There is nothing quite like a start-up as an introduction to our industry. If you're looking for a fire hose full of information pointed straight at your face, I highly recommend the start-up. However, its ability to present you with information is only exceeded by its ability to change that information randomly.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity in the start-up is to build something radically new. That's why random venture capitalists are throwing money at this no-name group of fine people. They believe that they have a chance to build a thing that has never been built before, and, hopefully, figure out how to make a lot of money from that new thing. The existence of the start-up is a defiant cry that, "Yes, we can do something different," and that means you are guaranteed to see opportunities and gain experience early in your career that you're unlikely to see at an established company. It also means you'll experience an abundance of failure.
During the first Internet bubble, there was only one measure of success. Did you IPO? If you didn't, you were considered a failure. When the first bubble burst, we discovered there were all sorts of fascinating ways to fail, varying from buy-out to outright take-it-apart-and-fire-everyone failure.
Most start-ups are going to experience some definition of failure, but, well, failure is awesome. I mean it. There's no experience like the diving saves you'll perform in an attempt to save your job or your company. It'll be hell when it's happening, but when it's over, you're going to be the guy who attempted to pull off some amazing professional moves, and these aren't moves you'll be asked to perform at a larger company.
The single biggest asset to consider when thinking about joining a start-up is the experience you'll acquire. If you choose to dream about the millions of dollars you might end up with, I ask that you equally consider the experience of watching your team dismantled as your formerly high-flying company slow runs out of cash and scrambles to restructure itself because three college drop-outs the next town over built your idea better, faster, and cheaper.
Whether your start-up fails or not, the guarantee I make is that you're going to end up with some amazing stories, and each of those stories will contain a lesson. Sure, these lessons are available at larger companies, but the velocity, intensity, and passion of the start-up will make these stories uniquely yours.
If your average start-up is metaphorically sprinting, your average successful, established company is lumbering along at a comfortable trot. This company believes that it's running, but it's not. It ran at some point, became successful and large, and has gently slowed down thanks to its own weight.
This lumbering trot won't be obvious unless you've already experienced the pace of a start-up, and that might be part of the attraction. There's nothing quite like the calm deliberation of an established company after the frenetic chaos of a start-up, but it comes with a cost.
There's a constant threat in a start-up, and that's the threat of failure. You can ignore it when you're busily working three weekends straight, but it's always there: "We could fail." The larger company's success has hidden this threat under a guise of predictability, domesticity, and sheer momentum. You'll have fewer responsibilities because there are more of you. The projects will take longer because what's the hurry? You won't worry if your paycheck is going to clear, and you'll bitch when you have to work a few weekends. It sounds kind of sleepy, but there is still much to learn.
Any job, any company, represents a wealth of experience. The risk associated with acquiring that experience at an established company is far less than at a start-up because your larger company has hit its stride. They made it, and one would think they made it because they did something right. The questions are, what did they do right, are they still doing it right, and how is the rightness covering up things they're doing horribly?
The risk of the established company is that they've become used to their lumbering trot. It's become stable and familiar, and that familiarity defines the entire company's processes and culture. This is how we do things. This makes their days predictable and measurable. Again, if you've been suffering through endless days of risky unpredictability at your last gig, a large company might be the perfect next move.
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As a software engineer, you recognize at some point that there's much more to your career than dealing with code. Is it time to become a manager? Tell your boss he’s a jerk? Join that startup? Author Michael Lopp recalls his own make-or-break moments with Silicon Valley giants such as Apple, Netscape, and Symantec in Being Geek -- an insightful and entertaining book that will help you make better career decisions.