When I was talking to people at the Write the Docs conference, I had a couple of interesting conversations with people who were weighing the costs and benefits of moving from a large company to a small startup. I prefer working for smaller companies, but I’ve been through this decision process a few times, and I’ve seen the good and bad of both large and small companies.
I can’t tell you much about being a contractor, though. I’ve only dabbled in it, and all I can tell you is that it made my tax returns slightly more confusing.
To be clear: These are generalizations, based on my own experience and the experiences of my friends and coworkers. It’s very much anecdotal, and I realize that there are big companies that act like small companies, and small companies that are run like big companies.
With that caveat out of the way…
You should work for a big company because…
Stability. That’s always the biggest factor. The company is less likely to fall out from under you, and you know the checks will cash. There’s also stability in job roles: You’re likely to be hired for a specific role, and that’s what you’ll be doing. They probably have career advancement plans in place, so you know what your career path is likely to be for the next few years.
The products are also more stable. You’ll see fewer burn-it-down-and-rebuild sorts of changes. Most changes are incremental, although it’s not like big companies aren’t also introducing new products to keep up with the competition. So there’s the chance to work on both established and emerging technology.
As a technical communicator, you’ll have style guides to refer to, a set of tools and processes already in place (and tested pretty thoroughly), and access to support when things go wrong.
And you might have access to a nice cafeteria or two, as well. Never underestimate the morale benefits that come with a steady supply of decent food.
You shouldn’t work for a big company because…
Everything is already established, processes are locked down, and change usually happens pretty slowly. And in most cases, you’re locked into that career path, with few opportunities to break away from it.
If you disagree with and want to change any tools, processes, or styles, you’ll need to negotiate with a lot of people who have little or no interest in dealing with those sorts of changes. Which is not to say that great ideas aren’t welcome and don’t get implemented; it’s just more difficult when you need to get the support of a very large team of writers, editors, tool experts, managers, and other stakeholders.
When new products appear, there’s a lot of competition to get that assignment. You might have to deal with seniority or even blatant favoritism; basically, all of the things that we know are the downsides to big corporate culture.
I’ve found that you also need to spend a lot of time networking and marketing yourself. While this is true in any job, I think it’s more important when you’re competing with a large group of techcomm people who are also trying to get assigned to a new project, or a piece of the techcomm budget, or one of a small number of available promotions.
So while merit along is never enough to make you stand out in any job, I think you need to spend a larger portion of your time on self-promotion when you’re a member of a large team at a very large company.
I’ve also found that stability isn’t always a certainty. I’ve seen entire divisions broken up or laid off. While change tends to happen more slowly, it can be very dramatic when it does occur.
You should work for a small company because…
New opportunities. New skills. New challenges.
I’ve worked at large companies, large startups, mid-sized companies, and small startups. I’ve been through one IPO (it ultimately amounted to a modest bonus), and two failed pre-IPO companies (one failed in a predictable way, the other failure was spectacularly unpredictable).
I keep going back to small companies because I love technical communications and I want to own the process. I’m greedy that way. I love setting up documentation systems. I love working with a marketing team to set the tone and look of the documentation. I love learning things quickly, writing quickly, and publishing quickly.
I’m not as fond of very long development cycles, where I spend months writing, formatting, and revising a manual. I want to get the software into the users’ hands quickly, and get my product (the documentation, help, videos, etc.) out into the world to help those users be as successful as possible. And then move on to the next update, or onto a new product.
Heck yes I will update existing docs. I love comments from customers, whether that’s end users or my coworkers who are working with the product, training customers, are just coming onboard.
But I’m easily bored. While it’s nice to be able to do “simple” updates now and then, I love tackling new projects. I enjoy adapting, adopting, and improving more than working on an unending series of incremental changes.
What you really get out of a job at a small company is the chance to learn a wide variety of skills. You’ll find so many things that need to be done, and you can step up and take on as many as you’d like (but from personal experience, I don’t recommend doing that). You have more opportunity to set your own career path because it’s likely that no one else has given that much thought. And you will work closely with people who are committed to making the company successful. You’ll be working with a team that has the same goal, so you won’t have to deal with the clawing and backstabbing that can take place at large companies. (To be fair, that depends very much on the company culture; I’ve worked for one particular large company where everything is based on the theory that competition brings out the best in everyone. I disagree with that theory, but I’m also not the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar corporation.)
You shouldn’t work for a startup company because…
Things are changing all the time. You’re responsible for damn near everything related to techcomm. Do you want to use a specific tool or process? Can you justify the cost? Will it scale once your company adds more customers, end users, and employees?
And if you aren’t able to add more customers (or keep the existing ones), then get ready for a fall that can either be quick and painful, or a little longer…but still painful.
While we hear about massive IPOs, there are also a lot of IPOs that are decent, respectable, and don’t turn all of the employees into instant millionaires. So joining a startup means that you’ll have to deal with a lot of chaos, a lack of established workflows, and the possibility that you would’ve made more money at a larger company.
What sways my decision
I like to build things. I’ve seen how companies run technical communications, and I think I can do better. I don’t want to be limited by “this is how we’ve always done it” rules. I’m impatient and I don’t want to wait for larger companies to have endless meetings about process changes, and have to get support from a dozen (or more) managers and many more writers.
I want the opportunity to learn new skills, and I’ve been able to do much more than content creation. Working at small companies means a lot of heroic effort (which, as my manager keeps telling me, will not scale at all). But it means that you’re not stepping on someone else’s toes when you branch out into content engineering, technical illustration, customer support, training, content strategy, or the many other areas related (or at least close to) technical communication.
Because no matter how large your company is, the important thing is that you need to improve your skills. No matter how large it is, any organization that limits your growth is bad for your career.