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Corporate vs. Startup: How to choose the right company

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Amy Sowash is a former World Champion athlete in International Shooting who graduated Hackbright in December 2017. After graduation, Amy worked for both a startup and a major corporation. Now a Web Developer at ExxonMobil, she shares her experience with both types of companies and how she evaluated which environment and and culture fit her career goals.


Demythifying Corporate IT

Before Hackbright, I was a professional athlete and coach. I spent ten years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, competing all over the world for Team USA. While I was still competing, I began taking computer science courses. I fell in love with programming in my first C++ class, and decided to pursue software engineering when I retired. I moved to San Francisco to attend Hackbright Academy.

After Hackbright, I was an intern for three months with a small startup in San Francisco. I worked primarily on testing their Django applications and providing support for a transition to Unicode and Python 3.

Now, I work at ExxonMobil as a developer on the Capital Projects Applications team. That means if there’s a large project (think refinery construction projects) and they need apps, we’re the team providing them. I’ve been here for about two months, and have already worked on three separate applications, doing everything from trouble-shooting to scoping out new use cases to developing new APIs.

Having been on both sides of the coin—startup and corporate—I’d like to dispel some myths about corporates jobs, provide insight on what the real differences are, and give you the scoop on how awesome corporate life can be. I think you’ll be more than a little surprised.

Myth 1:

There are no women or minorities.

For all three of the projects I’m working on, there are always more women than men in meetings. In some cases, there are only women. These meetings are generally engineers, project managers, developers, etc. The IT new hires group I started in was 50% female, and made up entirely of minorities.

Myth 2:

The culture is stuffy and snobby.

It’s true, four days a week jeans are not in the dress code. People can be formal, but also polite (bonus points for Southern hospitality). Formal, in my experience, hasn’t meant stuffy. It has given me room to speak in meetings without someone talking over me, and means everyone is extremely professional and inclusive.

I also haven’t experienced any of the “boot campers are not as good as CS grads” treatment that was so frustrating in San Francisco. Everyone here has treated me equally as the intelligent, capable person I am.

Myth 3:

The perks are better at startups.

You should see our campus. Spread over 385 acres, with 10,000 employees, it has state of the art everything, including workout facilities, day care facilities, parking garages, restaurants, cupcakes, and running trails. Check it out: https://corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/company/worldwide-operations/locations/united-states/houston-campus/overview

Other perks include education reimbursement, great healthcare, opportunities to travel, relocation packages, conference support, ergonomic resources, 401k plans/stock, and more.

Myth 4:

The work life balance is terrible.

My work life balance is incredible, and for those of you who know me, that’s really saying something. There’s a ton of support to new hires, including help in building a network of friends. We do things like go to lunch, have Halloween events, game nights, and happy hours.

Now that you’re hopefully excited, or at least intrigued, I’d like to share some differences.

Onboarding:

Corporate onboarding is a little slower than startup onboarding. No one is going to ask you to make a pull request on day one, let alone the first week. But the breadth of knowledge and opportunities is unparalleled. I have eaten lunch with people who coded the first applications in the 60s and 70s in FORTRAN, as well as with people who are working on block chain technology. Imagine the depth of knowledge someone has when they’ve seen the entire industry from punch card to now.

On day one at my San Francisco internship, I was programming. I pushed code almost immediately. I spent three months perfecting Django testing. While it gave me a chance to dive deep on one topic, the slow onboarding process at ExxonMobil is giving me more of a chance to sample and learn about all of the aspects of computer science.

Career path:

I remember feeling overwhelmed when we were graduating from Hackbright because every tech recruiter asked me to describe exactly what type of software ninja I wanted to be. How could I know so early in my career? There’s less of that pressure here. At a large company, you also have the luxury of not necessarily needing to job hunt if you want to change roles.

The educational opportunities at ExxonMobil are fantastic. I’m a lifelong learner, so that was really important to me. I’m not just talking about formal, external education, but internal groups too. Because we have ~3,000 IT folks on campus, if you want to join a group, collaborate, or learn something, it’s out there. Small companies are often just one tech stack.

Tangentially, I thought I would miss the constant exposure to new technology in San Francisco and the opportunity to go to meetups on any tech topic. I don’t, and it’s because those opportunities didn’t disappear. Not only does Houston have a thriving tech scene, but ExxonMobil is so large, there’s a team for everything you can imagine. Want to talk to some cloud experts? 3D print teams? Drones experts? Data analytics? Servers? Internal Hackathons? Virtual reality? Whatever your passion, you can pursue it here. And if you don’t know what it is, you can find out.

If you’re trying to decide what to do, I’d suggest considering your priorities. Startups are great for fast-paced, high energy, long days where you get to experience the bustle and maybe even code a whole lot immediately. You might get to dive deep on one or two topics.

Keep in mind that San Francisco has a particular style of programming jobs, where jeans, snacks and a feverish pace are all considered essential. Just because there are differences, doesn’t mean that’s bad. It all comes down to priorities. For me, it came down to stability, benefits, education, and travel opportunities. Those were my big factors and ExxonMobil checked all of the boxes.

If you’re trying to decide what size company is for you, I’d recommend trying them both if you can. I know that’s not always an option, but if you’re interning, consider companies outside your ideal range. You might find that you fit in more places than you expected. And you can always go back to what you thought you wanted to begin with.

I may have made corporate life sound too perfect, and I want to dispel that myth too. Every job has difficult parts.

Learning how a really large, scaled system interacts and operates has not been easy. I still have a lot to learn. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find the right person to talk to or connect with in order to get something done. There are so many tech teams, it can take a few inquiries to get it right. The people who have been here a few years clearly don’t have that issue, so I think it’s mostly about time.

At a small company, you can often bet the bug in your part of the application is your fault. Here, it might not be, and there’s both upsides and downsides to that. When something goes down, it may not be your fault, but you also may not be able to fix it on your own.

The security standards can make for some interesting and frustrating daily challenges as well. If you’re interested in security, this is a great place to be. Small companies often have little to no security.

For me, because I am a work hard, fast, and constantly type, the slow start has been the most difficult part. I’m also only two months in, and things are just starting to pick up.

Finally, recognize there are big and small companies all over the country. I underestimated this in my first job search. Yes, San Francisco has a lot of tech, but they’re not the only ones, and if you’re looking for a specific industry, it may be a good idea to look elsewhere. I love living in Houston, but I know it’s not for every Hackbrighter. My hope is that everyone reading this will have an exciting career at a place that fits all of their needs. If you’re intrigued or have more questions, I’m always happy to chat with students and alum, so feel free to reach out.


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