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I recently left my job as a software developer in a company with 2500+ employees, to join a small software development team in a young company in another city. The job is in a completely new domain (finance) which I know very little about, but am interested in. I was told that it would be okay if I wasn't familiar with the domain as I could pick it up easily enough. Some of the technologies at play were a little new to me too.

I've been here a few weeks now, and I've been observing a pattern where the developers seem to be stressed all the time, in some cases yelling and being rude to operations staff, because they're busy with all the new clients coming on board. As a new employee, when I need someone to answer domain specific questions (which I can't find the answer to after much searching), I'm told "I don't have the time right now", or I'm met with a short, terse, and vague response, which sometimes raises more questions.

Is this normal in a startup environment? I don't mind being busy, and working long hours, but I was looking for a rational workplace, where current employees would invest in new hires and try to give them a little more direction, or structured projects in the first few weeks. I understand that startups, especially successful ones that are acquiring new clients and growing fast, will be busy places. Are my expectations unrealistic? How should I handle this?

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This is the nature of a startup and successful small businesses in general. This answer to a somewhat similar question has important cues which you can take to apply here. You won't find structure or stability in a startup and you'd better mentally prepare yourself for this. Do they have adequate documentation for the project/product? – kolossus Jan 13 '13 at 15:38
Personally when someone has questions for me, I prefer they either email them to me or ask when is a good time to talk to me about some questions they have. Asking me the question directly often breaks my train of thought and can make me irritable. Emailing me questions or setting up a time for them prevents this, as I can make sure nothing else is going on and can focus on what is being asked. – Rachel Jan 13 '13 at 15:51
+1 to Rachel with that comment. Have you tried emailing them or asking them for 15 minutes of their time via a calendar invite? It may be better to get all of your questions written down, and email them to them, and ask that they answer as they have time over the next few days. – Randy E Jan 13 '13 at 15:57
+1 to Kolossus for "You won't find structure or stability in a startup and you'd better mentally prepare yourself for this". I think that's something i've been in denial about, but it's time to accept ground realities. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation on the product, even in the form of comments in the codebase. There are no tests either. When a code change is made, the features that are likely to be impacted will be tested with a few data points. – Dan Jan 13 '13 at 17:12
+1 to Rachel for "Have you tried emailing them or asking them for 15 minutes of their time via a calendar invite? It may be better to get all of your questions written down, and email them to them". I have lately started clumping multiple non-urgent questions together because I understand that they are busy and feel terrible about disturbing them. I had new hires ask me questions in my previous workplace, and I remember how that sometimes threw off my train of thought. Although, to be honest, it feels odd to email / setup a meeting with someone, who's sitting right in front of you. – Dan Jan 13 '13 at 17:15
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think that half of your problem may just be culture shock. The disparity between a 2500+ company and a small development team at a startup is pretty significant. I think that you may have been a little optimistic with your expectations of dedicated mentoring. What you're experiencing now is not altogether uncommon in that environment and there are a few things that you can do to help make things a little smoother for you.

Domain knowledge is really important, but some of your questions may require a lot more explanation than you initially expect. For example, in finance, you may encounter the word 'option.' Options are pretty complicated to fully understand and a passing question to a developer working on something else might not be the best way to cover that. You can potentially counteract this issue in the following ways:

1- Ask others for resources rather than answers. Sites like Investopedia can be a good starting point for concepts. Find out resources that other developers may use to help them understand the domain. Start compiling these resources in a company or departmental wiki to help future new hires.

2- Form good relationships with non-developers that are domain experts and ask them for resources too. This may evolve into someone 'taking you under their wing' to grasp the domain. At the very least, it will let you 'spread out' your questions

3- Ask your peers the best way to ask them questions. Some people prefer email, some would prefer a meeting while others can handle the interruptions from an IM or a question over the cubicle wall.

4- Find a pain point and own it. The culture shock you're experiencing can be incredibly overwhelming. Adding in the difficulty of learning a new domain and you, obviously, find yourself second guessing every decision you've ever made. You need to be able to focus on something specific and actionable and get yourself a 'win.' Listen carefully to the things that people are complaining about. Grab one that sounds solvable and take responsibility for it. This should help your confidence, your relationship with your peers and the efficiency of their work.

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You're right about the culture shock. After college, this is my first job switch (I worked 5 years at my previous workplace, 3 as a software developer). My confidence took a big hit because I found myself struggling so much, with so many questions, in this new position. Things which I thought I "knew", or "should be easy", I found myself struggling with. I really need to adjust my attitude, be more positive, more mentally prepared for this new environment. Great advice on the "Find a pain point and own it". I also need to empower myself to take up these side projects. – Dan Jan 13 '13 at 17:22
#3 is really good advice (for anyone, really, not even just developers). – enderland Jan 14 '13 at 13:43

Pick a time that won't interupt everyone where you can ask several questions at once.

Have a discussion with your supervisor about expectations. The timeframe they expect you to be up to speed may be much longer than you're comfortable with.

Are you writing production code? Is it going to get reviewed? I think the other answers are correct in having "you" provide some structure to your questions.

Maybe you're more worried about making mistakes then they are? They probably had to learn things for themselves and hope you do the same. This is probably part of the startup culture where they don't have the resources to document everything.

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"Have a discussion with your supervisor about expectations." Great suggestion. At my previous workplace, expectations were set very clearly at the start of the year, and there was a notion of a roadmap. Since I haven't had this discussion with my manager here, it's made me feel like i'm drifting. That's clearly a sign that I need to take some initiative here and set solid goals for myself, and a conversation with my manager would be a great 1st step. – Dan Jan 14 '13 at 18:48
I've been at places where training classes were all mapped out ahead of time for new hires and others where you figured it out for yourself. – JeffO Jan 15 '13 at 18:25

HAve you tried asking the operations staff your domain knowledge questions? If you talk to them politely and with respect, they are highly likely to be helpful to you especially when the other devlopers are treating them as badly as you describe.

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