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Career fairs prompt students to wonder: start-up or big firm?

Credit: Eunice Oh/ Credit: Eunice Oh/

With the Technical Opportunities Conference just around the corner, Weigand Gym will soon be filled with recruiters and students from various technical majors.
As college students applying for internships and jobs, we often focus on the immediate problem: secure an offer letter. What we don’t usually plan for is the good, yet stressful, problem that sometimes follows: multiple companies want you to be a part of their team, but which one do you pick? While there are many factors that go into choosing what place you will eventually call your home as an intern or full-time employee, the main problem that I faced this summer was simple: whether to choose a small startup or a mid- to large-sized company.

This dichotomy is relevant whether you receive multiple offer letters, or are simply picking which companies you would like to apply to in the first place. After conferring with peers who had experiences with both types of companies, I ended up working at an early-stage startup this summer. Based on my own internship experience, as well as the experiences of many other Carnegie Mellon students, here are some of the nexus questions you should think about when making your own decision.

Impact

While most internships are invaluable because of the experience and knowledge you gain from working with a team, you might be looking for a place to leave your mark.

As part of a smaller company, the type of impact you can have is unique. As only a first-year working at Clipmine, a startup that is changing the way that we watch videos, I worked on important projects and made decisions on the product that would actually effect end users and the company’s trajectory. This experience was not one that I was expecting, but was extremely excited to be a part of.

Maya Rau-Murthy, a sophomore computer science and robotics double major who interned at a startup called Cloud Raxak, which is developing security protocols for the cloud, said:

“You end up having a very large impact and responsibility in the startup because there are only a couple of people working on the project. You realize that your work is actually integral in their success and that responsibility is a really exciting feeling.”

Mukund Tibrewala, also a sophomore computer science and robotics double major, interned at a 20-person startup called Transcriptic, Inc which is increasing the computation and parallelization in scientific research. Recounting his experiences, he said:

“It was really cool because I was given projects that would have been assigned to full-time employees otherwise. In addition to being exciting and substantial projects in their own right, they made me feel like I was meaningfully contributing to Transcriptic. In fact, for the final of my three projects, the engineer I was working with told me he’d been wanting to do it himself for an entire year, but never found the time.”

However, being a part of a large company does not mean you won’t be able to meaningfully contribute. Rokhini Prabhu, a senior computer science and mathematical sciences double major at Carnegie Mellon University, has interned at both Apple and Google over the last two years and was able to provide insight into what it’s like making an impact in a large company. When asked to respond to the notion that it may be harder to make an impact in a large company, she said:

“I think it depends on the work you do. I have most definitely done meaningful work at big companies even during my internships. I’d like to think of it as high risk, high gains. Being heard might be harder in a big company compared to a startup. But when you are heard by the right people, you would have likely sparked off something big.”

“For example, if your work catches the eye of a director or [senior vice president] at a big company, then you will surely find that several teams ... are now suddenly scrambling together to work with you and make it a reality.”

Structure

One key difference between a startup and a large company is a large company’s structure, such as protocols, practices, and policies that you would find at a big company, but not necessarily at a small startup.

While these structures might hold a negative connotation, they are actually an attribute of large companies that could make your internship more enjoyable.
Prabhu said: “Over several years, these companies have iterated and built internal infrastructure that is aimed toward improving the lives of their engineers. So you don’t have to just spend, say, 20 minutes sitting for your code to compile, because they have already found a way to parallelize their build system and make it blazingly fast. I have found in my experience that there is a lot of value and thought given toward doing things the right way and not just hacking at something to make it work  —  so as to satisfy the investors.”

However, the freedom that comes with a startup also has its benefits. At companies like LinkedIn, there are many long protocols that are in place and steps that have to be taken before you are able to submit code to production; these can take many days, or even weeks. In contrast, I was able to push code to production on my first day on the job, while still going through code review processes and rigorously testing it.

Anqi Cong is a junior business administration major and a computer science minor at Carnegie Mellon who has experienced life at both a large company, Unum, and a small company, Insightpool. While comparing the work flow at a startup versus a large company, she said, “the way people go about projects is really different. For example, at Unum I had to download Microsoft Lync, but I had to ask my manager to request approval for me, which sent me an approval form I had to fill out; but then I realized I had to get approval to access the approval.... In contrast, I was doing a research project for the startup and asked for compensation for my participants. The response was ‘Ok, how much do you need?’’”

Culture

A key difference between a startup and a large company is the type of people you interact with. At a larger company, you are more likely to interact with other interns from all over the country.

For instance, companies like Facebook and Google take hundreds of interns each summer, which could connect you to a lot of amazing people. In addition to other interns, you have the opportunity to meet people you would never have the chance to otherwise. For instance, many of my friends interning at Facebook got the opportunity to meet Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

On the flip side, while small companies do not usually have more than a few interns or the famous names of a large company, it’s possible to become close to everyone in the company.

During my internship I got lunch with the entire team most days, played ping pong with the chief technology officer everyday, and felt like I made some great friends with people that will be great mentors to me.

While you are sure to make great connections no matter which company you choose, the nature of the connections can vary.

Perks

This is the section where larger companies steal the show. Working at a startup, there weren’t many perks outside of how rewarding the work itself felt.
However, this is not the case at a big company.

Tian Jin, a sophomore computer science major at Carnegie Mellon, interned at Facebook over the summer as part of the Facebook U program. She said, “Facebook would have talks and events, and there were a lot of trips into San Francisco that they arranged. Hillary Clinton also came to speak at the Menlo Park campus, and I feel like these talks and trips wouldn’t really be offered at a startup.”

Additionally, larger companies usually have a selection of free restaurants to eat at alongside all the free food at the micro-kitchens located throughout their campuses. This is not to say that I didn’t raid my company’s kitchen every week, but the options were no competition to the Googles and Facebooks of the world. Other than just food and cool events, large companies also have great amenities for their employees. Cong said, “big companies have the resources. You have the gym on campus, the cafeteria, free ice cream, your own cubicle, company-issued laptop, dual monitors, and pay like crazy. But in exchange, bureaucracy.”

All in all, there is not a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to the dilemma of choosing between a startup and larger company.

To choose, look at your options and see what aligns with your interests and goals. All this being said, whether you go with a five-person company working in an incubator, or a 2,000 person company where you are surrounded by free food, your internship will likely be as good as you make it.