Discover more from The Skip
How Big Tech, management and IC roles have changed
Today’s climate favors Big Tech and individual contributors more than ever
The pandemic has upended all aspects of life, exacting a huge emotional toll and injecting an array of unknowns. As a career coach, I can’t help but think how – strangely – amid all of this uncertainty, Big Tech has largely come full circle. And whereas just a few years ago it seemed that companies in earlier phases, namely those in startup or growth mode, were the best places to power a career, I’m seeing Big Tech as a more valuable choice right now.
By Big Tech I’m referring to those massive companies that have found product-market fit and hit their stride. Big Tech companies are market leaders with multiple product lines. They have thousands of employees and most often are publicly traded. They have an established culture and a longevity – a denseness and complexity in how they operate that’s made them the leaders. I think it’s important to note that there are many big companies, like Uber, Stripe, and Airbnb, that are great yet lack the longevity and scale to truly be Big Tech. They fall somewhere between growth and Big Tech, and my advice here won’t really apply to them.
I happen to be an executive at one of the quintessential Big Tech companies, Meta, where I work on the Facebook app. I also have experience at Google, another Big Tech and one of the so-called MAGMA companies: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Meta, and Amazon. But with The Skip, I’m not speaking on behalf of my employer. There are so many similarities among all of these companies – including scaled companies such as Adobe and Salesforce – that I end up thinking about them consistently when it comes to career. The calculation to join, or stay at, Big Tech is vastly different today from even 2020. So why stay? And what are the challenges? Ultimately, it’s about understanding the current market landscape and finding a match to where you are – and where you want to go – in your career.
How Big Tech has shifted focus from greenfield innovation to strengthening its core
In an earlier podcast, I laid out why growth and hypergrowth companies have lost a bit of luster these days. In fact, I advised leaving, or entirely avoiding, them. As I see it, in 2023, Big Tech is the more advantageous place to be.
But why now? It’s important to step back and consider that Big Tech companies have been through a lot. A decade ago, mergers and acquisitions had become a key tool for innovation for Big Tech companies with massive balance sheets. M&A, however, requires that companies are interested in being acquired, and that all parties are able to successfully jump through a lot of regulatory hoops. Antitrust concerns have substantially increased over the past decade, making it nearly impossible for large acquisitions to be approved. So interest in innovation through M&A waned.
Without these external methods of innovation, Big Tech needed a plan B and had plenty of resources, powerful brands, and well-known products with terrific market distribution. So it focused on building products instead of acquiring them, adjacent from its core business. The idea was that innovation would branch out from there, with new products tenuously connected to the center. Big Tech went on a hiring spree, adding employees alongside the main area of business in hope of inventing the next big thing. When leaders were asked to expand so rapidly, headcount became a currency: more people, more bets, more of an impact. There was a clear correlation between team size and job scope and advancing up the ladder. Big Tech became even bigger.
And it continued in a state of hypergrowth when the pandemic hit, supercharging expansion as everyone and everything went online. But then came 2022 (inflation, higher interest rates, stock market correction), and clearly that level of growth wasn’t sustainable. Cost-cutting measures took hold, and projects shut down. Companies began backing off this idea of innovating along the peripheries. With the business tailwinds suddenly eliminated, companies began to worry about the health of their core business. They turned to strengthening their core – at the expense of newer bets and additional headcount. Layoffs arrived. Yet these Big Tech companies aren’t in trouble. They are just reining themselves back in to pre-pandemic hiring and growth levels. Before 0% interest rates.
Why Big Tech?
It’s no secret that Big Tech’s core is its advantage. And it makes their equity more resilient, resulting in attractive compensation, which is liquid and attached to stock that is quickly returning to pre-Covid levels and beyond. Contrast that with growth companies, which are mostly privately held and might have lost 70%, 80%, 90% – or beyond – of value. Many never deserved their high valuations and will never exit or return to these high stock prices. Big Tech companies have a track record, are on the upswing, and will continue to thrive. So the first and simplest reason to join Big Tech: You are in a much safer, more predictable position in terms of compensation (and potentially joining now puts you in even a very lucrative one).
Big Tech also teaches you to work at a large scale, which is crucial learning for your career. A market leader is going to have millions, and even billions, of customers. Operating at this level and amid this scope of brand value, which also must be sustained over long periods of time, offers powerful lessons. I speak from experience in saying that this environment teaches you how to thrive amid complexity and navigate intricate processes designed to protect the company, and forces you to be a clearer thinker and communicator. The sheer size of innovation that needs to happen to move the needle presents very, very different learning opportunities from those gained through “zero to one” innovation. All of this experience undoubtedly instills in you very transferable skills. Down the road, if you approach the hiring manager at a hot new growth company, that person wants to know that you can succeed in the next few phases of growth. Mastering that at a large scale immediately makes your experience credible. And at the same time, at Big Tech you’re surrounded by people who are at the top of their game. You’re gaining insight from them and building out a network that can be leveraged for years to come.
It’s worth noting that this valuable experience only comes after three or four years of tenure. In fact, your minimum stay should be at least that long, especially for leaders, since it takes a couple of years just to get into flow and learn how to get things done. But because large companies often encourage internal transitions, you can spend 10 years at a Big Tech, and it’s almost like gaining three companies’ worth of experience (without the hassles of restarting multiple times and learning yet another new environment). You may lose out on some of that breadth of learning that comes from transitioning from company to company, but with more continuity, you’ll likely see gains in compensation and impact.
There is a lot to think about here, but to summarize: Big Tech is offering a lot of positives amid a few volatile years, with awesome compensation, terrific brand value, the potential to impact millions of customers, incredible networking opportunities, and the chance to work on multiple products over time within a single company.
Why not Big Tech?
That’s not to say that Big Tech doesn’t have its downsides. These late-stage companies are tightening their belts, so finding one of these roles is harder now than it was, say, a half dozen years ago. But I do see this improving over time.
A tougher issue in a late-stage company is the challenge of building new things. Late-stage companies have millions or billions of ready, reliable customers. But many tech professionals are motivated to work because they like to create new things. This requires what I call “outside the building” skills – coming up with an idea, navigating the market, understanding the people your idea might resonate with, and figuring out what will work and won’t work. But taking a concept and putting it into the hands of customers requires “inside the building” skills at Big Tech – influencing leadership and peers that the product is worthwhile, creating something that’s new and incrementally valuable to the existing customers, and ensuring that it’s a product that won’t backfire. The bureaucracy in Big Tech exists to protect these larger, established businesses, but it can hamper one’s ability to build new things and cause frustration.
Part and parcel of being protective is being more complicated. So to really benefit from your experience and prep for the next, and the next, opportunity, you need to be willing to remain for a longer term. It takes time to build connections and understand how things are done. But, as I mentioned earlier, staying longer at a late-stage company has many positives. If you do choose a late-stage company, one last possible downside is that you have to be comfortable associating yourself with the products and values of these huge employers, who can be controversial and polarizing. Do research ahead of time and be sure that you are comfortable wearing the brand, or this could weigh on you over time.
The importance of individual contributors in the coming years
I want to hit one last note here, and that’s regarding a trend we’re seeing in the marketplace. As hiring overall has slowed (or even gone in reverse), many employers – and certainly Big Tech is an example – are adding fewer managers. Traditionally, when companies are aggressively expanding, managers are the ones to seek out new hires and help get them acclimated, as well as work new teams through any ambiguities on projects. An executive would direct various managers, each of whom would be overseeing their own teams and projects. This type of organizational structure was built to address the needs of tomorrow rather than today’s – growing versus sustaining. And companies encouraged their most promising employees to become managers, as they equated adding to the business as expanding and managing teams and new ideas.
So what happens when both innovation and hiring slow down, as is happening now? Many managers today are being asked to act more like individual contributors, or ICs. And companies are hiring fewer managers and encouraging people to remain ICs, including new hires. ICs tend to be closer to a problem and attack it more directly. They rarely manage people, but they have context and contribute in hands-on ways. I need to point out that this isn’t a bad thing. Getting feedback on your direct contributions rather than on your team’s can be an effective way to learn the ins and outs of building things at your company. And it’s infinitely better than when managers were pressured to climb a ladder too quickly. In those cases, they weren’t developing skills in management or in their core craft.
In today’s environment, take this time to deepen your understanding of your field, the process of building something meaningful, and how to solve problems – all of which will elevate the teams you do eventually lead. Organizations are far more complex than just learning to manage a few people, and becoming a mediocre manager certainly isn’t going to produce that fulfilling, expansive career you are looking for.
When I guide executives in how to deepen their building and crafting skills, I give them a framework consisting of five areas of ambiguity to master: growth, or scaling up a product; market, or building things that have a differentiated strategy; organizational, or managing big projects that span multiple conflicting goals; domain, or deep area of the market to master; and, of course, team, or hiring and managing people.
Hyper-focusing on managing people (team ambiguity) ignores these other critical skills, that arguably are more important to your career and better served to learn as an IC.
The climate has changed, and we are not only working differently, but also advancing differently. So maybe you’re mourning a past role from a different era in tech – but those days are gone. Don’t think within the terms that guided you two, three, or even five years ago. Instead, take a long look at Big Tech, master the right skills for your career given the existing climate, and keep an open mind at delaying management so that you are sure to master the right skills in the right environment.