My First Year Working at a Fast-Growing Tech Startup

This year on October 8th, I crossed the 1-year mark at the first tech company I've ever worked at. It's been a wild ride! I've been in 2 departments since I started here, and honestly, that's not so crazy at this company. Sure, not everyone's smashing through barriers that quickly, but in a fast-growing tech startup, if you manage to showcase enough potential at the right time and place, you could end up being the first person to do XYZ role at the company. I've seen it happen to at least 5 other people in the departments I've worked in. Startups have the luxury of creating new roles and promoting quickly because they haven't lost momentum yet like most larger companies. That's just the tip of the iceberg, though.

I remember when I first started, the company was much smaller, and the office we worked in pre-COVID was only big enough for a Support Team of under 20 agents. Since leaving Support 8 months ago, the team has more than doubled in size. I can say the same about the QA team I'm on during the same time frame. We no longer work in an office during these times, but it's wild seeing all the names on the company roster. Gone are the days of the small tight-knit departments with manageable potlucks and Secret Santa parties. Should we ever have a company Christmas party in 2021 (please COVID, just leave), the venue would need to be an order of magnitude larger than the ballroom we had in 2019. As my managers in Support said back then, "these are the good old days." They certainly were.

Transitioning from Support to QA was partially due to luck, but I won't attribute most of it to that by any means. There are actions I took to ensure it would be a possibility when I joined the company. I chalk it up to a few things:

  1. Preparedness
  2. Technical ability
  3. Dedication to the Support role

Preparedness covers a lot of ground, but suffice to say that the 2 years leading up to my interview for the Support role, I had been practicing web development in my spare time. I had also been in several customer service roles and learned Spanish in college (helped with bilingual tickets at one point). I had also been highly motivated to understand social dynamics in order to cultivate the ability to have social interactions that lead to success in life. In short, I was committed to positioning myself for the kind of job performance that would get me paid a high salary in a matter of a few years. I was also determined to prove myself useful in a variety of situations. This mindset laid the foundation for #2 and #3.

Technical ability was the result of my web development studies, and that makes you stand out at a tech company because those skills show potential, even if the company doesn't use your tech stack. As someone in Support trying to move into a technical role, I was facing competition with other Support agents who would try for the same opportunities, as well as scrutiny from the hiring manager screening for technical ability. If I had gone into Support with no technical aptitude, I doubt I would have been received as well as I had been. After all, I was the first Support agent to go over to QA who didn't major in Computer Science and who didn't have any QA work experience, so I needed something to identify myself as "techy".

Dedication to the Support role is something that should be obvious, but isn't always, especially for people who feel entitled to opportunities as a reward for tenure alone. What I understood is that if you want something, you have to give something first. So I did my darndest to excel at the role of providing customer support to our users and learning as much as possible about the problems they were facing. I took every opportunity I could to stand out, and I think that taking the extra time to collect examples for a bug I saw a few users were facing is what helped me prove I had QA potential. Nobody asked me to do that, and normally it's a job for lead agents because the other agents' time is better spent on ticket velocity rather than researching and isolating issues. If I had not seen Support as an opportunity to show potential, I would have just spent my days clocking in to do tickets and waiting to clock out. Instead, I kept an eye out for ways to show leadership or technical aptitude.

My role in QA was very different from Support, and I had to adjust to that reality. At first I had major imposter syndrome. I was salaried for the first time in my life, I was making decent money, and I was suddenly invited to business meetings. This was also right when COVID started, so I also got to do this all from the comfort of my home. The level of privilege I felt was almost nauseating, and eventually I adjusted, but I still to this day wonder how I went from shuffling around a Walgreens sales floor to testing software in my bedroom in a matter of 6 months.

In the 6 months of QA that rounded out my first year, I was inundated with new technical knowledge, various industry tools, firsthand experience of agile software development, as well as opportunities to do some teaching, mentoring, and interviewing. I learned how to do testing on the mobile side on Android and iOS, on web dashboards, and at the API level. If I had to list all of the tools and features I've worked with in the first 6 months, this blog post would never end.

There are some things I've taken away from my time in QA, though, that have helped me be high-performing:

  1. QA Mindset --> This is a matter of being detail-oriented by nature. It's something that's difficult to teach, because it's exhausting if you don't enjoy it. I like to say that QA is a lot like an advanced technical version of those "spot the difference" games from those Highlights magazines you could read at the doctor's office. If you find joy in proofreading English papers or finding small things other people tend to miss, and you aren't an asshole about it to the person who made the mistake, you just might be made for QA.

  2. Wanting to Help Others Grow --> It's tough to be in the tech world in general without having a desire to help others learn and grow. I was always faced with challenges where I needed somebody to show me the ropes, and it would be hypocritical of me to deny newcomers the same courtesy. Having a deep desire to see others excel is not only rewarding emotionally, but can pay off in other ways like people seeing you as a leader.

  3. Loving the work --> I genuinely love QA work with all its trials and tribulations. It's so much fun that I find myself asking others if they want help even after I've done my share for the day. I go the extra mile to understand in depth how certain features work and what ways I can test them more thoroughly. I collaborate closely with developers to grasp how pipelines and configs work so I can leverage them in my testing to go faster and be more sure of my test's accuracy. I do all of this not because of some crazy work ethic but because I want to do it. All of it is interesting to me and I always want to know more and get the product across the finish line with quality, but faster whenever possible.

  4. Coding Knowledge --> I'm close to beginning a transition to QA Automation, which is normally unusual for someone who just came from Support 8 months prior, and who had no QA experience prior to being a manual tester. The fact that I came in with a deep knowledge of JavaScript enabled me to create proprietary technology in the first 3 months as a QA that helps us go faster as a team by an order of magnitude. I can't share what that tech is, but it's been very useful to the QA team as well as Dev and Product on occasion. It shows I understand how to code, which is useful for Automation.

  5. Self-Directed Learning --> In April, I finished a Udemy course on Node.js. In July, I took the time to get certified as an Agile Tester through ASTQB. In August, I finished a CodeCademy course on Ruby. In November, I used the Thanksgiving weekend to finish a Udemy course on RSpec. This shows initiative, enthusiasm for the trade, and potential for learning on the job as a newbie to QA Automation.

  6. Anxiety --> This is kind of bad, but honestly I have a certain level of anxiety about not doing enough work in a day. I've always had really high expectations of myself, and it's easy for me to overwork myself in order to achieve competence more quickly. This is not healthy, but it helped me get here faster. Take that however you would like to. I'm working on having a healthier mindset about work.

Everything goes differently for different people. I understand that. Someone with my same opportunities might have done things differently, and ended up with a different outcome. All I can say is that the first year at a tech startup worked out insanely well for me, and there are intentional steps I took to help myself get where I'm currently at. I am honestly really lucky that these opportunities even came up, because most companies don't have this kind of growth and trust in its people. In any case, I always say that if you manage to get wonderful things from the universe, the only right thing to do is to pour an equal or greater amount of wonderful energy back into the universe. Prosperity is a gift, and it should always be repaid in kind. When life gives you a break, show gratitude by creating value for others around you. Leave the world better than you found it.