Dima Korolev has worked at some of the biggest technology companies in the world, including Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. Now he’s moved on to startups.
He’s lived all around the world, from Moscow to Zurich and from San Francisco to Seattle. And he’s witnessed some striking differences and similarities in all of his stops along the way.
Starting in 2007, Korolev spent a couple of years at Google working on search quality and Gmail reliability. He then moved on Microsoft, where he continued to work on search quality — just for Bing, as well as airfare prediction.
Within a year he decided to shift to Facebook, participated in the company’s BootCamp, and worked in spam for a a bit before deciding large corporations were a thing of the past and moving on to the startup world.
After a stint with a startup called Public Verification, Korolev decided to move on to his current gig at Staance, the “digital age soapbox” which is trying to be the place where hot issues are discussed.
Through all of his experiences, Korolev has amassed a lot of insight on what it’s like to work at different tech corporations, so we decided to reach out to him to tap into his learnings. Here is our lightly edited interview:
Of the three giants — Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — which would you say is the best place to work?
Dima Korolev: It really depends on the level you’re at. Junior versus senior versus executive or partner are very different. Google is an amazing place for a junior engineer to learn. Their culture is so awesome and sustained that no matter how deep or shallow one’s knowledge is, the first 9-18 months in Google would be priceless. They would get to work with people way smarter and more experienced who are really willing to help. The best practices and procedures will be apparent after a few months at Google.
When someone asks me about taking a job at Google after college I would always say yes. I would say yes to any big company, but Google makes me smile.
So what’s the culture like at Facebook?
DK: They try to build things quickly and don’t really aim at establishment processes, which are sustainable in the long run. Facebook tries hard to look like a small organization and they succeed. Culture-wise, it feels like a startup. There’s not much structure in engineering. There aren’t procedures in how to work with the code and site.
You can really think of Facebook as a lot of independent teams who are using their own methods to keep it running. Some people love it. It’s not really my style. If one’s goal is to be surrounded by like-minded hackers and impact what happens tomorrow, Facebook is a good place.
And how did Microsoft differ from Facebook and Google?
DK: Microsoft is really the place that cares. You can feel that. Once you join the company, they want you to stay, and they’re there to support you. They expect people to be long-term productive on the scale of years.
At Facebook you pretty much are expected to be in the flow and working on things by month three for sure. At Google it’s probably month five or six. At Microsoft, I know people who are just getting up to speed after a year. And that’s fine. But at the end of the day those who want to run projects have this freedom and influence to actually change things.
Anyone who is ambitious enough to push ideas, Microsoft is a great place to be. They will deliver, not as fast as Facebook or Google, but the deadlines are different. It’s not as pressuring as Facebook and Google.
Is there a difference between the hierarchies and organizational structures at the three companies?
DK: At Google and Facebook, pretty much every week there’s an all hands meeting with the CEO, and if you have a question it’s not hard to have it answered by Mark, Sergey, or Larry. At Microsoft, it’s pretty hard to get questions answered by higher-ups. If you try asking about understanding the future and prospects, you have to be on a high enough position to get there. The upper management would often not feel the urge to communicate with the division.
I’m sure working at a startup was completely different, what was that like?
DK: If it’s apparent to everyone that a project has to go where it’s going, there’s really no difference between a startup and a large corporation. At the end of the day, a large organization will offer you resources. In a startup, you’re on your own, but when you know what to build and how to ship it, it’s very similar.
When it doesn’t go well, when the project must be changed, when the team is for some reason falling apart, people are leaving, when some new technology appears which has to be leveraged or made aware of, that’s where the differences start. In a large company, if a project requires more resources, the company understands those resources will be found. If a company feels a project needs to be shut down, it will do it without much loss of morale. If a product requires refocusing, that’s also fine.
In a startup, people are usually more committed. But it’s often a curse. The areas of responsibility often intersect more. But if something goes wrong in most cases there’s going to be time pressure, most often financial pressure, and most of the time they would have to work harder. They would start working on things they could not imagine doing. Engineers might start doing business, advertising, all those things get mixed up. Often times it works out, although it certainly drains the team. Many times it just doesn’t work, which then you have to find a new job.
Do you prefer the culture of a startup to a large organization?
DK: Professionally, I prefer startups because I like to be surrounded by people who are not just working 9-5 but prefer to get things done. In terms of scope of work, overall culture, and making sure the spirit is sustained intact for quarters and years, large companies are better. It’s really hard to scale a startup to years, while with a company like Microsoft, Google, or Facebook, it’s just there. You don’t need to go through small steps. It’s already there.
What is one of the most important things you learned at your first startup Public Verification?
DK: Despite all the hard work, it’s not enough to build a product that fits the original vision. You need to be really agile and adjust to the market, and none of our team was willing to do marketing research. We always assumed certain ideas would work. We built four sub projects, we didn’t do any proper marketing, and eventually the projects died.
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