I see this question a lot because I’m often on the lookout for new opportunities. So I speak with a lot of recruiters, hiring managers and CTOs. It’s an interesting question.
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When I think about it, there are a few ways to break it down. Here’s what differentiates firms for me.
1. What pace are you looking for?
Is the work-life balance the most important thing for you? That is do you want to leave at 5pm and not be oncall nights and weekends?
Alternatively are you after the fast-paced, always on, blistering hockey stick growth startup phase? That’s also exciting, although it may make work-life balance tougher.
Not to say the world is divided up into only two types, I do think this is an interesting way to divide up the world.
Related: Why I don’t work with recruiters
2. What engineering culture do you like?
Do you prefer an engineering organization, that is doing things cleanly, concisely, with truly best practices and high code quality, though perhaps with greater process control?
Or would you prefer more cowboy style, with less process and able to move quickly and get things out the door?
Related: How to hack job search?
3. What type of teams do you enjoy?
In some organizations that are smaller, you get a chance to wear a lot of hats. You aren’t so specialized because there are fewer total team members. For example there may not be one person devoted to the database work, and one developer takes on that responsibility. While there is not devops team, another developer automates infrastructure.
Alternatively do you prefer more clearly defined job roles? That may be a larger org that has many more engineers. In that way you can own your own tiny slice, and focus just on that skillset or tool.
Both are valid of course, but they may be different types of orgs or companies at different stages in their development.
4. What’s your overall motivation?
This is an interesting question. For me personally, I prefer to have the biggest business impact. If I can come into an organization and raise the bar, even if the bar wasn’t high to begin with, that is very satisfying. If I don’t get to use the coolest wiz-bang technologies that’s ok with me.
Alternatively there are some organizations that are facing much more challenging problems. These tend to be very hard technical problems, where the bar is already quite high. In those you may be surrounded by very talented engineers indeed, and the baseline for entry is already quite high.
Again both are valid, just a matter of what type of environment you thrive in.