Ask a Female Engineer: Joining a Startup

by Cadran Cowansage9/21/2016

We’ve recruited a group of female engineers with years of industry experience to try an experiment with us called “Ask A Female Engineer.”

Read our first post to learn more about the series. We recognize that the opinions of a few people by no means represent the opinions or experiences of all women who code. We’d love to hear feedback and more perspectives on these questions, so we’re continuing the discussion on Hacker News.

I’m the moderator for our Ask A Female Engineer series, and a female engineer on the software team at YC. If you have questions you’d like to anonymously ask, or if you’re a female software developer who would like to participate, please email

What conditions must be true for you to join an early stage startup?

Kay : The first startup in my life happened exactly 20 years ago, when I first came to the States. At that time I didn’t know much about startups, I was just happy to get a paycheck on time. I didn’t consider the risk I was taking on and, unfortunately, that startup dissolved four years later, leaving me looking for a new job while on a work permit as a single mother of three. For years after that experience, I was focused on job security and stability. In hindsight I realize coming to a new country with three small children and no support network was almost more adventurous than joining a startup!

But for the first time recently I was in a position to choose my next job without feeling I needed to hurry. I realized I didn’t want stability but rather I wanted more responsibilities! I wanted to make a difference in an organization and to have decision-making power. Once I was able to identify the things I wanted, I was fortunate to find an job opportunity almost immediately that was a great fit.

More specifically, a startup is appealing to me if its management team is understanding that everyone has their own needs in terms of work schedule and time off. That they are able to offer flexible schedules that can be tailored to my needs. It’s important that this isn’t something that is just said, but that I can see it demonstrated as part of the company’s culture. Then I need to validate that the tech team shares my technical values, is open to discussion before making big technical decisions, and doesn’t just make decisions based on team member seniority. Understanding my manager is extremely important. I’ll make sure my manager trusts everyone on the team, treats them like responsible adults, and is able to step back and let people get work done without being micromanaged. Related – I look for a manager that doesn’t count hours spent on work but rather evaluates the results. When my kids were small, I used to do 4 to 6 hours a day of very focused work and would produce the same amount of work as others during an 8-hour shift.

Ada : When considering an early startup, there are three main questions on my mind: Do I think the team has the ability to execute as they scale? Can I peacefully coexist with everyone on the team and can they peacefully coexist with each other? Is this idea good or is it bullshit? All these questions are tough to answer, and trying to figure out the answers involves a lot of guesswork. To get a sense for the team, I try to spend a fair amount of time observing how they interact with each other. If I have multiple people interviewing me at once, how do they communicate with one another? How do the founders talk about their cofounders? I try to pay attention to little cues like that. It’s super useful to spend time with the team outside of a work context to get a sense for who they all are as people, so I’ll try to grab coffee, drinks, or dinner with the team in a non-office setting if possible.

Grace : I’ve worked at an early stage startup before and I would do it again. It’s important to me to meet the founders. I’ll judge the opportunity based on the vision of the startup, what kind of impact I can have and who I will report to. If my direct manager is awesome then I will be much more likely to join.

Jean : For me the first step is determining if joining an early stage startup is viable in my life right now. Sometimes the rest of life can tip the hand and determine if the risk is worth it or not. I’ve only joined early startups when I know and trust at least one of the founders. I want to know what keeps them up at night. I have to understand and buy into the problem and solution and the vision. If there is a concrete timeline for a specific exit strategy that is a red flag. This is going to be a journey and we don’t know exactly where the train is going. I will look for some degree of flexibility in the vision. Early stage, I look for a “we’re all friends” attitude among the founders. There should be fiscal openness about the state of the business as much as possible. At later and larger stages, when there are 50 people or more, the company should have processes in place to run as a real business. At those places, I’m less likely to know the founders and am simply buying into the vision for the product, the team/manager and the prospects of a successful outcome.

Marlyn : I’d join an early stage startup only if the startup was working on something that aimed to improve how the world works on a fundamental level. And I don’t mean just improving the world for a niche set of people (many startups seem to target only well-off city dwellers, for example), but solving major problems for humanity (poverty, cancer, civil liberties) or pushing humanity’s boundaries (space exploration, ageing). I would also have to believe the founders were capable of achieving their goals. I’m a skeptical person, so this is huge.

Klara : I’ve only had one experience joining a super early stage team. I was the fifth employee. If I were to do it again, I would look for founders who’ve run companies before. The person I worked for was a first time founder and he didn’t know how to run a team of people effectively. He didn’t have enough experience as a founder to handle tough interpersonal situations and he didn’t have a co-founder to help balance out his weaknesses. So I wouldn’t work for a solo founder again either and I’d likely only work with someone I’d already worked with before, or at least had a personal connection to, so I’d be able to vet them informally.

If you have questions you’d like to anonymously ask, or if you’re a female software developer who would like to participate, please email


  • Cadran Cowansage

    Cadran Cowansage is a software engineer at YC.