Although the meme illustrates my feelings exactly, I felt very fortunate to receive multiple job offers in the middle of the pandemic. This blog post elaborates one of the difficult decisions I had to make in my job search and how I went about it – choosing between a startup and a big company. In my case, it was the Machine Learning Engineer position at one of the few top tech companies and SnorkelAI.

If you have a similar decision to make, or are thinking about whether to start your career with a startup or an established company, this might help!

What I wanted from my first job

Before meditating on the details, I wanted to set my high-level priorities straight (listed in decreasing order here). These may vary for different people and for even the same person at different stages in life. There is no right or wrong here. So, if you are in a similar position then listing down your priorities is a good place to start.

  1. Immigration

    I am an international student and need an H-1B visa to be sponsored by the employer to continue my employment in the US.

  2. Maximizing my learning experience

    For my first job after master’s, my motivation is to maximize my learning experience and build transferrable skills.

  3. Stability of the company

    Now, in order to maximize my learning experience, it is important for me that I do not stress over losing my job or be part of a sinking ship (more importantly due to point #1).

  4. Building a network

    Working with great people is more important to me than the exact details of the product that the company might be selling. I wish to build a professional network of intelligent and humble people as well as be friends with people I would be spending majority of my days with.

  5. Good compensation

    While it is understandable that in general startups might not have the resources to pay employees at par with big companies, I did not want to compromise too much on the compensation (ref international student with loans to pay).

Who helped me make the decision

Once you have the priorities listed, you can start making a list of pros and cons. This is how I went about searching for datapoints my poor brain could not have thought of.

  1. World Wide Web

    A lot has been written about the age-old debate of working at a startup vs a big company. I found Paul Graham’s essays insightful and pro-startups. Dan Luu’s take provides a contrarian viewpoint; much needed to prevent someone else from painting a rosy picture in your eyes.

  2. HackerNews

    I turned to not-so-recent discussions on the Orange Website to get public opinion on the topic. I went through lots of comments, since every person’s experience is different. I just wanted to ensure that I am not engulfed in either failure or survivorship bias.

  3. People I know in real life

    My friends from my first job at Microsoft, friends at Columbia, friends who are working in the US, friends who have worked at startups. My parents play a significant role in my life, so their opinion is of great importance to me.

  4. People I know in the virtual world

    I have made a few connections through LinkedIn. People who do not know me might be able to provide an unbiased viewpoint.

One thing to remember here is that you should assume that everyone speaks from their own bias, as per their own experiences. Hence, diversifying the kind of people you talk to is important.

What may help you make the decision

Listing here (I do love lists a lot) the gist of the information I gathered -

  1. Consider stock options of the startup as $0 before comparing compensation of the offers.

    90% of the startups tank, things go wrong all the time. I did not want to count what is essentially a bet as a part of my compensation. Typical high risk vs high reward situation. Needless to say, taxes (Seattle vs California), cost of living and benefits need to be taken into account before comparing.

  2. Talking to founders of the startup is of utmost importance

    These are the people who decide the future of the company, influence culture and help you grow. A startup with bad leadership is a nightmare.
    I remember what Chip Huyen said in a meeting with me – “Working for a startup means you take a bet on those people”.

  3. How much you care about the brand of the company

    It is no question that the world judges you by a brand name – these days big brands offer money, safety and interesting work. However, if you are willing to forego the brand name for a few years to improve your skills, startups might be the place for you.

I ended up choosing Snorkel. It was a very difficult decision for me, particularly because I admire the work culture at the big company. If we look at it from the perspective of Reinforcement Learning – as a question of exploration vs exploitation – I wanted to maximize exploration in the early stages of my career.

Closing Notes

A few miscellaneous points (oof, another list!) that I wanted to mention -

  1. Privilege

    How privileged are you? I am fortunate to have a loving family who has my back and does not depend on me for bread and butter.

  2. Personal brand

    If you have a strong personal brand already - you have a lifeboat, and a sinking ship does not affect you as much. I might have to work on doing that now since I haven’t established myself in the industry yet.

  3. We need more women!

    While I have been feeling and emphasizing this throughout my (short) career, we need more women in tech! While trying to find people to talk to, I had only a couple of women to look up to for guidance. It matters more than we would like to admit.

  4. It’s only a job

    I got too involved in the decision-making process, thinking as if my life depended on this decision. Don’t make my mistake, either job won’t be the end of the world!