Why Non-engineers Think Engineers Are Better Off Joining Startups

Generalizations almost always have exceptions. In this case, the exception is perhaps the majority of instances. If you are going to make the claim that the best option for an engineer is to join a startup, you’d better have compelling arguments.

I just read Why Engineers Are Better Off Joining Startups by Bindu Reddy on Techcrunch and found a couple of “jewels”:

“All this has caused a severe shortage of good engineering talent. Which is why, the time has never been better to work at a startup.”

“More importantly, the one thing that every passionate engineer cares about—the ability to build and ship products—is harder at large companies.”

As an engineer, it’s easy to destroy this kind of logic. The first sentence says that because of a shortage of engineering talent, the time has never been better to work at a startup. Well, for one you cannot make decisions in a time other than the present. If you are looking for a job, the only time that matters is now. A current shortage of engineering talent may affect the decision of someone who is choosing a career, hoping the shortage will persist in time. If you are already an engineer, it’s a case of the rising tide lifting all boats. Higher demand means that you will get a better salary either at a startup or a large company. I know that in the Bay Area companies like Oracle are paying very high salaries to attract talent who otherwise would go to more interesting places. This is why many of my friends went to work for HP rather than startups in 1998. A shortage of engineers does not magically make it more attractive to go to a startup than to a large company.

The second sentence is even easier to deal with. There is no “one thing” that every passionate engineer cares about. Most likely passionate engineers do care about building and shipping products, but we also care about being healthy, having families, traveling and doing other human things that non-engineers also enjoy. Some people just cannot deal with the lifestyle of a startup for external reasons. Even if you decide to make all sacrifices because you really want to be involved in the building and shipping of a product, there are a few things you must know:

  • Startups change all the time. You will work on dead ends, and it will be frustrating.
  • You may have to take off you engineer hat. Sometimes the company needs customer support. Or extra marketing, or sysadmin/operations. Or sales. Sometimes you have to first sell things you don’t have, and then build a crappy, I-hope-nobody-sees-this-code prototype.
  • Your skills may become irrelevant if the company pivots. Say you are an expert in information retrieval and the company morphs from a technology vendor to a user destination site. You will be asked to make the website prettier, to optimize load speeds or to write blog posts. 

In contrast, at a large company:

  • You will have stability. If you are hired by Oracle or Google to improve the garbage collection algorithms of the JVM or optimize where to display certain types of ads, chances are you’ll be able to work on this specific problem for long enough to accomplish something.
  • You will work reasonable hours that will allow you try being a “well-rounded person.”
  • You won’t have a lot of impact on whether the company lives or dies. Whether this is good or bad depends on your personality.

I am the CEO of a small startup and I haven’t worked for a large company since the 90s. I love what I do because it’s a job, a hobby and a game at the same time. Our employees enjoy the game too, but it would *never* cross my mind to make a blanket statement that all engineers should work at startups. Sometimes I interview people to whom I plainly tell that I would not be looking for a startup job if I were them.

If you are a smart engineer, don’t believe the hype. Do what you’ve been trained to do: gather information, weigh the pros and cons, find the compromise that works for you and decide for yourself.

11 Replies to “Why Non-engineers Think Engineers Are Better Off Joining Startups”

  1. You make good points. I think it’s important for people in the startup world to not look down on people who work for big companies outside of the startup ecosystem. Everyone has their own preferences, and wanting to work for a small, scrappy startup because you get a thrill from that sort of pursuit doesn’t make you better. I think you really have to be in it because you enjoy the startup game because chances are that your equity won’t mean much in the average startup.

  2. @Jonathan: enjoying the game is key to me too!@sbazerque, @epic: thanks :)@Jean: yeah, I have friends at Google and other big companies who are really happy with no plans to leave, and others who get bitten by the startup bug :)@Anand: thanks!

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