Startup vs big company: A college perspective
As a senior in college, it seems like there’s more and more pressure for me to simply have an answer for what I want to do after graduation. Being a computer science major almost seems to make it worse because deciding on a career path within the realm of computer science on its own is a struggle, be it to continue on the track of academia, going into the industry, trying my hand at freelance work, or every combination and permutation in between.
Albeit not a very deep or successful one, I’ve had a fairly wide array of jobs in tech starting at a very young age. When I was about 13, I was freelancing, trying to sell a (terribly done) video game file downloader to people running their own private servers for a game I used to play. I only sold 2 copies. When I was 14, I was trying to sell software with embedded flash games in it to my fellow high school students. I sold one copy. When I turned 16, I started a summer internship at a fortune 500 company of over 60,000 employees and returned yearly for a total of 4 consecutive summer internships. During the school year I’ve had a job as a backend web developer for the school, a student research assistant, and a teaching assistant. Just this last summer I did an independent research study, and since the end of June, I’ve been a part of Josh.ai, an A.I. startup geared towards home automation. Ultimately, I’ve programmed in many different types of work environments.
Of all the options, the biggest two that you hear about for college graduates are whether or not you should go with a big corporation, or a small startup. I feel like people enjoy how polarizing the two options are. With many of my friends and classmates being unsure about what they want to do, and (I’m sure) many college students around the world feeling the same, I thought I’d share my opinions on these two very different paths.
The first thing that I want to make very clear is that either option is a perfectly good one to take. Different people value different attributes of life, and so I just want to point out things you might not have considered when trying to decide between both options.
Big companies are great. When you’re young, you don’t hear about startup companies. However, growing up you’ve always heard of the big names like Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo. You’ve used the products of many of these bigger companies like Facebook or Amazon. Big companies have a name. Saying you work for these companies means that YOU carry a reputation. Google has a movie that exemplifies how difficult people perceive it to be to get even just an internship there. Yes, it was a movie and yes that means it was exaggerated, but it’s still tough as nails to get a job from Google. According to Laszlo Bock, in his book Work Rules!, he states that it’s over 10x harder to get into Google than it is Harvard. Making it into a company like Google means you survived the hiring process. It means that you outshined the other applicants, and you were the winner of the battle royal. There’s pride in that accomplishment.
Big companies also have a slew of perks and benefits that startups can’t have, almost by definition. These big companies are big because they’ve remained successful long enough to grow to their current size. This is because they’ve learned what steps to take to consistently hit deadlines, release dates, etc. A big company brings stability. The type of stability that lets you know that you’re probably going to have a job this time next year. With that being said, you’re going to find a mountain of people at bigger companies with experience and knowledge to no end. At one company, I knew many people with work experience that began before I was born. Even before I was conceived as a thought of a human being, they were out changing the world as I had yet to know it. Getting to work with these types of people and having them impart even just fractions of their knowledge made me a better engineer daily, and more often a better person.
However, big companies aren’t always rainbows and sunshine. A big company usually has a lot more regulations and policies in place. HR departments can sometimes make work dull. Employees in payroll may screw up handling when you get paid. Making any meaningful or exciting changes may take weeks to get approved. These companies usually have so many products being worked on at once, that it’s really hard to get noticed. You’re going to learn a lot, but overall the experience just feels like it’s a lot less meaningful.
Perks for a startup can be very different, but equally if not more rewarding. More and more we’re starting to hear about these small progressive companies doing crazy things, like provide free meals to their employees, or having in-house massages, or having a company wide happy-hour at the end of the week to watch some competitive video gaming. Sure, there are larger companies that are doing these things, but you’ll find that many of them do it to compete with the crazy startups around them. On top of the crazy perks, startups bring the allure of company equity. You actually get to own a sizeable portion of the company, and if your product is successful, you could end up being a millionaire. Just ask one of 1,600 alleged shiny new millionaires after Twitter had their IPO. Joining a startup at the ground floor, or even after they get a little bit bigger, you’re probably going to get a pretty decent amount of equity that can literally make you a millionaire on its very own. It’s probably the only real way to become a millionaire over night.
Startups may have their very alluring equity packages and fancy perks, but startups have the unfortunate super power of being able to vanish overnight with almost guaranteed certainty. In fact, roughly 90% of startups fail. This is because startups are often dealing with experimental ideas, or are in extremely competitive market that nobody really knows how to handle yet.
What do I say?
Personally, if you’ve just graduated college, go with a startup. The famous author of the best selling coding interview book, Gayle Laakmann McDowell will tell you that you should avoid a startup. She has a valid point in stating that there’s a lot of knowledge you’ll miss when you join a startup, but I feel like the same is true about the opposite. Startups are fast, fun, and messy, and I’ve never felt like I’ve been pushed so hard before. The freedom is fantastic and terrifying at the same time. The expectations are sometimes unreasonable, yet driving and motivational. You’ll learn more and faster than you’d ever think you could, especially compared to the pace of school. I say go with a startup, and get ready for the madness.
This post was written by Aaron at Josh.ai. Previously, Aaron worked at Northrop Grumman before joining the Josh team where he works on natural language programming (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI). Aaron is a skilled YoYo expert, loves video games and music, has been programming since middle school and recently turned 21.