Almost any company you can think of is somehow involved in the software industry. They’re either building software, providing support for it, or buying it. With the multitude of technologies, languages, and frameworks modern businesses use, software engineers have an almost limitless number of roles to choose from, each requiring a different set of skills.
Sorting companies into startups and Big Tech, with a small middle ground of hybrid companies, is one of the easiest ways to simplify the complexity of the software engineering landscape. In addition to the differences in the environments and cultures of each group, the engineering skills that each group is expected to use are also distinct.
Startups conjure up images of people zipping around on scooters and playing foosball during working hours. There is little doubt that the startup culture appeals to many job searchers, regardless of whether these impressions are realistic or not. On the other hand, when it comes to job security, corporations are more likely to provide stability, structure, and worthwhile benefits.
Working at a startup also has some obvious benefits, as long as it manages to take off. If you join the company in the early stages, this means that as the company grows, it will be much easier to move up the corporate ladder compared to a corporation where you have hundreds of coworkers to compete with. Yes, it does pay less at first, but if you take the risk and the company succeeds, you’ll have a significant stake in the company, which will compensate for it.
Still, do these potential rewards make up for the risks? When deciding whether to work for a startup or a big tech company, a few factors to consider.
Dramatic depictions of life at a startup in shows like Silicon Valley and movies like The Social Network are fairly accurate in some aspects. You can expect an exciting mix of pure chaos, sudden changes in the business model, and long but flexible hours. A startup has to establish itself quickly and show that it can generate enough interest to profit. This critical factor shapes the working environment and the skill required.
Most software engineers who work for startups wear many hats. You could start working on databases, middleware, and deployments because that’s what the company needs at that point. Later on, it will have the funds to hire more people so you can dedicate more time to front-end development but still help with other things on occasion.
Startups are also great places to learn to work with the latest technologies. You can learn things like graph databases, WebGL, and machine learning on the job. Of course, since the deadlines are so tight, this means you’ll be spending a lot of your free time learning these technologies, and you might end up working for a startup that doesn’t allow any sort of work-life balance. In this case, you may want to seek legal advice from reputable sources such as UKLaw.co.uk.
Job requirements and constraints tend to be less defined at a startup, giving you more flexibility and more responsibility. At a startup, everything has to get done quickly. Because design changes are usually made on the fly, the neat, tight structure of the codebase you started with might soon turn into a jumble that requires refactoring. Writing good code takes time, and there’s never enough of it at a startup.
Another challenge that comes with working for a startup is that there’s no QA and less testing, so the engineers have to test their code, or they’ll end up having to push hotfixes in the dead of night. And there are always fires to put out, as well as technical debt from late-night coding sessions.
Things often don’t go according to plan at a startup. It’s possible for deployment procedures to go wrong or that an engineer will have to get into Linux servers at midnight to figure out why the new version of code isn’t running.
Big tech companies tend to be better organized. You’re less likely to work late at night, but you’ll almost certainly be required to be at your desk during business hours. The office will have a clear hierarchy, and employees will have a fixed job description.
You will not be required to be a full-stack developer at a big tech company. Let’s say you are a database developer. In that case, you will work only with databases.
On the other hand, you’ll most likely have to work with legacy code. Well-established companies have a codebase they’ve built over several years, and they don’t change it unless it stops working. Then, an unfortunate engineer such as yourself will be tasked with updating Perl code or ASP pages.
And when it comes to open-source code, big tech companies tend to prefer using software from other well-established and reputable companies. Nowadays, things have changed a little, and you’re more likely to find open-source code even in enterprise codebases but a lot less than with startups.
In a big tech company, a task’s requirements are usually very specific, and winging it is not encouraged. On the other hand, you have a lot more time to refactor your code to meet the standards to be merged. It will also be subjected to peer reviews to catch any issues the automated tools may have overlooked.
Engineers at large companies are usually required to write unit tests, integration tests, and user interface tests in addition to the code they write to complete a ticket. There will also be a QA department that will return your ticket for rework if it does not meet the precise specifications.
The good news is that the hierarchy, structure, processes, and procedures mean there will be fewer unpleasant surprises, so that you will have more free time and a more predictable schedule. Some parts of the technology stack may be old, but they are reliable.
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