There are many valid ways to pursue one’s career aspirations, but most tend to fall into two categories:

  • Those who choose to run their own company
  • Those who choose to work for someone else

I most definitely fall into the latter category. I have tremendous respect for those who can weather the storms of uncertainty that plague entrepreneurs, but I am not one of those people.

Partially, it’s pragmatism. I can’t live without health insurance. (see here and here and here…) I have chronic conditions that require regular care to prevent serious complications. I was once offered the opportunity to join a startup with a colleague I very much respected, but with 2 employees and no insurance it was just too risky a proposition for me.

Corporate life certainly isn’t for everyone, I’ll give you that. But corporations are also as unique as snowflakes. I tend to make comparisons between my time at Electronic Arts and my time at Microsoft, but time at smaller companies has been just as instructive. For those in a rush, I’ll lead with my general thoughts before dishing on my specific experiences:

The Secret

Surviving the corporate world can almost be boiled down to a single word: “no”. Sure, you need to be easy to work with and driven, and take on tough projects. But it’s just as important to know and enforce your boundaries. No, I can’t work this weekend. No, I’m not happy with these opportunities. No, I don’t want to work here anymore.

That one’s the hardest. Quitting a job you’re unhappy with – but a job still offering stability? That’s hard. Especially the first time. The fear of burning bridges, the fear that something will go wrong, the fear that it’s the wrong choice. But in the end you have to chase your own happiness.

Even Microsoft, a company I respect greatly, is just that – a company. And companies, corporations – they are not magnanimous. Their decisions are based on business. Individuals within those companies have the power to make decisions for loftier reasons, but don’t get that confused with the actions of the company at large. You have to look out for yourself. (Which cuts both ways – knowing when leaving a company and your seniority is too risky due to the economy, for example.)

If there’s a second secret, it’s remembering you work with people, not companies, in your day to day interactions. It’s so important to choose a team where you feel like you’ll be welcomed and supported, and if you can a manager whose goals align with yours. When frustrated with the bureaucracy, try to take a step back and deal with the people involved like human beings, not arms of a machine. Make personal connections with the people around you, and find a place where your personality is welcomed.

As with many things in life, when you know you’re CHOOSING to go to work each day, it makes for a much more fulfilling experience. I’m proud to go to work every day, whether physically or virtually. And I can’t wait to earn my 5-year trophy (the crystal ‘prisms of power’, as I call them, awarded to employees on 5x year service anniversaries.)

But I’ll also be happy to take full advantage of the extra week of vacation that comes with my prism. Liking where I work doesn’t mean living where I work. 😉 [I’m looking at YOU, games industry…]

Electronic Arts: Big Company

At the time I was there (2003-2004), Electronic Arts still felt very much like a small company trying to masquerade as a grown-up company for Halloween. Confusing policies, inconsistent hiring and layoff practices, and brutal expectations of employees. I was there during the EA_Spouse scandal era, so mandatory 6 or 7 day weeks weren’t uncommon on many teams. So many people were needed late at work that our evening dinner orders eventually came to overwhelm the local restaurants, who began refusing our business. For a time, they decided to re-open the company cafeteria for dinner, which was far from the fabled Google catered dinners. (The cafeteria plan fell apart when they accidentally gave food poisoning to an entire game team of 100+ people, which completely defeated the purpose of having people work late in the first place.)

Perhaps the biggest sign of the company’s immaturity at the time was the haphazard annual review system and the lack of career planning or support. The criteria for promotion were obfuscated and inconsistent. Reviews were not held in any sort of regular fashion, routinely being delayed for game crunch even though crunch was a fact of life. And the bonus system was confusing and tied not to a team’s performance or an individual’s performance but the company’s performance for the year, which was so out of any one person’s control that it failed to be a real motivator (especially at the amounts they ended up paying.)

At EA, I wasn’t feeling challenged any more, but I was told that the way our promotion system worked I’d need to wait years to do what I had already proven I was capable of. That lack of career growth support was the nail in the coffin for my time at EA, as if food poisoning of an entire overworked team wasn’t enough of a sign on its own. 😉

(Tangential epilogue: Shortly after my departure, EA was hit with two class-action lawsuits from employees which eventually led to a large # of positions being reclassed as hourly; now eligible for overtime but not for full-time benefits like stock options, purchase, or bonuses. Pick your poison, I guess. I still see plenty of friends working ridiculous hours at EA; at least now their pay is theoretically proportional.)

This was just the development team for The Sims Makin’ Magic, an expansion pack on the original Sims 1 game. Almost everything else at EA was several times this size.

Griptonite Games / Amaze Entertainment: Small -> Big Company

When I left EA, it was to work at a vastly smaller, sub-300-employee indie game developer in the Seattle region. At smaller companies like this one, you hit the promotion ceiling more quickly since there’s not as much depth of staff or opportunity. It’s a great environment when you’re looking to get a lot of experience quickly, or to get experience that might be perceived as later-career experience at larger companies. At EA, I was told I’d have to wait years before getting the chance to run a dev team. At Griptonite, I got to do that on Day 1. For better or worse, smaller companies also mean less variety in coworkers and projects, so it’s more important that there’s a mutual fit.

Life at the smaller company also meant fewer perks, no formalized bonuses and inconsistent benefits (healthcare plans changing every year, for example). Salaries were lower. Reviews were rolling and not rigid but at least more regular than at EA. And in their defense, while there wasn’t a formalized bonus plan, we did get bonuses on rare occasions – sometimes in the form of cash, and more frequently as gifts, like custom iPod nanos, TiVos, or digital cameras. So one still felt appreciated. Also, “comp time” was slightly more regular – the formalized practice of giving salaried employees “free” vacation on top of their entitlement to make up for hours lost due to “crunch”. On the other hand, there were stock options, but when the company got bought out many folks (myself included) were underwater and didn’t see a dime of it.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was there, at that moment when the company got bought out by a larger conglomerate. Most of our top managers got promoted to corporation-wide positions but they didn’t backfill as they needed to at the studio level, leaving us a bit in the lurch. Plus, without stock options as a potential payout in the future, smaller salaries and crazy fluctuating health insurance becomes harder to swallow when you’re doing more work to cover for the resultant promotion vacuum.

A company photo during the era when we were all organized under the “Amaze Entertainment” corporate banner.

Microsoft: Epically Large Company

So I accepted a job at Microsoft. A few days after accepting my offer, I panicked. I left EA largely because it was too corporate – why did I think Microsoft was going to be an improvement?? Luckily, Microsoft is corporate in the right ways, at least for me. I often compare working at Microsoft to being in college, except they pay you instead of the other way around. There are niceties I missed from EA like onsite dining (despite that one food poisoning thing at EA, it was nice not to have to drive to eat.) The company store is a lovely benefit, especially for gamers like me or those with gamers in the family. Microsoft also has a bus system, a library, sports fields, locker rooms, several common areas, and clubs like a theatre troupe, ballroom dance society, and several a capella singing groups. It’s TOTALLY college.

But Microsoft manages to leverage their bureaucracy to benefit employees in ways I didn’t see at EA. There’s an extensive training system here; tons of courses offered for all facets of professional development. Many in-company conferences for different disciplines and technology fairs where teams can cross-pollinate. Tuition reimbursement. An extremely generous corporate matching program including a paid match of $17 for every hour you spend volunteering for a nonprofit. And the traditional benefits are glorious – who has two thumbs and didn’t have to pay a dime for her shattered kneecap? This girl. (Though they stand to become somewhat less awesome in 2013 when the company moves to cost-sharing for healthcare plans.)

Plus I’ve never seen a more flexible company with regard to telecommuting and location-disparate teams. Working from home is accepted and since we’ve got people in so many locations anyway, there’s great infrastructure for teleconferencing with a few clicks. I can even stream usability studies from remote locations; our facilities for user testing are phenomenal compared to anywhere else I’ve worked.

The thing I probably missed the most at EA: support for career growth. Personally, I feel we have this in spades, sometimes almost to a fault. A clear (although not universally loved) review system, mandatory annual and mid-year reviews, and though it varies by team it’s usually reasonable to get information on what is expected to move to the next level. Programs designed to keep top performers plugged in and excited about their work.

Along those lines, I’ve NEVER felt so supported as a woman in technology… There are insanely awesome opportunities like the Women’s Leadership Council in STB (I serve on their Board) – a funded group dedicated to supporting womens’ networking events. The retention rates don’t lie – women involved with programs with the WLC are far less likely to leave for other jobs or after maternity leave. The company also has a great general maternity program (which I certainly haven’t taken advantage of, but the number of women who have leads to a much better working environment) and things like private nursing rooms.

And in a strange way, sometimes being larger means LESS red tape where efficiencies of scale come into play. Today I ran into several articles on the Harvard Business Review website that required pay-to-download. I simply logged onto the Microsoft Library website, and with a little bit of searching gained prepaid, legal access to the entirety of the HBR archives. When you’re gunning for resources, larger companies just have a leg up on the competition.

There’s certainly politics – the mysterious “calibration” meetings where managers meet to rank employees sound terrifying, to be frank. The changes to the review system every few years are perplexing, and it’s hard to survive a true black mark on your review history. We grade on a curve. The stock has been flat for years and years. Lots of people like us, but lots of people hate us too. And as with ANY company: your manager has a huge impact on your experience at the company, good or bad.

Note that even at a huge company that practically prints money, glamour does not necessarily equal stability. The “new” businesses take a while to make money and thus are more at risk when things get bad – Microsoft’s Interactive & Entertainment groups were some of the hardest-hit in the 2009 layoffs. Meanwhile, Office and Server are two groups that boast less glamour but incredible stability. It’s a personal choice. Even coming from games, I personally have really liked the change to Server.

If you’re using this as some sort of script for your future at a place like Microsoft, know that my experience is limited to the Engineering discipline – I gather it’s very different for HR, Legal, Marketing, etc. As a product developer, though, I love it here. I love that the things I work on will be used by millions upon millions of people. Guaranteed impact. And I am SO excited about the design renaissance happening within the company, and that I’ve been in the thick of it these past few years. If I were to pick anywhere to work right now, it’d be here. That’s saying a lot.


Appendix 1: Other Companies

I’ve also worked for Disney – a big corporation where I was only an intern and not privy to the full time experience. But most folks at Disney tend to be proud of the fact, and there are some great perks for families and reasonable compensation. But as with anything, it’s what group you’re in. And my first internship, for MAYA Design, was challenging and great fun (office robot dog? YES. Van De Graaf generator? YES. CEO playpen ball pit? YES.) I even intended to go full-time there… but as a small company they experienced layoffs just months after 9/11, and my projected job went with it. It’s all risk and reward…

Appendix 2: Unalterable Truths

In addition to this discussion of “perks”, note these “facts” about software development that don’t seem to change – based entirely on my own experience. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I haven’t seen them:

  1. Software engineers must have free soda. Everywhere I’ve ever worked, except for Disney, boasted free soda coolers. UPDATE! As it turns out, game devs at Disney have “all the free soda/juice/tea/coffee we could drink… and the variety even varied by kitchen”. INALTERABLE TRUTH’D! Thanks Amy. 🙂
  2. Software engineers must have access to foosball and/or ping pong tables. At least one per every 2 floors. Air hockey optional but encouraged.
  3. Software engineers must have the freedom to make questionable sartorial choices, like socks with sandals or shorts in winter BUT PERHAPS ALSO pajama bottoms or bunny slippers on occasion.
  4. Software engineers must not be required to come in to work before 10AM. They may choose to do so but will protest loudly if it is required.

These are less perks in the software world and more must-haves. Typically a company also seems to be required to pick one from a large list of quirky perks to complete the list: from discounted access to software /games to free candy, expensive toys, standing arcade machines or catered meals. Your mileage may vary. 😉

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