44 Pieces of Early-Career Advice for Tech and Startup Employees

At Thanksgiving, I started talking about tech with my cousin, who’s a college senior poised to work as a software engineer. For her age, she has amassed a very impressive skillset and it’s clear that she’s going to be a great addition wherever she lands.

However, there were some ideas and assumptions about startups and tech I caught that I was able to clarify. Some of those became the basis for this post. Some of these topics are helpful for college students, but most of it becomes helpful once is actually in their first few years of working. There’s a story behind each of these, mostly involving myself and some from coworkers of mine. Because much of this is based off my experience, it’s fair game to question whether any item in particular may not work well for you — being a white man there are some things I haven’t had to deal with.

Originally, this list was going to be 20 items. But, because I like to overdeliver, I’m giving you the list of 20, plus a bonus…24. To keep everything organized, items are grouped by theme.


1. Go out of your way to be a resource for your teammates – pair with them on problems that don’t have anything to do with your work, be the first person to answer “can anyone” questions in Slack, and offer feedback on pull requests (or Google Docs if that’s acceptable to your company culture).

2. Attend coffee chats if your company schedules them, or set your own up. You’ll get a better understanding of the different teams and roles in your company, and only good things can happen from more people in your company knowing who you are and having a moderately positive interaction with you.

3. If you’re on a team of six or more and your team channel doesn’t have much in terms of random stuff or observations, and you don’t have a separate groupchat with your teammates, there’s probably a groupchat and you’re not in it.

4. When your time working with someone you respect is ending (one or both of you are leaving the company), write them a recommendation on LinkedIn and don’t ask for one in return. Sometimes they’ll give you one back, but expect that most of the time they won’t (writing a well-thought-out recommendation is hard!) even if the feeling of respect is mutual.

Career Growth

5. If you join an existing team, watch how your incumbent teammates’ careers have progressed. If they haven’t gotten promoted in a reasonable timeframe, you probably won’t either.

6. Regardless of what your manager tells you, your company is unlikely to promote you or increase your compensation at the rate you’d like. Both of those things are much more easily acquired by changing jobs.

7. Your manager has a big say in whether you get promoted but it’s usually not just their call – share projects, join committees, and do other things to get on the radar of whichever leadership team members you need to vote yes on you.

8. Most networking advice is bad or least outdated – a lot of people’s LinkedIns are flooded with people looking to do networking calls or pick their brain. Find Slack, Discord, or even Meetup communities for people in your field and just start to participate. Being a familiar face facilitates better introductions.

9. Network while you are happy with your job and not looking. You’ll be more authentic when you’re not immediately asking for something, and a better person to converse with when you’re not as stressed as you may be when job hunting.

Organizational Dynamics

10. Prioritize roles and companies where you work with newer tools and frameworks. You’ll come out with experience much more relevant and desirable to other companies.

11. Prioritize roles where you work in profit centers, not cost centers. That means a role that directly impacts how much money your company can make, instead of something that is a cost of doing business. Software engineering and quality assurance (testing whether the engineers’ code fits the requirements) have a lot of skillset overlap, but engineers are seen by execs as the drivers of core product features, and QA is often seen as a cost to minimize. Sales teams drive revenue, customer support is a target of outsourcing. This isn’t a judgment on whether any function is better than another, and you should work on what you want to work on. But if you need to break a tie, go to the profit center.

12. If someone much higher in the org chart than you is asking you to do something you don’t want to commit to at the moment (you aren’t sure if you can meet their schedule, or just don’t want to do it), never tell them “no” live. Always say you’ll speak to your manager and follow up over email or Slack. If you try to discuss in the moment, you’ll be at a disadvantage – they’ve been in this spot many more times than you and know what to say, you are at risk of misspeaking or getting cornered into committing.

13. Take written notes of every meeting. I retain information better this way. Most people will be impressed that you’re attentive. Bad actors will be deterred from gaslighting you. Start doing this even when things are going well or you’re brand new to a role.

14. I don’t know who needs to hear this – be kind to recruiters, recruiting coordinators, executive assistants, receptionists, and anyone else you meet regardless of how you perceive their importance to the company. We cut three candidates for an opening due in part to how they interacted with the recruiter.


15. If you feel like your manager is treating you unfairly, make sure to consider the possibility that you’re misinterpreting things, or that you have opportunities to improve your work or how you conduct yourself.

16. If your manager is treating you unfairly, oftentimes it will fall into one of three categories:

  1. They’re a bad manager
  2. They don’t like you
  3. The company or a skip-level is involved

Management is hard and not everybody is meant for it – that’s been the most common one from my and my network’s experiences. Sometimes it’s a combination of things, sometimes it’s a reason not on this list. If you can figure out the reason, it’ll help you determine next steps.

17. If your manager is treating you unfairly, they’re probably treating others unfairly. You likely are not alone.

18. Managers have an outsized impact in your day-to-day enjoyment of your job. If you interview with a hiring manager and come away feeling neutral or slightly bad about the vibes, try to avoid going with that role. You’ll get better instincts over time on this.

19. I can’t find the attribution for this, sorry (but it’s not my own). Don’t hire someone into a managerial role you wouldn’t want your child to work for.

20. Similarly (and this is my extension), don’t work for someone you wouldn’t want your child to work for.

21. It sounds cool to report to someone at C-Suite or VP-level. However, they’re usually too busy to give early-career people the attention they need.


22. If you interview with a startup and a recruiter or hiring manager, and keep getting some version of the answer “we don’t have that, because we’re a startup”, run. Startups won’t have everything big companies have, but startups that use the excuse of being a startup to not have a bunch of table-stakes things are trouble.

23. When you reach the final stages of interviewing with a company, you’ll usually get to meet with a VP-level person or even a founder. If red flags emerge, reconsider taking the offer – that person has an oversized influence in your growth at the company as well as the overall company’s strategic direction and success.

24. Even if you’re qualified and have a good resume, expect a low rate of hearing back from companies when you just apply through a job board or their website. It’s not that machines are filtering out your resume, but three (or more) things are usually going on.

  1. The company received a bunch of resumes
  2. The recruiting team doesn’t have enough time to read closely through all of them
  3. The hiring manager or someone high up in the company referred someone, and they’ll probably get fast-tracked (meaning fewer candidates will have a chance to complete the interview process before the committee does the first deliberations)

25. If you want to improve your odds of getting an interview at a company you’re not networked with, send a note on LinkedIn after to the hiring manager or a team member after you apply saying you think you applied, are a good fit, and are excited to interview. Most of the time you’ll be ignored or get back a generic “good luck”, but most people will still check out your LinkedIn, and if it looks good, they’ll tell the recruiter. This is how I got my current job.

26. If you’re getting interviews but not job offers, you’re oftentimes underqualified and/or not interviewing well enough. If you don’t have any after-college professional experience in the role, it’s probably both. If you do have experience, it’s usually just the latter – and this is very fixable if you practice and are honest with yourself about where you can improve. Don’t get your head down.

27. Take-home assignments as part of an interview process should take fewer than three hours to complete. If you are assigned one that will take more than five hours, the company is telling you they do not value your time. Listen to them, that is a preview of what’s to come if you take the job.

28. If you’re fortunate enough to have multiple job offers at one time, write thank you emails to hiring managers and recruiters at the companies you decline. You’ll probably encounter them again – perhaps sooner than expected if something goes wrong and the offer you accept falls through.


29. Early in your career, never give a firm salary number to a recruiter until they have made at least a verbal offer (preferably a written one). This includes your current salary as well as expectations for a new role, you’re never required to be specific.

30. You should leave every recruiter phone screen with a salary range for the position. Wait and let the recruiter bring it up (you risk being seen as greedy to bring it up early, it’s fine to ask yourself at the end), and give one of two responses:

  1. The range is too low and while you like the company and the role, you would prefer to let them continue with other candidates more in line with the given range. You’ll either save time, or they’ll tip their hand at how much they want you.
  2. Thanks for that information. It’s on the low end, but should we find that we’re a good mutual fit, I think we can work from there to find a number that works for both of us.

31. You should almost never accept the first offer without asking for more – whether that’s monetary (salary, equity, bonus) or non-monetary (start date, schedule flexibility, extra vacation time). Even if the offer is great and you’d accept it in a heartbeat. They’re not going to pull the offer, usually they’ll budge some but push back on giving you everything you ask for. If they don’t budge, you can take the offer if you’d like now that you’ve asked. As you get more experienced, you’ll find that your leverage in these situations increases.

32. When negotiating a job offer, the company will often frame it so that you can get one of more base salary or equity, but not both. Usually they’ll be willing to add more dollars of equity than dollars of salary, which is misleading because the equity isn’t worth anything yet. Almost always take the salary – it’s guaranteed, raises will be off a percentage of a higher number, and when you get your next job, having a higher base salary gives you more leverage in your ask. If you crush it at that job, you’ll get additional equity grants anyway.

33. If you’re negotiating a job offer that would require you to move to another city, make sure to insist on them covering your relocation. Usually, they’ll say they can’t do that but can offer more base salary. That is better for you – you get the additional money every year, and oftentimes relocation bonuses need to be returned if you leave within a certain timeframe (ex. 18 months, called a clawback).

34. If you have any bonus with a clawback (you must return if you don’t stay for x amount of time), try to avoid spending it as much as you can during that clawback period. Invest it in an index fund if you’re comfortable with that. You don’t want to be in a position where you owe money you don’t have.

Companies, Startups, and Equity

35. Most people will lump a lot of companies into “startups”, but they’re not all the same. Databricks isn’t a startup anymore, it’s big enough that it’s just a private tech company. Once you get to Series C and D, there’s often enough stability that it’s similar to a normal job. 

36. Pre-seed, seed, and Series A companies are still very risky, and usually you aren’t getting as much upside as you think from being an early employee, despite much worse work/life balance and benefits.

37. You can only have one full-time job at a time, meaning you are investing in your employer by giving them your time instead of another company. When interviewing somewhere, ask yourself if you’d invest in their stock if publicly traded.

38. Unless your company is publicly traded, your equity is probably going to be worth nothing. At startups, management commonly points to equity as justification to work harder than you need to and stay at the company longer than you would otherwise. Equity is an exciting perk and I’m glad I work at companies that issue it, but I’ve seen people work themselves into the ground because my equity is going to make me rich and it will work out in the end. Recognize you’re being fed the dream, and make whichever decision is most logical to you.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

39. Use your paid time off (PTO, aka vacation time). If you feel like you have too much work to take PTO, ask your manager if it’s okay with them. If they say yes, take it, and show yourself that no harm comes from it. If they say no (or discourage it), start interviewing, then take the PTO when your offer is signed and resign when you get back.

40. If you work at a company where you have enough PTO that you won’t run out most years (4+ weeks or unlimited), once (or more) a year, take a staycation of 3-5 days and do something other than what you do on weekends. Determining what to do (if something didn’t immediately come to mind) while everyone you know is at work is a worthwhile exercise in and of itself.

41. Figure out what is most important to you about a job. If it’s not money, don’t take the offer with the most money just because it has the most money.

42. Create a budget and figure out your monthly expenses. Then save 6+ months of expenses in cash. I keep at least 12, personally. Knowing you’ll be fine if you are laid off, fired, or have an unexpected financial emergency is reassuring and calming.

43. It’s okay to start a job and realize quickly it’s not a good fit. If you choose to give it a few months and still feel that way, you should either have a chat with your manager and/or start looking to make a change. Both sides will be better off, whether it’s adjusting the role you have, switching teams, or starting fresh at a new company (and being replaced by a better fit).

44. It’s just a job. Don’t let success or failure in any one role define you, and move on if you aren’t happy.