It’s never easy to be the “new” person — whether it’s a childhood moment on the playground or as an adult starting a new job. Being that “new” person in Silicon Valley, where many startups are founded amongst a band of former team members all with a shared history and set of experiences can be a particular challenge for anyone new joining the group. I recently had the experience of joining a startup, and hope my experiences shared below can be helpful for others facing similar challenges in joining a new company.
I joined Neeva, the world’s first ad-free and private search engine, as employee #25. When I first started talking to the CEO, I had gotten used to the cushy perks of working at a large tech company like Facebook, and had little intention of joining a startup. I had a 7-month old baby at home and was still breastfeeding and pumping every few hours. I had never worked at a small company before, but I was convinced that the typical startup culture would never work for me. Over a series of discussions, my mindset changed as I started to appreciate the team and the challenge they were tackling (making a better search engine!). The Neeva team was full of young parents and leadership was very open to the hours and work-life balance I had in mind. So, I joined — excited to tackle something new.
As my start date approached, I began to think more about what I had gotten myself into. I knew the folks I interviewed with (including the co-founders and head of product) had worked together previously, and that nearly 70% of the company came from Google! I, on the other hand, had no search background whatsoever. Would I be able to influence the team? Would they listen to what I said? Would I be able to succeed in this role?
From day one, everyone was really welcoming. The team was eager to share their knowledge and spend as much time with me as I needed to ramp up. Despite this, being an outsider and joining a new team that has been together for a while is hard. I quickly experienced what it felt like to come in from the outside to a group with a shared history. Luckily, I had a taste of this when I started my career in consulting, in that you often have to join a client team and assimilate quickly and efficiently to do your job.
Identifying What Makes You Different, Can Help You More Quickly Fit In
On my first day, I noticed that I lacked knowledge in three main areas: industry expertise, informal jargon, and shared experiences. For industry expertise, there were core aspects of technology and consumer experience I had to learn (How do crawling systems work? What is indexing and retrieval? What types of searches are the hardest for a search engine to get right?). This felt attainable through research I could do on my own.
What was slightly trickier was tech jargon mentioned in passing, where it felt strange to interrupt a conversation to clarify one word (“OKR”, “grok”, “ack”). There is also the group’s own shorthand, as people tend to have catchphrases and shorthand from previous employers (Memegen anyone?). However, the hardest part was understanding the meaning behind casual mentions of experiences, people in common (i.e. “We should take a page out of Dave’s playbook”), and significant events. There was usually a lesson or message trying to be conveyed behind these statements, which was lost on me.
The way I dealt with this was to speak up and ask the “wait…what is” questions. It can feel awkward to interrupt, but it’s good to remind folks that you never knew Dave or you weren’t part of that big meeting a few months ago. It can be easy to forget that someone doesn’t share your knowledge, so asking helps remind the team what they need to provide context on. It also helps to be honest about your professional shortcomings and where you need to learn and grow, not only to set expectations, but also so people know where to help. When I flagged a need for more alignment or information sharing, the founders were quick to set up the necessary meetings and processes to help the whole team move forward.
Tactically, getting a sense for communication norms early on is super important — if you need someone quickly, should you slack/zoom/email/tap them on the shoulder? Knowing this early on will help you integrate more easily into the team, and help you avoid any awkward “why are you interrupting me at my desk” interactions. It’s also great to document terms, concepts, and all learnings so you can keep a running list. It’s easy to forget a quick explanation, and it can feel embarrassing to ask twice. Lastly, talk to other folks who came in new. It’s reassuring to have others around you that you can bond with over your “outsider” status, and they can share helpful tips on how to work successfully with others at the company. You may also find that, when it comes to fitting in with a new team, your bond is really forged when you go through challenging moments and hard work together. When Neeva came out of stealth mode, our shared hardships leading up to the launch and our successful public moment contributed to a strong feeling of camaraderie, where any lingering feelings of being an outsider fell away.
Regardless of individual backgrounds, the whole company must operate as a cohesive unit to succeed. While norms and processes might be inherited, a successful company culture will do the work to translate that into standards that everyone feels comfortable with. For us, as the company grew, predictably the % majority of people that worked at Google shrunk to the minority. In addition to knowledge sharing tactics such as creating a shared dictionary of terms or compiling a “state of the industry” doc for new hires, your leadership will play a key role in creating an inclusive culture that cares about diversity of thought. Our co-founders and area leads always ask folks that come from non-search backgrounds how they did things at other companies, or what ideas they have that we might be missing. Research has proven that diverse teams are smarter and produce better results. I’m happy to say that with the steps above, I was able to quickly find my groove and feel like one of the team.
To summarize, do your research but also be sure to speak up when you are feeling out of the loop. If your leadership is open to it, hold them accountable and don’t be afraid to tell them how they can help you be a better team player. I hope you found the above helpful and if you’ve faced similar challenges — either as an employee or a company onboarding a new employee — I would love to hear your experiences on cracking an in-group at work!