Big Tech vs Startups: The myths and realities

2nd May 2022


Should I join a startup or make myself comfortable at the Big Tech? Many engineers face this conundrum when applying for their first tech job or making a switch.

The objective of this blog is to evaluate the pros and cons of working at different types of companies in India. This is specifically for engineers as I can’t speak for any other profession. Choosing a company type over the other is completely fine as long as it is an informed decision. Otherwise, you are just shooting in the dark and hoping for the best.


Why should you listen to me?

I recently switched jobs, so I have the current market data. I have talked to 50+ engineers in India to understand their experiences. I had a chat with engineers working at Amazon, Facebook, DE Shaw, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, PhonePe, smallcase, INDmoney, Jupiter, epiFi, Even, Bureau, and a few more.

I tried to understand the projects they were working on, the company’s culture, lifestyle, engineering complexities, overall morale and salaries. The objective was to imagine myself in their shoes and decide whether I want that experience for at least the next couple of years of my life or not.


Let’s first categorise the market

There are broadly two types of tech companies to work in India:
  1. FAANG or the Big Tech
  2. Prominent Indian startups

Let’s go over the definitions.

By the Big Tech, I mean any tech company that is globally recognised and is perceived as “prestigious” to work at. A few examples are Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Uber, Zomato, Goldman Sachs, Byju’s, etc. Any company that you think is “too big” will fall into this category. These companies have built a lot of processes, and you need to use these internal processes and systems to push new features. They have almost all the theoretical software engineering principles, that you have read, in place for improving code quality and productivity.

The Indian startup ecosystem has been booming for the past few years. A lot of young tech startups are emerging, and all of them are loaded with cash. A few examples are CRED, BlinkIt, PhonePe and smallcase. They are disrupting one industry after the other, and are always looking to hire fresh talent. These companies are a great place to work at. They are fast-moving and disruptive but also organised enough to have a few engineering processes in place.


Less than ideal options

There are two more categories of companies that I have left out of my argument: early-stage startups and the “average” companies. The average companies are well heard of but are not especially famous for their engineering talent. A few examples are Infosys, Accenture, and Dell. There is nothing wrong with working at such companies, but there is nothing special about them as well.

Early-stage startups are risky. There are only two scenarios in which it’s a good idea to join an early-stage startup:

  1. You personally know the founder (or the CEO), and their past experiences are proof of their exceptional execution skills.
  2. You feel inspired by the technical co-founder (or the CTO) and their vast achievements. They must have a record of technical competence in the past.

If the co-founders of the early-stage startup you are planning to join do not meet these criteria then you might be taking a casual risk by joining the company. I am not saying that the startup is destined to fail; there are a lot of factors that come into play to determine the success or failure of a company. Also, there is a huge factor of luck. But, I think it makes a lot more sense to take a calculated risk as opposed to a casual one. If a calculated risk doesn’t work out then you will be able to precisely measure the fault in your risk evaluation. But, you will not learn anything from the failure or, even the success, of a casual risk.

Hence, you should ideally go for the Big Tech or prominent Indian startups. Going for the average company doesn't make sense. Going to early-stage startups is a personal choice that will need more data to make an informed decision.


The myths and realities of working at the Big tech

Working at Google proves you are one of the smartest engineers in the country, Yeah, that’s a myth. There are a lot of smart folks working outside the Google premises. Joining FAANG only proved that you are good at solving algorithmic problems and designing systems on paper.

The harsh reality of working at the Big Tech is that you are insignificant. They can easily replace you with any of the 5000 applicants in their inboxes. You only get to work on a small chunk of a huge problem. You don’t get to work on as exciting projects as you thought when you were applying. The good news is that this is only true till you don’t have enough experience to hold managerial positions at the company. By the time you have 5-6 years of experience, you will have the power to make key decisions. Senior engineers also get to work on exciting projects that the company truly cares about, which makes them irreplaceable.

Big Tech pays well but so do the startups. The perks of working at the likes of Google are more than just money. You get social validation. It’s like a certificate that you can show to anyone proving that you are a “talented” engineer. It will be easier for you to switch jobs because recruiters will approach you as opposed to the other way around. It will be easier to raise venture capital for your own startup because you can validate your technical skills.

If you have relevant experience to join in a more senior position then the Big Tech is a solid choice. Otherwise, if you are not ready to compromise your absolute learning and self-worth then you might want to stay away from the Big Tech for a while.


The myths and realities of working at a startup

Aah… the cool ones. Startup engineers have all figured it out. They work for a crazy number of hours to build a piece of tech that will change the way we see the world. They will retire at the age of 26 with all the stocks they got from the company. Again, a myth.

You don’t know which startup will succeed in the long run. Even venture capitalists can’t accurately predict that, and it’s literally their full-time job. You don’t always work on super exciting stuff; mundane boring tasks are also part of the job. You might end up without a job after just a year, or worse, you might end up giving up 4 years of your life for worthless stock options because the company never went public.

But, one thing is certain, you will work on crazy projects with brilliant folks. Remember, I am not talking about early-stage ventures. By startups, I mean companies that have raised at least a Series-A or Series-B funding round. These companies have proved that the market and the demand exist. They are now probably trying to find a product-market fit. You will get to solve complex engineering problems because startups are constantly scaling their systems and pushing for new features. You will work with brilliant folks because building these complex systems and processes is no joke. A startup needs a pool of talented engineers to function otherwise it’s destined to fail.

Hence, if you want to boost your learning experience by still earning as much as the Big Tech then prominent startups might be your best option. Although, you will have to give up on social status. You will not be respected as much as a Google or Apple engineer. So, be ready for that as well.


Conclusion

Joining any company is a risk. You don’t know what is going to happen to the company or yourself in the next couple of years. The least you could do is take a calculated risk instead of shooting in the dark.

I would again like to clarify that there is nothing wrong with choosing the Big Tech over startups, or vice-versa. It’s a matter of personal preference. I know a couple of talented engineers working at Amazon and Citadel who have achieved a lot in their careers. They have worked on the technology that you and I haven’t even heard of. On the other hand, I have also met a few engineers working at unheard-of startups building systems that are just too complex to explain in this blog.

There is nothing wrong with taking calculated risks, even if it ends up upsetting a few people.

Stay humble and dream big!