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December 11, 2023

What is a Founding Engineer? (and why they're awesome)

John Kim
Co-founder @ Paraform

Too often most people associate the success of a startup to an arbitrary ‘a-ha’ moment and a great idea.

Movies like social network glamorize Mark Zuckerberg running across campus barefoot in the snow to add ‘relationship status’ on Facebook before launch.

The Social Network, 2010
The Social Network, 2010

But really it’s the team like you see above that made Facebook what it is today. We believe the success of a startup is (and should be) traced back to the founding team. Proof they had a high caliber team: the founding engineers of Facebook also went on to build great companies like Asana and Youtube.

One of the most important role of startup founders is to recruit the right talent. Hiring your first few engineers are crucible moments that define your company, and can make or break your startup.

So what is a founding engineer?

A founding engineer is one of the first few hires (or software engineers) that join a startup. It depends on the company and founders, but usually founding engineers write fullstack code and talk to users/customers often.

What makes them truly unique is really what they have to deal with. Founding engineers join a company at the earliest days, most often before proper product-market-fit (PMF) - so essentially when no one knows what the hell is going on.

They are scrappy generalists who are energized by novel technical challenges, and excited by the idea of building something truly unique. They thrive in highly ambiguous settings and constantly re-define the right problems to solve. They’re great at talking to users and translating their complicated needs into delightful products. They’re also great at making sensible tradeoffs, making tough calls and say ‘no’ and only focus on things that truly matter (often this is revenue).

Founding engineers are owners. They feel responsible for every outcome and feel the customer’s problem is their problem. Ultimately, the goal of a founding engineer is to help a startup find product market

Other common traits among founding engineers

We went over the basic idea of what a founding engineer is, now we can dive deeper into the more intangible characteristics they share.

Infectiously Ambitious

Founding Engineers are ambitious. Most of their college friends will probably think they’re crazy. It’s not a very rational decision to become a founding engineer:

1. They don’t get paid as much - probably ~40% pay cut compared to the FAANG job they could easily get)
2. Double the work hours
3. No direction - work itself is much more difficult
4. Responsible if things don’t go well.
5. The list goes on…

So why? Because they’re ambitious. It’s a high risk play and bet on the company becoming a massive billion dollar company. It’s sacrificing short term gratifications for long term rewards. Take this one step further, they are infectiously ambitious.

A founding engineers (or everyone at a startup really) evangelizes the company. You can observe the way they talk about their startup. They speak of it highly and believe in its potential. After you hear them talk about their company, whether you’re another engineer on the team, a
customer, or even the founder of the company, you’re left energized.

Olympian Work Ethic

Founding Engineers probably work 65+ hrs/week. Without doing so it’s very unlikely their company will survive. Startups create value out of thin air, this requires all nighters, nights and weekends…and even then, you might just have a slim chance to make it.

High slope

There’s a saying hire for slope, not Y-intercept, and although this is generally applicable to all startup talent, we think it’s most relevant to founding engineers. There are so many things you need to get right as a founding engineer. So many of those things only become apparent incrementally. It’s a constant chase, and that’s why the ability to learn and adapt quickly is so important.

Founding engineers also learn new languages and frameworks very quickly. Unless you’re building a product that requires very specific knowledge about something (e.g. machine learning), tech stack doesn’t really matter when hiring founding engineers. You hire someone so good that they just learn and do whatever it takes to make things work.

Action Oriented

There’s no such a thing as a manager in an early stage startup. If you need one to function, that’s probably a sign that you’re not hiring the right people. Founding engineers are great individual contributors. Doesn’t matter whether they were an IC or more senior in their previous role, at an early stage startup, they’re an IC. There’s no time for pointless meetings, bureaucracy, hierarchy or politics. You’re just trying to survive.

Interestingly, founding engineers also become great leaders and managers as the company grows. Not because they want to, but because they have to.


An early stage startup often feels like a game of snake and ladders. Founding engineers will get hit constantly with churn, bugs, system failures, pivots etc.

They are extremely resilient. Things go wrong, they know it’s their fault (there’s not that many people in the company). Then they pull their sleeves up and fix it. Of course, they also celebrate positive outcomes for customers like they celebrate as their own.

This may all sound great, but not so much when it comes around to when you need to recruit them. Next, we’ll cover how to successfully recruit founding engineers.

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