Does it matter where you work?

A friend asked me:

Should I work for a small startup or a big company?

Answer 1: no, it doesn’t matter

The traditional answer is simple: it doesn’t matter. You’ll make a great income, work with smart people, and make cool things either way.

Notwithstanding short-term market conditions, software engineering is a great field right now — it’s a lucky time to be a coder. Salaries are high, and Google doesn’t have a monopoly on smart people or interesting products.

You can find a fun, challenging, and interesting job anywhere.

Answer 2: of course it bloody matters!

Of course it matters where you work!

There are big names in technology, and it can help your career to have a big name on your résumé. I’m lucky enough to work for Microsoft, and that gives me a boost if I ever apply for a job.

It’s unfair, but it seems true: working in Big Tech basically guarantees you interviews elsewhere, and companies are more likely to respect the title “Senior Software Engineer” from Meta than a random startup.

Conversely, small companies usually have a lot more flexibility & opportunity: there’s more room to be a leader. And even within individual companies, different teams often have very different cultures.

The scope of responsibilities you’re allowed to have, the size of your audience, your chance of promotion (& compensation & culture & location, etc.): they’re all wildly different between and across companies, both big and small. Of course your choice matters.

Answer 3: you get to choose?

But do you even get a choice? In my experience, most engineers apply to a dozen companies, get interviews at a few, and then pick between one or two of them. Whether or not FAANG makes that list is a crapshoot.

Yes, you can improve the odds (I’m convinced I got my interview because 2 friends & I did well in a Microsoft-sponsored coding challenge), but it’s still luck. Plenty of my smart friends never got a FAANG interview.

If you’re lucky enough to have the choice between big and small, by all means consider the pros and cons. But if you don’t have the choice, don’t worry. Not every place is great, but there are a lot of great places — and you can always find a new team.

Conclusion: it’s like college

My friend was in college — a student.

So I asked him: if a high school student asked you to compare colleges, how would you answer? Does your school matter?

The answer is the same:

Of course it matters. Choosing between Harvard and Georgia Tech meaningfully impacts your life. They’d grow different things about you & offer you different opportunities. But you’d probably have a great time anywhere, no matter your choice — if you’re even offered a choice at all.

Similarly, it matters where you work; I wouldn’t say otherwise. At the very least, Big Tech helps you get your next cool job. But there is a lot of cool stuff in this world, and there are a lot of cool places to do it. Hopefully you find that place on Day 1.

If not, then try again.