Working at a startup

Vikash is a third-year student who agrees to share his experience in my “Entrepreneurship” class. Following is what he shares:

“Many people advise me to find a summer internship in a large technology company, but I like adventure, so last summer I applied to work for a startup. In the first week, I immediately knew that startups are a special workplace. Even as an intern, I observed the competitive nature of the three founders that seek excellence in what they do and maintain the perspective of competing globally, not just locally. This lead to their vision of always move fast, hiring the best, and firing the incompetent as their startup continues to grow bigger and faster.”

“As a software developer, I was part of a team that builds the product and learned quickly what I need to do to succeed. As third-year students who never work before, this experience opened my eyes widely as there were many things that I need to learn. Of course, I was not the only one because there were five interns like me and we all worked hard to catch up with the aggressive demand of the startup. But the best thing was I knew how to apply what I have learned in school to this “real situation” and it made me think seriously about what I need to learn before graduation.”

“In the startup, you are responsible for your work as everybody is busy. You have to learn quick, else you will be left behind. For me, I realized that what I have learned in school was only a small part of what I must know in the “real work.” For example, I know Java well but my work required Python, so I have to learn Python quickly. Since I had taken the “Software Architecture” class and know computer system well, they put me in the system workgroup where I worked with several experienced people and I learned a lot from them in just a few weeks. The startup consisted of seventy-five full-time people and five interns. Since the interns came from a different school with different skills, I began to appreciate what I have learned at CMU. For example, two interns had limited knowledge of computer system and they suffered a lot trying to catch up with the work. One intern was a graduate student who was working for his Master degree, he was given some algorithms to write so he worked alone most of the time. I and other intern were working together in the system group and we got along well. Only then, I understood why at CMU, all students must take the “Introduction to Computer system” in the first year. Most computer students often focus on programming in the first few year and delay the computer system until later, that is a big mistake. Without knowing how the computer works, they could not develop a deep understanding of how the system works and how programming language interacts with the computer.”

“In a startup, teaming is everything. If team members do not get along, the startup will never last. That is why most startups fail. The founder told us: “There are three major roles: “Developers who write code and build the product, they must be highly technical for everything. The sale people focus on selling the product and build a relationship with the customers. And the founder who come up with the idea and be the main designer for the product. The founder is the soul of the startup, the developers are the body of the startup, and the sale person is the spirit of the startup, who make sure everything function according to the market needs. Many startups failed because they did not understand these roles. If they are all developers, they will not understand the market and customers and focus too much on technical things. Without business knowledge, they cannot go into the market successfully and often fail. If they are mostly business people then who are going to build the product? Business people think too much about making money and always afraid of losing them. If money is the only goal, they will not be able to stay in business for long because it may take longer for a startup to make money they thought they could. That is why the role of the founder is important, as the visionary who can balance these two extreme and guide the startup to overcome difficulties and challenges. The founder must describe his vision of where the startup should go and provide the guiding principles for his company, especially in a high-pressure environment.”

“Working at a startup is hard, everything is flexible and idealistic in nature. You either like it or hate it because it is you who make a difference. With startups, many things can go wrong so you are constantly live in a state uncertainty and you must be readied for changes. Working at a startup made me realized that it is easy to talk about startup but very difficult to do it successfully. For thousand startups, maybe one will survive and for hundred that survive, maybe one will make it big. Knowing that I think about what I want to create for myself. I am thinking about what my role could be in my future startup, and that is why I am taking this class and hope that someday I could start my own company.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

You may like