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Transitioning From a Fortune 20 Company to a Start-Up Just Finding Its Place

Changing company

3 May, 2021

Felix Cheung, Vice President of Engineering at SafeGraph, dove head-first into a brand new start-up after earning his wings in his first major corporate position; he was rewarded with a wealth of new experience and opportunity.

Problem

When deciding whether or not to join a new company, it takes a lot to bite the bullet and to say that, “Yes, this is the right thing for me to do.” There is a certain level of comfort and safety when working for a very large organization. You have the opportunity to try many different things and to meet a lot of different people. Asking yourself if making a change that puts you somewhere less immediately lucrative can be a lot for some people.
 

Leaving my first major job at a huge company was a leap of faith. Choosing to join a start-up, becoming a manager in such a small space, and building the architecture of the service that we were providing from scratch, is a decision that I do not look back upon and regret. Sometimes, when you’ve been somewhere for a very long time, you need to push yourself to try something new.
 

Actions taken

I had joined my first company right out of school — it was my first real job in the industry, and I worked in a very different space and for several divisions. In the end, I was there for fourteen years. It opened a lot of doors for me and I had gained plenty of experience that I was able to leverage later on, but I didn’t do enough to really understand where I was going in the long term when first starting out.
 

There were many factors that led me to leave. There was not a lot going on in the position that I held at the time, and I realized that if I wanted to push myself to do more, the only way to do so was to actually go out there and to make the change. I really wanted the opportunity to specialize and to narrow my focus as a Technologist.
 

Working for a start-up while it is still small and growing is much different than working for a company like the one that I was a part of previously. It’s scrappy, but with that concession comes a greater potential for agility. The structure and the workflow were also things that took some amount of getting used to. It’s a drastic change, and some people find that they have a hard time understanding the transition at first. I found it to be refreshing.
 

A lot of folks buy into this idea that you need to join a big company in order to be successful. That’s a great way to learn for your first couple of years. You'll learn how a big corporation operates and you’ll meet a lot of very intelligent people who will be able to teach you what they know. If you stop at that, though, you may end up limiting yourself.
 

To say that you necessarily need to go out there and to build your own start-up on your own may be a little drastic, but there are so many different types of businesses that you can become a part of. If that’s what you need, it may be a good idea to take that risk and to try something different. Doing so will enrich and diversify your view significantly.
 

Lessons learned

  • I think that a lot of folks who come straight out of school find themselves in this same place. They want a job that pays well, but, aside from that, they don’t really know what else they want. Some may be more interested in the growth opportunities that joining a smaller company early on presents, but a larger company may actually help you wrap your mind around a lot of big-picture processes and systems. It all depends.
  • If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you need to go out there and to explore. Try different things. You have to find that sweet spot that’s right for you.
  • When all is said and done, you need to follow your passion. What are you motivated by? Where do you want to go? It can be good to gain some perspective from a mentor who has made a similar move.
  • There is no “best time” to do anything in the beginning of your career. The earlier that you are able to expose yourself to opportunities, however, the sooner that you will be able to find your place.
  • Build your network. I wish that I knew how beneficial putting yourself out there is in retrospect. Connect to people, know what they’re doing. These relationships will be something that you will be able to treasure and to take with you.
  • Never regret anywhere that you’ve been. There were times where I was not pushing myself to my fullest potential, but those times have led me to where I am today. Now, I am working harder than I ever have before.

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