Software Engineers: What to Look For When Choosing a Startup

Alex Gurr (Head of Engineering @ Cloudwave), Paul Kelcey (VP Engineering @ Displayr), Xavi Ferro (Head of Engineering @ Simply Wall St), Stuart Totman (Head of Engineering @ Campaign Monitor), Alexander Iskrenov (Head Of Engineering @ Bluewater Control), Vinny Lawrenson-Woods   (General Manager, Product Engineering @ Prezzee)

Authored by engineering leaders at Longtail UX, Simply Wall St, Campaign Monitor, Prezzee, Bluewater Control and Cloudwave

Software Engineers: What to Look For When Choosing a Startup

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Alex Gurr (Head of Engineering @ Cloudwave)

  • Enough time to do things the right way. No one wants to burn out or be constantly under the crunch delivering an MVP that’s been poorly planned.
  • A startup leader that trusts your judgment and allows you to do the things you need to, to build robust code. Most will need persuasion to spend extra time writing tests for example.
  • A solid product idea. Do you think the product will succeed? Is it something that interests you?
  • A good team. These are people you’ll have to work with 8 hours a day for the foreseeable future. Do you get on with others? Are they passionate and switched on?


Paul Kelcey (VP Engineering @ Displayr)

Someone they can learn from. If you join a small business straight out of education and you are the ‘expert’ then you won’t develop in your craft as effectively as you would with a mentor. Check the glassdoor scores to check for any bad signs or poor management. Look for businesses that hire for mutual fit (i.e. not just what they get out of the relationship but can sell you on what you can get out of it for yourself).

Xavi Ferro (Head of Engineering @ Simply Wall St)

A team you feel you can learn from and be part of. Most startups will have a good balance of experienced people and fresh graduates. Check that those Senior Engineers are going to be a good example for you and that they have a clear path for growth, success and scale.

Before joining, get an understanding of the overall financials and how that translates to runway for the company to get to break even. Don’t let your salary or benefits be an indicator of company health. 

Learn about the overall processes of how decisions get made and how that translates to engineering. Is there a system, or are key decisions made by a handful of people. Not saying either is better, but make sure its the right environment for you.

Stuart Totman (Head of Engineering @ Campaign Monitor)

For me I think regardless of whether you are looking to choose a start-up or any other place to work for there are a few important things to look for. 

Firstly I would always try and look at their engineering culture. How do they grow the engineers within the company? How do they look to continuously improve on everything they do? What happens when they fail? Will they provide feedback and are they willing to receive it?

These days startups are great at offering a number of perks and incentives to entice people to join. These are great and are definitely important however if the culture and autonomy isn’t there or perhaps the company has a high turnover of staff it would be worth thinking hard about whether this is the right organisation to grow you and your career.

Alexander Iskrenov (Head Of Engineering @ Bluewater Control)

Working for a startup is an investment. While the obvious result of this investment is career development and financial well being there is also a social aspect where you contribute for a greater product diversity in the market you are in. Those three components can be easily translated to:

  1. Enough space to grow so you can learn new things and reach your career goals. A leader which you want to follow and team members which have complementing skills is always a nice and healthy environment.
  2. Remuneration, tight with the company success - salary increases, bonuses, options, stocks, loyalty schemes, etc. Options and stocks are the highest in return, but they also carry the biggest risk.
  3. An idea you believe in as an individual. Something you feel has a social impact for you and you can make the company goal your own. 


Vinny Lawrenson-Woods   (General Manager, Product Engineering @ Prezzee)

Early-stage startups can be less structured than larger organisations and may not have developed the frameworks to support early career engineers. Also, with hyper-growth organisations you may be left to fend for yourself. Although self-reliance is important it's vital you find an environment where you can learn, grow and be supported in that growth. This may include a formalised program, a buddy scheme or peer mentoring. The key is to look for the right culture, leadership and to understand an organisation's values and ethos. You should look for a startup that ‘gives a damn’ about its people.


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