Advice to engineering new grads: Don’t start your career at just any company

“If I had started my career at a company like Asana, instead of a 13-person startup, I believe my growth would have been a lot steeper than it was back then.” – Greg

Choosing the kind of company to start your career with is a daunting task. Their mission, team, market opportunity, geographical location, tech stack, engineering processes, and size all factor into your decision. In my experience as an engineering interviewer (and as a new graduate once myself), I’ve heard all sorts of affirmations, from “join the biggest, most well-known company out there,” to “start your own company, be your own boss!” and everything in between. Not long ago, a candidate argued that if they started his career at a smaller company, he’d experience much faster growth. My response was a heartfelt, “If I had started my career at a company like Asana, instead of a 13-person startup, I believe my growth would have been a lot steeper than it was back then.” Here’s why.

Your early career

Early on in my career, I was around a lot of really great people, but I lacked the internal motivation and know-how to grow fast, know where I was going, and to get there. At the time, I just wanted to work on things and see where they led. Getting experience working on neat stuff was my number one priority.

My first job out of university was with a small startup. It was a really great group of people from my university, working on interesting technological problems to build a really cool product, focusing on getting traction in the marketplace. The company went under after I was there for only a year, and I hopped to another small startup with awesome people doing something I found really exciting. Looking back, I felt I had grown a lot in those first years because I was a full-time part of the engineering team for the first time and was exposed to more of the full cycle of building software.

In the years that followed, I learned from some great people, got advice along the way, and picked up new skills—but when I compare my own growth to those of new grads who are joining our team now, it pales in comparison. Had I spent those years at a company like Asana, my eyes would have been opened to much more of the world of software, and I feel I would have been encouraged to find the internal motivation to grow and set goals.

At Asana, we place a huge focus on mentorship, responsibility, and transparency, all of which allow you to see the engine being made and learn how to make it yourself. We’re intentional about giving guidance around responsibility and we place a huge emphasis on balance so that you can focus on understanding the why and how, not just scramble to get things done.

Imagine you want to learn the Mongolian language and culture in an immersive environment. One way of doing this is to buy a plane ticket to Ulaanbatar and try to absorb everything by wandering the streets—you’ll probably have adventures of some kind, but are they going to take you in a direction you want? Another way is to hire a Mongolian tutor and tour guide—an experience that will reveal information you would not have found on your own and will yield much more targeted and effective learning. Asana is your Mongolian guide.

Starting your career: the benefits of balance

I often hear from young engineers that starting their careers at a smaller company will teach them more and contribute to steeper growth. Sure, you’ll gain responsibility quickly, see the breadth of opportunities available to you, wear many hats, and perhaps even get to talk directly to investors and leaders about the technology you’re building.

However, with gaining responsibility can come a lack of guidance and unnecessary missteps. With wearing many hats can come a lack of opportunity to focus on your passion and develop an expertise. It can also mean not choosing which hats you wear—because circumstance will choose them for you. New startups often spend most of their energy seeking a viable business model, meaning they can’t practice long-term decision-making and provide high-quality learning. There are an infinite number of ways for startups to fail, and observing failure will teach you a lot less than paying attention to success.

Starting your career at a larger company boasts several benefits: structure and guidance, big talent that’s worked on cool projects, and the opportunity to specialize, get traction, and find your niche. For instance, big companies can boast the employees who invented Python or Java. The company’s growth is usually a demonstration of its success, and you’ll find that there are valuable principles and practices to learn that you’ll be able to apply during your career.

But there are downsides trying to learn at a large company. There’s less organizational agility to adapt to your needs, less opportunity to get breadth and explore different roles and projects. And unless the company is very rigorous about its open-source involvement, you may work with proprietary technology that, while interesting, doesn’t create transferable skills when you leave.

At a company like Asana, you really get the best of both worlds. We have enough stability and maturity that there’s long-term thinking and heavy investment in mentorship and guidance. We have real credibility and proven leaders to learn from: our team includes a Facebook founder, the engineer who created Facebook’s like button, and some of the earliest contributors to Gmail. But we also create a lot of new opportunities for new roles and projects, and we have played with organizational structure to significantly empower our employees.

Words of advice

You really have to follow your heart. That sounds cheesy, but it’s true. For the early part of my career I thought I wanted to work at a game development company, but the preconceived notion of what my career should be held me back year after year that I didn’t pursue that path. Eventually, after getting more exposure to the gaming industry and talking to some of its veterans, I realized it wasn’t for me, and I moved on to what I really wanted to do. Sometimes, our attachment to expectations about our careers can act as a blinder and prevent us from pursuing greater visions.

In theory, this sounds easy. To put it into practice, I’ve come up with a few tips to help you in crafting a successful start to your career:

  1. If you have an idea of what you want to do, go for it. Later on, check in: say yes, pursue that goal and thrive, or realize it’s not for you and move on to the next thing. Your decisions are not forever!
  2. Gather different perspectives from across industries and companies. Remember that even within one company, people will have different experiences in different roles and on different teams. Connect with your immediate network to understand what works best for you.
  3. Choose a company with a mission that resonates with you and where you’re satisfied at work. This means the work you’re doing, the people you’re doing it with, and your daily life.

Finally, keep your trajectory in mind as you grow into your career. It’s your responsibility to think about what you want and to communicate it to whichever company you join so that you can be provided the support you need. At Asana, we provide a lot of space for self-driven growth. Managers focus on opportunities for their team and helping individuals understand, define, and work along their path to success. Having a supportive environment that fosters the exploration, understanding, and advancement along your career path as you start out is so important, and the main reason I feel that had I started my career at a company like Asana, my growth would have been much steeper than it was.

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