How to Build Your Own Career Path at a Tech Startup (In 4 Simple Steps)

How to Build Your Own Career Path at a Tech Startup (In 4 Simple Steps)

Want to know how to navigate your career as a startup engineer?

The idea of building your own career ladder in the startup space can feel both exciting and intimidating.

Most startups are focused on building out a product roadmap. That means that developing career ladders for each department isn’t exactly their most pressing issue.

The good news is that, if you’re proactive, you can leverage the flexibility that’s offered into a satisfying career path.

To find out how, we spoke with Frankie Nicoletti, a startup engineering leader. She has spent the last decade navigating her own journey in the startup space and gained countless ideas and tips on how engineers can successfully build their own career ladder.

In this interview, she shares practical advice on how a startup engineer can discover their dream job, network like a champ, and invest in their own growth.



Step #1. Identify Your Dream Job

There are countless career paths that you can take in the tech space.

Quite frankly, the options can be overwhelming. How can you choose a dream job if you’ve never worked in that kind of position?

To start out, you’ll need to do a little brainstorming based on the experience you already have.

Take some time to ask yourself these questions:

  • What job titles interest me?
  • What technical skills or experience do I want?
  • What industries excite me?

As you write down your answers, ideas around your ideal career path will emerge.

Now it’s time to start exploring those ideas.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Talk with co-workers who work in a position that interests you.
  • Join a tech community that’s geared towards the career you want to be in.
  • Sign up for technical newsletters that are relevant to your dream career track or industry.

Alternatively, you could explore career paths by taking an entry level job in that space.

Frankie Nicoletti proposes this is a great way to quickly find out if a certain career path is right for you. If it’s not, you can either move towards a new role at a different company or ask your manager if they can help you find a better fit within your current company.

You might be wondering, “Won’t that reflect poorly on my resume?”

Frankie has found that it’s becoming more common to work in a position for a brief period of time. She shares, “In our industry, it’s acceptable to move onto a new job after six months. This is an environment where hiring managers won’t ask why you didn’t stay at a company for less than a year.”

In the off chance that they do ask why you left your previous role, Frankie explains that it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you wanted to explore the career path and gain new skills.

Whether you dive right in by taking a job offer or simply join a community to connect with people in that career space, this stage of exploration is crucial. Take your time and enjoy the process. It will steer you towards your dream job.


Step #2. Invest in Yourself to Become a Dream Candidate

Now that you know what direction you want to go in, it’s time to figure out how to get there.

Frankie explains, “A great place to start is looking at the job descriptions of the positions you’d like to have in the future. Whether you’re trying to stay at your current company or go somewhere new, job descriptions are always a great source of truth for what you need to do next.”

As you peruse job descriptions, make two lists:

  • List #1: What you already know (or skills you already have)
  • List #2: What you’ll need to learn

Pro Tip: You don’t need to possess every skill listed on the job description. Even the hiring managers won’t expect that. To be competitive, just focus on the most critical skills.


List in hand, it’s time to determine how to fill in the gaps.

Some options to consider:

  • Learn the skill through a side project or open-source community. This route is beneficial because you’ll end up building something that you can showcase on your resume or technical portfolio.
  • Join a coding community that focuses on the programming language or technology you want to learn. This will provide a great place to network and connect with experts in that technology.
  • Participate in a coding competition. For example, hackathons, codewars, and Advent of Code are fun ways to deepen your knowledge of a specific technology or language. You can also join discussion boards and online communities that are formed around these competitions.
  • Complete a course or certification. There are countless online courses available for techies who are ready to advance their skills. Codeacademy, LinkedIn Learning, and Coursera are just a few places to start. When it comes to certifications, find out whether your desired career path requires any. While not relevant to all tech jobs, they’re a must-have for certain career paths (such as Cloud engineering).

All of these are a great way to strengthen your resume; however, Frankie argues that the best option is to gain experience on the job (who doesn’t love getting paid to learn something new?).

If the skill is relevant to your current job, talk to your manager. The company will likely be willing to pay for the training, conference, or class.

If you want to explore an area that isn’t connected to your current job, then start connecting with others in your company who are in those roles. Let them know you’d like to get experience with their line of work.

Odds are they won’t mind a little extra help.

You may work some extra hours beyond your official job, but this kind of learning environment is hard to beat. Not only can you get paid to master the skill, but you also get to network with others, gain a mentor, and discover whether you’re actually interested in that kind of work.

And as a bonus, your leadership will appreciate you taking the initiative to invest in yourself. Not a bad way to stand out!


Step #3. Build Your Board of Directors to Help Guide Your Path

“I think that everyone needs to have a personal board of directors, even if it’s only a couple people.” – Frankie Nicoletti

In short, a personal board of directors is a small group of people who can provide advice and guidance as you make career decisions. Ideally, these are people who don’t work at your current company; that way they can offer an unbiased opinion. From a professional career coach to your old manager at a previous job, these voices are invaluable. (Note: This also includes peer mentors. Frankie points out that a mentor doesn’t have to be someone with years of experience in your dream job. In fact, peers may have a better understanding of your situation and may offer a more relaxed environment to bounce ideas around.)

If you already have a couple of mentors who meet this description, you’re ahead of the curve.

If you don’t have a mentor or you’re looking to gain another one, here are some ideas to find one.

  • Reach out to past coworkers you know from previous jobs.
  • Reconnect with people you met through a bootcamp or school program.
  • Network with members of an engineering community.
  • Ask your friends and coworkers if they can introduce you to a mentor.
  • Stay in touch with hiring managers who have interviewed you (even if you don’t get the job).

Alternatively, you might aspire to connect with someone who you follow on social media but don’t yet know.

Frankie offers these tips to make a smooth connection:

  1. Pay attention to what they’re knowledgeable about. Read what they post about and look at their LinkedIn profile to see their past work experience. By getting this information, you’ll know whether they’d be a good mentor for you and may find common ground to help make the connection more natural.
  2. Write down questions that you’d want to ask them. Get specific! Since you’ve already looked up their background, you’ll know which questions will be relevant to them.
  3. Reach out with your specific request. By not reaching out with a vague “can I pick your brain?” you demonstrate that you respect this person’s time. It’ll be hard for them to ignore you.

Frankie advises going through this process with several people. She points out, “Not all of them will lead into a mentorship relationship, but if it doesn’t, it’s still a great way to learn some things.” At the very least, you might make a professional friendship.

Have a mentor in mind? Go ahead and take the leap. You’ll likely be surprised by how willing most people are to connect.

As you repeat this process, your board of directors will start to take shape. This group will be your go-to-resource for ideas, advice, and inspiration as you move through your career journey.


Step #4. Take the Leap for that New Role (or Promotion)

The next steps on finding your new role vary depending on how happy you are with your current company.


“I’m happy at my company.”

Making a career move doesn’t necessitate saying goodbye to your company.

If you love where you work, you can progress in your career by requesting a promotion, applying for an open position, or even proposing the creation of a new role that you could step into.

Note: The latter isn’t as crazy as it may sound. It’s expensive to lose a quality employee, so your company may be willing to invent a new position for you. However, you’ll need to prove a legitimate business case for the position.

If you work at a startup, they most likely don’t have an established engineering career ladder.

That means you’ll need to initiate conversations about changes in your career, regardless of whether you’re looking for a promotion or a lateral change into a new role.

If you’re anticipating a raise to accompany this role change, then you’ll need to do some research. Find out what other startups pay for similar roles. You can also look at your own company’s job postings to see the salary bands for open roles. This research will help you come to the conversation with a reasonable number in mind.

You can also check out these tips on how to get a raise without leaving your startup.


“I’m ready to leave my company.”

If you’re ready to move to a new company, then it’s time to start searching for roles.

Here are some helpful resources for you as you start your job search:



Whether you’re a startup veteran or you just joined your first startup, you know that the career ladder can be complex. Your path won’t be perfectly linear.

But that’s what makes it exciting.

As you navigate through your career, it’s important to concentrate on your goals so you stay on track. If you continually explore areas of interest, invest in your own professional development, and cultivate a personal board of directors, you won’t be disappointed by the doors that will open for you.

Your future self will thank you!

Author: Lauren Shetler

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