial capital investment that'll make it worth it, but I just haven't gotten around to it. Rather work on building an actual product that'll add direct value rather than just saving my ass.

These are all practices that in a larger team, or with a larger user base, or with higher requirements, would be untenable. But they work for us, for now.

I've certainly been in that same situation and made the same choices (version control/bug tracker a must, tests would be great but no one finds the time and once it's been left a while then it never gets done). It was a defensible choice at the time.

I learned my lesson though, retroactively adding proper deployment practices is pretty easy, adding tests later is freaking impossible. It's harder to do later when the code isn't fresh in your head (or you didn't even write it) and it takes a lot of time to write tests for legacy code and getting approval to take that much time away is near impossible. Now I pay the 5% tax to do things right and develop features 2-3 times faster long term. (Those numbers are based on pulling some numbers from my work logs and time sheets a while ago, they are very rough and small sample size on a project where there was legacy code with no tests and new code with tests).

To go back to my point though, it's not some rabid devotion to some pet philosophy that would make me think seriously about starting a new job somewhere where they don't test. It's because I've done both and I like my job so much more when I don't have to deal with the bullshit that comes from years or even just months of developer laziness (often my laziness). I can spend more time concentrating on creative problem solving and actual features and less on debugging fragile code.

At this point, I'm not convinced that not testing necessarily leads to laziness.

In my job I deal with a fair amount of legacy code, and definitely find anecdotally that I work several times faster on new code, but that's because the legacy code is crap and the new code is clean and brilliant (just like all code written by yours truly). (Of course, the fact that the code is new and is being edited by the original author are the primary drivers, but I think my code quality is slightly better than my predecessors'.) Once the code is well-written, I don't think that adding tests would significantly improve my productivity. Having a test suite would give me confidence and save me time doing manual testing (no need to test features I haven't touched and am not worried about), but don't see it having a major impact on my development productivity per se.

I meant that laziness leads to not testing. And the "bullshit' that arises from not testing are the bugs and regressions that happen after you role out anything new that isn't completely self contained.

"Once the code is well-written, I don't think that adding tests would significantly improve my productivity"

Yeah, if you never touch that code again then it would not, I agree. I don't have many modules or classes that never change though. I suppose there might be other types of programming where that's not the case.

Unit tests was just an example. The issue is deeper than that.

When I ask a question in a job interview, it’s because I want to learn something about the company, because I want to know whether its corporate culture and its philosophy of how to run a software shop are in sync with how I want to work. If significant questions get the “it depends” answer, I take it as a sign that either the place is so chaotic that it doesn’t have a corporate culture, or that I won’t know what culture I will work in until I find out who my manager is.

But that's the case at any organization of non-trivial (> about 10 people) size. You can't enforce uniformity - if you do, you end up with a sicker system than if you'd just let everyone do the wrong thing.

One of the key signals I use to judge someone's intelligence is their willingness to say "It depends." Because that demonstrates their comfort with ambiguity, their ability to see distinctions in circumstances, and their confidence in being able to make sense of unfamiliar surroundings. All of these are absolutely essential in doing high-level creative work, where there's no roadmap of best practices because nobody's done it before.

It's great that you ask the question, but if you're looking for a specific answer, you're doing it wrong. You should then be able to drill down into "Depends on what?", and then if you can have a sensible conversation based on that, you've probably found someone worth working with.

In the cases I’m thinking of, “depends on what?” was met with more vagueness, or, in one case, “depends on what the client wants”. (This was at one of those companies whose business model involves a very small core product and a lot of per-customer consulting work to enhance it. Which is a perfectly respectable way to run a company, but the core-to-consulting ratio was too low for my taste.)

"If significant questions get the “it depends” answer, I take it as a sign that either the place is so chaotic that it doesn’t have a corporate culture, or that I won’t know what culture I will work in until I find out who my manager is."

Or, you know, it means "it depends". Because sometimes, it depends on the circumstance. As they say, the exceptions make the rule.

The larger point here is that if you go into an interview prepared to dump on a company because they're not absolutists about your particular favorite development philosophy, you shouldn't be surprised if you don't get the job. And nearly every company is going to have something that they're letting slack in order to keep the lights on.

So maybe not having unit testing is a deal-breaker for you. If so, fine. Don't work for companies that don't unit test. But I hope your list of deal-breakers is short.

These kinds of conflicts cause more problems than you might suspect. I respect the fact that different people and organizations code differently. But that respect has to go both ways. Otherwise, you find yourself in a situation where you adapt to others' style of doing things, and they are doing nothing to adapt to yours.

So personally? I say find employers who subscribe to your pet programming philosophy, but don't be willing to rule out someone who doesn't.

Of course there are "startups" and there are "startups." Which is to say that 3 founders and 2 employees is a 'startup' but so is 50 employees and 2 founders. That is why I dislike generalizing about "startups" and prefer to talk about values.

But I agree whole-heartedly that some jobs are just painful. Sometimes they start out great, and the company changes, and then they are painful. Sometimes its the other way around, and sometimes they are all great or all painful.

So lets step past the 'burnout' part, the damaged goods part if you will, and talk about who you are. Try to come up with times where you felt really great about your job, could be a task completed, feedback received, or even just the amount of light in the office. Let those memories inform you about what you really value (as opposed to things you think you should value). Now armed with knowledge about what you value, think about ways to interview companies which would help you know if those things are likely to be there.

I joke sometimes that people often spend a lot of time interrogating a potential boyfriend/girlfriend but don't invest the same energy in interrogating a potential company. While it is true that as a job seeker you are in the 'inferior' position to the job offerer, but both of you want exactly the same thing, a happy, productive employee. That occurs when you love your job and knowing what it takes for you to love your job and being up front with that with your potential employer will pay big dividends.

well said!

Regarding "On job interviews, don't discuss the negative experiences or the bad employer. At all. Bad job experiences are too common to deserve the "silent shame" stigma, but nonetheless, a job interview is just not the place for that. Keep the conversation positive and focused on the future." . I see this very often when I interview people and when it happens I usually stop the interview not too long afterwards.

When I'm interviewing, I avoid discussing negative experiences precisely because this bias against it exists, but I find the bias to be somewhat irrational and wish I could be more honest.

I'm not saying I want to dwell on the negative, but if someone in an interview asks me "Why did you leave Company X?", honestly answering that I left because "Company X is badly managed" would be a lot easier on me than making up some bullshit reason, which is what I'm forced to do because everyone is so afraid to speak or hear anything negative.

On job interviews, don't discuss the negative experiences or the bad employer. At all.

I've been asked point-blank for critiques of past employers before. What is the best response?

This is pretty comparable to being asked to be critical of yourself (e.g. "What's your biggest weakness"). Generally speaking this is a bit of a trap and your main goal should be to not take the bait and move on to another topic ASAP. If they really press the issue focus on issues where there's nobody to blame and there's not that much that's going to be held against anybody (e.g. Old Co become very big which was fun but now I'm looking to be part of a smaller team). The key thing is to keep things positive and move on to why you want to work for them instead of why you don't want to work for your old employer.

I don't know about the question being a trap. If you don't try to be too sly about it, you might even turn it into a plus for you. If it were me interviewing, my biggest concern would be that the OP is burned out, and thinks that working at a startup will be nothing but sunshine and lollipops.

Instead try being a bit more concrete: "I didn't like BigCo because of <specific, observable and especially non-judgemental facts go here>. Some people like that, but that's just not what I enjoy. I'm curious to hear if you feel I'll run into the same problem working for you."

If a candidate said that, I'd be more convinced that:

1. The candidate is willing to leave the BigCo world behind.

2. The candidate has realistic expectations of what a startup will be like.

For the record, I think I wrote enough in the original post to show that I'm highly skeptical of startups that claim to have awesome work environments. That said, the community response has definitely been helpful for me to figure out some realistic expectations.

Let me reframe what you just said. Yes, your post does show that. But do you plan on showing that post to any potential employers? It's just as important for you to demonstrate that to potential employers as it was for you to demonstrate it to us. You have to skirt a very fine line between demonstrating that you want to work for them and demonstrating that this want is reasonable and not based in fantasy.

> But do you plan on showing that post to any potential employers?

I probably won't say it in the way I wrote the post, since I think it will be open to misinterpretation that might close some doors unnecessarily. But I will definitely bring up my expectations as a matter of concern.

Indeed, a fine line to walk.

”The position just wasn’t a good fit for me any more.”

Imagine yourself on a date with someone you barely know, and listening to that other person go on a long rant about his or her ex. Does that make you more or less likely to want a second date?

"I am sorry, but I am not at liberty to share internal details of my previous workplace.". If they look upset, follow it up with "NDA, you understand...".

If they still look upset, might as well leave right now. They have no sense of ethics, and they sure won't keep promises they made you.

Say something positive about them and move on.

Great post that I agree with, except I don't know what a "VC Darling" is. Do you have any examples? How do I know if a startup is a "VC Darling"?

Thanks for taking the time to write this. I needed to hear a lot of these things too.

So how do you reply when the interviewer asks you why you left the previous job?

@Michaelochurch great response! Where do you work?

@HN I've been a hiring manage for years. Take the advice about what to avoid with a grain of salt, and be sure to read some of the other excellent comments in this thread.

I'm the CTO at a startup (which happens to be hiring frontend, mobile, and backend people I might add!) and we don't look for "rockstars" or "ninjas".

We look for competent engineers who are naturally curious people that will fit in with the team. Fitting in with the team isn't important because we want you to spend all your free time with your coworkers (god no, go get some fresh air!), but because we want people to naturally want to help and teach each other.

My point is that decent people are out there. Not just in startups, but in a variety of environments. Just make your next company one you pick because of the cool people you met in the interviewing process, not because they offered $5k more than the other guy. Your sanity isn't worth losing over that.

If you're a frontend, iOS, or backend (Open to anybody willing to learn Python) engineer who wants to work with people who work sane hours and still get things done, contact me. :)

In firefox 3.6.23, when I hit the "F.A.Q" link on the front page of Nutrivise, the FAQ page is displayed for a second or two, then the front page is displayed again. The problem may be that /faq/ is redirecting to /#faq/. HTH.

Out of curiosity, why are you using FF3? I've seen lots of people use IEold for corporate policy reasons, but it's much less common to see users of FFold.

I'm told FF3.6 is pretty nice on ancient hardware, especially if you're tab-happy.

Yeah, we're pre-beta launch, haha.

Thanks for the heads up!

Update: I've made a note of it in our tracker, but we're making a conscious decision to support HTML 5 primarily, and it's HTML 5 history state that's breaking here. I'm going to investigate a polyfill/shim that should make this work in FF3.

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