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  • Writer's pictureKate

Why you are never "Just an Engineer" at a startup.

I recently attended a start-up event where an engineer stood up, waved a hand at the projected presentation, and asked "What does this have to do with me?". The question was referring to a slide of a business model template, and the speaker was (rightfully so) cautioning the audience on the incredibly fluid nature of the model, especially considering the evolving feedback collected in early market interviews.

How I wished I could have pulled him aside and had a few words. After 20 years of engineering in Silicon Valley start-ups, I've learned that engineers are never just engineers when you’re part of those smallest of teams. Here are a few thoughts I could have shared.

1) Know your Value

The business model makes a lot of assumptions about how you do your job. It assumes you will have the people, with the right expertise, you need to complete the work as laid out. It makes assumptions about how much time and money you will need to do your job.

These are not questions most engineers tend to think about. However, if you are on a tiny team at the birth of a new company, you MUST think about them. Your business and clinical colleagues depend on you to supply the "How" to their "What" and "Why". Do not blame colleagues for selling unrealistic timelines or product capabilities if you cannot clearly explain, in ways they can understand, why that is so. As a trusted technical partner, this is your job.

2) Be Flexible

In a new company, there are many, many factors that will impact what you do as an engineer, and MOST of them have nothing to do with engineering. That awesome design they turned down? It was already patented. That brilliant new feature that got cut at the last minute? Couldn't meet the holiday launch timeline. That device use flow that makes NO sense? Well, it does to surgeons trained in Paraguay. The better you are at understanding those factors, the broader your concept of the "perfect design" becomes.

3) Build Your Non-Engineering Skills

I've seen a lot of startup pitches. The most memorable ones for me were the ones where a two-to-three person team smoothly passed the presentation back and forth. If it took the slide at the end for me to know who the MBA was and who was the PhD, I counted that as a GREAT team. Here in Silicon Valley, technical skills are cheap. We are surrounded by world famous schools churning out science and engineering degrees by the thousands every year. If you want to make it at a startup, you must be willing to be an engineer, a scientist, a machinist, a writer, a market analyst, a businessman and (oh the horror) a VERY good salesperson. Plan to grow in all these areas over the course of your career.

4) Imagine Your Work in Hindsight

You don't have to be Elon Musk for your work to develop a certain aura of definiteness in a very short period. What will people think of your work 3, 5 or 10 years from now? Whether you are an intern, a consultant or a full partner in the founding team, there is a very good chance that your work will be taken over by someone else. That someone is generally lacking in the context for all the decisions you made, and so will develop their own framework for managing what you produced.

When faced with work completed by another, I've seen engineers go two ways: either you are branded an idiot (and therefore all your work can be safely discarded) or declared a god (and therefore all your work is sacred and shall be taken as doctrine for all perpetuity). I've had new colleagues try to explain to me the workings of my own designs. The awe with which they described the design was quite an ego-boost, the fact that it had not occurred to them that the work was mine was less than flattering.

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