How to Choose Your Next Engineering Career

It’s been said that developers are the new kingmakers (The New Yorker summed it up nicely). So if you’re a developer being sought after in one of the hottest markets of all-time, how do you decide which kingdom to rule? Consumer or Enterprise? It can seem harder than choosing between being a Targaryen or a Stark on Game of Thrones.

While it’s often assumed that enterprise is stodgy and consumer is cool, the truth is that these days, the two cultures are closer than they appear. I sat down last month with three tech industry visionaries -- Suhail Doshi, Co-founder & CEO at Mixpanel; Keith Rabois, Investment Partner at Khosla Ventures; and Ajeet Singh, Co-founder & CEO at ThoughtSpot-- to get their thoughts on the ins-and-outs of these two career paths in the Valley.

The Panelists: 

Each spoke openly about how missions, values, and personalities at consumer vs. enterprise companies vary and, more importantly, how these nuances shape the engineering culture of the world’s top tech companies.

Here are my top 5 takeaways from the panel for how the best technology companies motivate today’s brightest engineers:

  1. They hire people who are passionate about their mission. Much of the tactical aspects of enterprise vs. consumer companies are similar. But the mission from company to company varies incredibly. One company might want to better connect the world’s business professionals, while another wants to bring high-end organic food to the masses. The engineers that work for those company have to be passionate about those missions in order to be successful long term. There’s a perception that consumer companies have more impact because they can reach many millions of users. However, while Enterprises typically have fewer customers, it doesn’t mean they don’t impact millions of lives. Enterprise tech users often use their apps to improve their customers lives, which can create a ripple effect of utility. Look at apps like Zendesk and Zenefits that manage customer and employee satisfaction - their indirect impact on people’s lives is massive.

    • ​​Takeaway for engineers: Be passionate about the mission of the company you join, but also take the time to learn about market dynamics and how different companies measure their impact. Consumer companies can point to users, but measuring utility is harder. Enterprises can point to utility, but measuring reach is harder.

    • Takeaway for founders: Ask the right questions in interviews. Understand a candidate’s motivations. Make sure their perceptions of success map to the reality of the business you’re creating.

  2. They understand different people thrive at different types of companies. Everyone is different and finds motivation is different ways. If you’re an engineer, it’s important to understand what drives you and whether that maps to the way a company operates. For example, one panelist mentioned that “the people who thrive at Google would probably fail at Apple -- Google makes decisions based on data. Apple doesn’t.” I’m sure there are exceptions, but there’s no denying that there are major cultural and procedural differences between companies.​​

    • ​​Takeaway for engineers: Ask yourself how you work best. What motivates you? What factors need to be present to do your best work? Do you think in terms of big broad ideas or are you driven by concrete data? These thought processes matter - understanding them will help you find a company where you will grow and succeed.

    • Takeaway for founders: Try to understand the way candidates work and make decisions. Don’t just hire the engineers who look good on paper - try to get the full picture of the person. Look for those who are fundamentally driven by the same passion and work style as your company. Nothing is more important than hiring.

  3. They always explain the "why." No matter your business model, it’s critical for engineers (and every other employee) to understand why what they are doing matters and has an impact beyond how they may be thinking about it. When people understand the why, they are more likely to work harder, take initiative, and push through the difficult times on every project. When you only have a piece of the picture, you’re more likely to get disengaged when the going gets rough.

    • Takeaway for engineers: Make the effort to understand the “why” for each assignment you take on. Ask questions of your leaders. Propose projects or product features that you find meaningful to build. A curious team culture will always yield great work.

    • Takeaway for founders:​ Tend towards over-explaining the “why.” Take the extra time to over-communicate or write down your logic. Sometimes you’ll need an engineer to code a new email notification that might seem small. But if you take the time to explain the impact and how it will increase retention or drive upsells, you’ll have a much more motivated employee who knows how their work is going to impact the bottom line.

  4. They only hire the best. It’s been said that an awesome engineer is worth 10x an average engineer. Nothing is more important to any team than talented people. And when it comes to hiring, the old saying goes that A players hire As, and B players hire Cs. Whether you’re being recruited or doing the recruiting, the team around you is critical. Never settle.

    • Takeaway for engineers: When you’re evaluating companies, try to get a sense of the people you’d be working with, not just the company’s press, it’s fancy new office space, or the product’s bells and whistles. If you’re looking to build something meaningful, lead an engineering team, or start your own company, look closely at the people you'll be surrounded by. If you find yourself surrounded by C talent, run!

    • ​​Takeaway for founders: One of the panelists broke it down simply: "there are two ways to become great: (1) become a great manager, or (2) hire great people." It’s a lot easier to do the later. Prioritize recruiting. Be picky and only hire the best. Recognize that culture fit matters, but being able to trust your employees matters more. Hire selfless, hard-working individuals with lofty personal goals and how they tie to your company goals.

  5. They teach from experience. Most people who go to the NBA play in college first. Most people. On average, experience matters and you can get more big shots faster at a startup. It’s a lot easier to learn when you’re surrounded by people who have been there and done that. At startups, the combination of top talent and freedom to fail gives people a chance to learn by doing at an accelerated pace.

    • ​​Takeaway for engineers: A leader’s track record matters. Do your homework before joining a startup. Has he or she worked at a high-growth company before? Has he/she been instrumental in building that company? Of course, there will be successful and brilliant founders who get it right on their first try-- but it’s always reassuring to see a string of past successes.

    • Takeaway for founders: Spend 2-4 years at a high-growth startup before building your own company. Large companies typically slow your learning curve unless you can work on a new product or initiative where there’s freedom to experiment like a startup.

Everyone loves a good fight. Unfortunately, as much as we tried to tease out the differences on the panel, it feels like today’s consumer and enterprise companies are now following similar playbooks when it comes to building lasting companies and attracting brilliant engineers. The best companies come up with a unique value proposition and bring it to life with values, culture, and talented people. It’s easy to fall back on which company has the best perks - office, games, food, etc - but in the long run culture is defined by people, what motivates them, and what binds them together. Great engineers will gravitate towards leaders and companies that allow them to pursue a mission in line with their own values.