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Working for a large vs. small company

  • 1.  Working for a large vs. small company

    Posted 02-14-2020 22:58

    I am sure we've discussed this somewhere but can't locate the thread.

    I recently had a coffee break chat with some graduating engineering students about working for a large engineering company vs. a small one. The sentiment seemed to be that you get more diverse assignments if you start out at a smaller firm, while at a larger one you'd tend to have a more narrow specialization, although the projects themselves might be grander and more interesting.

    My experience has been in small to very small companies, and I'd agree that at least at the entry level everyone ended up doing everything, based on what was most needed, with relatively little regard for their job title.

    What is your experience or opinion on working for large vs small companies at various levels?



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    Natalya Sokolovskaya P.E., M.ASCE
    Wynnewood PA
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  • 2.  RE: Working for a large vs. small company

    Posted 02-17-2020 08:39
    I too have worked primarily for small to very small firms.  I find that you are responsible for a larger field of assignments and that I enjoy.  At the same time, you are expected to be an "expert" in that field when that isn't really possible because of the diverse fields you are responsible for.  What I enjoy the most, is that you know everyone and work with everyone.  Therefore, you are able to trust or at least be knowledgeable of their area of expertise when working with them.  That said, when you have a non-cooperative co-worker in the group, it can really bring down the entire company.

    That said, those of who I know that went to work for large companies did not enjoy it and ended up going back to smaller firms.  The one I know who stayed with larger firms enjoys it and are glad that they made the choice.

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    John Wood P.E., M.ASCE
    Project Engineer
    Pittsburgh PA
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  • 3.  RE: Working for a large vs. small company

    Posted 02-17-2020 11:48
    I don't think you can generalize.

    Some large companies run in a very decentralized manner and each office is run like a small individual company and it can be like working for a smaller firm​.  Other large companies are very vertically integrated and top-down;  there can be a lot more of the stereotypical bureaucracy.

    Smaller firms can either offer a wealth of diverse opportunities or can pigeon-hole employees.  I'd agree that with many smaller firms an employee has to wear many different hats and fulfill whatever roles need filling.  Some small firms, though, are very specialized and do assembly-line type projects and can pigeon-hole people into a single specialty (say, design of lightgage steel or analysis of cell-phone towers).

    On the topic of specialization vs. jack of all trades - there's a good happy medium in there.  Too much specialization can lead one to learn more and more about less and less until they 'know everything about nothing' - although some people like that.  But there is something to be said about building up some expertise in a few specialties and getting really good at them.  Conversely, dabbling in too many things may be interesting but can lead to being a 'jack of all trades, but master of none'.

    With large companies - an office in one city can specialize in a certain type of work while an office in a different city can specialize in a completely different type of work.  And the culture in one office can be great and the culture in another office can be completely different.  Large companies are not necessarily monolithic.  Working for a large company does not necessarily mean the projects will be larger or grander.  The company may do some larger projects, but many offices may do smaller or what some would consider less dramatic work.

    Small companies similarly have pros and cons.  A small firm can be more personal and can have a great culture depending on the leadership and management.  But other small firms can have issues with nepotism, a toxic owner or management team, or a lack of transparency compared to publicly-owned companies.  Smaller firms may not do the flashy mega-projects.....but working on a smaller high quality project and handling all aspects of it start to finish may actually be more satisfying.

    My opinion?  Don't get too specialized.  Get some in-depth experience in a few different specialties, and learn a little bit about some others in the first years out of college.  Ask about a company or office's culture if you have contacts before joining them.  Culture is really important.  You can get specialization or general experience with both large and small firms - you just need to do your homework and understand the company or the specific office.

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    Greg Thein, PE
    Cleveland, OH
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  • 4.  RE: Working for a large vs. small company

    Posted 02-18-2020 10:03
    Thank you Greg, this is an excellent answer, much better than I could have written, and very accurate.  My experiences have been in large and small firms, both good and bad for each, and a State agency which was, like a large firm, both good and bad depending on the office.  Diversification and flexibility have been the keys to success.

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    James Justin Mercier, P.E.
    Life Member ASCE
    Sr. Life Member IEEE
    Austin Texas
    512-442-4016
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