By Frances Advincula
2014 has been a crazy whirlwind. I left my job in Corporate America on the East Coast, moved across the country, joined an early stage startup, shipped product, moved from SF to Palo Alto (the movers know me by name), and now I’m starting grad school back up again part-time, whew!
As I started packing for my trip home to visit my parents for the holidays, I couldn’t help but stop and reflect at what my first 7 months in Silicon Valley has been like — all the defeats, triumphs, and lessons learned. While I had mentors who prepared me for the transition, there were still things I wish someone had warned me about, which is why I’m sharing them with you!
If you’re thinking about relocating to Silicon Valley, I hope you’ll find this post useful.
If you’re already there, then I hope it reminds you of what it was like to be a Startup/Silicon Valley Newbie.
Lesson #1 Work-Life Re-balanced
We’ve all heard startups are a lot of work. You have to come in with the mindset that you are going to throw the normal 9-5 out the door.
But we can’t help but crave balance, and wonder if it’s actually possible..
During an intense 4-month period, when were trying to release a new product, I came across the idea that “maybe work-life balance means you should work MORE.” Yep that’s right. Life, to me, comes in seasons, and thinking that it’s not always going to be this intense, and trusting our founders that things will eventually slow down (and they have), kept me from going insane.
Lesson #2 Burnout is real and impossible to reverse
A CTO at a party once told me that burnout for engineers is almost impossible to reverse. But in a startup, sometimes (ha, always?) you gotta do what you gotta to do to survive, and that requires shipping product.
To ship we have to make sure we’re not setting up deadlines that are doomed.
During a sprint planning meeting, we should be careful about what we ask of our teammates to do, by first gauging what is already on their plate, and making sure it’s realistic. Adding to an already aggressive deadline doesn’t help anyone.
Allow me to quote “How Do I tell my Team to Work More Hours to Hit a Launch Date?” by Edmond Lau:
“While it might be bad to miss the deadline, it’ll be worse to burn out the team, still miss the deadline, and not have a plan when the deadline rolls around. Dealing with a missed deadline won’t get any easier through delay.”
Lesson #3 A newly formed team won’t be good at estimating deliverables
This is primarily because they haven’t worked together before. On top of that, non-technical first time founders, who haven’t shipped a software product before, often have a hard time understanding why things are taking so long.
A friend gave me a great tip — write down everything, how you initially estimated, why you gave it that estimate, and how long it actually took. Not only will there be greater transparency between you and management, but you will actually get better at giving estimates as you see your own patterns.
Lesson #4 Emotions run high at a startup, especially when sleep deprived!
The startup I work at feels like a family — we do a lot of things together: ski, party, work, workout. Sometimes when a group of people, who are all very passionate about what they are doing, are also sleep deprived, and then spend a lot of time together — emotions can become quite more pronounced.
Don’t take it personally. At the end of the day it’s important to acknowledge the common goal: everyone just wants what is the best for the product.
Lesson 5 It’s OK to ASK for help
The basic rule of startups is that you have to be good at a lot of things at once, be very flexible with a can-do attitude. All of this is true, but that doesn’t mean we cannot ask for help. Software development, is, after all a team sport.
A big lesson for me was when we were almost near our deadline, we had already slipped it a few times, and I was beginning to lose it. I was coding the same amount of features as everyone else, and managing other engineers for the first time. As a result the stories in our project management tool got to be pretty messy, and threw the team off.
I felt like a total failure and realized I needed help.
Our CEO stepped in and cleaned up our stories. That free-ed up mental space for me to focus on getting my features done. A cleaner to-do list inspired everyone to just crank it out.
While I felt really bad, our CEO kindly reminded me that this is my first time managing, and as a first time CEO, she understands that we won’t always know what to do the first time. This is why we are a team. It definitely helped me grow up as a manager.
We have to do not what is good for us, but what is good for the product and the team.
Lesson #6 You will have 5 million things to do, so focus on doing what will be the most impactful
When you are part of a very small and scrappy engineering team, you will have millions of things to do — and although it is hard to swallow, you have to accept that you cannot do all of them, at least today. So have a system to prioritize tasks, and then focus on the task that is the highest priority.
Even after doing this, you’ll probably get derailed by someone interrupting you, so don’t let them!
Let people know when you’re in the middle of serious coding time. If they find a bug, have them log it in your bug system (and hopefully give it a level of severity), so you can focus on the important task you are doing. Once you get the high priority task done, you can move on to other things, like fixing bugs.
Constant interruptions make cranky engineers, who feels like they are working a lot, without seeing results.
Lesson #7 Everyone knows everyone in Silicon Valley
This is probably the most important lesson I can give to a fellow transplant — everyone knows everyone in Silicon Valley. It’s surreal. So believe in yourself and what you are doing, but always be respectful and kind.
And respectful most definitely includes being respectful of other people’s time, so beware of “The San Francisco Yes”. It’s a real thing, at least according to the Bold Italic. Apparently, there are so many great things to do in the area, and everyone is so busy, that people say yes — and then cancel. Don’t be that person. If you said yes, follow up and follow through.
I promise you, you will be baffled and amazed at who will know who, so always be your kind, awesome self, get stuff done, and stay away from the gossip and the drama. You are too busy for that anyways. After-all, you have product to ship!
Shipping product will help you build street cred in Silicon Valley (for more tips on building a great street cred, here’s a great video by Karen Catlin, ex VP at Adobe).
These are my 7 lessons and I’m sure I’ll learn plenty more!
Got any you’d like share? Let me know in the comments below!