Recently I've had a few friends in the Seattle area ask me about my experiences at Microsoft and whether or not they should pursue potential opportunities there.
Really I just have to tell them that I really enjoyed most of my time there, but I honestly hope that I will never have to go back to a giant company like that again. I've found peace in targeting work that is personally satisfying, surrounded by people who challenge me to be my best. That's when I really find joy in work.
I've been lucky to remain in the online/web market for over 14 years now, and have a variety of work experiences from big companies to startups during that time, both on the client side and the vendor side. And looking back on the different options, it has always been the smaller teams with bigger goals that have been most fulfilling, not the paychecks, brands or perks.
Big Company Life
When you are in huge corporation, your outlook is defined by your surrounding team. It's definitely possible to have a more empowering experience if the organizational structure allows some independence. If you have a solid manager who protects you from the BS and lets you focus on real work, then you can find satisfaction. Learning and creativity are possible.
However, you are still inside of a big game. You become optimized for success for that organization, not for life in general. You have to find allies and stay visible, since your manager can change quickly due to reorganized priorities or employee churn. You witness or participate in crazy decisions driven by budgeting schedules and egos, not rational business behavior.
That's not healthy. You forget how to interact with real people. You start to think your work matters much more than it really does. You forget your individual dreams and joys and submit to the greater corporate good.
Quitting your manager
Ok so I got a little carried away in that last paragraph. It's not really that bad - like I said, you can have a kickass manager who keeps things light and makes your work life enjoyable. Someone who understands how to balance, and focuses on being an enabler for you versus a "manager." I have some friends in Xbox who can't believe they get paid for what they do.
I was very lucky in terms of managers. I had amazing mentors and champions, helping me be my best and contribute in my own way, not micromanaging - just letting me do my thing. My job moves were to take on new challenges, not to evade previous leaders.
Except for one. In 2009, I had the opposite experience. I returned to Microsoft from working for free at BigDoor because we were having our second child and I needed stability again. I joined the online marketing group again with many of the same people still around, feeling good about the being able to jump right back in.
Then they hired my new manager. Territorial. Abrasive. Inappropriate. Empire builder. Political. Backstabber. Manipulator. And you should hear the bad parts!
My mother had health issues the next spring, and I was traveling back and forth to Dallas to assist. I soon quit my job, not wanting to deal with the stress of both situations. Family comes first. Especially when your boss is someone you wake up hoping to avoid all day. Something like seven months for my second Microsoft stint. And what a wasted seven months it was.
Back to finding joy in work
I remember telling Keith "no" the first time he asked me to come back to BigDoor. They had just closed funding with Foundry Group. He wrote me a long email that basically said "That's the wrong answer," and proceeded to tell me why. I relented and ended up evolving into my perfect role as a startup product manager, driving our offering to support the needs of MLB, NFL, Dell, etc.
And now I'm with The Iron Yard, in another atmosphere of crazy growth, helping people change their lives, expanding our code schools all over the US and helping add structure to another startup. It's another opportunity to work with smart people who keep me on my toes.
The fulfillment I have found at these startup experiences far surpasses any of the ups and downs of corporate life.
So yes friends, you should go take one of those jobs and make some decent money for a while. But come back to me when you're tired of being just a cog in the wheel and ready to create something.