Moving to a start-up? Fasten your seat belt

Four managers who left corporate IT for start-ups tell you what to expect.

1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3

It'll all be up to you

"At a start-up, the huge plus is that you are responsible for what you are developing. The minus is that you are responsible for what you are developing," quips Thomas Cramer, a senior software engineer at BeliefNetworks Inc., a Charleston, S.C.-based company that helps companies predict and analyze risk. "Everything that is developed or doesn't get developed is squarely on the developers' shoulders."

Though Cramer says he occasionally finds himself missing the days when his work was largely scheduled in advance -- he previously worked in the IT department at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) -- he likes the do-it-now atmosphere of a start-up.

"It is great to have a brilliant idea in the morning and have it implemented that evening without having to have it run up a flagpole and take a week before approval or finances or personnel can be allocated," Cramer says.

He's been most surprised, he says, by how few people it takes to develop a system. Looking back, he now wonders "how the larger software-development companies get anything developed without being totally incapacitated by everyone stepping on one another."

Appealing as they are, brilliant ideas and fast-paced programming often take a backseat to more mundane concerns at a start-up. "The day-to-day maintenance can be problematic," warns Street. "At first you won't be able to justify a full-time support tech, so every time you need to set up a new account or reset a password, someone has to take time from their real job to handle it."

Wegis says he is all too familiar with that scenario. At Ziff Davis Media and at Sun, employees with a tech problem "had to file a ticket and wait for someone to come to their desk. There were big processes in place," he recalls. "But the way it is now is, someone says, 'Hey, John, I have a problem.'"

Still, Wegis says he tries to see it all as positive. "Every day is different. Some days I do peer development, or some days it's [quality assurance]. Some days it's administrating servers, or I'm getting hit with IT problems or setting up new computers," he says. "I have less time, but I'm definitely more laser-focused at work."

Start-up expert Melissa Chang, who is president of Pure Incubation LLC in Beverly, Mass., says wearing many hats is par for the course at most start-ups. "The change in mentality is huge [between] an established company and a start-up," she says.

"In a big company, it is much more accepted for an IT person to say, 'I can't' to a request, and have a reason for it. But in a start-up, the mentality of every person, including the IT person, has to be, 'Yes, we can make this happen.'"

Organizational structure will be minimal

While you work to start up an IT department, the rest of your new company will also be in gear-up mode, which can make for an interesting work environment, start-up veterans say.

"The most surprising thing might be that the leadership is not as strong as you suspect. There's a certain amount of flailing and floundering," says Sharer.

Take a job at an existing enterprise, and you will probably be asked to focus on only a handful of tasks, says Street. "You're likely to be able to start doing your primary job almost immediately." In a start-up, he says, you could be asked to help out with any or all of the following: corporate concerns like tax IDs, licenses and insurance; human resource responsibilities; physical plant concerns, including telephony; sales and marketing; or management and accounting.

Even if you're not recruited to help in any of those areas, say Street and others, you should be prepared to work in an environment where only some, or none, of those departments are fully up and running.

1 2 3 Page 2
Page 2 of 3
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon