Bigger Isn't Always Better

One of the most difficult decisions we make is deciding where we’re going to spend (at least) eight hours a day, five days a week, for potentially years on end. Yet the things we weigh as deciding factors aren’t always in sync with what we actually want from a job, which is a realization that often comes too late.

College seniors are probably the demographic that suffers the most from this problem. Applying for your first job is a daunting and stressful experience, and without experience to help guide your choices, it’s easy to pick the most popular companies, or the ones that pay the most, or even the ones where your friends are applying, and then hope for the best. I myself was guilty of not doing a lot of research, and I’m incredibly fortunate that the company I ended up working at turned out to be as amazing as it did.

After three years, when it came time for me to move on in the search of new challenges, I felt better prepared to pick a new place of employment. I had learned a lot about what life is like on the large-scale side of things, and I decided that it was time for a change of pace. I applied to a mix of large, well-established multinational companies and some smaller but still somewhat established startups. In the end, what drove me most towards Flatiron Health was their “reverse interviews”, wherein I was given time with different engineers to ask any questions I had about the company - an extremely helpful exercise that I had never come across before. It’s one thing to talk to a recruiter about the job, or ask your interviewer a couple of questions about what they do, and completely another to actually have an hour or two to ask engineers about the nitty-gritty of their life at work to your own satisfaction.

Having now spent some time working at a “startup”, I decided to catalog the differences I observed between companies of opposite scale. To look into this further, I reached out to all of the engineers at our company and asked them to fill out a survey based on their experiences at Flatiron versus other larger, smaller or similarly-sized companies. To help you make your own decision on where to pledge your future, I’m presenting the most popular answers from my high-level research.

What do startups generally do better than larger companies?

Culture

“Culture is much more deliberate – Flatiron knows what it wants to be and actively works to set and maintain that culture. This happens at all levels of the company.”

By far the most popular answer was culture. Startups in general tend to have a more relaxed environment that’s much more tightly knit than larger companies, which is primarily due to the fact that there are simply much fewer people employed that are also usually clustered in a single office. It’s much easier to know where you stand, and also easier to suggest and implement changes faster if you find areas to contribute. At larger companies, there tends to be many more layers of bureaucracy that one has to fight through before anything can happen - a larger ship takes much longer to turn.

Here at Flatiron, we love our culture, and we’re acutely aware of how difficult it can be to maintain that same atmosphere that existed when the company had 50 employees at a point now when we’re over 400. To that end, we have a team of people from across different groups that form our ‘Engineering Culture Club’, which is tasked with ensuring that we don’t lose what makes us special as we get bigger. Whether it’s things like the ability to work remotely on occasion, “100x fewer internal politics” (as one answer put it) or other perks like our quarterly Hackathons, I’ve found myself feeling much more fulfilled at the end of my work days.

Passion

Startups tend to be much more focused on and driven by their mission. As you grow and become more successful, the bottom line can change, and not always for the better. Recruiting might not be driven as much to find people invested in the cause of the company, and over time, a large part of your employee base might not even be familiar with what the company’s mission is.

For example, here at Flatiron our mission is simple: To serve cancer patients and our customers by dramatically improving treatment and accelerating research.

It’s a powerful message to stand behind, and an immeasurable, motivational force that drives us forward.

Impact

“Higher impact”, “More opportunities to make a department-wide impact from day 1”, “moves more quickly”

You might’ve heard of the idiom - “a cog in the machine”; it most definitely applies to folks at larger companies more so than startups. While I’m fortunate to have been able to make a somewhat lasting impact at my last job, the inertia that had to be overcome was undoubtedly higher than it is here. Things move at a much quicker pace, and one can go from idea to implementation in a matter of days. While it can be daunting to keep up, the openness to change and willingness to experiment makes our work much more exciting.

Where do larger companies edge out in front?

Defined processes

“Lots of established processes”, “Operational processes”

By virtue of having been around longer, larger companies tend to have better defined processes and training for a variety of things - recruiting (internal and external), onboarding, more mature software development lifecycle, etc. While you might have a higher impact at a startup as well as an opportunity to help define standards, the well-beaten path might be more appealing if you’re starting out in your career.

Benefits

Due to their larger size, well-established companies have much better bargaining power when it comes to employee benefits like healthcare. While there are definitely startups out there that offer excellent coverage, they usually fall a bit short at least of what the behemoths can offer. Along this dimension, we at Flatiron have been lucky. Flatiron provides daily catered lunches, 16-week parental leave for both parents, as well as a myriad of other benefits.

Scale and infrastructure

Well-established companies also tend to be great at dealing with problems of scale, both technological and otherwise. The experience and general wealth of knowledge that accumulates over time at well-managed companies can help alleviate a lot of the issues that startups might spend time and effort figuring out. Popular answers to the survey tended to include “data storage, distributed computing, release management”, as well as “dev tooling” around things like blue-green deploys, scaling data-intensive processes, or experimentation with environments with ease.

You must choose. . . but choose wisely

There are naturally many more factors that one should consider before accepting a job offer, but I hope that this post helps you make at least a somewhat more informed decision about your future. While the risk of picking the wrong company might not be as severe as your face melting off, finding the culture that’s right for you will give you a much richer and happier life overall. Maybe you’ll find yourself happy running your own startup, or working at an established company that’s been around for decades; if not, you could always come fight cancer!