Developers – From SSII to Startup

In France we have what we call SSII for Société de Service en Ingénierie Informatique. Poorly translated it goes something like «IT Consulting Firm». This is where most young CS graduates will go, mainly because once you get your degree you are spammed by job offers from their recruiters.

This is fine for some, but other might feel like they are missing out what’s happening in the startup world. The problem is that after a few years in a SSII it can seem complicated to switch career path and start working for a startup. For the most part it’s because the technologies, processes and general mindset are radically different… but believe me, it is possible!

So how can one move away from a company like this and join a cool startup?

Are you Sure?

First take a second to figure out what you love to do. Are you really passionate about development? Could you spend hours debating if new technology X is better than Y? Do you try out every new app or service that comes out?

Keep in mind that the process of becoming a good fit for a startup isn’t easy, but each step should be fun. If it’s a hassle then maybe you shouldn’t quit your current job.

The Mindset

In a SSII you often get to work on products already sold to a client, usually a large company. All you have to do is dress up, go to the client’s offices and code following the specifications someone gave you. It doesn’t matter if you think the product is good or not, it just matters that you meet the deadline.

When you join a startup, and especially if it’s an early stage one, this will be radically different. If you’re not passionated about what you’re doing it won’t work. It won’t only be about shipping a given feature anymore, it will be about caring that the product is good and that it follows the right vision.

In a startup you won’t be yet another code monkey driven by a faceless client’s exigences. Your voice will be heard and just as important as anyone else’s in the team. Your teammates will expect from you that you have ideas on things, not just follow orders. You’ll actually get the opportunity to be part of the creation of something.

Keep in mind that for a startup at an early stage, nothing is definitive. You could do a major switch in a week, it doesn’t matter as long as everything is moving in the right direction. You have to realize that making the right choices is crucial and can mean life or death for the company, therefore everyone in the team should be involved in the decision, give inputs, discuss, exchange ideas…

Learn, Create, Code, Repeat

Large companies, because of their larger inertia, tend to use older technologies and that’s why a lot of what you know might be of little use. But don’t worry, while the specifics of the technologies you know might be useless, the general experience you gathered is still valid. You simply need find out the technologies used by your dream startup and learn them.

Keep in mind that what matters in a startup is the things you can do and your ability to learn & adapt. No one is going to show your resume to a client in order to get a contract, so it doesn’t matter whether you come from a famous school or not. It’s just a degree and doesn’t mean a lot. No need to buy a fancy suit either, it’s not the best outfit to be in front of a computer most of the day.

To sum it up, what a good startup wants is a developer that can program. So how to get better at coding you ask me? By coding of course!

The best way to get started is to find an idea and create it as a side project on nights & weekends. It will give you a goal and a nice bullet point on your resume once it’s completed. While you develop, get feedbacks on what you’re doing from experienced developers and/or the internet and read up on best practices.

In a SSII you could be fine sticking to old technologies as there will always be clients wanting to use them: obviously no one is going to change overnight the way banking or insurance is done and the languages used to do it… but in a startup, everything moves fast. You have to keep on learning and keep on improving yourself.

Get Connected

The startup scene in France is maybe not as large as in the US, but it is active. So stay up to date about what’s going on around you as well as internationally. There are countless blogs, twitter users and events talking about just that, you simply need to find the ones that you like and start reading.

Start going to events organized in your city around the subjects that interest you. If you’re a developer wanting to geek out with other developers, there are meetups for that. You can also interact with other coders on mailing lists, IRC, Twitter…

If you do it well, you might even have a job interview scheduled before you start sending resumes!


That’s it. Don’t just stand there, go and create something!

Photo by Martin Wichary.


Categories: RUDE Developing

Author:Marc G Gauthier

Lead Developer at Tigerlily, a Parisian startup specialized in social media. Studied and worked both in France and the US for large companies and startups. @marcgg on Twitter.

17 Comments on “Developers – From SSII to Startup”

  1. December 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Totally agree. I have seen lots of SSII “consultants” in job interview for my company eCO2market that were not really understanding the differences between working in a corporate environment and a startup.
    As you mentionned SSII recruiters are chasing graduates on job boards, but it is also important to note that the French IT schools present the jobs like project manager in SSII or in big corporate as the most highly regarded positions for an IT engineer. It is changing but slowly.
    For coders that wants to work in a startup (with no track record), being active on github / stackoverflow / quora is a big plus and demonstrate your proactivity and autonomy.

    • December 12, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

      It’s true that the feeling you get in school is that you shouldn’t stay a coder for long and should try to become a project manager. This is too bad because companies really need good programmers. Hopefuly this will improve in the following years.

  2. December 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    The developer in a startup has less hierarchy, therefore he has more responsibilities to choose the right technologies. He doesn’t want to let some legacy code/tech to his colleagues once he leaves the project.
    In a startup a programmer has often access to all critical production environment. His relation with the company is often based on trust.
    The success of a startup is the investment every employee. His work goes over the work of an developer of an SSII, because it goes over the work of a developer.
    In an SSII if your web application is down the night, You still sleep well 😉

  3. December 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    Your blog post misses the elephant-in-the-room issue that prevents people from switching from SSII to startup: the salary. Although discussing salaries is a major taboo in France, I feel that a fair startup/SSI comparison should address it.

    • December 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

      It’s hard to make generalities regarding the salary, but there are no huge differences between the salary of a developer in a startup and one in a SSII (both with only a couple years of experience). I’d say that overall the startup developer might be paid more, and if he’s not he might get shares in the company. But again, I don’t have data to back this up.

      Switching from SSII to startup is about doing what you love and building your skill set, not making more/less money and that’s why I didn’t feel like addressing this question here. I’d say that if a developer wants to make a lot of money, he should work in finance and move up to management quickly.

      • December 13, 2011 at 9:54 am #

        At the risk of sounding obsessive: how much are your developers paid at Tigerlily?

      • December 13, 2011 at 10:09 am #

        Régis, you’re right, this is an issue. Developers at French startups are currently paid less than those at SSIIs, but not that much.

        From my experience an engineer from a good engineering school, competent (eg. does Open Source etc) but with no experience except a 6 months internship (I know, bad way to define salaries, but that’s still how the job market is in France) will earn between 35 and 40 k€ before taxes (“brut”) at a startup, otherwise he’s probably being screwed.

        This may be more difficult for more experienced people but I don’t have figures on that.

      • December 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

        From experience, I got better offers from startups than SSII. But that’s just my situation.

  4. December 12, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    First of all, IT != development. IT = a lot of domain (networking, security, dev, management…).

    There, you’re already totally wrong in your post.

    But then, you forgot the main criteria for me : will you have the same opportunities in a start-up than in a SSII/big group ? And what kind of project are you gonna have to deal with ? BIGGER PROJECTS in a ssii/big group 🙂

    I’m a network engineer. In french, it’s called “Ingénieur en architecture réseau”. And, best of all, I work every day in a BANK. Vade retro satanas ?

    Yeah, obviously, some technologies are old, because they worked well for ages and will continue again for some years. And as a young guy 2.0, I think it’s not good : we have to progress with our world.

    But can you imagine a start-up with a soooooo big architecture ? With, actually, so MANY differents kind of technologies, really various… (MPLS, IPSEC, BGP, OSPF, STP, VTP, NAT, Firewalling (and there, various techno : Juniper, CheckPoint, PaloAlto…)

    I really think you will learn more and be better in your techno in a SSII/big group. But yeah, you won’t be allowed to surf on youtube or facebook all day long.

    But on the other side, of course, you’re right : no limit in a start-up, you have to progress much faster AND you have to be a lot more multipurpose. And THAT will certainly make me choose a start-up, really soon.

    But hey, that’s just my opinion 😉

  5. December 12, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    Obviously, I missed the main word in the title : developer.

    So, I agree with you. Forget my com :]

    • December 13, 2011 at 10:04 am #


      Still there is a valid point in your comment regarding the fact that you get to work on bigger project in a SSII. It is true in some cases, but in others, if your company is doing well, the project will expand and then you’ll get to work on a large scale project. Just look at companies such as Instagram, Stackoverflow and so on that got created by just a couple of developers and turned out to be a major success.

      Of course as a network engineer it’s not as fun to work at an early stage startup, but like you noticed, I was only talking about programmers 🙂

    • December 13, 2011 at 10:08 am #

      Also, please note that I never said that working in a SSII is bad, I’m just saying that some people don’t like this kind of environment.

    • December 13, 2011 at 10:30 am #

      Actually, (some) developers at small startups do a lot more than programming. For instance, I design customer-facing products, write code and manage our production boxes in EC2. Small team need generalists (in the IT field, not the “ingénieurs généralistes” fallacy) because they just can’t afford one person for each task.

      Actually, my studies and former experience made me more of a sysadmin than a developer, and I was originally hired to help the company scale things up. Of course I also happened to know how to code…

      For network engineers, it’s probably more difficult, but there are still French startups who need them because of the field they’re in (eg. Witbe, Neo Telecoms, Typhon, etc) and I can imagine working for them would be more rewarding / challenging than for an SSII.

  6. Anne L
    December 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    I am trying to move from IT consulting to a startup mainly because I want to be passionate about what i’m doing, and not work on a project I don’t care about, for a client I will never see again in 6 months.
    I’m not a programmer though, I am in project management, and I can tell you it’s difficult to be hired by a startup if you don’t show previous experience in this kind of environnement.

    And I can def tell you that salaries are lower in startups than in big IT consulting firms 🙂

    I’m currently earning 42k after 3 years experience.
    Most of the offers I’m seeing for startups are around 30/35k ! and they ask for a first 2-3 years experience with that of course!

    • December 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

      As a project manager the story is different. In this post I’m talking about developers exclusively.

      I have no data regarding how a PM will be paid in a startup, but sometimes it comes down to money vs doing what you love, and finding a good middle ground. Of course the best being getting paid a lot to do interesting things ^^

    • December 13, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

      I think in the US PMs are paid less than developers, which may sound strange to French people. Startups tend to work like US-based companies…

      Moreover small startup don’t have full-time PMs at all so I can understand why the market for “PM at a French startup” would be difficult.

      • December 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

        An early stage startup doesn’t really need a project manager anyways. Everyone is responsible for his own schedule, and usually the partner that is on the business side of things is the one handling clients. It’s only when you start to get traction (fund raising, large client signed & so on) that you can look for a full time project manager.

        +1 to Pierre, I can confirm that PMs are paid way less than developers in the US because it’s harder to find a good developer than it is to find a good PM.

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