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What Differences Between Being an Engineer at a Small, Medium, and Large Company?

There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

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I had an interesting phone call recently from a college freshman attending my grad school alma mater. It was primarily an alumni fund raiser, but he took the time to ask about my career and seemed genuinely interested in my experience. So, we talked for longer than I would have expected before we got to the money question.

After some background, his big question regarded the advantages of going to work for a big company versus a small company or start-up. Many books have been written on similar topics. What follows is one man’s simplified opinion.

By way of background, I’ve worked for one big organization, a couple of medium-sized companies, a consulting firm, and several start-ups, all technology based. I’m not sure this experience is typical, nor would I try to suggest that what follows is any more than one person’s opinion. Please feel free to add your own comments.

Large

Big companies and government agencies offer structure and well-developed benefit plans. Successful large tech companies and places such as NASA and any of the national labs also spend lots of money on great “toys” for engineers, and get involved in some very large projects. They usually have many technical experts and deep institutional knowledge in their technical fields.

For a recent graduate, large firms offer the opportunity to specialize in an area of study at a level of detail far beyond what is presented in college, to go narrow and deep, and learn from in-house experts. If you’re lucky enough to get hired shortly after one of these large projects begins, it could be a chance to grow along with it.

Initially narrow roles and responsibilities can expand over time and provide a natural progression as the project widens, older staff retires, and the project itself evolves. Compensation has to be competitive for the industry, so a good engineer can do well financially in large companies.

That’s the good side.

All that structure, however, means more bureaucracy and things tend to slow down. Opportunities for recent grads to take a lead role in an important project are more limited. Individual initiative may not be as highly appreciated. Key R&D roles may be reserved for PhDs. Office/department politics may be complex and difficult to negotiate. And opportunities to achieve real wealth as a junior employee are virtually unheard of.

Small

Start-ups are chaotic, fast-paced, and often short-lived. They’re usually exciting, but not for the faint of heart or someone who craves stability and a clear vision of what lies ahead. The direction or product focus can change quickly, and in the early days it can change often.

For a recent grad, unless you’re part of a team that spins out of a university research project, or you’re developing an idea of your own, you probably don’t have the needed skills right out of school to be of great value to a start-up. They just don’t have the time or resources to train you for what they need.

One or two years out of college, however, once you’ve developed key skills related to your field (e.g., product design, SolidWorks expertise, process engineering knowledge, FEA, computer or PLC programming, etc.), you could be the perfect new job applicant.

Start-ups are also usually strapped for cash initially, and when they do raise money, it’s typically for short-term needs such as process development, lab-scale equipment demonstrators, etc. rather than longer-term basic research. Don’t expect the big toys, and be ready to settle for entry-level versions of SolidWorks and other software. Salaries during the first year or two tend to be below market rate, but with an offset for equity that can more than make up for any financial sacrifices you make if the business succeeds, and if there is an exit opportunity you can take advantage of.

This favors young, ambitious engineers or marketers willing to work long hours, able to assume some financial risk because they don’t have a family to worry about yet, and still in a position where they can rebound easily if things go belly up.

In Between

Mid-sized companies are obviously a mix of both, but probably trend closer to the characteristics of the big firms. They have to. Mature businesses need structure and solid business systems. They need personnel stability and IP/institutional knowledge that lets them compete. Every successful start-up must eventually assume more and more of these characteristics, because scaling up is impossible without them.

Security

What’s missing from this whole range of opportunities today is long-term job security. Large firm or start-up, you need to stay on a track of life-long learning, continually renewing your skill set, and continuing to network so you remain agile. Things change, and even companies with the best intentions may find they don’t need you when they choose to pursue a new direction.

Personally, I greatly prefer the start-up and very small business environment, mostly because it has let me see every aspect of business and have a meaningful impact on the company’s success or failure. My primary job has always been engineering and product design/development, but I’m also involved in marketing, fund raising, hiring, and personnel admin.

It’s certainly not all glamorous. The job often entails taking out the garbage, cleaning the bathroom, and vacuuming the floors in the beginning, but I’ve always considered that a small price to pay for the rest.

The ultimate, something I repeatedly tell my children: “Figure out a way to start your own business and work for yourself, even if you must initially do it as a second job.”

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