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Someone Else's Problems

Congrats! You got a job at a promising startup, now you are in a boat with all the good and bad things that come with it.  There are no individual problems, there are just common problems with individual champions.  A tech startup is a band of adventurers that decide to go on a treacherous journey.  Unlike at a big company there is no redundancy in systems or personnel.  There is always more work than time and the infrastructure is nascent.  The phrase “this is someone else’s problem” doesn’t exist in this world.

Goals, people and systems change very rapidly, sometimes too fast to create a formal process.  Andy Grove writes about this type of environment in “High Output Management”

When the environment changes more rapidly than one can change rules, or when a set of circumstances is so ambiguous and unclear that a contract between the parties that attempted to cover all possibilities would be prohibitively complicated, we need another mode of control, which is based on cultural values. Its most important characteristic is that the interest of the larger group to which an individual belongs takes precedence over the interest of the individual himself.

How do you deal with situations where you don’t agree with the way the team does things?
These situations come up when every new hire brings better systems, better practices and better ideas to the team.

Here are some ways to tackle problems without negatively affecting team unity:
1. Champion the solution yourself: if the servers are running out of memory - volunteer to figure out how to deal with it yourself.
2. Communicate with the team as a whole and with people individually: do you think that the current pull request process sucks?  Propose a new one and then talk people through the benefits of what you are thinking.
3. Don’t assume that you can change a group of people all at once, sometimes you need to steer the boat a little bit at time.

Here are some things no to do:
1. Separate yourself from the group: you guys keep going right, I am going left!
2. Give up quickly or get frustrated.  I have rarely seen an organization change that took just one conversation.  Organizational change requires a fair amount of evangelism.
3. Refuse to adjust yourself.
4. Start “us vs. them” camps.

Jeff Bezos talks about how to preserve team unity when there is no consensus:

Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

Someone told me that most of the startups fail because of internal problems and not external ones.  I don’t know if that’s 100% true, I can tell you that a lot of the startup engineering teams fail because they fail to reinforce the culture of stepping up, working through problems and communicating even when it hurts.  Don’t make those mistakes.

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