No raging against the machine

“Go big or go home” is a common enough expression when describing career direction, but it can also be used while pondering the specific place of employment.

Given the choice between working at a corporate behemoth, where the closest coffee machine might be a 10 minute walk and the CEO lives in a different time zone, and a small start-up where the CEO knows not only your name but your spouse’s as well, many wonder why anyone would choose to work for a big, faceless company. After all, doesn’t working for a huge firm relegate employees to the status of numbers in an HR database?

But while working for a large firm can be daunting, some have found the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. Today, many of the larger IT companies are changing with the times to make life, not work, the true yardstick for human existence. They think big but act small, trying hard to make the individual feel at home, right from day one.

This is important, as the monumental growth of IT in Canada, and an equally large shortage of qualified IT workers, has shifted power into the hands of employees. So why would these hot commodities decide to work for a large company?

One answer is stability, which might not be everything, but a percentage of newly graduated students it tops the list of the ‘gotta haves’ when looking for a job. Students and campus career officers site stability as the number one reason for going to established companies. What has been around tends to stay around, the theory goes, and those with large market share tend to keep it.

“The reason a lot of the students are still choosing the larger corporations is security,” said Seema Opal, a University of Toronto Engineering Career Officer. “The stability of a company like Nortel or IBM is very appealing to the students,” she added. “Of course, there are a number of students who do choose the smaller firms because of the opportunity for [quick] advancement, the high salaries and the exciting, young environment,” Opal said.

And that, in essence, is the situation: stability versus risk. Large companies generally offer a stable work environment, structured career paths, a decent salary and a good pension at the end of the road. The start-ups come with an increased risk of corporate failure and potential job loss. But to get the big pay, you’ve got to play the big play. There are few billionaires in Silicon Valley who made their bundle working at well established companies.

Size is also a big advantage if you want to change career direction, yet stay within the same company. You don’t have to worry about losing health benefits, pension or stock options as you shift your career from programming to marketing, for example.

Going really big

In the world of IT, IBM has traditionally represented the Big Blue security blanket.

IBM Canada Ltd. is an example of how a very large IT corporation has worked hard to keep its employees while fostering growth at the same time. At the end of 1998 IBM Canada and its wholly owned subsidiaries had 17,122 full-time employees, and, as the company has been around for decades, it had time to develop techniques for managing large numbers of people. Gone are the days of thousands of men in blue suits and whites shirts. Today’s company is quite flexible. Individual work schedules, which accommodate car pools and day care and in which the work day can be shifted by 2.5 hours either way, is just one example of what IBM calls life/work balance.

“Gone are the days when a job was strictly 9 to 5. Now the jobs, because most of our jobs are brain jobs, can be tailored to the individual,” said Angus Duff, manager of campus recruiting at IBM Canada. “Work/life balance is about tailoring work schedules to accommodate personal needs, that being family needs, outside interests. We have [increased] work-week options, we have job-share options and none of this [incurs] any deviation from the career path,” he said.

Much has changed. “If you think back to the IBM of old, we were primarily a hardware company that, over time, got into software…but now we are primarily a services-based company,” said Terry Whittam, manager of HR technology and staffing at IBM Canada.

As the company changed so too has its focus it. Once a male bastion, IBM is hoping to have women represent 50 per cent of the workforce by 2020, according to the company.

all about choices

IBM is also striving to give employees more control over their careers and their career paths.

“Within IBM I have had four very different and distinct careers. One could have imagined that I worked for four different companies by the fact what I was doing was so different,” Whittam said. “Our size can work to an advantage in terms of allowing people to move into many, many different areas of the business. It can provide someone with a very enriching career.

“I try to impress upon new grads coming into the business today that you might be hired on as a programmer, that might be what gets you in IBM, but there might come a time when you want to move into a technical support roll,” Whittam said. “If employees want to move into pure marketing or sales, that possibility exists too. If they want to become a teacher they can move into our learning services group and work in front of a classroom for a couple of years,” he added.

To avoid the sense of being just a number, a cog in a huge piece of machinery, IBM tries to keep various departments rather small.

“I look at it as a very big collection of small companies doing very different things. If somebody wants to be a Java programmer, we have a small company of Java programmers, if somebody want to be a consultant we have a small company of consultants, rather than one big company,” Duff said.

“The manager-to-employee ratio is 1 to 10, and if you have 20 staff it is a big department,” Whittam said.

Learning the ropes at IBM has an intimidation level directly related to company size. So to cover all bases, IBM assigns a “buddy” to each new employee. This is the go-to person when you have any questions. Where is the nearest coffee machine? Why is the sky blue?

Large companies tend also to have more money earmarked for employee training. “Last year we spent $62 million in Canada on training and development for employees, which is almost $4,000 per employee,” Duff said.

The smaller scale

Still, not all are cut out for life in a stable and secure environment. Many students, generally the more adventurous, opt for small start-ups.

“There is always a group that would prefer to work in a smaller company or start their own business and, often, they are ones who are logically more entrepreneurial in nature, they have often started their own businesses as they are going through school,” said Doreen Knol, manager of engineering career services at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

The potential gain is what drives many to start their own company or take stock, instead of a large salary, at a start-up. IBM Canada has a stock option where you can buy stock at 85 per cent of the market value. While generous, it is not the same as being given 500,000 shares in a small garage-based company which five years later is trading at $45 a share. On the flip-side, though, those 500,000 shares could also be used as wallpaper if the company folds before ever going public.