Choosing a Team at a Tech Company

A Framework for Determining What You Value Most in a Team

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Working with a team is essential, but how do you determine who you want to work with? (source)

Let’s say you’ve just joined a tech company and you’re making a decision on which team to choose. Potential hiring managers might come up to you and tell you that their team has great team socials, or that there are numerous growth opportunities. Of course, everyone values these opportunities differently, but it’s often valuable to distinctly classify them first. In other words, you should always think about how much you value everything before seeing what the teams have to offer. I’ll present a framework for how to think about that decision based on four axes: domain, skills, scope, and culture. Afterward, it’ll be up to you to decide what you value the most between and within those axes.

The first critical axis is the domain. This represents the subject matter of what you’d be working on. Your interests may vary, but, it could be a larger general topic like advertising or electronics hardware or a more specific category, like home electronics for consumers or enterprise systems for businesses. Each choice would give you domain-specific knowledge for that particular industry. Perhaps, you’d better understand the fickle desires of the consumer market or the nuances of working with enterprise customers. Depending on where you see yourself down the road, those experiences may prove to be invaluable. Generally, most people pick something that they’d be interested in working on and improving, where they’d have some context of the domain, but are eager to learn more. On the other hand, there might be domains you’d like to avoid because you don’t believe there’s a lot of potential due to industry shifts, or it’s not something you personally are interested in. Either way, domain knowledge is incredibly important to understanding the problems to be solved.

The potential skills you may learn are a critical factor that’s just as important as the domain. In tech, many of these skills such as system design, debugging, and user interaction can be readily applied to almost any application. For example, knowing how to take an application and parallelize it at scale is essential for most web platforms. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on advertising or e-learning, the lessons are invaluable regardless. However, in this case, what’s important is not just the potential to learn, but who you can learn from. Unlike domain knowledge, which is often more accessible, it’s often harder to find a mentor with the specific skillset that you’re looking to gain that’s both willing to take you on as a mentee and has an ample store of experience to draw upon. Commonly, the person that created large systems may not be the same ones to maintain them, in which case, they may not be a good guide for those lessons. Asking questions around topics like these may be helpful to determine whether those mentors exist for your potential teams. Having access to the skills that you value and a mentor for those skills are crucial to personal growth.

For those in more senior positions, skills often aren’t as important as scope. Usually, those with more experience will instead look to increasing the scope of their work. This can be on the technical front, managing a more complex system with greater responsibilities, or on the management front as a tech lead or a people manager. If a project has a broad scope, there’s a great potential for growth and scale, but if the scope is more limited, it’ll be much harder to gain promotions, and shift focuses across projects to acquire the necessary skills. Future scope is definitely also something you should consider when evaluating teams as it may grow over time depending on the industry and the project.

The very last part to consider is culture. What are the people on the team like? How much do you enjoy talking to them? How much do you feel like you can learn from them? I’ve personally found that the greatest moments of growth for me aren’t from the projects I’ve worked on, but the people I’ve worked with. In those people, a diverse set of opinions and perspectives often leads to a more balanced collaborative culture. Choosing a healthy team dynamic can be just as important as choosing the technical skills.

Ultimately, it’ll be hard to prioritize between and within these four axes, and even harder to find a team that’ll satisfy enough of these qualifications. I hope though that these axes provide a useful framing to think about what you value in a team, whether that’s at a startup or in a big tech company, and you can use that framing in making your own career decisions.

SWE @ Nuro | Formerly Facebook/Google | Yale ’18 | alanliu.dev

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