size matters
April 12, 2023

Finding the right data environment for you (part 1: size matters)

By Tristan Mobbs

How do you go about finding the right data environment for you? That is a question which many job hunters have asked themselves, especially if either new to this career or they’ve learnt there is more to think about than just the job advert.

In this short series, I will share two long posts from guest blogger Tristan Mobbs. He is the data & analytics manager for Kite Packaging, but Tristan is also active online generously sharing his learning experiences. He describes himself as a Data Translator and has shared with us before on important topics like data literacy, analytics communities and data storytelling.

In this series, Tristan shares his own experience and advice on finding a good match. How can you judge if the organisation and role will suit you and aid your development as a data professional? How can you avoid taking a job that ends with you being frustrated or regretting your decision because you’re no longer growing? In this first post, Tristan focuses on choosing between different sizes of organisations. What will that mean for the work you end up doing?

Does size matter when choosing an employer for a data role?

You have decided you want a role in data. You have probably thought about whether you want to be a data analyst, data engineer, or data scientist. Have you considered the environment that will suit you best? Probably not.

The decision around which environment you want to work in is likely to be one of the biggest factors of whether you will get enjoyment and fulfilment from your role in data or frustration and a lack of impact. How do you go about making that decision?

Identify different types of businesses and how they are likely to operate. The biggest differentiator is often the size of the company. So, let us explore the differences between those environments for data and analytics roles.

What is it like working at a large corporation?

In big corporate organisations with large teams, you will likely spend more time in meetings. This is a good opportunity for developing presentation skills, understanding how and why formal processes exist, and understanding how to persuade and influence across different levels of an organisation. Big corporate companies also offer a safe environment for learning. There are usually processes in place to stop you from breaking things too badly. When things are tough, and the workload is high you also have a team to support you. That support network is incredibly useful when starting out in your career. There are usually a couple of exceptionally technical people to learn from too.

On the downside, change is slower in big corporate organisations. A lot of change is often driven by system changes decided at a senior level which can be hard to influence. If you have an idea, you may have to get buy-in from multiple stakeholders and departments. When rebuilding a forecasting system at a large energy supplier I had to persuade over 10 people in senior management that it was the right thing to do. At a smaller supplier, I told my boss that I was going to do it. You may also experience resistance to change. Major changes and efficiencies can lead to redundancies, people don’t take kindly to you removing their job. You are likely to encounter the ‘we have always done it this way’ group of colleagues too. Change management is hard in larger organisations. When I left a large organisation one person asked who was going to ‘reign me in’ with my ideas.

Another downside of large organisations is the work you are doing will have less of an impact. You will often get lots of smaller tasks that are needed to keep the business ticking over. These are good opportunities to learn but not many things you do will have a meaningful impact on the business as a whole.

What’s it like working at a smaller company?

Tough but rewarding. In smaller companies, you have far greater freedom and far greater ownership of what you are trying to achieve. It is likely that you have a couple of colleagues who may or may not have much overlap with your work. You will own processes end to end and if you want to do something new, you have to go and figure out how to do it. Ever read the documentation on large-scale data tools that says, “Get your development (insert any other department) team to do this bit“? That will probably fall on you to implement. Prioritisation and deciding how much of a task to do and develop is a crucial skill in a smaller environment. 

You will likely become more attached to your work in a smaller company, this is because you have the ownership, and you can see the impact you are making. In good times this is great, if things aren’t working as well, it can be tough to separate your work from you, the person. In smaller organisations, you have a smaller support network. In those tough times, you will have to battle through. The resilience required in these situations is often different but greater than at large organisations.

If you have great ideas and want to crack on and get things done, smaller organisations provide much greater opportunity and freedom to do so. If what you are doing will make a difference you are likely to be encouraged. The challenge will be fitting it in around the key tasks for your role.

Which size organisation is right for me?

Like all good questions, it depends. It can vary at different points in your career. Working out what is right for you is a really important step to how fulfilling your role may be.

My experience choosing the right data environment

I started out in a large corporation, which was a great place for me to start. I was naïve but able to develop my skills in a sheltered environment where I could focus on one specific area. As long as I did my tasks, I wasn’t challenged on what I was doing to develop the business. I could work on my area and experiment to see what worked. I had more time to spend on training and developing my skills in greater depth. I eventually got frustrated with just working in one niche area and having redeveloped many processes, decided it was time to move on.

I then moved to a 100–200-person organisation, where my knowledge grew incredibly quickly. I had to research and find things out on my own. Going to the source of information rather than relying on experienced colleagues was a great learning experience. It showed me how different people can interpret things in different ways. I was able to grow far more and develop a much greater understanding of how a business operates.

Ultimately, I left that role when things started to go awry, I fell into the trap of being too attached to my work and didn’t have a big enough support network then. Since then, I have worked in three organisations of varying sizes. Some are hugely political, others less so. My preference is for smaller organisations, where I take responsibility and can see the impact of my work.

5 questions to ask yourself when choosing an organisation

  1. Do I want to specialise or be a generalist? 
  2. Do I want greater responsibility, or do I need greater support within a team?
  3. Do I enjoy persuading and influencing larger groups of people? 
  4. Do I prefer to have control or to take orders? And how well do I deal with politics?
  5. Do I want to learn from experienced professionals, or do I want to create my own path?

What did you decide? How big is right for you?

Thanks, Tristan for sharing that practical advice and your own experience. I hope that helped others, especially if you are right now considering a career move. What struck you above? What might you have not considered before? What else could you research or ask in an interview? Could considering the above questions even prompt you that it’s time you moved to a size that suits you?

If you are thinking about such questions right now, then stay tuned. Next week I will share Tristan’s second post in this series. In that post, he will consider the importance of the industry sector. What are the pros and cons of data roles in different industries?