5 things to consider when choosing between a start-up and a large company.


As college students applying for internships, we often focus on the immediate problem: secure an offer letter. What we never plan for is the good, yet stressful, problem that sometimes follows: multiple companies are offering me a job and I don’t know which one to pick! While there are many factors that go into choosing what place you will eventually call your home for the next 3 months, the main problem that I faced was simple: small start-up vs. mid-large sized company.

This dichotomy is relevant whether you have got multiple offer letters and can’t decide, or are simply picking which companies you would like to apply to in the first place. After conferring with peers who had experienced both types of companies, I ended up working at the early-stage start-up. Based on my own internship, as well as the experiences of many other Carnegie Mellon summer interns, here are some of the nexus questions you should think about when making your own decision.

Impact

While most internships are invaluable because of the experience and knowledge that you gain from working with a team of engineers, you might be looking for a place to leave your mark.

As part of a smaller company, the type of impact you can have is very unique. As only a freshman, I was able to work on important projects and make decisions on the product that would actually effect our end users and the course of the company. This was an experience that I was not expecting but was extremely excited to be a part of.

Maya Rau-Murthy, a sophomore Computer Science major who interned at a start-up called Cloud Raxak, said:

“You end up having a very large impact and responsibility in the startup because there are only a couple of people working on the project. You realize that your work is actually integral in their success and that responsibility is a really exciting feeling”

Mukund Tibrewala, also a sophomore Computer Science major, interned at a 20-person start-up called Transcriptic, Inc. Recounting his experiences, he said:

“It was really cool because I was given projects that would have been assigned to full-time employees otherwise! In addition to being exciting and substantial projects in their own right, they made me feel like I was meaningfully contributing to Transcriptic. In fact, for the final of my three projects, the engineer I was working with told me he’d been wanting to do it himself for an entire year, but never found the time.”

However, being a part of a large company does not mean you wont be able to meaningfully contribute. Rokhini Prabhu, a senior Computer Science major at Carnegie Mellon University, has interned at both Apple and Google over the last two years and was able to provide some insight into what its like making an impact in a large company. When asked to respond to the notion that its harder to make an impact in a big company, she said:

“I think it depends on the work you do. I have most definitely done meaningful work at big companies even during my internships. I’d like to think of it as high risk, high gains. Being heard might be harder in a big company compared to a startup. But when you are heard by the right people, you would have likely sparked off something big.
For example, if your work catches the eye of a Director or SVP at a big company, then you will surely find that several teams of engineers are now suddenly scrambling together to work with you and make it a reality.”

Structure

One key difference between a start-up and a large company is structure. When I say structure, I am talking about all the protocols, practices, and policies that you would find at a big company that you wont always find at a small start-up.

While these structures might hold a negative connotation, they are actually an attribute of large companies that could make your internship much more enjoyable. Prabhu said:

“Over several years, these companies have iterated and built internal infrastructure that is aimed towards improving the lives of their engineers. So you don’t have to just spend, say 20 minutes sitting for your code to compile, because they have already found a way to parallelize their build system and make it blazingly fast.
I have found in my experience that there is a lot of value and thought given towards doing things the right way and not just hacking at something to make it work — so as to satisfy the investors.”

However, the freedom that comes with a start-up also has its benefits. At companies like LinkedIn, there are many long protocols that are in place and steps that have to be taken before you are able to submit code to production; these can take many days, or even weeks. In contrast, I was able to push code to production on my first day on the job, while still going through code review processes and rigourously testing it.

Anqi Cong is a junior Business major, Computer Science minor at CMU and she has experienced life at both a large company, Unum, and a small company, Insightpool. While comparing the work flow at a start-up versus a large company, she said:

“The way people go about projects is really different. For example, at Unum I had to download Microsoft Lync, but I had to ask my manager to request approval for me, which sent me an approval form I had to fill out; but then I realized I had to get approval to access the approval?! In contrast, I was doing a research project for the startup and asked for compensation for my participants. The response was “Ok, how much do you need?”

Culture

A key difference between a start-up and a large company is the type of people that you interact with.

At a larger company, you are more likely to have other interns from all over the country there. For instance, companies like Facebook and Google take over 1,000 interns each summer. This could connect you to a lot of amazing people you would never have met other wise. In addition to other interns, you have the opportunity to meet people you would never have the chance to otherwise. For instance, many of my friends interning at Facebook got the opportunity to meet Mark Zuckerberg and Sherly Sandberg.

On the flip side, while small companies do not usually have more than a few interns or the famous names of a large company, you get to become very close to everyone in the company. During my internship I got lunch with the entire team most days, played ping pong with the CTO everyday, and overall felt like I made some great friends with people that will be great mentors to me in the future.

While you are sure to make great connections no matter which company you choose, the nature of the connections can vary.

Perks

This is the section where larger companies steal the show. Working at a start-up, there weren’t many a lot of perks outside of however rewarding the work itself felt. However, this is not that case at a big company.

Tian Jin, a sophomore Computer Science major at Carnegie Mellon University, interned at Facebook over the sumer as part of the FacebookU program. She said:

“Facebook would have talks and events and there were a lot of trips into San Francisco that they arranged. Hillary Clinton also came to speak at the Menlo Park campus and I feel like these talks and trips wouldn’t really be offered at a startup.”

Additionally, larger companies usually have an awesome selection of free restaurants to eat at alongside all the free food at the micro-kitchens located throughout campus. This is not to say that I didn’t raid my company’s kitchen every week, but the options were no competition to the Googles and Facebooks of the world.

Other than just food and cool events, large companies also have a great amenities for their employees. Cong said:

“Big companies have the resources. You have the gym on campus, the cafeteria, free ice cream, your own cubicle, company-issue laptop, dual monitors, and pay like crazy. But in exchange, bureaucracy.”

All in all, I would not say that there is a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma. You really have to look at your options and see what aligns with your interests and your goals. All this being said, whether you go with the 5-person company working in an incubator, or the 2,000 person company where you are surrounded by free food, your internship will likely be as good as you make it.

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