A graduate with a degree in engineering is looking at future work opportunities. Do they create a start-up? Do they join a start-up? Do they join a Big Tech? It is unlikely they would think about joining a large old corporation like a bank or retailer, but many do. Why?
Well, there is an issue in starting a firm. You need to find investors, be a leader, be a creator, hire staff, choose a location and, most importantly, have a great idea. Start-ups are encouraged these days, because there are so many avenues to investment from private equity to venture capital, but you have to be brave to go down that route. So, that’s not the route for the masses. It is for the mavericks.
Joining a start-up also has risk, as nine out of ten start-ups fail.
So, then we look at joining a boring old firm or a massive technology firm. Amazon versus Wal*Mart; Meta versus JPMorgan Chase.
Well, both are interesting. Big tech firms sound cool, as does working in Silicon Valley, but Silicon Valley is an expensive place to live and work, and you need to be on a huge income to get there. It is why many Silicon Valley workers are living in tents in the gardens of people who moved there years ago.
This is why working for a bank or retailer means you can live almost anywhere and sure, after the pandemic, the same may be true for a Big Tech but you have to bear in mind where is the Head Office. Often, you need to be open to being in the office, even in these times of working from home, and this has to be a consideration for any young graduate. Where’s the best place to live?
Equally, if you are developing code for a large bank, for example, the impact can be seen almost overnight. Changing the app, the display and the way in which friends and family react, is hugely gratifying. You may get the same gratification from being in a Big Tech firm but, in general, the return on your code investment is the same, if not more, when it is something that really matters.
Thirdly, the choice is not as stark as this, as both working for an old firm or a new firm offer similarly interesting opportunities and challenges. For example, the Alphabet’s and X’s of this world are not as fresh and new as they were. Over a third to two-thirds of most companies technology systems are legacy and are just being maintained. Even young start-up firms like Stripe found that a third of their operations were dealing with technical debt. Technical debt is the maintenance of old code. As they found, as do many, is that exciting new coding is not the focus. Running the existing operations and infrastructure is.
The list goes on and what should be clear to any young rose-tinted graduate is that coding is not all about joining exciting firms with great brands they grew up with and love. There is a reality check. You walk into these firms and sure, there may be games rooms, beer on tap, a cool feeling of dress-down and working from home, but what does this mean to your long-term future? How will it progress your career? Does it actually give you the experience you need to get to where you want to go? Do you even know where you want to go?
Having interviewed hundreds of people working in finance and business, my feeling is that you should listen to the words of Bill Wallace, Head of Digital Banking at JP Morgan Chase:
“If you are a new A* engineer, you might gravitate towards a start-up. If you’ve been through that cycle, you often find you do a whole bunch of work and no one actually got to use it because the start-up failed. Engineers really want to do stuff that their mother, father, siblings and buddies are going to use. That is part of that. You want to make an impact.
“The other part has been universally consistent in all of my career. When I interview people and ask: why are you interested in changing jobs? The answer is nearly always ‘I want to come to a place where I can make a difference. I love challenging problems. I'm a problem solver.’ I hear that all that time. When you are touching thirty-three million people’s lives every day, that’s making a difference.
“When you are working in a very cool start-up, it might be fun. You might have a really good time and yes, you have the potential of changing people’s lives, depending on what the topic is, but you’ve got to have customers to have that impact. That’s one of the values that we bring.
“In addition, if you work with smart people and in an environment with cloud-based technology and all of the latest things like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, you’ve got to have data. We have that data. Thirty-three million sets of it.”*
In other words, there are many things to consider in selecting your career future and it is not a stark choice between joining a boring old bank versus a hot start-up that’s on fire. It is much more about what are you going to achieve? What do you want to be known for? Where can you find the greatest satisfaction and return?
In a recent podcast, Greg Jackson, CEO of Octopus Energy, made a great comment which was that his first job was developing a video game. The code was fantastic, but the company that commissioned him to do the code rejected it. The reason? It was unplayable. The lesson? You must focus upon the customer need, not on the code.
In other words, if you can work with a company that has millions of customers and offers freedom and latitude to code the way you want, but with supervision, it may be far better than joining a firm with few or no customers and has little direction due to its lack of history.
The bottom-line is that there are many attractions to both sides of the question. Joining a start-up is great, as long as you are happy to gamble on the risk of failure. Joining a Big Tech is great, but they are now almost a quarter century old in many cases and therefore are not far off being a traditional firm. Join a boring old bank or retailer, and you may find it is not so boring as they are far more open to challenge these days than they ever were.
* this quote is selected from the book Doing Digital where Chris Skinner interviewed many executives from global banks, and was chosen as it is a great answer to the choice between joining a traditional versus new firm
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...