posted: November 14, 2020
tl;dr: Ruminations on the type of company that is the best fit for me...
At the risk of limiting myself from future employment opportunities, I am recording the characteristics that I seek when choosing a place to work. I’ve held some of these preferences my entire career. Others are a function of how the economic landscape in the United States has changed over multiple decades. Some of them are a direct result of my ten years at Westell Technologies, from 2005 to 2015. I suppose my desires may change in the future, but they seem pretty stable for the now.
Small in size
Except for brief stints at Teradyne and National Semiconductor during my college days, I’ve spent my career at small companies, where small means fewer than 1000 employees, and often fewer than 100 employees. Small companies, I think, provide a wealth of advantages in career development, environment, and company culture.
On the career side, in a small company you are much less likely to get pigeonholed as the expert about one small area of technology or the business. This is why startups are a great place to start one’s career. I enjoy learning new technologies and have certainly found it true that I get exposed to more new technologies in a shorter period of time in smaller companies. Small companies provide more opportunities to do different projects and work in different areas of the product lines and overall company. The main downside is that there will be fewer other experts around who can teach and provide guidance, which forces one to be a more self-directed learner.
I enjoy the environment and culture more at small companies than large companies. Small companies have a greater sense of mission. It’s easier to make a major impact at a small company, although if your goal in life is to rise to the top of a large organization, then you clearly need to work at a large company. There is less politics at a small company, fewer internal competing projects, and fewer people working at cross purposes. A small company can develop a stronger culture and there is more of a personal touch. It’s a lot easier to get to know everybody in a small company, rather than having to interact with people primarily based on their role. All in all I find small companies to be more enjoyable and more fun.
A small company is also less likely than a “Big Tech” company to attract the ire of outside forces, whether that be the government, the press, or special interest groups.
Westell Technologies, which recently made the decision to delist from the NASDAQ market, is probably my last public company employer. While at Westell I saw the increasing regulatory burdens under which public companies must operate, which ultimately forces companies to be large in order to be public. And as explained just above, I prefer working at smaller companies. So, by applying logic, private companies are my preference.
This is a big shift from when I started my career in the 1980s. Back then, I was enamored with the idea of joining or founding a startup company and growing it to the point where it could go public via an IPO. Microsoft went public a few months before I graduated from Cornell. Bill Gates of course did very well for himself, but I was even more impressed with the number of so-called “Microsoft millionaires” that were created in the Seattle area. That seemed to be the best way for a technologist like myself to come into a life-changing amount of money.
It’s still possible to do so, of course, and I still like startup companies. But with IPOs being fewer in number, and companies needing to be larger in order to afford the regulatory burden of being a public company, the startup to IPO success route happens less frequently. More likely is that successful startups are acquired by much larger Big Tech companies.
Not in an industry that the government is trying to shut down
There are definitely some industries that the government favors, and some industries that the government would prefer go away. To a certain degree, this is as it should be: these decisions are not purely matters of science or free-market economics. Societal values, expressed via the political system, make the ultimate decisions.
The trick, for someone in the workforce, is to recognize the government’s stance towards various industries and to react appropriately. For example, when I was in college, it was pretty clear that the government wanted to shut down the nuclear power industry. The same applies to coal and other fossil fuel burning industries now. Manufacturing has long been discouraged in this country, even though almost all politicians claim to love manufacturing jobs and workers. If you don’t take the government’s stance into account when choosing an employer, you will likely find yourself on the wrong side of history.