This article was published in the Tech Summit 2020 issue

by Amy Knapp, VP Information Security and Compliance, O.C. Tanner

What sounds more fun to you?

  1. Take an inkling, idea, concept, and make something from practically nothing. Disrupt. Innovate. Take risks.

OR

  1. Take already successful solutions, ideas, products, and shape them into something completely new. Assess. Pivot. Restart. Revive.

Startups hold great appeal for Information Technology professionals. Such new companies are totally unmarred by legacy software or organizational history. In most cases, their direction is clear and they have concrete goals for achieving that crucial next round of funding. Their people are usually fresh, on the cutting edge, and willing to take chances — with both their approach and the time they are committed to give. Their cultural appeal is bright, fast, fun, and full of free snacks. Failure is fast and often, and seemingly everyone is ready to bounce back, march on to success, or move on if failure leads to a fold.

Startups are sexy, thrilling, and they fill an important need for many of our IT peers. However, startups can also be risky. While some are rock solid, others may not be so steady. Working in a startup can be like living a real-life version of the line from the movie The Princess Bride, "Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning." While some startups offer the world, others require employees to live month-to-month, retirement benefits may be lacking, and healthcare plans can be a roll of the dice that depend on staying healthy.

Oddly, in these times when we wonder if we should buy another round of avocado toast, or that sweet starter house, these risks aren’t much of a deterrent to a lot of starry-eyed employees looking for unbridled innovation and a shot at instant stock-option riches. Akin to the Star Trek generation, a lot of my IT friends in startups are hoping to boldly go where no one has gone before.

But I’m here to tell you it pays to weigh what you’re willing to sacrifice to make a difference in the world, to change an industry, or to disrupt the status quo. Because those things don’t just happen at startups. They also happen at stable, established companies that require a fraction of the risk. What if instead of being lured by startup disruption, you could help an existing company to restart and revive instead?

Consider the polar opposite of a startup, those established industries some call “dinosaurs.” Every last one of them is trying to transform for the digital age, and they all need IT help. Take the New York Times as exhibit A: founded in 1851, this 168-year-old organization was looking the grim reaper in the face as the emerging digital age ravaged through the publishing and newspaper industry over the past 15 years. But by investing in new technologies, and pivoting their readership from paper to online, 2017 saw NYT bank $500 million in pure digital revenue – eclipsing that of the three other leaders in the space combined. It’s a great example of innovation within an old-age establishment.

Likewise, GE, after being a leading innovator in engineering and technology for more than a century, took a whole new approach to recruiting in 2015. Since then, GE has run a campaign to help IT people understand there are major differences to be made writing the code that runs planes, trains, hospitals, and industrial equipment that changes the way the world works. The campaign increased interest in the careers section of GE’s website by 800 percent. And while GE has yet to find its footing in the digital age, with 283K employees and a number 21 ranking on the Fortune 500, it’s a behemoth that’s looking to IT to pave the way.

The beauty of organizations like the New York Times and GE is that, in spite of their long histories, the future is an open book. Many established organizations are just beginning to see what’s possible for their digital transformation. They have firmly rooted processes, compliance, and a history of financial and operational stability. These factors can provide a great foundation for not only innovation within a defined field, but a genuine devotion to research and development, sustained by a reasonable appetite for risk, all while providing a culture of support to not just move a company forward but propel it to the forefront of its market.

I’ve personally spent the past 15 years helping large enterprises with their digital transformation and I’ve found the work to be charged with positive energy, filled with the need for big ideas, and deeply rewarding in many ways.

So, if a startup environment appeals to you, by all means give it a go. But when you’re looking for that next step in your career, don’t be too quick to discount established organizations. Look at their structure, their strengths, and see how you could move the needle for not only their business, but their products, customers, and contribution to the world.

Read the rest of the articles in the Tech Summit 2020 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine
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