Why Engineers Are Better Off Joining Startups

Editor’s note: Guest author Bindu Reddy is the CEO of MyLikes, a word-of-mouth ad network funded by former Googlers. Previously at Google she managed a team of product managers in charge of various Google apps including Google Docs, Google Sites, and Blogger. Her last guest post was on Facebook overtaking Google.

It is truly a great time to be an engineer building new things. Gadgets from sci-fi movies of 10 years ago are creeping up on us in the real world and mobile devices and social networking have made the internet go truly mainstream. We are on the cusp of seeing even more world changing ideas becoming a reality when everyone is walking around with powerful computers connected with over 20MBps of bandwidth to millions of people.

To top it all off, there is another technology boom happening right now. Anyone who has lived in Silicon Valley through a few business cycles can feel it just by watching the traffic on 101, or reading aboutbubbles” in the tech press.

In the previous tech booms, a steady stream of top-notch technical graduates from other countries helped fill the recruiting needs of startups flush with VC money. But that is no longer the case. When I talk to recent top graduates from the IITs, my own alma-mater, I can clearly see the trend—very few of the rest of the world’s best recent graduates are planning to build their careers in the US over the next decade. In addition, we have multiple successful large companies, most notably Google and Facebook, which have hired huge numbers of engineers and plan to grow their hiring rates even more.

All this has caused a severe shortage of good engineering talent. Which is why, the time has never been better to work at a startup.

The downside risk is relatively low. With lots of venture capital funding, salaries and benefits at startups are competitive to those at large companies. And the potential upside possibilities are big, as the IPO and exit markets heat up. Worst case scenarios are also getting better as the big internet companies are doing lots of talent acquisitions and acqhires of failed startups.

More importantly, the one thing that every passionate engineer cares about—the ability to build and ship products—is harder at large companies. Engineers become hobbled by large code bases, bureaucratic processes, countless meetings, common infrastructure, and endless email threads, among other obstacles. Amazon web services and other cloud-computing technologies have enabled small teams of engineers to build large scalable products and scale to millions of users without a lot of upfront capital. The competitive advantage has swung over the last couple of years to smaller, more nimble companies.

Until recently, engineers developed their careers by becoming proficient at the latest and greatest platforms, languages and techniques either through experience or by having the ability to quickly get up to speed.

Today, most interesting technology is built directly for end users and it is a crucial skill for an engineer to understand quick iteration based on user feedback, however complex the technology. Increased technology and distribution leverage means that in the future, smaller teams are going to build higher impact things and being able to build an end to end solution as part of a small team is going to be a necessary skill. A startup is an ideal environment to develop your career for the future as far as both these aspects go.

People usually consider making big decisions in terms of what they stand to lose or gain. But often times, the cost to consider is that of an opportunity not taken and a decision not made.

So here’s my admittedly self-serving advice to all engineers working at large companies: Yes, it is a comfortable job. You probably don’t have to work very hard. There are lots of people to keep you company. But think about the cost of staying.

The time is now . . . to join a startup.

Photo by Anirudh Koul.