What It's Really Like to Work at Apple, Google, and Uber

Did you see the TechCrunch Disrupt episode of Silicon Valley? You know, the one where every startup claims to be "changing the world?"

Where, exactly, did this ridiculous, holier-than-thou attitude come from? Is it unique to the startup world???
 
Nope:

Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all say the same thing: "We're changing the world!"

Turns out the big boys have been giving off that same vibe for years.
 
And while a little hyperbole never hurt anyone, when every single tech firm claims to have the exact same culture, one person, in particular, is hurt a lot:

Yup, you.

Yup, you.

That's right, you, the tech job-seeker, suffer uniquely at the hands of the tech employer propaganda machine.
 
Why?
 
Because the whole point of working in tech (as opposed to say finance, consulting, or some other soul-crushing profession) is that you actually want to wake up every morning, excited to go to work - not just collect a paycheck.
 
But if you can't truly know what firms are like ahead of time, you're back in that job crapshoot. And you might as well polish up your Gucci loafers and head back to Wall Street... :(

Nice shoes...

Nice shoes...

What the Companies Are Really Like

So, in the interest of piercing this veil of nonsense, I've gone ahead and put together a dossier on 18 major tech employers - from IBM (founded at the turn of the last century) to Uber (founded at the turn of this one).
 
Based on interviewing with these firms, working at them, talking with employees at each, and reviewing culture/interview data from across the web, I'm excited to share a behind-the-scenes guide that explores what they're really like - not what they want you to believe.

In particular, I've focused on the two biggest influencers of workplace happiness:

  • Size of company
  • Work/life balance

As you'll see on every single company's Glassdoor page, those two factors impact just about every major pro and con:

Glassdoor reviews for Google

In fact, these two foundational elements are so important, I've gone ahead and mapped out a bunch of companies against them for you:

  • On the x-axis, I've plotted size based on the most recent publicly-reported number of employees (note, this isn't exactly to scale due to the wide gap between the three smallest firms - all under 10K - and the rest - 60K and above)
  • On the y-axis, I've plotted work/life balance by subtracting the negative mentions on Glassdoor from the positive ones and standardizing based on company size (so the companies in the upper-half have more positive mentions than negative and vice-versa below)
Companies mapped out against balance + size

Now, as you can probably guess, these two factors are generally inversely correlated and involve significant tradeoffs:

  • In exchange for working at a large company with great work/life balance, you tend to suffer through more bureaucracy
  • In exchange for working at a small company with great growth opportunities, you tend to give up work/life balance

But notice that there's definitely not a perfect correlation: 

Plotting size vs. work/life balance

LinkedIn, at fewer than 10,000 employees, generally offers more balance than Amazon, a company with more than 15x that number. And though Apple and Microsoft are roughly the same size, they have mirror-image work/life balance ratios.

To explain why this might be, let's look at the 3 A's that shape an organization's culture:

  1. Age
  2. Audience
  3. Adversaries

Age
Perhaps the biggest predictor of what a tech firm is really like has to do with when it was founded. In general, there are three distinct tech eras to focus on:
 
Pre-Millennial

Pre-Millennial companies: Cisco, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon

Companies founded before the dot-com meltdown of 2000 (from IBM to eBay) tend to have the best work/life balance (although not always - keep an eye on Apple and Amazon!). Because the average employee is a little older (i.e., more likely to be a 45 year-old dad in Palo Alto than a 21 year-old hipster in SOMA), work hours are more relaxed and flexible (telecommuting isn't just offered, it's encouraged). In exchange, the companies tend to move a little slower and have fewer growth opportunities.
 
Cisco is the perfect example - once the most valuable company in the world, now better-known for its quality of life:

What it's like to work at Cisco

 
Gen Z

Gen Z: Airbnb + Uber

Companies founded after the Great Recession of 2008 (from Uber to Slack) tend toward the opposite extremes of their Pre-Millennial predecessors. Located in cities (from SF to NYC) and staffed by young go-getters, they embody the work hard/play hard ethos. Employees burn the midnight oil and complain of having no life outside of work - but, in exchange, they have the huge upside of the next Google or Facebook and unlimited cool projects and growth potential.
 
Uber really is the paragon of this new kind of tech firm:

What it's like to work at Uber

 
Millennial

Millennial companies: LinkedIn + Google

If Pre-Millennial firms are stodgy but satifsying and Gen Z firms are edgy but stressful, Millennial firms (founded between the dot-com bust and the financial meltdown) are somewhere in-between. From Google to Facebook, they're no longer tiny startups but also not yet ready to be put out to pasture. The result is that these companies tend to have better work/life balance than their upstart peers but also more stress than their older counterparts.
 
LinkedIn, founded in 2002, sits squarely in the middle of these generational trends:

What it's like to work at LinkedIn

 
Audience

Another major cultural fault line is the audience for a tech company's products. Specifically, are they selling directly to consumers (B2C) or to fellow businesses (B2B)?

B2C

B2C companies: Airbnb, Uber, Apple, + Amazon

Consumer-oriented brands, like Apple and Airbnb, tend to put a premium on design and user experience, given that millions of eyeballs will be scrutinizing their products everyday. As such, the culture can be quite perfectionist, with every little detail aggressively debated before shipping. Happily, though, it's easy to drink the Kool-Aid in these cultures, since everyone is a consumer themselves. And thus, you're often building products that you'd actually want to use.

Here's the scoop on Apple: 

What it's like to work at Apple

 
B2B

I know it might seem weird to see LinkedIn and Google on this list - but they really do make the majority of their revenue from selling services to other companies!

I know it might seem weird to see LinkedIn and Google on this list - but they really do make the majority of their revenue from selling services to other companies!

Enterprise-oriented brands, like Cisco and Microsoft, face a very different set of market realities than than their consumer-focused peers. Because corporate purchase trends are typically measured in years and not the months that define consumer technology (e.g., Friendster is hot one day, dead the next), B2B firms enjoy the stability that come with long-term enterprise contracts - and that steadiness filters down to their employees as well. In addition, there's likely to be somewhat less competition for roles since B2B firms, although often incredibly profitable, can appear less sexy than their B2C peers.

Take Microsoft, for example, which earns the majority of its revenues from enterprise sales in spite of criticism of its consumer products: 

What it's like to work at Microsoft

 
Adversaries

The last major predictor of a tech company's culture is the nature of the competition they face - specifically, who are their adversaries? The possibilities here range from Near-Monopoly to Fierce Competition.
 
Near-Monopoly

Near Monopolies: LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft, + Cisco

Tech firms with a virtual monopoly over their industries (think Google in search, Microsoft in desktop OS, and LinkedIn in recruiting) are sitting pretty. Even if they stopped developing their core businesses this very moment, they could still generate billions of dollars a year in revenue without batting an eye. That's because it would take tremendous amounts of time and capital for someone to both replicate their offerings (e.g., LinkedIn's database of the world's professionals) and change the entire world's minds (e.g., Bing is often thought to be as good as Google but has spent over $10 billion just to earn a 20% market share). The result is that these ATM-like businesses pump out so much cash that companies can afford to both pamper their employees (e.g., free sushi!) and explore crazy new ideas (e.g., Google's self-driving car). On the flip-side, these companies can often feel less focused than their counterparts in more competitive markets, leading to disorganization and wasted resources.

What it's like to work at Google

Fierce Competition

Fierce Competitors: Airbnb, Uber, Apple, + Amazon


Some of the biggest, most successful tech companies are actually in extremely competitive industries. Think Apple playing a constant game of one-upsmanship with Samsung in the smartphone market (along with billion-dollar lawsuits on the sidelines) or Amazon's never-ending battle with just about every e-commerce player to have the lowest prices and fastest shipping. And the same phenomenon even occurs in brand-new categories with Uber growing at a break-neck pace to stay ahead of Lyft and Airbnb fighting tooth-and-nail to ward off crippling regulations. Industries like these make for sometimes brutal workplace cultures. Because the bar is constantly being raised, employees work long, cutthroat hours to stay one step ahead of the competition (check out the NYTimes article on Amazon for Exhibits A-Z). On the flip side, employees in these industries often say they learned more in a year than in five at the cushier environments described above.

What it's like to work at Amazon

So that's the inside scoop on what these so-called "change the world" tech companies are really like. But how do you find the right one for you?

Finding the Right Fit

In order to find your place in this crazy world, I'd recommend completing the same exercise that I did for the companies - but for yourself! Here's how:

  1. Reflect back on your own work experiences to determine which organization fit you best. This is a great question to help you laser in on the answer: When were you the most excited to get out of bed every morning and get down to work?
     
  2. Once you've got a past job in mind, try to focus on the context that surrounded you:
    • How big was the organization? Were you on a tiny underdog team up against a giant corporate Goliath? Or were you on a large, diverse team, helping to forge consensus across many different perspective?
    • How much time did you spend at the office vs. home? Did you burn the midnight oil for weeks at a time - and love the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment that came with it? Or did you feel proud of the work that you did during the day - but still relished the time you spent with friends and family during the evening?
       
  3. Now, plot yourself onto the same chart as above and compare yourself to the companies you're considering. Is there a fit or a disconnect?

A couple of things to keep in mind:

It's super easy to do this on LinkedIn!

It's super easy to do this on LinkedIn!

  • As mentioned initially, you can't just take companies at their word when it comes to culture. But nor can you just talk to current employees. That's because they might suffer from choice-supportive bias - i.e., they need to rationalize their most recent career decision in the same way that you need to justify the $500 you just dropped in Vegas ("It was an investment in learning statistics!"). So a better move is to find former employees who now have the psychological distance to give you the straight scoop.
     
  • While companies can have very different cultures, the same is also true of teams. So, whenever possible, don't just settle for understanding a company - dig deeper to get to know who you'd work for and what their team is like. After all, you're going to spend half or more of your waking hours with these actual people, not just some abstract brand.
     
  • And just remember, contrary to what your friends or the media might tell you, there really is no such thing as the "perfect company" - just better or worse-fitting companies for you! So don't get caught up in the FOMO machine; stay true to yourself and find an organization where you really belong.
Tech might have unicorns but there's no such thing as the mythical "perfect company"...

Tech might have unicorns but there's no such thing as the mythical "perfect company"...

Good Luck!

Hopefully this guide has demystified the crazy world that is tech just a little bit. Just remember the key points: 

  1. Instead of focusing on changing the world, focus first on finding your fit.
  2. The best fit comes from both understanding what the companies are really like and from knowing yourself.
  3. While every tech company is different, no one, thank God, wears Gucci loafers... :)

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For more on 18 of the biggest and hottest tech employers, download the free guide

Amazon Google Oracle
Apple HP Salesforce
Cisco IBM Samsung
Dell Intel Uber
eBay LinkedIn Twitter
Facebook Microsoft Yahoo

Want to Get a Job at Apple, Google, or Uber?

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  • How to get referrals at any company
  • How to ace your tech interviews 
 
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