Most of us have had to choose whether we want to work in a big company or a small company. There are clearly benefits of each, as evidenced by the number of small companies trying to get big and the number of big companies trying to act small. But who's right? Who's best? Given the choice, do you want to work for a small company or a big company?A couple of well-known bloggers I follow chimed in and responded on this topic this week. Joel Spolsky started the volley with a post about recruiting, claiming that the environment and resources at his company greatly exceeded those available to your typical Microsoft employee.
In fairness, it's impossible to portray Fog Creek as representative of all small companies everywhere. In fact, one of the great things about small companies is that they tend to be a whole lot more unique from case to case than large companies. Joel does represent the successful small entrepeneur who's able to do some nice things to take care of his employees.
In my experience, these small companies can be extremely exciting places to be when they're working well. In general, they've started with a culture of having to succeed in order to survive, so they understand excellence and they understand execution. A young employee can learn a lot in a place like this.
Same thing goes for hiring. It's important everywhere, but it's vitally important in a small company. One bad apple can really hurt you because every part of the organization plays a critical role in the success of the company. In a bigger company, there are just more resources to deal with marginal cases -- better training facillities to make mediocre employees into good ones, counseling resources to handle problems, and so on. These things just don't exist formally in a small company, so individuals have to either sink or swim.
Availability of resources can be a mixed bag. As both Joel and Robert pointed out, there can be great resources in either environment. I've worked in some small companies, though, that were just a step or two above the stereotypical "garage and a bare light bulb." In general, if you're in a small company and you need something for your work, you get it as long as you can afford it. In a big company, you may find yourself wading through paperwork and months-long waiting lists in order to get something pretty trivial. On the other hand, when the things you need cost real money, there's nothing like the deep pockets of a big company to reach down and pony up the kind of real money it takes to buy serious hardware.
What's my preference?
I really like the energy and environment of excellence found in a small company on the rise. I also really like the resources available in a larger company. Once, I experienced a place where the small-company environment existed (to a degree) in a mid- to large-sized company. Only now do I recognize what a rare thing that was. The company's gone now, but if I ever find something like that again, I'll know enough not to take it for granted.