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The Software Engineer’s Career Path: Startup vs. Big Company

August 24, 2021 in Career Transitions

A career in software engineering and development doesn’t have to follow a linear path to be meaningful. Some people may enjoy the rigorous process of climbing the corporate ladder, while others may be more motivated by having a wide breadth of tactical problems to sink their teeth into. 

Whether you decide to forge a path as an expert independent contributor (or IC) or go the managerial or leadership route, your experience will likely be heavily affected by the size of the team and the company that you’re working with. 

So which is better, working at a startup or a big company? It really depends on your personality. While it can be tempting to position the two against each other, or label one good and the other bad, in reality, understanding the objective differences between them will help you as you navigate your future career opportunities and as you curate your work experiences. 

What’s the difference between working at a startup vs. a big company 

In a word: Scale. Large companies are likely to be more layered in terms of management and hierarchy and can resemble a traditional corporate job (yes, a tech company can still be very corporate!). That’s neither a good or a bad thing, just a matter of fact that affects your day-to-day working reality. 

Let’s break down the differences even further. 

Software engineering and development at startups 

Think about it this way: startups are likely doing just that; they’re starting up. You can anticipate a smaller team and—depending on the industry—a slightly more casual work environment. 

Startups aren’t all free food and foosball. On a smaller development team, you’re likely to have your fingers in many projects. If you’re someone who thrives on working on multiple problem sets at once, or you’re just starting out and want to learn about a lot of things at once, the startup experience may be perfect for you. 

You’re also likely to work in a less structured way, too. This doesn’t mean you won’t have any processes or that everything will be total anarchy, it just means that business priorities might shift quickly and so you’ll be required to adapt to changes just as swiftly. 

Many people wonder whether working at a startup means that you’ll work long hours and shoulder a heavy workload. The truth is that every company is different. If long hours and heavy workloads are a concern for you, you should definitely ask recruiters and hiring managers about their policies on these issues. 

Software engineering and development at big companies (enterprise)

Established companies are likely more structured and hierarchical as they have more employees. Because larger companies tend to have more teams and departments, you may find yourself playing a more specialized role. 

With larger companies, you will likely find yourself working on long-term or even multi-year projects, so if you have the stamina of a marathon runner, joining a larger team may be a good path for you. 

If you have leadership aspirations and an interest in flexing your relational skills, a larger company will certainly test your acumen on these fronts. You’ll be exposed to lots of different kinds of teams, leaders and stakeholders and you’ll likely learn a lot about your own leadership style and approach in the process. 

Learning how to partner with human resources and recruiting in the process of hiring and expanding your team can also teach you some other vital organizational skills, like how to put together a competitive job description and secure top candidates.

Snagging a role at an established company is also a good idea if you see yourself sharing a seat at the table with the CEO and other executives one day. 

Startup vs. Big Company – Which is the right career path for you? 

Intrigued by a potential startup opportunity? Here are some good questions to ask to assess whether the job is a good fit for you:

  • What stage is the startup at? (Series A/B-funded? Closed beta?)
  • How fast is the business growing? (Audience/customer size, employee size, valuation) 
  • How big is the team?
  • What’s the work/life balance for software engineers at this startup? 
  • How much flexibility do you have over your working hours? 
  • How many years of experience do team members/my future manager have?
  • Are there any learning and educational opportunities provided by the company?
  • How are developers compensated? (Salary? Equity or stock options? Bonuses?)

Remember that there’s no shame if startup life isn’t really for you. That’s why it’s important to ask the hiring or recruitment manager about how long your trial period will be (usually it’s about three months). You’ll want to spend that time equally assessing whether you like the team, the work, and the overall startup environment.

On the other hand, if you’ve been eyeing a position at a larger, more established company, your questions may be of a slightly different nature, such as:

  • How big are engineering teams and how are they typically structured?
  • What’s the average length of a project? 
  • How much innovation are you able to do within the role? 
  • What are some common project constraints or requirements?
  • What are the growth opportunities within the role? Are you able to change roles/teams if an opportunity arises? 
  • Will you be offered any on-the-job training or upskilling?
  • What’s the average tenure of a software developer or engineer at this company? 

Don’t startups fail more often? Do larger companies offer better job security? These are both valid concerns and also happen to be common myths in the industry. The truth is that the only way to secure valuable opportunities is to know where you’re at in terms of your skill set and your goals and then mapping that back to jobs in the market. Of course, it helps to do your research and look into things like how long the company has been operating and whether they’ve experienced any major lay-offs or downturns in their history. 

The good news is that you don’t just have to decide between joining a startup or a big company anymore. We created Commit because we’ve discovered a whole other tier of software engineers and developers who are looking to lend their expertise more broadly than that.

What we do is similar to helping you run your own consulting shop—except imagine someone else (us) taking care of all your business development and vetting startups and job opportunities for you. 

Then there’s the added bonus that, with Commit you have the option to join companies you hit it off with permanently (you can learn more about us and apply to be an engineering partner with us here.) 

Is it better to work as an engineer at a startup or a big company? 

Now you know a bit more about the difference between working in a small shop versus a big one. Is there a right or wrong choice? Not necessarily. A lot of that answer will have to do with where you’re at in your career and what leap you’re looking to make next. 

Some of us thrive in more structured systems where our work is more defined from day-to-day. If that sounds like you, a big company may fill your cup. Then there are those who prefer a little bit more fluidity and a little less predictability in their workday. If that’s you, startup life may be just the ticket. 

And then there are those who’ve amassed a good deal of experience and are interested in applying their skills across a wide range of products and services. If that’s where you’re at, we definitely want to hear from you. 

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