As a developer, i know how much I like learning new stuff. Now that I'm hiring developers for my startup, I know I can't compete with Google's zillion-dollar bonuses and fancy cafeterias, but we are rich with opportunities for curious people to learn. I want to set things up to support that.

So if you're a developer likely to join a startup, what do you want to learn? Product things? Business things? User research, design, or tech ops things? Or if it's more technical learning you're after, do you want to go deeper in what you know (e.g., back end learning back end) or cross-train (e.g., front end learning back end)? Or is there something else entirely?

  • 6
    I want to learn how to make money in a startup... Feb 18, 2011 at 21:10
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    @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner: I'm not sure if you're serious, but one of our potential hires sure is, and that's what kicked this off. She said that in 10 years she wants to found her own startup, so we're talking with her to figure out exactly what she wants to learn. That made me wonder what other developers want to learn. Feb 18, 2011 at 21:27
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    When working for a startup, I would like a chance to do things well, to be in a good relationship with coworkers, and to work on stuff that is not ancient. I would want it to be like renting a month-to-month apartment that is so good, that I would not want to leave for 5 years or more.
    – Job
    Feb 19, 2011 at 5:02

6 Answers 6


I joined a startup as a single digit hire. I wanted to build something from scratch, ... and also ... learn how to build a company from the business side.

I hope to be in your position soon (hiring), and from what I've seen, you can attract good developers simply by offering them the freedom to be creative.

I think there's a real opportunity to exploit here, simply by hiring smart. Big Dumb Companies simply don't get it.

  • Thanks! I agree completely. Is there any particular business-side stuff you find more appealing? Feb 20, 2011 at 20:32
  • I'm much more people-oriented now... I prefer strategy & selling.
    – red-dirt
    Feb 23, 2011 at 12:10

To me, personally, it is not the possibility to learn technical stuff which would lure me to a startup (technologies come and go - after a couple (dozen), one may not get so excited anymore about the latest and greatest new fad). Rather the chance to make a visible difference in the world, or at least in a community.

In a big corporation, however good place it is, this is almost impossible. In a small startup - at least I imagine so - one can make a difference.

May be it's just me - feel free to call me a naive dreamer :-)

  • 6
    +1 for visible difference, that's a very powerful motivator for many developers
    – Herman
    Feb 18, 2011 at 21:04
  • If you're a dreamer, you're not the only one. That's a big part of why I'm doing a startup myself! Feb 18, 2011 at 21:29

How about you don't try to determine that upfront, but just allow a certain percentage of time (20?) to be dedicated to studying? Introduce a weekly or bi-weekly event where your developers can get together and just learn Something New™. They will find out what, as long as they're the motivated, eager to learn type of developers. And you, as both a developer and The Boss™, can just join in and learn Something New™.

  • Good idea! Two reasons I'm leaning toward being more specific. One, promising that people will learn Something New seems less exciting than promising them that they'll learn the thing they'd like to know. Two, not all learning is beneficial to a startup or easy to get there, so I'd like to match people up with the many learning opportunities that we have. That doesn't mean that we can't give people time for broader learning, though. Feb 20, 2011 at 20:31

"Top Three Motivators For Developers (Hint: not money!)" is a good blog post about some motivators that I'd suggest for looking into what some people may want. Péter Török's answer about a difference in the world would fall under the purpose part of things.

I'd be tempted to think of this through a pair of different views:

Selfish -> This would be where I'd want to focus on my wants, needs and desires which could vary over time and experiences. What makes me happy or fulfilled that I do for self-gratification which could be about technical stuff, greed or who knows what else.

Selfless -> This is the area Péter Török covered pretty well in terms of making the world a better place.

For myself, mastery comes down to a few things. Practice is part of what I'll need as I want to experiment different ideas to see what works or doesn't work and so having room to allow for mistakes would be a nice benefit. A second part is getting that feedback of what worked well and what didn't work as if I'm always just working on the next thing and not having any feedback or time for reflection that may create some resentment to my mind. Lastly, there is that sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to see the difference between where I am and where I was. For example, if something now takes me just a hour or two but used to take me a week to do that is really cool.

  • Thanks! I am specifically trying to ask about the "mastery" aspect of the autonomy/mastery/purpose triad. That means different things to different people, and I wanted to explore that a little more. Feb 18, 2011 at 21:32

Not learning foresooth, but things I want from a startup that aren't money:

  • Smart, kind people
  • The opportunity to make important decisions
  • The knowledge that my work truly helps someone
  • The opportunity to be myself (yes, I'm comfortable in Hawaiian shirts culottes)

One interesting answer is that rather than focusing on what most developers would like to learn, focus on what the best developers would like to learn. See http://martin.kleppmann.com/2009/09/18/the-python-paradox-is-now-the-scala-paradox.html for some discussion of this.

However here is a list of common stuff that good developers are likely to like.

  1. Source control cannot be neglected. It seem that git is preferred, but svn is acceptable to many.
  2. You have unit tests, right?
  3. Have code review. If you're using git, try gerrit. If you're using svn, try Rietveld.
  4. Your interview questions should include challenging coding problems. Not challenging in the sense of trivia, but challenging in that you have to think through the problem. Most developers will bomb. But the best developers will do well and will gain confidence that they won't have any idiots to deal with on the team.

Good luck.

  • Hi! I did think of asking what the best developers want to learn, but per the Dunning-Kruger effect, people aren't good at self-selecting for "best". So instead I just thought I'd ask what individuals want to learn. Is there anything you're looking to learn personally? Feb 18, 2011 at 21:31

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