Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big company … small company?

My life in bags!!
Ok! So I’ve worked for several companies so far, and they range from big to tiny - conglomerates to mid-sized companies to startups. My roles have seen the gamut - from research to development to product management, driving vision to building prototypes, mulling architecture to evangelizing technology, coding JSPs to creating sites for internal communications, meeting customers to writing blog posts. Jack of all trades, master of some!

There’s been a common thread - the need to have impact - help move the needle of technology in some tangible way, or impact the search experience for users on the web or within the enterprise or try to create a new paradigm that changes how we work/play.

A question I'm asked is - which is better - large or small company? What are the pros and cons?

First, let me say that with every organization, there’s something to learn - what to do, and very often, what not to do. I try to take that with me wherever I go, so as I get older and wiser (dumber and less skilled?), these lessons can help me become more effective (tolerable?). Some things, I don’t seem to learn - like managing up! Maybe it’s not in my DNA. BTW - that’s a mandatory skill for success anywhere :-)

The biggest advantage to working for a big company is that you have access to contribute towards changing the world in a significant way, sometimes making tech. history. 

When you’re contributing (even in a miniscule way) for the world to watch IBM’s Deep Blue beat Kasparov, or serve the Olympics results on the web for the first time (Atlanta 1996), there’s no feeling like it! I still cherish those projects. Before the Olympics site went live, I remember personally bringing down to upgrade it  with our research software (Network Dispatcher(to prepare for the expected surge in referral traffic from the Olympics site) - 2 hours became 4 and I was sweating, since the web server logs were stalled instead of running like a torrent. The folks on the Watson team are feeling that exhilaration of the Jeopardy achievement now, and it will last them throughout their careers! The folks at Twitter and Facebook will forever cherish their role in the transformation of the middle east! 

When you launch a feature on Yahoo! or, you know that you’re impacting millions of people in a very real way. People think you have something to offer when you speak at conferences. You meet large customers - brands you hear about everyday. Your product is powering their websites and intranets, and you’re reaching into their everyday lives and touching their users. For me, it is deeply  gratifying to work on products that power or the NY Times or

Now - what about smaller companies? There’s a huge thing going for them - you own the destiny of the company. You’re not a cog in the wheel - you are the wheel! You are driving from idea to product, design and architecture, and you’re probably also the person selling the idea to your CEO/CTO and to your customers. You own the budget, you are responsible for delivery of product, and the primary owner of the health and happiness of your team.

In a startup, you are the company! You’re working on a mission, and sometimes, it is all-consuming. During the first phase of the company, once the core team is in place, all that matters is the product you are building - it is only after the first few months that mundane things like market conditions, market opportunities, burn rate (oops!), go to market strategy and the business model become top of mind. That adrenaline-pumping exhilaration is only possible in a startup. You’re doing the design, you’re doing the coding, you’re doing the data backup, you're writing the design docs and product documentation and your product is … finally … working!

With a startup, you’re not meeting daily with the big name customers. In fact, you have to repeat your company name more than once when someone asks what you do at a party. You’re not being given the tour of the newsroom at the New York Times, or getting an inside view at a museum in Washington, and you’re not meeting a customer who (really) cannot tell you what their top secret (really!!) project is.

In the lobby of the New York Times
With a startup, you’re not getting bags and shirts that have the Olympics/FIFA logo on them.
One of the nicer shirts in my collection
But … given a choice ... give me the exhilaration of the startup!