My last post covered why someone should work in a startup. While startups get a lot of press, they are hardly the only option for career minded engineers. Services companies are another option that can provide a tangible boost to one's career path.
Services are when you get paid as a third party to perform specific work for a client, generally shorter for a shorter engagement and normally with specific requirements and timelines. The nature of this relationship means that you have to learn how to pick up new skills quickly.
Clients are weird. Even if you are an expert in the core skill required, the client will have their unique infrastructure, touchpoints, and processes. Sometimes you get hired because they like you and are confident in your ability to deliver, even if you don't have the skill (yet).
All this means that you have to get proficient in new areas quickly. This is a different skill than learning in depth, where you have time to learn everything. Here, you need to develop an intuitive sense of what is important and what is irrelevant. Work in services long enough and you'll have a great breadth of knowledge. The friends I have that seem to know everything about technology come from this world.
Along with learning a lot of different skills, this environment teaches the importance of deadlines. Most deadlines are figments of some manager's imagination. Customers will not stop swiping their credit cards, the payroll system will continue spitting out checks, and the earth will continue turning if the software goes out a few days late. In the services world, if the work is not done, you do not get paid. The world will keep turning, but the lights might not turn on. There is no better crash course in time management.
If you like to learn, but worry that startups are too risky, then a position at a services company might be something to explore. Beyond services and startups, there is one more common workplace environment; the big company.
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