The environment in which you work as a software engineer can have a big impact on how you work, what you learn, and how you progress in your career.
A common career crossroad is whether to work at a startup or large corporation. It might seem like a simple decision of structure and support vs. creativity and flexibility, but there is much more to consider when making a decision about where to invest your time and career.
We spoke with Yash Khandor, career mentor and Engineering Leader at Mark43, about helpful tips and tools for engineers interested in knowing the intricacies that differentiate startups versus large corporations.
With experience at companies of varied sizes, Yash outlines the strengths and weaknesses of startups and corporations, how it will affect your career trajectory, and how to choose which one is right for you.
The conversation below has been edited for length and content.
What are the differences between startups and big companies?
When I ask what differentiates a startup from a large corporation, I have often heard that large companies have set hours of work, but offer comprehensive benefits, while startups have more flexible hours, but only offer free food.
Those are very shallow definitions of startups and corporations. There are a lot of other, more important factors that differentiate the two.
For example, consider the difference in responsibilities. At a startup, it’s all about wearing many hats. You learn a lot. You grow a lot. Things move fast. Your responsibilities change more frequently because everything is determined by what the organization needs.
In contrast, positions at larger corporations tend to require a more specific skillset.
Depending on where you are in your career, and what you want out of it, you ultimately need to ask yourself: what do you want to do with your life at this point in time?
Is this your dream role? Is this something you want to do forever? Is this just a stepping stone to the next step? Do you want to diversify your knowledge and learn specific skill sets in different areas? Or do you want to simply pick one skillset and keep growing in that?
Answering these questions will help you understand which type of company offers the appropriate opportunities for what you currently want out of your career.
Another difference is the disparity and availability of company resources. At startup companies, you likely won’t have as strong of a support system for realizing your career goals as you would in most large corporate settings. However, some people thrive on taking risks and learning from trial and error. If you are comfortable with taking the initiative to get the resources that you need, then startups might be the right fit for you. Alternatively, if you prefer having a readily available fountain of knowledge, experience, and guided mentorship within the organization, go for corporate environments.
Furthermore, working at a startup will give you a substantially higher level of influence and impact than you would find working at a large corporation. That was one of the things that was crucial for me. In general, you’re going to have a lot less influence in a big corporate setting than you would in a startup. You essentially might have no say when it comes to decisions that are made about you and your team. This is, of course, compared to a position at a startup, where you will have much more authority over and visibility into business decisions.
The other difference to consider is the career ladder that you want. Corporate has a very defined and streamlined path for vertical mobility within the organization. For instance, a junior accountant at a large company often graduates to junior associate and, eventually, senior associate. However, this process can also take a very long time. On the other hand, your career ladder is much less straightforward at a startup. If you’re working at a five-person company, it is not uncommon for the immediate position above you to be the CEO. That means you have to expand your role in other ways. You’ll have to construct a career ladder for yourself, as opposed to following established paths for career development.
How do you do that?
Well, just work your backside off and earn your keep! And if you’re amazing, they will figure out what’s next for you. In fact, in such situations, you don’t wait for the role to be created – instead just make one for yourself! Start expanding – take ownership and carve your own path. Might sound like a blockbuster movie script, but these things happen – in real life, in companies that you all want to work for – the Googles and the Facebooks of the world have seen this!
What are some resources engineers should use when deciding between a startup and corporation?
Engineers today have far more resources at their disposal than they had access to just ten years ago. Much of this stems from the growing concept of networking; there are countless mentorship platforms coming up because of the numerous people willing to help, coach, and give advice.
So go out. Message people. Speak with mentors in the industry. Take advantage of their experiences and mistakes as you travel similar career paths. Talk to someone who’s been in your position if you’re ever feeling low. No matter your circumstances, just having a fresh perspective on your career journey may open paths that you never knew existed.