How To Become Valuable To A Start Up (If You’re Not An Engineer)

    For all the glamor and noble intentions attributed to start-ups, working at an early-stage technology start-up isn’t fundamentally dissimilar from working at an established technology company. Products are built, released, iterated upon based on customer feedback, and the cycle is repeated. And while I don’t think I’d ever want to trade in jeans and a t-shirt for slacks and a button-down, I know I could probably get a job at GeneriCorp, the company that makes automated accounting process optimization software for mid-sized wastewater treatment plants, and not feel totally out of place.

    One key distinction does exist between life at an early-stage technology start-up and at an established technology company, though: diversity of workload. The idea is that, rather than specializing, employees at start-ups are given the latitude to engage in a diverse range of activities, all of which contribute to product development.

    I believe this concept exists to some degree at most early-stage technology start-ups, but not with the positive connotation that clichés like “wearing many hats” and “portfolio of projects” conjure. The truth is, start-up employees must specialize – a generalist at a technology start-up is useless. But start-up employees are also shouldered with work that falls outside of their field of expertise because start-ups generally don’t have enough of that work to justify hiring a person to do it full-time.

    These ancillary duties almost always involve coding, because a technology start-up is driven by software engineering. And if software engineering is the foundation of a technology start-up, then “coding” is the scaffolding that allows the façade to be bolted on. When I reference coding, I’m talking about programmatically solving problems without developing a scalable, integrated system – some examples are building a landing page, or querying product data from a database, or running an A/B test.

    A start-up employee who can fulfill the basic requirements of his job but can’t implement his work because he lacks the ability to code is an obstruction. Without the ability to code, this employee is not self-sufficient; he requires the help of an engineer to accomplish tasks, slowing down progress on product development.

    The single most impactful skill an aspiring start-up employee can learn is coding – the basic structure of the most common programming languages, server / client interaction, loops, objects, etc. Start-ups require self-sufficiency in their employees; distracting engineers from product development simply isn’t an option. There are no roles at a technology start-up for which an employee wouldn’t benefit and add more value by knowing how to program at a basic level.

    Marketing is perhaps the field to which programming knowledge provides the most benefit (but is most often glossed over). Can you write great ad copy? Great — but we’re still going to A/B test your ads. And if you can’t run that A/B test yourself, you’ll have to bug an engineer to set it up for you, meaning either the A/B test gets delayed or product development gets delayed. But either way, our start-up accomplishes less today because you can’t code.

    Sales and business development also benefit from employees with programming knowledge. You finally scheduled that meeting with a potential partner? Excellent! But now you need revenue numbers by vertical going back two years, and since you don’t know how to query data from a SQL database, you have to ask an engineer to do it for you. Either the data gets delayed and you have to reschedule the meeting or product development gets delayed. But either way, our start-up accomplishes less today because you can’t code.

    Or business analysis. You want to build a model to determine which products to show a user first using 50 million data points? Sounds interesting! But the only analysis tools you’re familiar with are Excel and R, and since this much data won’t fit in memory, you have to describe your model to an engineer and wait until she can build it in Python or Ruby. Either the analysis is delayed and we miss an opportunity to make more money or product development gets delayed. But either way…

    At an early-stage start-up, product is paramount; everything that distracts from product development is a drag on productivity. Once the product has been released and revenue streams are established, employees can be hired to do the programmatic implementation work: the marketing team gets a front-end developer, the business development and sales teams gets a full-time analyst to request work from, and the analysis team gets a data scientist.

    But before that point, and especially before a start-up has reached product / market fit, every employee at a technology start-up should be able to code. If you want to work in technology but can’t code, send your CV to me: I’ll put in a good word for you at GeneriCorp.

    Eric Seufert is the Head of Marketing and User Acquisition at Grey Area Labs, the Helsinki-based mobile developer behind Shadow Cities. He blogs regularly at

    Top image stolen from the Grey Area blog.