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Working at big tech can be interesting

Scrolling through Twitter a while ago, I came across a thread of tweets. Software engineers were debating the merits and drawbacks of working in FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google). The crux of the discussion? That these technology companies lack innovation, offering little room for interesting projects or personal growth for software engineers. Having made the leap from a smaller-scale company to Netflix, I found these assumptions to be far from my reality. And so, I decided to write this blog post to share my experiences, possibly debunk some myths, and reveal why working at a big tech company can be not just exciting but deeply rewarding.

It's understandable how such misconceptions could arise. I, too, held similar apprehensions. Smaller-scale companies often provide opportunities to wear many hats, to feel the heartbeat of the product, and to measure your impact, which is rare in big tech unless you’re part of the leadership team with substantial leverage on the business outcome. I believe that most senior engineers, like me, need to constantly think about how to increase the scope of their projects to increase leverage, which can, in itself, be a tiring pursuit.

Joining a big tech company doesn't mean being handcuffed to the monotony of repetitive tasks. Instead, you're greeted with a platter of opportunities. You get to pick your battles, dive into projects that resonate with you, and solve problems that spark your interest. You often have autonomy, especially true for Netflix, where we lean toward context over control, to choose your projects and pitch ideas you believe in. Some of those ideas can turn into big successes if executed well.

There are also numerous ongoing cross-functional efforts across the company that offer you the opportunity to participate and collaborate with a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, all working towards a common goal. I have led and taken part in various cross-functional projects. They were my favorites as they allowed me to learn extensively about different areas of the company and understand how certain business units operate. This was highly rewarding, albeit filled with ambiguities along the way which itself is a common challenge that many software engineers face, especially at senior levels. However, it's an interesting puzzle to solve, requiring both creativity and people skills.

Working at a big tech company with a massive customer base puts into perspective the power of incremental improvements. Even a minor enhancement to any of the key business metrics can generate significant financial impact. It's always satisfying to see a direct correlation between your work and its business outcome. Even if you're someone like me, who works on internal developer tools, reducing continuous integration (CI) build time by 5% may seem minor. However, when you multiply that by the number of engineers it serves, you begin to understand the enormous impact you can make. I've often found that in large companies, there are many 'low-hanging fruits' which, if chosen wisely, can deliver incremental yet enduring impact.

Along with the ambiguity that you might confront, another prevalent challenge in big tech is achieving consensus. This necessary hurdle is something you're bound to encounter in large, complex organizations where many voices and perspectives converge. Finding a consensus can be a time-consuming endeavor and often presents a unique set of challenges. However, the process of reaching consensus is also a richly valuable learning experience that hones your skills in negotiation, exposing you to different ways of thinking and problem-solving. I certainly have become more adaptable, thanks to the sense of shared purpose and collaboration that reaching consensus can bring.

One key aspect of staying motivated and productive in big tech (or perhaps in life too?) is ensuring that you're working on the right problem. You almost always have too many projects you could work on, and it’s up to you to do your homework to pick the right problem, considering your interests, skills, and potential impact. It’s challenging, but confronting this challenge can shape your taste and intuition over time, which I think is quite valuable as you get into more senior roles. Conversely, in startups or smaller companies, your tasks might be more reactive in nature, dealing with issues as they arise, rather than proactively selecting which problems to tackle.

Unlike startups, which mostly hire generalists and where you may juggle roles from programming to marketing, big tech offers opportunities for deep technical specialization. So if you're someone who is deeply passionate about security or networking, a big tech company can be a better choice for you, considering the opportunities to specialize in your area and work alongside some of the brightest minds in the industry.

Work visibility is important in big tech. You'll find yourself constantly communicating with partner teams, pitching your ideas, and explaining how your solutions add value. This is a valuable skill set that not only promotes your work but also increases your influence within the organization. However, this can be tiring if you're the type of engineer who simply wants to build things. Building things in isolation in big tech is not usually encouraged and is likely not beneficial for the company as a whole. This is not self-promotion, but rather a promotion of your solutions and how they provide value. This becomes particularly useful for project discovery because oftentimes, people from different organizations or teams will discover your solution only if you talk about them in larger forums. This, in turn, can give you the recognition you deserve as well as open up new avenues for collaboration.

If you've ever considered starting your own company, understanding how a large business operates can provide invaluable insights. Witnessing firsthand the processes and decision-making methods in big tech can offer a unique learning experience. Before I joined Netflix, my knowledge regarding company financials was somewhat limited. Working at a public company, I was exposed to different aspects of business that go beyond technical expertise, thereby expanding my understanding of organizational dynamics, financial management, and strategic planning. You begin to grasp the importance of metrics such as quarterly earnings, net profit margins, and the significance of financial forecasting, which can become extremely useful later in your life if you decide to establish a company.

In conclusion, working in big tech like FAANG may not be for everyone, but it certainly offers an array of rewarding experiences, vast learning opportunities, and the potential to make a substantial impact. Ultimately, it falls upon you to discern where you would thrive more, be it within a startup or a large technology company. Good luck!

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