Another blog post inspired by a question on The Workplace, specifically: does working at a bad company damage one’s career?
Yes, but not the way the questioner seems to think. The bad company in this case is very disorganized, which I’m sad to say isn’t exactly unheard of. That company does sound like an especially bad example, but if you get a few developers together you’ll hear plenty of very similar horror stories. However, I don’t think a company like that will necessarily hurt your career, especially if you’re a junior like the questioner. No reasonable human being would blame a junior dev for not being able to completely change the culture of a company.
However, I do believe there are other kinds of bad companies that can hurt your career: companies with extremely low standards, and companies with such extreme culture problems that only terrible people succeed.
Companies with extremely low standards can really hurt your career if you stay there too long. If you stick around too long at a company or other organization that has a reputation for low standards, then people start wondering if you haven’t left because you can’t do better. The longer you stay there, the more it looks like you know you can’t get a better job and the harder it becomes to find another job. It doesn’t even have to be true that your company has low standards – if it used to be true or if it’s that one department giving the place a bad name or if people just believe it’s true for whatever reason, your resume is still going in the nope pile whether that’s actually justified or not. You don’t need to panic immediately if your new job turned out to be easier than you were expecting, but I strongly recommend leaving before too long. Of course, it can also make you look unreliable if you have a lot of very short stints at different jobs on your resume, but that’s a separate blog post :)
Companies where terrible people succeed (I’m looking at you, Uber) make people wonder if you’re terrible too. That’s very bad for your career in a field where you basically have to change jobs to get a meaningful raise or title bump. To be fair, Uber is a large company and it would be surprising if every last manager/executive/team lead/other influential person was a complete trashfire of a human being, but if I interviewed a dev from a questionable company I would have a lot of pointed questions. In particular, I would want to know how well they did in terms of promotions and other recognition, and what they think makes someone a good developer and a good team member. Getting regular promotions at a terrible company might be innocent, it could mean you worked with one of the few decent managers, but it probably means that you got along well with a terrible manager. You know who gets along well with terrible people? Other terrible people. I’d also be very worried that someone from a terrible company thinks it’s okay to be a total jerk as long as you write a lot of code. Not only is that terrible for team productivity, but it’s also just wrong to make your teammates spend eight hours a day with a jerk.
On the upside, as long as you don’t work for a company that’s known for never firing anyone or for being gross and awful, your career is going to be fine. Over the long term a disorganized company can do some damage – it’s not going to look good if you end up with five years of development experience and no idea how to use version control, for example – but that takes quite a while and you can mitigate it with side projects.
In short, it’s very hard for any one company to wreck your career. Ten years from now nobody is going to care who you worked for in 2017.