Volume 31 Number 13
Big or Small
By Krishnan Rangachari | December 2016
The choice between working for a startup and working for a larger company isn’t always simple. I’ve worked at tiny startups and massive tech companies, and I’ve switched back and forth, many times. When deciding among job offers, I find these seven questions helpful in making the right decision:
Do I want stack breadth or stack depth? At a startup, often, the company’s growth may be so rapid, the competitors and industries moving so quickly, that my responsibilities and projects change along with it. This lets me experience more of the stack, even if I’m a back-end engineer.
On the other hand, at a larger company, I’m often part of a multi-year product or division-wide strategy that’s pre-decided. This inherent stability allows me to go more in-depth into not just one part of the product, but also one part of the stack. Instead of being a back-end engineer, I could be the back-end engineer who specializes in data serialization.
Do I want to explore my career interests, or am I set on what I want? If I’m 100 percent set on being a software engineer and enjoy that role, then the sheer variety and overwhelming technical problems inherent in working for a startup keep me entertained. Yet, maybe I’m not so set on engineering. Maybe I want to try being a product manager (PM), marketer, financial manager or salesperson. Maybe I just want to jump from one discipline to another every few years, and still be safe if one of those roles goes awry.
If I don’t know what I want—or if sheer variety is what I want—then large companies are the perfect playgrounds. I can be an engineer for two years, then a PM for two years, then a technical writer for two years, a developer advocate for two years, a marketer for two years. When I make such switches within one company, my varied experiences keep my career trajectory moving upward! I don’t sacrifice career velocity with experimentation.
What’s my exit strategy if I work with unbearably difficult people? At a big company, if I have a bad manager or particularly terrible coworkers, I can switch to a different team. Yet, at a smaller startup, I could be “stuck” under a tyrannical boss, a moody cofounder, lower-caliber coworkers, or an imploding company or industry. The only escape route is to switch to a different startup. There’s no guarantee how bearable the new place will be.
While big companies have all these same problems, too, it can be psychologically less taxing to switch teams within a larger company.
Do I want to be a manager or an individual contributor? Startups offer more opportunities to move up the management chain due to more employee churn—loyalties are inherently less strong, lifers less common, and if the company does well, expansions and promotions more rapid. At bigger companies, I may have to wait for my manager’s untimely demise to move up.
Do I relish older coworkers or younger ones? Regardless of what my own age is, if I feel more alive around a vibrant, younger crowd or feel young at heart, I gravitate toward startups. (How to combat perceived ageism is its own topic; contact me for my strategies around that.) If I feel more at home around more staid colleagues, I pick bigger companies or startups with a mixed-age profile.
Do I have my act together, or am I still learning to be productive? Perhaps, currently, I waste all my time on Facebook at work. Or, perhaps, I’m very inconsistent—productive one month and super-lazy the next. Or, maybe, I have anger issues that result in me blowing up regularly at coworkers!
Whatever the issue, at bigger companies, I’m less likely to be fired. My behavior is less in the spotlight, has less direct impact on the company or its culture, and so I have more leeway. This safety gives me a container to work through and heal my issues. That way, if a startup is what I want, I can make the switch once I heal my wounds.
Ultimately, it’s folly to think that switching companies will solve deep emotional or psychological problems. If a change in external environment appears to solve internal issues immediately, it’s often temporary. Especially at a startup, if my issue is glaring enough, I’ll be shown the door quickly, with little mercy.
Am I optimizing for my career, or am I optimizing for my life? If I have a health issue, if I have small kids, if I’m taking care of family members, if I want to start a side business or explore hobbies or interests, a bigger company usually (but not always!) makes it easier.
If those aren’t considerations, and I want to feel more alive at work, if I find that a more active career enlivens the rest of my life, and if I can spend more time at work or see work as an extension of my social life, a startup is usually a better choice.
Krishnan Rangachari is a career coach for software engineers. Visit RadicalShifts.com for his free courses for developers.