The Most Important Skill Every Startup Employee Should Have

Ask The Right QuestionsMy first job, right after college, was with a company called Metrica. The company was a software technology startup right in the middle of the Telco boom of the late nineties. The owners sold it to ADC Telecommunications for a tidy sum at the time.

Landing that job was probably one of the luckiest career moves I ever made. That is because my boss at the time gave me the most important lesson any employee could get.

That lesson has helped me though my career and through the launch of my company. More on that in one second.

My first job

Metrica was a small company that sold an advanced database system that allowed engineers to do complex data analysis. The company had sold systems to NASA, Lockheed, Martin Marieeta, and many other large companies.

Although my title was “Applications Engineer,”  I spent the first six months of my job providing basic tech support.

Said slightly differently, I was lowly 22-year-old college grad with no engineering degree but with a decent knowledge of computer science. My job was to help engineers – who had advanced degrees and were working on really complex engineering projects – with their technical issues.

These guys were developing military airplanes, satellites, rockets, and  launching stuff into the sky, Some were working on advanced defense systems. Pretty easy, huh? And here I was, without a clue.

I always thought I was going to get eaten alive. I thought that I could last a couple months, if I were lucky.

The advice

On my first day, Roger, my boss, took me aside and said: “Marco, most of these engineers will call you and ask you how to do ‘this, that, or the other.’ Your job is not to answer their question immediately. Your job is to figure out what are they really trying to do – what end result they are looking for – and help them get that. Don’t think like a tech support guy. Look at the big picture. Help them solve the problem.

Sounds simple.

People would call me to ask how to do something. And instead of giving an immediate answer, I would ask them more questions about their situation and their objectives. My aim was to try to understand their problem very well before providing a solution.

At first, this approach annoyed some clients, who wanted an immediate answer.

However, after going through this process, more often than not, I helped many clients realize that they were asking the wrong questions to begin with.

The answer to their immediate question would not provide an answer to the problem they were trying to solve. After speaking to them, I would help them develop a way to reach their objective. Many clients, especially the engineers, appreciated that.

Their initial negative reaction was probably due to the fact they were not used to having a tech support guy spend some serious time trying to understand their real problem. And I loved it.

I was helping real companies solve real problems – and I was only 22. A few years later, the company migrated to the cellular telecommunications market, which required solving a new set of technical problems. This skill helped me there as well.

This is a skill that anyone can easily develop but few people have.

What this really means?

Roger’s advice has colored how I approach problems ever since. It took me a little while to realize that what he was saying actually applied to every area of my business life and not just “applications engineering.”

Basically, he was saying: be responsive and not reactive. Reactive people handle the issue. Responsive people solve the problem.

Why is this the most important skill?

Most employees approach their jobs as if they were wearing blinders. They really do what they are told to do without giving it any additional thought. They work to put out individual fires.

That may work well in large companies with well-established processes, where they even write procedures to properly create a TPS report. But that mentality fails miserably in startups.

In a startup environment, you need to keep your eye on the ball. But, more importantly, you need to forecast where the ball is going to land. This actually means that you need to look at the ball, but also at what is ahead of the ball.

You can accomplish this only by having a clear view of the big picture, asking questions, and responding (rather than reacting) accordingly.

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