The Top Traits Startups Look for in a Software Engineer

What are the traits of a successful startup engineer?

We took that question to startup tech leaders and recruiters to uncover the ideal startup engineering persona.

For long-time startup engineers: knowing these traits will help you highlight key skillsets and experiences when applying for your next role.

New to the startup space? Use these tips to creatively communicate how your background has molded you into an ideal fit for your next position at a growing startup.


  1. They hustle.

Startup teams move fast. There is a lot of pressure to deliver when startups are facing rounds of funding.

As a result, a startup that’s hiring will be looking for a team member who can keep up with the pace and not slow the team down.

Note: This doesn’t mean they’re looking for someone to work so hard that they end up getting burnt out.

Damien Stanton, a long-time startup software engineer explained, “Good managers and founders know that technologists who are mentally and physically able to take care of themselves build better systems and stay on board for longer.”

It also doesn’t mean cutting corners. You have to learn how to focus on the tasks that matter the most and not spend time on filler tasks. Here are some time management tips for startup engineers.

How to Show You’ve Got It

Have you delivered a project to your boss with a quick turnaround? Ever shipped code during a tight timeframe?

These sorts of examples will help you communicate that you not only have what it takes to keep up but that you’ll be able to drive the team forward.

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  1. They’re Passionate Programmers.

Do you ever feel energized after solving a complex problem? Or you’re constantly itching to learn more?

To succeed in the startup environment, it takes an innate curiosity and a desire to learn. You’re working with new technologies and building new products. It requires good problem-solving skills and a tendency to not be satisfied with the status quo. You have to be willing to tackle challenges, think outside the box, and come up with creative solutions.

Startups will want to see that you’re passionate about programming and that you’re truly interested in what you do.

How to Show You’ve Got It

Side projects. Volunteer Work. GitHub Repos.

All of these are great ways to show that your love of programming isn’t limited to a 9-5. It also means you’re invested in growing your skillsets and want to improve as an engineer.

Don’t forget to mention if you’re active in any tech communities! Not only does this reiterate the fact that you’re passionate about engineering, it means you have a community of techies at your fingertips. That’s especially crucial if the startup you want to join has a small engineering team. Whether you’re looking for career advice or need an answer to a technical question, you’ll be a stronger engineer because of that community.


  1. They’re Adaptable and Teachable

“I’m looking for someone who knows they’ll have to wear multiple hats (and wants to!) and can tell stories about how they’ve been flexible and adapted to major changes quickly.” – Rajesh Nerliker, CEO of Prodify

There’s a lot of unknowns when it comes to taking on a new job at a startup. Sometimes, even the hiring managers don’t necessarily know exactly what the position will involve. They’ll have a good understanding of the gap on their team and what kind of resource they need but can’t anticipate all the components of the job.

That’s why startups value someone who’s willing to take on responsibility beyond their role. A utility player who wants to help the entire team succeed.

Doug Lawson, VP of Engineering at YayLunch, explains, “We’re looking for fully-formed adults (of all ages), who can step into ambiguity and make things happen versus candidates who need a lot of detailed direction.”

The second piece of this is teachability. Startup hiring managers will want to see that you possess humility and have a willingness to learn from others. You have to be willing to acknowledge what you don’t know and seek the answer from others who have more experience. Arrogance won’t get you far in this kind of work environment.

Lawson from YayLunch further explained that one of their go-to interview questions is to ask a candidate to share what went well and what didn’t about a recent project they completed. He explained, “This shows whether or not they have a sense of humility and how they respond to success or failure (or both).”

How to Show You’ve Got It

Use the interview as a time to share examples that demonstrate times you’ve been flexible and teachable in the workplace.

Have you ever taken responsibilities that weren’t tied to your job description? Make sure you communicate that! It’s worth communicating that you’re not looking for a predictable job that never changes. You’re ready to dive into whatever comes along.

Are you resilient? Do you learn from the experience and quickly get back on track?

As you share your background, you don’t need to come across as knowing everything. Mistakes happen, that’s just part of working in a fast-paced environment. Instead, demonstrate that you know to respond when things don’t go perfectly.


  1. They’re Independent

While teams at startups are tight-knit and collaborative, you’ll rarely ever have a manager constantly hovering behind you or checking all your work.

Many startups are looking for people who can jump in and start to tinker before they come back with questions. They’ll want to know how much upfront information you require to do a job and whether you’re able to get your own answers before you go back to ask for help. It’s a work environment that requires a motivated individual who’s able to work independently.

Quick Tip: If you’re at the final interview stages, it’s an important time to gauge how much support the startup will be able to offer and make sure it’s a work environment where you’ll thrive. Ask yourself what you need to succeed (maybe that’s regular check-ins with your lead or the occasional afternoon of paired programming). Don’t be afraid to communicate that to your potential manager.

How to Show You’ve Got It

Have there ever been times when you were given a vague description from your boss and had to roll with it? How did you go about getting answers before you went back for help? Those are great examples to bring up during the interview to demonstrate your ability to work on your own and stay motivated.


  1. They Can Work with a Small Team

“If someone’s career goal is to lead, say, a huge empire of engineers, we’re just not going to be the best place for that.” – Doug Lawson, YayLunch

Another factor the hiring manager will want to discuss is whether you’ll be able to handle the dynamic of working on a smaller team. It’s totally different than being at a huge company where many team members develop specialties and often stay in their swim lane. For some developers, that’s the appeal of a startup.

The hiring team may want to make sure you have prior experience working at a startup, or at least on a small innovative team, and that you have what it takes to succeed.

How to Show You’ve Got It

If you haven’t worked at a startup before, then it’s helpful to show that you’ve worked with a small team, preferably on innovative technology.

Quick Tip: If you also have experience working with a medium to larger team, then spin that around to your advantage. After all, as the startup grows, you’ll need to be comfortable working with a growing number of team members. Perhaps your experience will be just what they need as they move from a small, intimate team to a larger more structured company.


  1. They Have a Strong Technical Background

This one is fairly obvious. Can you actually do the job?

Note: Some startups might not be looking for a brand new developer who they can mold. They might not have time to train junior engineers. Instead, they need to bring on developers with years of experience in the startup world who can dive right in.

Other startups don’t care as much about how many years of experience you have, or how you got that experience (like this startup that almost exclusively onboards developers from coding bootcamps).

How to Show You’ve Got It

If you don’t have years of experience in a technical role, then get creative about how you can show your experience.

Worked on any projects? Show them your GitHub repos and portfolio. Collaborated with other engineers through tech communities? Talk about that experience. Don’t forget to also tell them about any experience you’ve gained through coding challenges (think Hacktoberfest, Advent of Code, etc.)



Something to keep in mind as you interview is that candidates with extensive startup experience often present their background differently than those coming from a corporate environment.

Jeremy Freeman, CTO of Raleigh-based startup Allstacks, explained that people who came up in large companies often focus on tasks, efficiency, or the corporate ladder. On the other hand, those who have a startup mindset usually “focus on problems they have solved, how their responsibilities have changed or evolved (as opposed to getting promoted) and ask a lot of questions about things not in their direct job description.”

Keep these traits of a successful startup engineer in mind and consider using the above tips in your next interview to communicate why you’re confident about stepping into your new startup role.


Interested in finding a tech job at a startup?
Author: Lauren Alexander

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