Photo by Malobi.

Will you learn more at a small company or a large company? Why?

These questions came up when I was talking with a good friend about how to choose between multiple job offers from technology companies of different sizes. My friend wanted to go to the place where he would learn the most.

I absolutely believe that you will learn more at a smaller company. The 'why' requires a bit more soul searching.

What is learning?

My reasoning is rooted in my view of learning. For me, to learn means to change the way I see the world. It means to change the way I think. It means developing my intuition.

When seen in this light, there are many levels of learning:

  1. The lowest level is theoretical knowledge. Passive activities like reading, watching, etc., build theoretical knowledge.
  2. The next level up is doing. This means plying your craft and getting your hands dirty in some capacity: don't just read, actually do the exercises.
  3. Then comes producing a body of work: don't just do the exercises, actually ship software, publish a blog, etc..
  4. Finally, receiving feedback on the work you produce teaches you the most: get your software used by people, get people to read and talk about what you write, etc..

Going through the loop

I have found that going through all of these stages is what produces the maximum growth.

Normally, it is really hard to jump from one stage to the next. The jump takes lot of resolve and a lot of courage. There is a lot of laziness and resistance to overcome. Perhaps that is why there is so much value in it.

Here's the thing: working for a small and growing company actually forces you to make these jumps. It is a bit like learning to swim by being thrown in the deep end. There is nowhere to hide.

In a small company, the demands of the job are so varied that you often have to learn new skills and immediately use them to deliver something.

And what's more, unless your company is a miserable failure, you will keep getting feedback on your efforts. There is barely any insulation between you and the people using your product. Your successes and failures will be brutally apparent.

Anecdotes from personal experience

For instance, when I was at Yahoo!, I used to release a new project ever year. With RecordBox, I have released big projects every couple of weeks. Part of this is due to the nature of the work, but a larger part is due to the sheer difference in size.

As another point of comparison, most of the feedback I received at Yahoo! was from my peers or my boss. By contrast, all the feedback receive at RecordBox is from people who actually use the product in their day-to-day lives.

So both in terms of quantity and quality, the feedback I receive working at RecordBox is a much richer than the feedback I received on the work I did at Yahoo!. And that's a big reason why I feel I have learnt more at RecordBox.

Small for the win

None of this is universally true, of course. But all things being equal, I would choose a smaller company over a larger one if my goal was to maximize learning and growth.

A smaller company has more variety, moves faster, and impels you to take as much ownership as possible of whatever you are doing. That is as good a stimulus for growth as any.

What do you think? Have you worked at a small and a large company? Which one did you learn more at?