Welcome to our new ‘Ask An Engineer’ series, where Dan Slaski addresses questions that have you losing sleep or staring off into space during important meetings. Have a question for Dan? Send it in.
Question: Should I work for a big company or a small company?
Dear Consciously Corporately Constrained,
Recently my girlfriend and I were trying to decide where to go out to dinner. A new Italian restaurant opened up just around the corner. The location has seemed cursed. Over the past 5 years, the same location has been a Greek restaurant, Thai restaurant, cell phone store, and a Mexican restaurant. But I knew that this time, THIS TIME, things would be different. Because I Iove Italian food.
I imagine the Italian restaurant being our new favorite local eatery. They know us by name and don’t give us menus. Shortly after seating us they serve our favorite dishes or have us try a new specialty. After the restaurant closes the owners bring out a special bottle of wine and we have an engaging conversation late into the night. Or will overpriced Chef Boyardee served by surly former cell phone store employees be the reality?
Farther up the road is a Cheesecake Factory, known for its extensive and varied menu and large, calorically dense portion sizes.
So which one to choose? The familiar or the unknown high risk/reward option? How much do you value novelty and the potential for an Instagram-worthy meal?
I’ll start with some generalities about company size. First is that big companies are more stable. Their ability to grow to their current level is an indicator of some good business practices. Their larger size allows them to absorb blows better. Whether that be projects that don’t work out or changing economic climates. They may have more name recognition, revenue pipelines, financial reserves, and the ability to reallocate funds within the company.
At big companies, you are likely to find a more traditional career growth path and more employee resources. From HR, to corporate benefits, software, tools, school reimbursement, and more experienced people in your field to act as mentors. For the self-motivated, utilizing these resources can be great opportunities to gain credentials. Small companies require you to wear many hats and this can be an opportunity to learn about the business side, entrepreneurship, and grit. You get accelerated experience and upside financial opportunities if the company takes off.
For us passionate designers, an equally important work factor is the nature of the work itself. Small companies require a lot of employees and give them more responsibility and ownership. What excites you? To look at a large project and know you contributed to it or a smaller project where you were instrumental? Does the idea of being able to analyze and understand a part in extensive detail sound satisfying or boring? Do you prefer being a generalist or a specialist?
These are generalities. I am always searching for that rare unicorn company that is the best of both worlds. Perhaps a department within a large company that is given the autonomy and freedom to work on risky next gen products or a stable small company. There are small companies that are well established and stable. They may have carved out a highly profitable niche, see growth as a risk, and prefer to be nimble and lean. Some big companies have had meteoric growths based on large influxes of capital with little to show for it.
Sometimes you just have to use common sense. I have been allured by companies with interesting technologies but no real market. Like a Filipino/Irish fusion restaurant and juice bar, you just know it isn’t going to make it.
Size is just one measure of a company and your fit potential. It happens to be easy to observe which is the reason it comes up frequently. Equally major factors are the company’s culture, financials, and leadership.
Research your prospective employer’s financials and try to find reviews of them at sites like GlassDoor. Culture and leadership can be difficult to glean. Ask probing questions during interviews. One I like to ask is, “What do you see as the biggest challenge facing your company/department?” I find people answer truthfully (it may be an opportunity for them to vent) and likely respect the open attempt to make an informed decision. If you are replacing someone, ask why and try to get in contact with that person (be prepared and understand there are two sides to every story).
I wouldn’t put an overemphasis on the stability of big companies. Big companies don’t have the stability they were once perceived to have. Technologies and markets are changing at an ever accelerating pace and few are above the volatility.
Which better complements your strengths, will help you overcome weaknesses and set you up for success in the long term? Do an open and honest assessment of your risk tolerance and the nature of work that suits you. And remember, there is always the Olive Garden.