Yes Virginia, You Can Work on Great Technology at Startups

You can work on great technology at startups. You wouldn’t think that would be a controversial statement. But it is if you believe Ted Tso’s defense of Google, “Google has a problem retaining great engineers? Bullcrap.” Ted dismisses the engineering that goes on in a startup, saying:

Similarly, you don’t work on great technology at a startup.  Startups, by and large, aren’t about technology — at least, not the Web 2.0 startups like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, Groupon, etc.   They are about business model discovery.  So if you are fundamentally a technologist at heart, whose heart sings when you’re making a better file system, or fixing a kernel bug, you’re not going to be happy at a startup.   At least, not if the startup is run competently.

Ted might have a point about Web 2.0 startups, but there are still  technology startups in software. These startups generally need to prove out their product and market rather than their business model. Business model innovation is sometimes part of the exercise. But more often the company is executing on a standard business model, with some need to validate the market, a greater need to validate/implement the technology, and most importantly a need to link the innovative technology to an addressable market. Much has been written about this, because it is the traditional structure of startups.

Web 2.0 startups are trendy right now because they are disturbingly capital efficient. Companies like Diapers.com and Groupon have negligible technology risk. Proving out the business model costs very little money in the age of Everything as a Service (EaaS). They generate good stories about selling virtual goods before they exist, of zero-inventory supply chains and zero-employee companies. Investors like the idea of low risk high reward returns, even if they are still uncomfortable with the decreased emphasis on capital.

But while those companies are grabbing headlines and mindshare there is plenty of deep technology innovation going on in startups. There are more innovative database startups at various stages in their life than I can remember right now (e.g. Vertica, Clustrix, Tokutek), not to mention the NoSQL startups (Cloudera, Basho), messaging companies (Solace, Kaplan, 29west), visualization companies (Panopticon, Spotfire), and hundreds of other software startups with a sizable technical product innovation challenge ahead of them. And there are plenty of recent success stories that wouldn’t have been able to build their company without great technology (VMware, Google, Amazon).

It’s great that business model innovation is well enough understood that it is top of mind for developers. Understanding what key innovations are required, be they business or technical, and what are the most efficient ways to validate them, is key to success in any startup. It’s too bad that some engineers think that there is no longer a place for great engineering at startups. Not all startups require great engineering, but many still do.

Ted’s trying to defend Google against claims that Facebook is poaching all the engineers. From where I stand, he’s right. Plenty of great engineers are going to work at Google, more than are leaving. And Google is able to run projects like ChromeOS, LLVM, and AppEngine. Projects that wouldn’t be the same in a startup.

But if you were going to find fault with Google in this, consider: Googlers now believe they are doing engineering that can’t be done anywhere else. If that was true, it would mean they don’t have anything to fear from startups. Believing that is a step towards the hubris and ossification that Google is working so hard to avoid.

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  1. [...] Tibbets has called me out for conflating Web 2.0 startups with all startups in my recent blog posting, “Google has a problem retaining great engineers? Bullcrap.”. His [...]