Category Archives: So I Joined A Startup

The communal food and drink area

Deja Vu

Almost exactly a year ago I was stood on the platform at Roughton Road station, my life packed into bags, ready to embark on one of the biggest adventures of my life. It’s hard to believe a year has passed, the time has just flown by. That year has seen Rainbird more than double in size, gain traction, and move to swanky new offices. It’s also seen us accepted onto the MasterCard Start Path program, which is why I’m once again sat on a bed that isn’t mine, away from my family.

The Start Path programme is 6 months long, but it’s a very different beast to Techstars. For starters, only a couple of weeks is spent away from home, kicking off with an Immersion Week in Berlin. Secondly, I don’t think the mental working hours will apply. And thirdly, daily blogging isn’t going to happen (although maybe for the days when I’m away from home).

Despite being run by a big corporate like MasterCard the programme has a startup feel to it, right down to the space we’re using. Today has mostly been introductions, both to MasterCard and the Start Path programme, and to each other as we’re one of 7 startups in this cohort. Tomorrow I get to learn all about payments. In the mean time I actually need to get some work done, something that could be fun given the poor mobile signal and flaky hotel WiFi.

Our offices for the next week

Since arriving in Germany I’ve learned that you need to validate your train tickets (Ben and I got told off for not doing that by the conductor on the train from the airport), that hotels here don’t believe in proper pillows (may require some improvisation), and that pedestrian crossings don’t quite work like they do in the UK (turning traffic seems to still drive at you, and you just have to take it on faith they’re going to yield for you). Oh, and German gummy bears (and gummy sweets in general) are just awesome.

Despite the not-so-mental working hours I seriously doubt we’ll get to see much of the city. It’s autumn, so it’s going to be dark when we leave each evening, and it’s only a short walk from the hotel to the venue with not a huge amount to see en-route, or to explore in the surrounding area. That said, we did get to see a few sights on the train this morning when we weren’t being told off for accidentally fare dodging.

Back To Work

Since leaving for Techstars I think I’ve been in our Norwich office for the grand Total of 5 times, and two of those was for less than 10 minutes. What with 3 months working in London, over a month working from home, Christmas, Easter and Paternity leave I actually feel like I’ve been on sabbatical for 6 months. Which is odd really since a lot of that time I was working stupid hours – certainly more than if I’d just been coming into the office as normal.

There’s also been a strange juxtaposition. For 3 months I was living on top of everyone, working every hour possible and being involved in even the minutest decision. Then I had a month of working from home and being very isolated from everything (remote working is not something we’re good at yet). Then two weeks paternity leave where you just forget about work entirely.

I’ve created a huge brain dump of everything I need to catch up on (with the wonderfully vague ‘sort email’ hiding I don’t know how much work), but top of the list is picking everyone’s brains on just where we’re at. In an organisation as dynamic as a startup there is absolutely no point in diving in head first until you know what direction you’re swimming in.

Techstars: Prologue

I’ve done enough research over the past few weeks to know there is a metric crapton of information on what Techstars is. Illegitimate child of YCombinator, huge international tech accelerator. Blah. Blah. Blah.

And yet there’s very little information on what it actually is – as in what does it really mean to be going on a three month boot camp with some of the best startups in the world? There are a couple of very interesting blogs which help give an idea, but I’m really not sure what to expect. I guess we’ll find out…

So yeah, I joined a startup and in, what… less than five months(?!)1 I’ve managed to hitch a ride to Techstars. I do know one thing: it’s going to be mental!

Last week we mothballed the Norwich office, sent our kit down to our new office space and prepared to say goodbye to our families. For the next three to four months we’re going to be living and working (and working, and working) London.

So what do we know at the moment? Well going to London isn’t a huge issue – we’re living and working in my old stomping ground. I can get the “essential”3 parts of my life into a large suitcase, a gym bag and a rucksack (and I could have done away with the gym bag if I really had to) – really doesn’t seem enough. I know I’ve forgotten something, I just don’t know what yet. Oh, and explaining to a three year old that she won’t see me until next weekend isn’t easy4… especially since there are going to be much longer periods where she doesn’t see me.

Sad that I am to leave my family for so long I need to be pragmatic. I’ve done the Cromer-London weekend commute before and it’s punishing. Chuck in weekend engineering works, long work hours and the mountain of work that I know is coming my way and I can see me burnt out before Christmas – I am, after all, rapidly approaching 40.

So, next stop London5, although you’ll not see this post until a bit later as it’s all a bit hush hush at the moment. By that point I’ll already be in at the deep end 😉

My suitcase, bag and rucksack

Everything I need for three months… and some stuff I don’t. Doesn’t seem enough


1 Has it really been that long? Time really does fly when you’re having fun!

2 _Although spare a thought for poor Chris as he drew the short straw and is sharing an apartment with me. He’s going to need time away and therapy after 3 months of that 🙂

4 Not entirely sure it’s all essential. I’ve got gym kit, clubbing kit, about 100 glowsticks, a few kitchen gadgets, double the number of tshirts I can wear in a week and who knows what else in there. It’s scary how small you can pack your life down to if you need to.

4 “Daddy, it’s nap time, not work time. We say ‘goodnight’ not ‘goodbye’!”

5 Actually, technically, the next stop is Salhouse, I’m just not getting off there; I’ll be changing at Norwich – see what I mean about Chris getting the bum end of the deal?

10 weeks in

So we’re now… 10 weeks1(?) since I started at Rainbird which, in theory, has given time for the shine to wear off and the mundane to kick off – except it hasn’t. There are a few very good reasons for this.

Almost every day is exciting

A bad day for me these days is orders of magnitude better than a good day in some of my previous roles. “Bad” days generally happen because I’ve not completed something I wanted to complete, or I’ve made a mistake; they’re going to happen, no matter how good the job is. I hold myself to incredibly high standards and not having a bad day now and then would mean I’m not pushing myself hard enough.

It’s not a job…

I’m not there for the pay. I’m there for the challenge and the chance to create something seriously cool. I do the hours I do (including weekends and evenings) not because I have to, but because I want to.

…for anyone

We’re not carrying anyone. Everyone is there because they want to be there. It’s not just a job for them either. If something needs doing, it gets done by the first person who is able to do it.

It’s open

There are no political games, no power plays or empire building. Everyone knows what’s going on, warts and all, and everyone gets their say. It’s not a democracy (and nor would I want it to be, I haven’t got the first clue about some aspects of running a startup), but it is a benevolent dictatorship2 and that works really well.

It benefits me

My hard work has a direct effect on my rewards. I’m not working hard to allow someone else to benefit, I’m working hard for our benefit which is a huge incentive. Every day I can see progress towards our common goal and, while there are setbacks, there is an overarching feeling of moving forward.

Work, for me, is still something I am finding hugely fun, and massively rewarding.


1 I think that’s right, but it seems an awfully long time. That said, time does bizarre things at Rainbird and the days do seem to be flying by. Time flies when you’re having fun 🙂

2 Someone has to call the shots, and doing that by majority rule isn’t always the best way, especially when you’re dealing with areas of specialist knowledge where only one person may have the necessary experience

The Joy Of Development

It would appear someone has stolen my week. It’s Thursday afternoon already and I left the office wishing I could stay for another hour or two as I was on a roll and wanted to finish what I was working on. While I do have the ability to work on the train it’s offline for most of the journey, and interjects a 30 minute delay which is enough to derail any train of thought. Instead I need to wait until I get home to finish off.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been caught up in The Joy of Development at work. Too long in fact. I’d almost forgotten how much fun it is to take a complex problem and provide an elegant solution. I’d also forgotten how much of an arse it is to get OSX to play nicely as a web server – something the Apple make even harder when you’ve got OSX server running on the box. Still judicious amounts of Googling and sudoing have fixed that issue so shortly we shall have beautiful reports and pretty graphs coming from our CI builds which we can proudly display in the office on our dashboard screens.

Next job is to take the rather meta PostIt note from the whiteboard1 saying “build Kanban board” and turn it from a makeshift board with a few things stuck on it into a work of functional art. Then we can take the newly purchased PostIt notes, write down everything that needs to be done between now and the 21st2, panic at the size of the backlog and then wish we hadn’t visualised it.

All of which is a nice segue-way into a weekend of learning about continuous delivery into the cloud and blue/green deployments; although I could quite happily handle several more working days in this week before the weekend. I’ve missed enjoying work.


1 Actually, there’s two of them, and this one is on the left, so technically it’s the wheftboard, not the whiteboard… anyone? … no? … One is on the wheft, one is on the white? … really? No-one? Fine, forget it.

2 Release date for our open beta; sign up if you haven’t, it’s rather cool stuff. Also the date of my next talk, which I really need to get finished.

The diet starts… later

So it was rather my intention that joining Rainbird1 was going to kickstart a bit of a health drive. In my previous job there was Noodle Monday (which often featured extra large portions), Doughnut Thursday, random cakes, and the ever present snack machine which, during my last few months there, was being visited as early as 9am for my first hit of chocolate. This, among other things, has seen me putting on over 5Kg23.

Knowing, as I did, that my old team would just by sugary treats for my leaving presentation I simply requested all money collected be put to charity. This was taken as _”put a small part of it aside for charity, spend the lions share on sweets”. As a result Rainbird now has a sweetie drawer, and I don’t need a snack machine as I’ve got rubbish on tap for the next couple of weeks at least.

Noodle Monday has remained, although I’m reigning back to just large portions which had me feeling quite righteous about myself… until company ice cream happened on the way back to the office4.

After seeing me destroy a bag of flying saucers5, Ben, my boss, then proceeded to purchase me the largest possible tub of flying saucers he could find at Macro. The only reason this hasn’t been completely finished is the late hour in the day it arrived. I don’t recon it’s chances at lasting the distance today.

I’ve not got as far as Thursday to see if Doughnut Thursday can be avoided, but even if I do escape it it’s not looking great for the diet. I’m going to have to start thinking really hard about considering going back to the gym regularly.


1 As part of a rebranding exercise going on before the launch of the open beta on the 21st of next month the name is changing from RainBird to Rainbird, hence the chance in capitalisation from previous posts.

2 For those of you who work in old money, I’ve put on about a stone. If you work in lbs then you’ll have to work it out yourself.

3 That’s 5Kg, footnote 2, footnote 3, not 5Kg squared, cubed.

4 Although, free large ice cream! Yay!

5 I have a sugar problem, don’t judge me!

First Day

So Ben Taylor, CEO of RainBird has gone on record1 as saying something along the lines of that, “as a matter of principle, RainBird employees will be taken out for lunch on Fridays, without fail“.

It’s Friday… although, to be fair, perhaps if I’d made it into the office before 11 I’d have more of an argument. I ended up working from home in the morning in order to take delivery of my new monitor before coming in and setting up my temporary desk and writing a document that is quite literally called “Big Ol’ Bunch O’ Questions”.

It’s actually made for a nice first day. I got a lie-in. Apart from a brief period before lunch there wasn’t even anyone in the RainBird offices. I’ve not been bombarded with millions of names that I’m not going to remember2, I’ve not had to go through the whole induction thing, I’ve not had to answer the same questions many times over as I’m shown round the office.

Also, since I came in late I got a lift with my wife. She’s still in town so I’ll shortly be going to meet with her and my daughter for an early dinner before going home for the weekend. Who said startups were ridiculously long hours?


1 Sadly a printed article in the EDP, the online version of the article omits the quote in question.

2 I’ve met one guy, who’s name I’m familiar with.

Interview

Depending how you look at it, my interview with RainBird was either non-existent featuring, at best, an informal chat; or it was a gruelling 5 year affair where I had to prove myself by working my way up the ranks of a totally different company. Either way it wasn’t your standard technical interview.

I’ve written on the subject of interviews before, but that was for an established company hiring a developer. At a startup you’re hiring a manager/secretary/handyman who can also code and do a million other things that need to be done, which is a very tall order. I’m not entirely sure how you’d go about doing that without knowing that person and seeing, first hand, what that person was capable of over a prolonged period of time.

This approach to hiring means you can dispense with the incredibly narrow (and often counterproductive) fallacy that you must hire someone with X years experience in technology Y1, because that’s what you use. RainBird needs developers who can code in Node.js, AngularJS, plus a smattering of C++ and Prolog. If we’re charitable I have 1 months worth of industry C++ experience… from over 15 years ago.

Despite that seeming handicap I like to think I have a good understanding of a number of programming languages, including Javascript, a good grasp of architecting systems, the ability to manage a team, a broad set of organisational skills and the ability to build furniture that means, regardless of the technology being used, the longer term benefit I bring to the company by far and away beats the incredibly short term drawback of me having to get up to speed with some new stuff.


1 And don’t get me started on the whole “must be a self starter; must work well by themselves or as part of a team; must have excellent communication skills”; what does that even mean? You’d be unlikely to hire a lazy illiterate who didn’t play well with others for something as simple as a job at McDonalds, let alone put them into a development role – please, for the love of God, stop putting this crap into job specs.

Handyman

It doesn’t seem to matter what role I do in IT, it’s going to involve a certain amount of crawling around on the floor messing about with cables. Even in non support roles in large organisations where there were teams hired purely to crawl around the floor and mess about with cables, I still found myself doing it. Not that I mind; the aforementioned teams never seemed to wire up my machine the way I wanted anyway1.

With my move to a company who’s size will double to two when I join (with 50% of the company outranking me) I fully expect more crawling about on the floor – and not just with cables. One of my first jobs is going to be putting together the new office furniture, something I’m actually looking forward to strangely. I’d say this is the perfect example of a startup teaching you new, and unexpected skill sets, but the furniture is coming from IKEA and I’m already a dab hand at building that stuff – after all, it’s basically wooden lego for adults.


1 A true Jedi does his own cabling and bests the cable monster one on one – either that or I suffer from OCD when it comes to… well, many things actually.

So I Joined A Startup

So I joined a startup… or at least I’m going to shortly. In some respects it’s a bit of an odd move for me as I’m usually the one who opts for the “safe” option, but once you look at the decision in more detail it’s easy to see why it’s a no brainer for me.

The first worry for anyone moving to a startup is “is my job safe?”. But then define safe. We’ve just been through a recession that kicked off by bringing down Lehman’s, who were supposedly “too big to fail”. What I do know is that there’s money for the next year and even if it all goes tits up the experience gained in that year is going to be invaluable.

What about the hours? Well.. what about them? I spend most of my spare time playing with new technology anyway, why not invest that time into something useful, which could ultimately help the company, and therefore me.

And then there’s always the product. To be fair this is what has stopped me going to a startup in the past; I’ve never really believed in the product. My reaction has always been one of “OK, so that’s kind of cool… if it gets traction let me know and, if you’re still looking for people, we can talk”. With RainBird I think the product has the potential to be absolutely awesome. The fairly limited technical beta is already seriously cool.

So yes, it’s a risk, and yes it may flop, but hopefully I’m about to embark on something amazing, with some seriously talented people, doing a job that I can enthuse about at length. Watch, as they say, this space.