Engineering career at BigTech, part 1

My name is Alexander and by day I am a full stack software engineer at Meta. I create tools to prevent the deployment of breaking changes to the infrastructure. I am building architecture and user flow for safe deployment in the new Meta platform for services.

These notes can be useful for engineers who are at the very beginning of their career, when it comes to choosing where to apply themselves, where to start and which way to go when starting a career as a software engineer.

My goal was to collect a whole story about the experience and difficulties of working as an engineer of the post-Soviet education system in large technical companies (BigTech) today. Reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of working in a corporation, share tips and tricks to ease the transition process and succeed. I will also try to dispel some traditional myths and suggest how it is easier and more fun to take the first steps, avoiding classic mistakes. Separate parts of this story are expanded in abundance in other articles, lectures and books. Therefore, I will not dwell on all the details, instead I will leave links for further reading.

Large companies, it was also customary to call them in the 2010s as “FAANG” or “Big Four”, “Gang of Four”, “GAFA” – Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook. You can safely include Microsoft there: “Big Five”, “GAFAM” or “Big Tech”. These are the four or five American multinational online services or software companies that dominated during the 2010s and set the trends for the entire industry. Today, the term has lost its meaning, because the ratings have changed, some have changed their name, and some have had to leave. So now it’s “MAMAA” 😅.

Top IT giants can be set apart from all other companies when talking about an engineer’s career, for a number of reasons.

Scale on which software products are deployed is incomparably large: these are millions of servers in dozens of data centers around the globe with billions of active users and records in uptime. This creates the most unusual obstacles and problems. How often have you seen a defective computing module in a processor in the ordinary world? When it comes to dozens of server centers around the world and millions of machines, the likelihood of encountering 🐉 dragons rises noticeably.

Stack depth – from a certain size, the company masters and transfers the development of an increasing number of technologies used by it inward, by its teams. The largest players in this sense are extremely self-sufficient. How often do companies develop server architecture for their data centers? Or chip design? And at the same time develop and support their web technologies?

Size – the number of engineers and the share of the labor market occupied by these companies are huge (Meta, Alphabet, Microsoft). This creates special conditions for work, hiring and firing. This requires well-established processes for selecting, hiring, training and retaining employees in order to meet the shortage of personnel that is inevitable at such a size and rate of growth. The latter also leads to staff turnover within the company, when, after working on one project, you can safely switch to another project or even a completely different specialization. Was a UI engineer and want to focus on digital security please! Not to mention that managers and lead engineers are born from the ranks of engineers – despite the fact that their range of responsibilities at first glance may seem completely unrelated.

All this, on the one hand, puts big tech in the position of setting trends for the entire industry for years to come in various aspects. For example, thanks to Microsoft, popularity questions at the interview about the shape of the hatch in the asphalt broke all records for a while despite its uselessness. Or React, made by Facebook, revolutionized web development and became the de facto gold standard for many years to come. That is, when you get inside these companies, you find yourself in the epicenter of events and have the opportunity to observe the birth of the future with your own eyes.

On the other hand, thanks to the size and budgets for training, it provides engineers with incomparable opportunities for self-development at a tremendous pace. Which is reasonably considered as one of the main reasons for choosing a job at the start of a career. Cost of hiring an engineer from the outside today is so high that it is cheaper and more reliable to retain and train existing employees.

We live in a golden time for the engineer, when the demand for labor is great and will only grow in the coming years. With such a shortage of qualified personnel, on the one hand, the threshold for entering the company naturally decreases on the other. Companies are ready to train newcomers themselves in order to guarantee the required level of qualification. Also, the presence of a huge number of engineers around has created countless communities for mutual assistance, exchange of experience and collective accumulation of knowledge. In addition, an entire industry of “education” and “self-education” has now grown up around recruitment and training. This opens up ample opportunities to enter the industry at minimal cost and without annoying artificial restrictions on the type of letters of recommendation or “necessary acquaintances”. I am precisely “self-educated” on open sources and corporate education – at the time of employment at Yandex, I still did not have a Bauman diploma. To this day, I have no formal education in Computer Science. Look to other, more conservative, surplus industries, such as lawyers and marketers, where without the right degree, the “right” accent, and a bunch of references, the chances of getting a job are dramatically low. The chances in IT are still on our side.

The list of requirements for specialists, thanks to the incredible turnover of personnel and the whole industry of hiring them, is now formalized and, most importantly, widely known far beyond the companies. Moreover, the requirements are confusingly similar between different big tech companies, for example levels.fyi. Knowing these requirements, we know exactly what to prepare for and what skills to hone, which makes it incredibly easy to enter and grow your career.

The shortage of personnel and the rapid near-exponential growth of the IT industry explains the high level of wages. The difference in the amount of compensation in IT from other even deeply engineering industries is dramatic, for example, for the US market glass door research. And the growth rate, according to most estimates, will only increase, for example, probably the most famous performance by Kjell Nordstrom.

It is worth mentioning that in addition to advanced technologies and breakthrough products that you will see in the company profile, routine boring work does not disappear anywhere – someone has to write configs and maintain old systems. Most (60-90% according to various estimates and internal surveys) of engineers’ time is spent on routine. Work that small companies would never do, or at least generously diluted with something more inspiring. I won’t go into the details of why this is so – I will limit myself to the fact that the budgets of the giants are incommensurable with the smaller players. This makes it possible to hire brilliant engineers for enough simple projects.

True, even if you are engaged in an extremely boring and uninteresting project, there are so many interesting and unique things going on around you that you still have the opportunity to learn and absorb invaluable experience. If you want it, you have every opportunity to grow by leaps and bounds. But no one is required to do this. A combination of high pay, bonuses and royal working conditions (e.g. Alphabet office in London) can have a dramatic effect on the desire to do something beyond the formal requirements. This is the golden cage, which is too easy to get into. There is a noticeable number of employees who fell into it and we cannot blame them. It’s too tempting when the barista in the office knows you and your preferences, you don’t have to say anything to get a cup of flavored Kenyan bean espresso, just the right roast, made on an Eagle one by Victoria Arduino espresso machine. And it’s free, despite the fact that right outside the gate such a cup in a trendy coffee shop costs £3 (₽325). Taking coffee, you will go to the workplace, sit on the chair “Herman Miller” against 344K monitor. Getting away from all this to a company outside BigTech for a lower salary will not be easy, despite the fact that for this you will need to finish something. Such is the golden cage for the valuable proletarians of our day.

In this part, I touched on quite a few pros and cons of working in large companies. I also touched on an insidious trap, skillfully stretched to keep you forever inside the company. He voiced several reasons why now is the golden time to start a career as a software engineer, and why big tech is the right place for this.


In the following parts, if this note arouses interest, I will talk about: the importance of a self-development strategy, the expectation of personal growth, levels of development (and compensation), how projects participate in the assessment of the level of an engineer, 3 possible outcomes of a project, risks and non-engineering part of the work, code review and choice of language, how to start and possible development paths. Please if you have any questions, comments or suggestions – leave them in the comments. Let me know if this is helpful, if you agree with what I’m missing.

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