Month 1 at IBM: Moving from Startup to Multinational Tech Giant
Key similarities and differences I found working in startups vs a big tech company
Like many young people still in school, I had zero clue where I’d be after graduation.
Having studied a computer science degree, I just knew I loved being surrounded by tech. I loved the problems you could solve with tech, and I love radical innovation — which ultimately led me to 2 different types of companies: startup (tech startups specifically) and big tech company (think Microsoft, Google, Atlassian).
The burning question: Which should I sell my soul to after graduation?
During my final year of uni, I got to dip my toes into not 1 but 2 different startups in my city, giving me an ample taste of what it’s like working in an early-stage, growing company.
This year, I was offered to join IBM, a.k.a. International Business Machines Corp. a.k.a. Big Blue.
I’m now nearly 2 months into my design role at IBM, where I’ve gotten the chance to observe the drastic differences between giant, looming tech enterprise and teeny tiny startup.
Instead of just discussing what sets the two apart, in this blog article I also outline the unexpected ways in which they’re similar.
Disclaimer: This article describes my personal experience only, and should not be taken as generalisation of all startups vs big tech companies. All companies and their departments are different: as for IBM, this experience is only reflective of the particular team I am in.
Okay, let’s get into it! 🏃♀️
Lots of meetings with lots of people
Welcome to corporate life, where you have meetings about meetings, and up to 80% of your day full of them.
Day 1 at IBM was a pretty huge brain somersault for the introvert in me. First thing in the morning, I attended a team meeting with 10+ (I think?) people, where I got to meet the people I’d be working with most (keyword here being ‘most’). Then there were maybe 2 other meetings after that.
This was a huge difference from my startup jobs, where I’d spend maybe 1/4 of my time in meetings and the other 3/4 just doing my own work.
An established onboarding and training plan
Let’s be real here: most startups will not ‘train’ you, or organise upskilling workshops for their employees. Ain’t nobody got time for that, because: a) people obvs aren’t joining startups in huge batches, and b) leaders are too busy doing their own work, to you know, make sure the business doesn’t die in the next 6 months.
Starting at IBM, I was quite excited to hear I’d be enrolled in a few training programs that would teach me how to do my job properly (plus a week of training overseas ). The great thing about these is that the curriculum was designed by learning specialists through decades of execution and iteration, which gave me the assurance I needed that my learning was in good hands.
This leads quite well onto my next point…
Abundance of learning resources
After finding I was lacking access to mentorship in my startup jobs, I joined IBM because of the learning I’d get in design — and boy they did not disappoint!
Free courses, events, learning guides — all at your fingertips. Not to mention thousands of Slack channels for you to browse and ask for help. So in the event that you’re stuck on a design, chances are, someone out there knows something or has some resource you can help yourself to.
Diversity, inclusion and belonging
Some wise person on LinkedIn once said:
A salary increase makes you happy once a year. A healthy workplace keeps you happy throughout the year.
After some truly cr*ppy experiences with workplace culture in the past, I told myself finding diverse and healthy work environments would be no.1 priority for me for the rest of life. This means no more entertaining places where ‘culture’ is formed around the average personalities of the CEO’s 5 favourite people.
At IBM, as well as a lot of other corporates I imagine, there’s absolutely none of that cliqueiness you’d typically find at smaller places that don’t have a culture check.
During my time here, I’ve never felt like I didn’t belong identity or experience-wise (which honestly should be a given in any workplace). Things like, a healthy ratio of female engineers in the team as well as opportunities for everyone to speak at the table, make me feel like my unique experiences are actually valued.
Security and red tape
Okay, so I guess this is a downside that’s kind of inevitable when you join any high-profile company — not just IBM.
IBM takes their security protocols dead seriously, which basically means I just have to spend a few extra minutes of my day getting through a bunch of security layers when logging into my work tools.
And if I want to use non-company-approved software, I have to be careful what data I give it access to, because a bulk of our work is with highly confidential data — think bank statements, personal identifiable information, etc. (Sorry ChatGPT, I think this is where we have to part ways.)
“IBM is such an old company; their technology is dying! What even is there to work on!?” I hear other Gen-Zs my age and millennials say.
Hoo boy, I’d really like to invite y’all to work with my Client Engineering team in Australia.
Prior to joining IBM, I’d heard that in corporate places you could be sitting on the sidelines for months before getting assigned to a project — otherwise known as being ‘benched’.
When I joined IBM, however, it didn’t take me long to realise that that was never going to happen to me. Our team is constantly working on dozens of projects at the same time, I’m honestly find it hard to keep up sometimes.
However, this is all part of the process: startups have to innovate fast to make sure their products are making money, while enterprises also have to innovate fast to win deals and… you guessed it — make money.
It’s okay not to know everything
Startups are notorious for being places where ambiguity fuels innovation… (or some sh*t like that people say to make it sound like it’s cool to not know WTF you’re doing). Having founding teams and leaders who are just figuring it out as they go is very common in startups.
But for a company as big as IBM? Guess what — nobody here knows either! (Well, kind of).
During my first week of joining and shadowing my team, one of the pieces of advice I was constantly told was that because IBM technology is so broad and complex, nobody here knows everything either. It’s not expected of us to know about all 620+ IBM products and solutions — just that we know who to ask to find out the info we need.
You will need to learn how to swim. On your own.
Yikes. I’ll admit: this one was a slight surprise to me, but maybe it’s because I haven’t worked in many places yet…
Much alike to startup life, I found that nobody here was constantly checking up on me every day or holding my hand.
Training was generally a fail-safe environment for us to practice what we learnt with the help of kickboards and floating noodles, but there were also times when we were truly thrown in the deep end — like coming up with presentations with little prep time, on topics we just learnt about 5 minutes ago.
I realised that it’s in these impossible situations where you have to really gather your wits, and work with your teammates to figure it out. Because nobody else is going to come and do your job for you.
So here we are: the conclusion of the startup and big tech discussion.
No doubt, large companies are great places to grow professionally: you’ll have no shortage of knowledge, resources and talented people to learn from. This’ll in turn reward you with exposure to mature and established processes, i.e. what is the best way to do things. These structures will rarely exist at an early-stage company.
However, it’s important not to get complacent just because everything has been laid out for you. You still have to use your brain to solve new problems and work smart to ship stuff on time.
You have all the resources of an enterprise, but you have to think like you’re still at a startup.
That’s all for now!
I hope my experience has given you an insight into the different work environments between startup and large tech company.
To all my peers and colleagues who’ve been asking me (or secretly wondering 👀) how I’m finding the new job, I hope this answered you too!
If you enjoyed this read, subscribe to my Medium as I write about more job-related topics in the upcoming months:
- What I actually do in my job
- My journey into UX as a self-taught UX/UI designer
- Survival guide for junior designers entering the industry
Until then, don’t be shy to drop a comment or get in touch with me on LinkedIn — let me know what surprised you in the article or related to you most 🤗