First real job career advice
July 15, 2017 9:36 AM   Subscribe

About to start applying for my first real job in the tech sector. Seeking advice about the long term career benefits of starting at a startup vs. a more established company.

I'll be graduating this coming winter and am planning on getting my first bona fide professional job doing data science, most likely at a tech company. I have done some internships but am coming in a little older than other people (grad program took awhile) and I want to do the best I can to position myself for long term career development.

It seems to me that people usually go one of two routes: 1) join a mature, established company as part of a relatively large data analytics group, specialize and get really good at doing one thing, advance into possible management(?) or 2) join a start up as part of a 2-3 person unit, become a jack of all trades for data science / data engineering / software development, become a technical lead (?)

I see some benefits and drawbacks to both of these routes. I imagine at a start up, I'd be given more free rein in terms of the choice of tools and possibly more responsibility earlier on. While at a more mature company, I would be better positioned to observe industry best practices and learn from the people that already know what works and what doesn't. At a start up I would worry that I won't have enough experience or a clear enough view of the field just yet to be able to take advantage of the freedom and self-directed opportunities. At a more mature company I'd be worried that as the most junior person, I'll be given tasks that are more "busy work" and not very challenging.

I feel like at this early stage of my career, it is important to invest in myself so I become a more knowledgeable and valuable person 3-5 years down the line. I am hard working, I learn pretty quickly, and I'm not afraid of taking on responsibility. I am, however, a pretty quiet person and tend not to like to draw attention to myself. I'm not too worried about the compensation difference, but I am wondering if my personality is better suited for one vs. the other. I'm just not sure what is the best environment where I can get the most out of my first job, career development-wise.

If you've been down this path, could you comment on:
1) whether or not my above impression re startups vs mature companies is accurate?
2) how important this distinction really is. Is one definitely better than the other for an early career person? Am I overthinking it? Should I just get a job and do my best and re evaluate 3-5 years down the line?
3) if you went one route vs. the other, what are some things that are important to keep in mind career-wise that are specific to that route? Does the pacing of your career (i.e. how often you changed companies, internal vs. external promotions) change?

Thanks for your help, looking forward to reading your thoughts!
posted by dragonfruit to Work & Money (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here's something to keep in mind - for the long-term trajectory of your career, it's not about the company, it's about your coworkers.

Plan to cultivate a cohort of colleagues. In the 20+ year timeframe, your best chance at job offers will be from people you know as they move between companies. There's a huge difference between a random resume and a personal reference. Oftentimes a manager will get a new job and bring their team along.

Sure, you are there to do good work for the company. In order to thrive in the long run, it is equally important to get to know people and build solid relationships. Look for a place with good energy and people you like.
posted by metaseeker at 10:21 AM on July 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

I agree with metaseeker - the most important thing is finding a good team - and if you can find a great, supportive manager who will support and mentor you, that is gold. But failing that (or in addition) - a great set of peers to learn with is a really important thing.

I think it's great that you're thinking so carefully about this. I think a lot of it depends on your personality type. Are you more of a "self-starter" type, or are you more of a really good collaborator? You can be both but IME most high performers tend more towards one than the other. I think in general, the former tend to do better in small workplaces, where they can take on things outside of their job descriptions and become really important to the success of the organization. Someone who is at their best when collaborating with or leading teams tends to do better in large orgs where collaboration is important and there's a path to advancement. But that's a huge generalization and again, your immediate team and manager play a big role here.

I would say you'd probably do well to do both. You have a long career ahead of you! Your first job out of school probably seems like a bit of a make-or-break moment, but it's really just one job and unless it's a real outlier in one direction or the other, it won't necessarily set the course for your whole career. I say: find a role you're interested in, with a boss you have a rapport with, and learn as much as you can in the first two or three years. Once you start feeling restless, start looking for another job that will offer you the opportunity to develop in new ways.

Good luck!
posted by lunasol at 10:50 AM on July 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

You’ve accurately summarized the pros and cons of startups vs. mature companies. However, startups and large companies aren’t always what they seem: a nimble-looking startup might be effectively operating as a subsidiary of its funding organization, while a mature company or even a government might be hiring for an entrepreneurial group researching new areas or trying new things. It really comes back to metaseeker’s suggestion to interview for a team.

Don’t forget that when you go in for an interview, the fit needs to work in both directions. Ask your prospective employer what they’re hoping to achieve with data science and how they’ll know it’s working to get a sense of their strategy. Ask them about their management approach and examples of how they’ve reviewed, rewarded, and guided staff to get a feeling for their workplace culture. Reach out to people who’ve moved on to see if they’re supportive of growth outside the company and ongoing relationships. Find out whether teams are stable over time or regularly re-orged to see how they do long-term planning.

Data science as a field has a lot of big risks in these areas — it’s essentially statistics, but renamed and repositioned to seem edgier and possibly less stable. Companies may think they need it in order to make sense of their data, but they don’t necessarily have a clear idea of what goals they’re trying to achieve with that sense. Use your interviews to find a stable team with a goal for its data science operation, and I bet you’ll find the kind of long-term network that will serve you for an entire career.

Good luck!
posted by migurski at 11:06 AM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Startups give you a wider range of experience at a smaller scale, larger companies have incredibly narrowly-defined roles, but with much larger effects.

20 years ago I wish someone told me to cultivate my professional network. I've worked at both large companies and startups, and I make employment decisions based on those experiences, but the thing I wish I had most is a network. You aren't likely to be at the same job for 40 years and retire, and your network is the best way to get jobs as your career progresses.
posted by rhizome at 11:25 AM on July 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Are you a white or Asian man? If not, I'd definitely avoid startups. Unless you have a burning passion for startup culture, it is not worth the many impediments you'd face. Mature companies are generally less racist and sexist, because they've already been through the cult-of-personality/reckless stage and the lawsuits stage.

Here are some pros and cons for each. Startup culture gives you more opportunity to be a broad player -- you would likely do a lot of different types of tasks. That can be good at the beginning of your career because it gives you a chance to explore and see what you like. You might also gain a broad skillset that could increase the types of jobs you'd be eligible for afterwards. If you get lucky and the startup is successful you could be promoted quickly --- but that's not the norm. Most startups fail.

Established companies are typically better and more professionally managed, so if you're interested in taking on leadership positions later in your career, especially at medium or large-sized companies, that might suit you better. You will have more and better role models, and you are likelier to get professional training. The rules for advancement will be clearer and more explicit, which you might like if you're an intentional person.

If you don't feel particularly drawn to startups you'd probably be better off in a more established company. They are the norm, and contain lots of variation in size and age and style and culture. Startups are a very specific non-standard type of company, and unless they hold a particular appeal to you, there's no big argument in favour of them, really.

Good luck!
posted by Susan PG at 11:47 AM on July 15, 2017

I've worked at both start ups and larger companies. I would lean towards the larger company at your career stage. It's a good place to, as you've said it, learn the best practices, see how a "fully operational" and "at scale" data analytics function works/operates esp. with respect to the functions that team supports. And, you'll also likely have much more company stability and better benefits (yay!).

I can see how going to a start up (or fast growing not as small as a start up) company could work. If you were to go here, please please please screen for the following. 1) Is there a strong leader in charge of your team who's done this before (i.e., built an analytics team from scratch and knows the ins-and-outs of the tools/expertise/industry) and has the established respect from other functions he/she supports, 2) will you get sufficient mentorship to grow faster than if you were left on your own devices, and 3) will your start up have a solid shot at surviving (i.e., business model, who are the founders/investors) b/c this will impact if your options are worth anything after your stint there and overall work environment.

The absolute worst type of team to join at a start up is one where you don't have the above characteristics, especially if you're early in your career. Everyone and their mother at the start up will have their own opinion about how data analytics should/shouldn't work based on their prior experiences, and you need a boss/leader who can manage those stakeholders and actually set a strategy to scale out the org/systems/tools/processes. And, later in your career once you've gotten exposure to what good data analytics functions look like, start ups end up looking appealing b/c you get to build the team and infrastructure.

The dirty secret about start ups is 1) there's very little money/expertise/resources for the best, and 2) it's a lot of work, sometimes mediocre work b/c your company chose not to invest, so you're stuck in Excel land doing manual data analysis work vs. the cool stuff larger companies are doing.
posted by ellerhodes at 1:13 PM on July 15, 2017

Be sure to consider compensation, culture, work/life balance in the mix.

- Less base salary
- More equity, which may or may not be worth something and vested shares can't be easily liquidated
- Weaker benefits, including attending conferences and retirement matching
- Generally worse work/life balance
- Lousy place to get sick or have life crisis, no or little HR processes
- Generally more interesting work for a junior
- Must drink kool-aid and embrace/live mission
- You'd better like the founders, and hope they don't micromanage
- Less job security

Mature company
- More base salary
- Less equity, but in publicly traded company equity has a cash value and vested shares can be easily liquidated
- Stronger benefits, more training
- Generally better work/life balance
- OK place to get sick or have life crisis, HR can accommodate disability
- Generally less interesting work for a junior
- OK to skip the kool-aid and put in solid day work for solid day pay
- You are insulated from senior management by your bosses
- More job security
posted by crazycanuck at 1:13 PM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Excellent advice upthread. Will add my $0.02 as one who went from working in academia until my thirties, and then went into a high-tech industry (life sciences) where growth meant many opportunities both at large firms and startups.

Regarding Big Company, I'd recommend you go there first, at least for 2 years. Learn the ropes, learn the organization structure, learn who-is-who, and find out how people got to where they are (you will meet people who are doing very neat things, and will be often happy to share how they got there). Take advantage of in-house training (any worthwhile Big Company will make an investment in training resources, free for the asking), be known as the hard worker who is pleasant to talk to.

I did this, was there for 4 years before going to a startup, and that startup was very, very successful.

There was a book I read many years ago with a golden egg on the cover, about career advice. Can't remember it for the life of me, was from a high-level executive recruiter who was giving advice after seeing decades of top executives. The take-home message was to start at a Big Company and learn the ropes there - many best practices all over the place. Of course you will see the effects of legacy systems built on-top of each other, and their own bespoke problems, but you will also see how efficient everything is. And processes are there for a reason.

To answer one of your questions about pacing - may be dependent upon the industry / market segment (i.e. slow growth or high growth) but as you are talking technology it is high growth. I've found that Big Companies will have many, many needs and there are many opportunities everywhere. When I was with a Fortune 500 company for six years I had no less than 6 managers and 5 different titles and 3 different roles. Now I was in a division that was underneath a lot of growth pressure, so there's that. In a startup you can be there for three years and not have any change in title and minimal bumps in salary (depending of course on how that startup is faring) but wearing 'lots of hats'.

The other thing that you do not bring up, but you need to carefully consider, is the amount of real, genuine risk a startup has. You can easily be out of a job without any warning - boom, just like that, the direction changed or the financing didn't come through or there was an HR problem or something else. I know several 'veterans' within my network that found themselves out of a job after just a few months in a startup environment, burned by people they trusted with their career and income. Remember that only 1 out of 10 (other VC's will say 1 in 20) will get a return on their investment, which is why they have to hear 100 'pitches' for every 1 or 2 they'll actually fund.

You'll basically have the rest of your life to join a startup. Heck I may try again. I worked for only 2 startups to-date, the second one I left after only 12 months, the said startup struggled though another 5 years, 2 CEOs, 3 commercial teams, before being sold after diluting their original stock many times. I understand that people who slogged through those 5 years of ups-and-downs had options worth about $3K at the end of the acquisition. And of course since it was so devalued, after the acquisition there were tons of layoffs.

If you work for Big Company for many years, learning and growing in responsibility and familiarity with a market leader, you will be a Desirable Hire by this year's hot-new-startup as you've got the needed experience. Plenty of time for that.

Okay my $0.02 turned out to be much longer than I thought. As others have said,

Good luck!
posted by scooterdog at 1:14 PM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Great advice above. Also keep in mind you're probably going to be changing jobs every 2-5 years, so you're not committing to a strategy for life.
posted by matildaben at 1:23 PM on July 15, 2017

You're in the position I was three or four years ago. I happened to know someone from undergrad who'd dropped out of a PhD program at precisely the time where that meant you were rapidly going to find yourself as head of data science at some startup and he put me in touch with a couple other people in similar positions. In talking to them, I concluded that I probably wanted a company with an established data science team, mostly because I didn't feel like I could be brazen and self-assured enough for a startup, and because I wanted an environment where there was some expectation of a learning curve/ramp up time rather than being thrown in the deep end (I had a math PhD and could code, but had little exposure to "data science", whatever that means). I'm actually still writing in the notebook I was using at the time and, looking back at those notes, probably the biggest recurring theme was that "data science" is ill-defined and that what the job looks like is highly dependent on the company, regardless of size.

But it turned out that those places with established teams were at a point where they could just hire yet another person with a machine learning PhD and didn't need to look at me, so most of the companies I talked to were startups at various stages. I ended up as the third data scientist hired at a company you've never heard of that had been chugging along for like 8 years and had like 300 employees (so really they weren't a "startup" any more). This actually turned out really well. I learned a hell of a lot. I realised I was much more inclined towards engineering work than I thought and because our team was basically entirely responsible for itself, I actually had the opportunity to do that kind of work that I probably wouldn't have had elsewhere and learn from some really dumb mistakes.

There were definite downsides that are risks at any company with a small data science team. No one really knew what the career progression was supposed to be. Organizationally, we lived with the software developers (in fact, when I was hired, my title included the words "software developer"), but no one knew really knew how to translate the difference between "developer" and "senior developer" to our jobs. It was kind of unclear how we fit into the organization as a whole, who was supposed to request work from us, how they were supposed to do it, and so on. I'm sure there are companies that avoid these issues, but I think it's easy to run into these issues even at a company that's generally well-run because of the amorphous nature of data science.
posted by hoyland at 1:37 PM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Consider Dan Luu's take.
posted by brainwane at 5:23 PM on July 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

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