I have been working as a software developer at a government job for a couple years now and have started looking for jobs elsewhere to forward my career. Specifically I am hoping to land a fully remote job.

I have been contacted by a recruiter for a startup company and since I have never worked at one I am hoping for some insight.

Are there any disadvantages I should be aware of that come with working at a startup?

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    I hate to say it, but did you Google this? I know there are thousands of articles covering this topic in depth. So do you have a more specific question that those articles didn't address?
    – flexi
    Feb 4 at 21:38

When prospective hires ask me that in interviews, I tend to tell them that the good parts and the bad parts are really two sides of the same coin. Because so much less has already been invented and established, you get to write the rules. Unfortunately, you're also the one who has to make sure they work!

Unless the company is getting big (say over 100 employees) there will almost certainly be systems and processes that you'll have to invent. E.g., how does the frontend team do code review? Do you borrow what everyone else does? Or do you need to adapt that to the particulars of the way the frontend team works and that problem expresses itself?

Or another example. Maybe the startup doesn't have a mobile application and you're asked to do it. It can be very exciting to have a blank slate to do whatever you want to get that project off the ground. But it can also be really daunting if having sole responsibility for a critical system makes you uncomfortable.

These can obviously be a great experience: you aren't bound by the choices you don't like that someone else has already established and that you would have to push very hard to change. It can also be not that great, because you have to (a) find patterns that work and (b) you'll be the one defending them as the company grows.

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    On the plus side, you'll often be the most senior/experienced person in your given skillset / area of expertise. So you get to build all the systems and write all the rules. On the downside, you'll often be the most senior/experienced person in your given skillset/area of expertise. So you'll have nobody more senior/experienced to guide and mentor you.
    – Kaz
    Feb 4 at 20:15

First, the term startup is applied to companies at many different stages of growth, yet working at a two person shop is very different than working at a place with 2000 employees, though they both might legitimately be "startups". If you provide more information regarding the growth-stage of the startup, the answers you receive will be more relevant.

That said, there are some fundamental differences between a startup and a government job - if these are considered advantages/disadvantages really depends on you, the type of job/career you want, your relationship to work, etc. I've picked two examples to illustrate.

Broadly speaking, working at a start up is going to be more dynamic than working at a government job, and that dynamism will be across the board: the structure of your team (or the company as a whole), the person you report to, the project you are working on, or even the task you need to finish by the end of the day, is subject to frequent change.

It also means you get exposure to many different aspects of the firm - you might be a front-end engineer who get's moved to a dev-ops role, only to be assigned to help out QA, and then moved to a back-end team. You'll be shuffled from one project to another to help out as necessary. There will be very little downtime, it's unlikely that you'll finish a project, and have some easy days (or weeks) waiting for the next one to begin.

That dynamism, and hopefully the growth of the firm, means that there are will be opportunities for advancement. I've heard of folks going from software developer, to team lead, to head of engineering, within a year.

This makes working at a startup interesting and exciting, of course, but it can also be exhausting, and leave one feeling like he's never being given the time to master a specific skill set, or even do a good job with the tasks he's working on.

The second way that I think that working at a government job is very different than at a startup, will be how the average employee relates to his work: the startup is much more likely to be filled with folks passionate about their work (I don't use the term passionate to be either a positive or a negative quality). At its best, you might be surrounded by people who love what they do, and can teach you a lot. At its worst, you can be surrounded by people who make major issues out of trivialities, who think every fight is worth having, etc. There are going to be very few people who are just there to punch the clock and earn a check.

It also means, for good or bad, that people are likely to work a lot more hours at a startup than at a government job (if you're passionate about writing software, and you're at a place where there is a lot of software to be written, it's pretty easy to get caught doing more and more work), and that the expectations of work hours are going to be set high.

I think the best way to decide if going to a startup makes sense, would be to write down what you want for your job, for your career, and for your life, and then see if those things are better matched at startup or at your current job. There is no right or wrong answer - the answer that matters is the one which will work for you.


The main disadvantage is that at a government job, every penny you get comes from tax payers.

At a startup, every penny comes from some rich person taking a big risk with their money.

For this reason at a government job, you have total security. (Unless there is literally a revolution; other than that, government can take what they want from tax payers.)

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    A lot of people in government jobs actually do useful work (nurses, teachers, firemen, software developers making critical systems). So they don't "get" their pennies but they "earn" their pennies. Feb 4 at 20:44

I fundamentally agree with the foregoing. You're justifiably bothered by the word, "startup." I'd encourage you right now to go back to your recruiter and to simply ask them about the business role that you will be expected to play, and the business environment – from day to day to day – in which you will be expected to play it.

After all – "startup" or no, you(!) don't expect to be 'a gambler.'" Instead, you expect "the gamblers" to be experienced-enough businesspeople to know what the hell they are doing.

What you should therefore explore right now are "the limits of the role that you will be expected to play." This certainly is going to be "your biggest shock," coming from a Government perspective, but it's certainly quite manageable. (In fact, "all of us taxpayers who've been paying you all these years ... wink wink wink! ..." are quite familiar with it!") Just try to gauge the situation as best you can, and definitely make the Recruiter earn their keep.

Full disclosure: "I've operated quite successfully in 'these waters' for more than thirty years. The water's fine – but, there are rocks."

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    Might also mention the often crazy hours. I've worked straight 36 on a holiday to get something ready for the next business day.
    – David R
    Feb 4 at 22:30

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