Does David win over Goliath when it comes to company size?

Lawrence Jones

Tuesday 14 October 2014

From world leaders like Google and Microsoft employing tens of thousands across the world, to single-person startups and everything in between, tech companies come in all shapes and sizes. So how do you choose? It’s all about you.

Whether you’re a programmer or project manager, data analyst or director, choosing the right organisation for you involves many decisions – and often compromises. You need to balance several factors: security with reward, innovation with hierarchy and managerial support against managerial control. When you choose, there are clear opportunities and costs on both sides.

Flat structure or hierarchy?

Most big organisations function effectively because of a rigid and hierarchical structure. For some, this narrow focus of responsibility and clear role offers a sense of security. For others, it can be constraining and an impediment to freedom.

SMEs, on the other hand, can offer a much flatter structure. Depending on the size of the organisation, you can find yourself involved in pitching for work, exploring the fundamentals of the company’s accounts or even sticking stamps on envelopes. It can be a liberating experience for some, and can open your eyes to the wider workings of a business. Basically, where there is an internal skills gap, you might need to fill it.

Smaller companies can also foster a culture of entrepreneurship. In larger companies ‘intrapreneurs’ like Steve Ballmer commit a lifetime to one employer, changing a company from within – but they are much rarer. As a result, working in an SME may stretch and develop you in ways you had not imagined.

Communication breakdown

If we take the machine metaphor further, communication between parts is clearly the essential lubricant that makes the whole system work.

In a small company, it’s likely that your boss will be more accessible, and someone with whom you are on first-name terms. In companies with a few thousand employees, it’s a double-edged sword, with the anonymity of the large office and the support structure of hundreds of colleagues a benefit – particularly when the going gets tough.

Satisfaction guaranteed?

In terms of employee job satisfaction, the evidence is clear that small tech businesses punch above their weight. The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For is a respected, if not entirely reliable, measure of employee contentment.

Coming in at number 12 is W. L. Gore & Associates, a Scottish-based technology company. The organisation challenges the very nature of a hierarchy, with “no job titles and no pay grades”. According to the company, “Each member of staff’s salary [is] individually arrived at.”

At number 23 is Attenda, an IT services company based in the Staines. The organisation has a strong and clear commitment to charity, with 83 per cent of employees recognising its social conscience.

In fact, none of the big tech firms appears in the top 100, which probably means less than you think. The greater number of staff means a greater divergence of views and opinions. Also, smaller companies are often built around a strong ethos or culture – one that values charity, for instance. They also offer the perception of security, which can mean an awful lot of dead wood hanging around.

Secure future

One of the main reasons for choosing a career in a big corporate is inevitably security, and it’s a truism that in a big company your career is secure, right? Wrong.

Even in a large company, as the newest member of the team or at the lowest rung of the ladder, you’re cannon fodder for any business reorganisation or efficiency programme. As you ascend the ladder and your wages rise, you’re a potential target for cost-saving exercises.

High-profile reorganisations can affect companies of any size – illustrating how illusory the sense of security really is. The press has been filled with recent news about eBay and PayPal separating, and the splitting of HP into two organisations. Inevitably, these changes will involve reorganisation and job losses.

In truth, small companies do fare much worse, with the failure rate of startups high (in Silicon Valley some estimates are a shocking 90 per cent), and even established SMEs aren’t immune to changes in the marketplace.

Ultimately, the market decides the fate of all businesses, so do your due diligence wherever you work. It’s also worth considering whether the small company you joined is going to stay the same. In the tech world, small businesses can become big businesses very quickly, and the culture can rapidly shift from laid-back to corporate.

Climbing the ladder

A larger organisation is, by its very nature, likely to offer a much greater degree of opportunity to grow and move. From internal promotions to secondments and mentoring, greater staff churn can offer opportunities you won’t get in a small company.

One of the main reasons for continued employment is the investment in your professional development. Sadly, in the current financial climate, investment in staff is taking a back seat. Some big companies still offer continuing professional development to staff, but you’re less likely to have the freedom of the corporate account that existed before the financial crisis.

So how do you choose? In the end, the choice of David or Goliath is more about you as a person than the organisation itself.

In the tech industry, where practical skills are prised, you need to stay on top of your game, and a compelling support package can be a reason to stay at any company. If you’re hankering after a taste of life in a startup, but want the security of big-company employment, many large companies offer career breaks of up to two years.

In reality, the perfect job is illusory. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to choose the one with the fewest compromises.

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