The Green Coder [Issue #4] - Big Corp vs Small Startup
This is an archive version of issue 1 of The Green Coder, a short experiment which has since morphed into The Fresh Engineer Podcast. Check it out for a continuation of these thoughts!
Should I get a job at a big corp, or a small startup? What's going to kick off my career on the right foot?
It's an especially common question from people who are fresh to the industry, and you'll see it debated all the way through your career. Join a hot new seed funded startup that's "going places", or join a huge company which will pay you to travel to all the big conferences?
A very common question, especially from those who are fresh to the industry, is whether you should start off in a large enterprise or a small startup. It's a hotly debated topic by everyone, even those further on in their careers. The answer probably won't surprise you - it's completely up to you. However, I do think there are some pro's and con's worth exploring with each type of organisation.
I've had the pleasure of seeing juniour engineers in both small startups and large enterprises. I can tell you right now, that both environments can be an excellent place to start your career. However, it's highly dependant on the company you join and what kind of person you are. Making the right choice is deeply personal but if you're able to find a good company at either scale, you'll probably do really well in either setting.
Life in the Startup
I started my career in a small startup, there were about 25 of us when I joined so it was very early days. The first year was amazing, I learned so much and felt so inspired every day. I felt like I was learning every day, and I had leadership opportunities opened to me early on.
This experience was wonderful, until year two came around. Year two the business was attempting some more rapid growth. I learned a really important lesson that year, when you grow something quickly, you scale up everything all at once. That includes both the good and the bad. The faster you scale the less time you have to fix the bad things.
Startups can be a wonderful place to learn if you want to be thrown in the deep-end. You'll be expected to start delivering value fairly quickly and the value you do deliver will have a very high impact. However, the contrary is also true.
Life in the Big Corp
In November 2018 I joined Just Eat Takeaway.com and started my journey in to the Enterprise life. It's been eye opening! There is a lot less pressure on the individual, and part of that is because the company is so large and thus the impact of an individual is often much smaller. That's not to say you can't have a big impact, but it is usually harder.
The biggest difference for you will be the sheer amount of resources. Large companies usually don't have a shortage of money. They also gain a lot from a 1% increase in workforce productivity, so they're willing to invest in that. In a startup of 10 people a 1% increase may not amount to much, in an organisation of 500+ people a 1% increase is the same as hiring 5 more people. Putting money into training can save an enterprise a lot of money compared to hiring, so they will happily spend that money.
An enterprise is fantastic if you want freedom, less pressure, and ample resources to pour into your learning. They will often have formal training programmes for university and bootcamp graduates. For those who are a little more senior they usually won't bat an eye lid at paying you to go to an expensive conference. Likewise, the pressure to deliver early on will also be lower.
If you're in your first couple of years in tech and you feel like you're stagnating in your growth, you should definetely consider moving on.
Learning in a startup vs an enterprise
We've explored a little bit what the life of a startup and an enterprise is, but I want to focus on comparing the learning environments for a moment.
A startup can be stressful, you'll need to put in the effort to learn yourself, and you may find it hard to do this during your work hours. To contrast that, an enterprise can often be slow moving, your opportunities to have big impact and break the norms can be a lot lower.
On the other hand, an enterprise is usually willing to throw time and money at you to help you learn. Many companies embrace personal development and will give you extra time away from work to go to conferences or take courses. Just Eat give me a generous budget, 5 days a year which I can book off, and will deal with international conferences outside of those constraints.
It's a personal choice which will be best for you. In my experience a startup was really great for me, but by the end of my second year I was burned out and completely drained. I had learned a lot but had to take a sizable break before starting anything new just to let my mind recover. Right now I'm reaping all the benefits of a big enterprise and enjoying easy training in a lower stress environment, but my work doesn't shift the companies income nearly as much as it did for a startup.
Making the choice
If you're unsure which is best for you, I would always suggest defaulting to an enterprise. This has nothing to do with the "sink or swim" we spoke about earlier, but it has everything to do with resources. If you're early on in your career, having a couple years of learning in an environment which is willing to open it's wallet is a wonderful experience. You'll find a low barrier to learning new things, and you won't be lumbered with thoughts of "if I don't deliver X, we won't make that sale".
But don't let that discourage you, if there's a product you have a passion for and you trust the people leading it, a startup can be a wonderful experience packed with challenge and opportunity. Just make sure you're critiquing it against where you are in your career, and whether it's going to help you move to the place you're trying to get to.
I'll close by saying this, no matter what you choose, focus on your learning and growth. If you're in your first couple of years in tech and you feel like you're stagnating in your growth, you should definetely consider moving on. Your primary goal in those first few years should be to learn and experience as much as you can, if you're employeer is not able to facilitate that then it's okay to move.
Which ever you choose to go with, I'm confident it'll be great! Enjoy finding a bunch of different opportunities and see what comes through.