Considering Your Technology Career. Part 4 of 4: The Mature Company

In Part 1 of “Considering Your Technology Career,” I described a model for assessing satisfaction with your current employment situation, and I urged the reader to consider what is truly satisfying in their career. Remember that the four dimensions that I chose (Interest, Compensation, Bureaucracy, Prospects) were of special meaning to me. There may be other dimensions that you wish to consider that have special meaning to you. In this article, I will describe the mature company and provide some anecdotes based upon my experience. I will then apply the satisfaction model to the mature company. Along the way, I will discuss some more subjective elements of a mature company that you may want to factor in when considering if joining a mature company is right for you.

Let’s go.

matureIf you’ve read parts 2 and 3 of this series, you have probably noticed that there are different business forces at work driving the company. In a start-up, those forces are driving innovation to develop a compelling product. In a take-off, the business forces are driving sales to build the book of business to increase the value of the company in advance of either selling the company or taking the company public. The business forces driving a mature company are more complex and are in relation to the type of company. Keeping matters simple, there are two types of mature companies, publically held and privately held. Publically held companies distribute stock and are owned by shareholders. Privately held companies owned by private entities including individuals, foundations, or trusts. They have much in common. Both are driven by competitive market forces to grow revenue and margins. Both can have similar management structures governed by a board of directors and run by executive management.

They also are different in key ways. Industry analysts typically judge the performance of public companies against stated company goals and competitor performance.  Their judgments frequently drive investor behavior that in turn drives the stock price of the company. Frequently, the board or directors and executive management strive to manage the company to analyst expectations that can be a mixed blessing. In an up economy, public companies will heavily invest in innovation to grow top line revenue. In a down economy, the same companies will frequently cut expenses to maintain margins. Cost cutting can mean shedding employees or finding cheaper sources of labor as was the aim of outsourcing boom of the last decade. Often, executive management will see-saw between revenue generation and margin optimization over the course of years all to manage analyst expectations. Responding to these expectations frequently drives changes in executive management and even in the corporate structure should the company consistently fail to meet expectations. In short, public companies are driven to excel through shareholder and analyst pressures that manifest themselves in response to quarterly earnings reports and annual statements. When public companies are at their best, the use their resources to drive change and innovation according to a strategic plan. When they are at their worst, those same pressures drive tactical and severe cost cutting measures that are often painful to employees.

Private companies are a different animal. Because they are not subject to the scrutiny of shareholders and industry analysts, they frequently take a longer view rather than managing quarter to quarter. Because private companies can be more strategic than public companies, they can choose to invest for the long run. On the other hand, those same shareholder and industry analyst forces that can drive a public company to excel do not exist for a private company. The lack of this source of pressure can sometimes lead the owners to hesitate to implement change in the face of competitive pressure.

So let’s apply the satisfaction model to the mature company.

mature_interest

In both start-up and take-off companies, the interest level for me is based on technology and engagement. By engagement, I mean the extent to which the company empowers the employee to make decisions driving the future of the company. Being hired for one’s expertise then being tapped for that expertise is one of the key sources of motivation, at least for me. This engagement is almost a given in start-up and take-off companies since the company finds good employees and set them loose on a problem. Mature companies can sometimes operate differently. At times, a mature company can employ top-down management that can strangle employee initiative. I try to avoid these circumstances whenever possible. My counsel when looking for a mature company is to find one that actively engages employees in finding solutions from the bottom-up. It is not too hard to figure out how a company thinks about employee engagement during the interview process, and I encourage you to do so.

Additionally, mature companies may realize that the very size and scope of their company can stifle innovation. In the face of this realization, experienced executives may compartmentalize innovation with the company in an attempt to isolate it from pressures that may seek to stifle change. You might see this if you ask how the company is organized. Working within one of these islands of innovation can raise interest level.

My “Interest” rating above reflects the variability in employee engagement and willingness to innovate. The very nature of a mature company can limit innovation through risk aversion and market forces driving expense control. However, more progressive companies realize that innovation does not happen by accident and will strive to remove roadblocks to engagement and innovation. Mature companies can provide and interesting and engaging experience but you may have to dig to find it.

mature_compensation

In many ways, mature companies offer many more low-risk compensation opportunities than either start-ups or take-offs. Public companies often have total compensation plans that include equity components. Private companies may also have incentive compensation programs that are almost exclusively cash-based. Benefits packages can be more robust in larger companies.

It is important to note that since mature companies have made it through their start-up and take-off phases, they are usually more stable. As I said above, public companies may tactically control expenses that can affect employment stability and compensation growth. My experience with private companies tells me that they are less prone to employment stabilities issues, but they are far from immune.

On the other hand, because mature companies tend to be lower risk ventures than their earlier stage counterparts, the opportunity for dramatic compensation growth is often less with a mature company. Mature companies allow employees to trade off risk for reward. If you are at a stage in your career where you prize employment stability, then a mature company might be for you. Understand that your compensation growth may be lower than you would like, but that can very well be the cost of stability.

My “Compensation” rating above reflects the variability of working for a mature company. On one hand, you may experience slow compensation growth in exchange for stability. On the other, incentive compensation and benefits packages may be more robust which can yield an overall higher total compensation profile.

mature_bureaucracy

As I mention in my previous articles, bureaucracy tends to be low in start-up and take-off companies. Take-off companies are more likely to have more established bureaucracies to keep staff focused on their tasks rather than having to attend tasks in areas like HR and IT. Mature companies usually have well-established bureaucracies focused on attending to operational details that enable the company run efficiently. When working for mature companies with established bureaucracies, I live by the following rule, “There are four gods that you must appease: Audit, Legal, Finance, and IT. Don’t picks fights with them because you’ll probably lose.” There are two aspects to this sentiment. On the positive side, the bureaucracy helps the company run efficiently and protects it from risk by enforcing a certain amount of orthodoxy. This is a good thing when the bureaucracy supports the business in constructive ways like standardizing technology configuration, rollout, and support. Bureaucracies can get in the way when they impose onerous processes that can impede progress and hinder innovation. When large companies fail to innovate it is often because the business ends up serving the needs of an entrenched and inflexible bureaucracy rather than the bureaucracy enabling business progress as originally intended. The battle between Apple and Sony to capture the MP3 and music sales market, in my opinion, is instructive in this regard. Apple was able to beat Sony with the iPod because Sony was unable to get out of its own way despite having a technology lead. On the other hand, IBM was able to gauge correctly the innovation-stifling effects of its bureaucracy and create an independent business unit within IBM that created the original IBM PC.

My “Bureaucracy” rating reflects the simple fact that mature companies usually have established bureaucracies designed to impose orthodoxy. It is important that you understand the role of the bureaucracy to be able to navigate it effectively.

mature_prospects

Your prospects within a mature company can vary considerably. On the upside, mature companies can offer greater stability and job security than start-ups or take-offs. Frequently, if you are not happy in one job within the company, you can post for another. In fact, this is one of the greatest strengths of the better mature companies that actively encourage this. Multi-national companies frequently offer “secondment” or “expat” packages to qualified employees willing to relocate to new offices abroad to help get started in new markets. It is almost like working for a start-up company without the risk of job loss. These can be great opportunities to grow your career and see parts of the world you might not otherwise see. Also, if you like the job you do and aren’t interesting in branching out, then a mature company is often happy to have “sustaining” employees providing reliable support to the business.

On the downside, mature companies can appear intimidating in their processes and sheer size. Sometimes employees can end up feeling “stuck” and jobs they do not like. I am dismayed when employees get lost in mature companies and actively advise them to seek mentorship to help steer a path forward in what can sometimes feel like a daunting environment.

My “Prospects” rating reflects the variability in the opportunities offered by mature companies. At their best, mature companies can provide stable but interesting work environments where an employee can see their career mature without the risks inherent in start-up or take-off companies. At their worst, mature companies can feel like intimidating mazes that are challenging to navigate.

Final Comments

I sincerely hope you have found this four-part series enlightening and helpful. My intention has been two-fold: To help you gauge your satisfaction with your current job in the hopes that you can find ways to improve areas of dissatisfaction. Alternatively, you might find that another situation in another type of company may be more to your liking. In either case, going into a situation armed with insights and with your eyes wide open can help improve your satisfaction, avoid dissatisfaction, and help you chart a plan for career advancement and happiness. I once worked for a company in the take-off phase where the founder told me, “If your job is not fun then why bother doing it.”  These are sage words that have stayed with me for over 20 years!

Best,

Charlie