Downsizing: My First 6 Months of Startup Life

My thoughts on startups after switching from much bigger companies

January 10, 2024

So far in my career as an engineer I've worked at the huge global enterprise that is Capital One and I've worked at ClearScore, a fast-growing scale-up - but I've always been curious about what it would be like to work at a startup. Early in my career I didn't feel like I had the skills and experience to be able to succeed in a startup, but after a few years I felt like I was ready to give it a go. So, in July last year I joined Orbital Witness, a startup that is changing the way that real estate is transacted, and to help make the process of buying and selling property faster, cheaper and more transparent for all parties involved.

Having now been at Orbital Witness for 6 months, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my experience so far and share some of the things I've learned along the way about what it's like to work in a startup.

Wearer of Many Hats

At a bigger company, as was the case for me, there is often very clear separation of responsibilites between different teams and roles. I distinctly remember being told at one point in a previous job that our team couldn't make necessary changes in another team's application because "we might break it and it'll be up to them to fix in the middle of the night" (???). Everybody had their own responsibilites and it was very clear what you were and weren't to touch. If you needed to make a change to something that wasn't in your remit, you'd have to go through a long process of getting approval from the relevant people and then waiting for them to make the change for you.

You would never have this problem in a startup. In a startup, you are expected to be able to do whatever is needed to get the job done. If you need to make a change to the frontend, you make the change. If you need to make a change to the backend, you make the change. If you need to make a change to the database, you make the change. If you need to make a change to the design, you make the change. There is no "that's not my job" in a startup - and for good reason. If you're working in a startup, you're working in a small team with limited resources and ultimately your focus is on getting the product out the door. If you're waiting for someone else to do something for you, you're wasting time that could be spent on something else.

This is a fantastic way to work, and it's something that I've really enjoyed about working in a startup. I have a lot of experience working on frontend apps, but I've not had a huge amount of experience working on the backend. In my first 6 months at Orbital Witness I've been able to work on both the frontend and the backend, and I've learned a lot about how the backend works and how to write good backend code.

You Learn Much More Than Just Technical Skills

One of the things that has stood out for me the most is that, even as an engineer, at a startup you have a huge amount of insight into every level of the business that you just don't get at a bigger company. At a bigger company, you're often very isolated from the rest of the business. You're given a task to do, you do it, and then you move on to the next task.

In a startup you learn little bits of everything from speaking to people, watching people work, and getting involved. You learn how to run a business. You learn how to find product-market fit. You learn how to sell. You learn how to market. You learn how to do customer support. You learn how to do everything - and that's really valuable as an engineer as it helps you stand out from just being a "code monkey".

Your Impact Is Huge

At a bigger company, you're often working on a small part of a much bigger product. You might be working on a single feature, or a single page, or a single component. Therefore, it can be hard to see the impact that your work is having on the product as a whole. You might be working on something that is used by millions of people, as was the case for some of the work I've done - but you don't really feel like you're making a difference.

At Orbital Witness I've been lucky enough to work on building a brand new product from the ground up, and then seeing that product being used by real customers. I've pretty much had total ownership over the frontend of the product, and knowing that users are interacting with code that I've written every time they use the app is a really great feeling. It's also really nice to be able to directly see the business impact of your work - taking a product from generating zero revenue to being responsible a large chunk of the entire company's revenue makes me proud.

All in all, I'm very happy with my decision to join a startup. I've learned a lot in the past 6 months, and I'm looking forward to learning a lot more in the next 6 months and beyond. If you're thinking about joining a startup, I'd highly recommend it. It's hard work, but very rewarding.

Photo of George

George McCarron

I'm a software engineer based in London, UK. I'm currently building software that thinks like a Real Estate Lawyer at Orbital Witness. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I speak.

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