Company Size

Posted on December 18, 2018 by John Duhamel

Welcome back to me! I’ll admit, I had forgotten about this site. I built most of it while on vacation in Alaska and shortly after I returned home my life quickly caught up to me and I became overwhelmed with my daily responsibilities. Coming up on the New Year, I thought I’d write a post about what I’ve been up to and reflect a little about the differences between working for startups and big companies.

When I created this site, I was living in San Francisco and working as a full stack developer for a local fintech startup. I’d spent the prior year learning about all aspects on web development: infrastructure, backend, and frontend. I had also helped spearhead a mobile version of our product using React Native. It was a great experience, and I worked there for over a year. Life in the valley can move fast, though, and before long I jumped ship and returned to Corporate America. My main reason for doing so at the time was that our product wasn’t getting many users, and also a fundimentally didn’t believe in the CEOs product vision. Regardless, I’m proud of the system I built there and I hope it has suited their needs well.

I still work for said big comany. I work on a machine learning team, although my responsibilities don’t specifically relate to developing the AI for the systems I work on. It’s been an interesting job, I’ve gotten to work with people much smarter than myself (most of them have PHDs). I’ve leared a lot, and gotten to develop and scale systems which handle huge amounts of traffic. Finally, the compenstation and benefits are signigicantly better than what I got when I worked at startups. However, working for the man also has certain drawbacks. My tasks are decided and tracked in two week intervals, and I don’t have much opportunity to give my oppinion about what I think those should be. Also, I spend way too much time in meetings :\

Now, there’s something such as an “in-between” startup as well. These companies generally have a sizable customer base and a lot of funding; either through VC investment (ie Lyft) or coorporate support (ie Twitch); but are still in the product building phase of the company and most likely aren’t profitable. These seem to offer the best of both worlds: a lot of freedom and ownership combined with a large compensation package and good benefits. I know a lot of people who work for companies in this category and most of them seem pretty happy. Years ago, I worked for one myself, and honestly, it was a pretty good place to work.

However, apperances can be deceiving. Your stock grant isn’t nearly as valuable as it seems at first. If you’re fortunate and the company continues to grow, your shares will be significantly diluted by the time you get a chance to cash out (through an IPO or aqcuisition). You’ll still have a nice payday, most likely, but it won’t be the tens of millions that you initially calculated when you signed the offer. Sadly, though, you’ll most likely never have a chance to sell your shares. If you join one of these companies, be sure to prioritize base salary over your stock grant (still ask for a reasonable stock grant, which should be somewhere between 1 and 20 bips, depending on the size of the company).

While you’ll likely be promised a lot of autonomy and ownership of your work, you many find a different reality. Startups tend to iterate a lot in search of working formula for product management, and that means getting it wrong over and over again. Eventually someone will come up with the idea to try scrum, agile, waterfall, whatever. Many large companies use these methods to manage engineering teams, and they are proven to be effective. The problem is, startups tend to implement these systems in seemingly the worst way possible. You may end up feeling micromanaged, or given negative feedback based on performance metrics which you consider unfair (the goal of management, in this scenario, is usually to push you to work harder). In my oppinion, it’s a bad way to manage an engineers, but I’ve seen in applied on several occasions.

Looking back, I can’t help but admit I miss my startup days. I found a certain freedom to experiment, fail, and iterate. I learned at such a faster pace. As someone who likes to build just for the sake of building something, that was great. My work wasn’t planned and tracked in two week intervals. Rather, I was able to plan my own work and trusted to deliver results in a reasonable timeframe. Going forward, I’d like to return to that type of environment. I’m not sure exactly how that will manifest. I may give freelancing a try, and meanwhile try to work on a few side projects hoping one could eventually become it’s own startup.