Here’s a bias I’ve noticed among designers: If you work at a “dry” enterprise like NBC, Oracle, or Dell, you’re less smart or less skilled than the designers working at “cool” brands like Nike, Facebook, IDEO, or Tesla.
I’ve worked both at enterprise companies and at “cool” brands, and what I experienced is that the folks working in these “unsexy” companies were often just as smart and talented as the folks I met and worked with at the “cool” brands. They were often happier with their lives, and more interesting, well-rounded human beings.
This threw a wrench into my own biases, and it taught me a lot about what’s important when choosing your career path as a designer.
Why enterprise design is a better place to be (sometimes)
I say “sometimes” because there are obviously many corporate UX jobs that can barely be considered a step up from homelessness in the way that they deplete your vitality. But there are also some really great jobs in these “boring” companies, and designers are doing themselves a disservice by prematurely dismissing these opportunities.
If things go well, there is a lot to like about UX for the enterprise:
Nicer people, better work-life balance
Most people working at enterprise software companies have no illusions about what they’re doing. They don’t think they’re disrupting the world, and they don’t derive their identity from the “cool” company they work at. There’s an unpretentiousness about the people working at these companies that I don’t see in most people I’ve met and worked with in “cool” companies or popular startups.
Being a motivated, kind, high-performing designer at an enterprise company is an underserved niche.
Maybe there’s some additional self-awareness and humility that comes from working through the disappointment of not getting into the “cool” companies. The people working in “unsexy” enterprise software derive satisfaction and meaning in life from things other than the ego gratification of being able to say they work at a well-known brand. Their self-expression finds its outlet outside of work. They play in bands — I’ve never met so many people in bands as I did when I was at Wells Fargo — they travel a lot, they spend more time with their families. That’s another key point: People in enterprise actually have families. You’ll find less expectation to work yourself into the ground at the expense of your loved ones. And in my experience, you’re more likely to be able to work from home and have flexible hours during the day.
They are actually happy to have you there
Because their brand isn’t “cool,” it can be harder for these companies to attract top talent. So if you are top talent, they are really happy to have you there, and they will do more to keep you around, respect your expertise, and listen to what you have to say.
When you interview at a top tech company, there’s often an underlying vibe of “Hmph — prove to us why you should be here in our presence.” That vibe often remains even if you get hired: The climate is such that it feels like every day you have to prove you deserve to be there. When I worked at these companies, I saw very little goodwill and humanity, and couldn’t show any weakness. It gets exhausting. And if you’re further along in your career and have spent years producing cutting-edge work for global brands, it feels disrespectful to be treated like you’ve never designed something before in your life.
Enterprise software covers business sectors that are necessary, but not customer-facing. For example, if you’re building the software that powers most of the globe’s aeronautical navigation or the software that manages most of the data centers in the world, you will be making money hand-over-fist, but you won’t be a household name. These companies don’t get the attention of as many top performers, so they can outbid “cooler” companies on compensation. Most of the cool brands use their “coolness” factor to get away with paying lower salaries.
Your impact can be more visible
Enterprise software is often terrible. If you come in as an expert they trust, you can have a lot more influence over product direction, and the improvements you make will be visible very quickly. If you can really “bring it,” that will be very obvious, and all the interesting projects and other top performers at the company will flock to you.
The point is to not discount an opportunity just because the brand may not be one that people know about.
It’s similar to the basic marketing tenant that you succeed by serving an underserved niche. Being a motivated, kind, high-performing designer at an enterprise company is an underserved niche.
An enterprise might get its act together
Many enterprise companies promise they will place a greater emphasis on design, only to break that promise once they realize the holistic and sustained effort it takes to follow through. Design is a lot like physical fitness: Everyone wants the outcome, no one wants to do the work.
However, some enterprises do turn the corner. Look at the incredible work Microsoft has been doing in augmented reality, Windows 10, and cutting-edge collaboration in Figma. IBM, a 100-year-old behemoth, has made a commitment to design thinking and hired 1,000 designers.
A lesser-known story is happening at NBC right now. I recently had a call with one of the lead designers there, who told me that NBC has made a company-wide shift to designing in Figma, with a comprehensive, top-of-the-line design system and component library. This is after the company had been flailing and struggling to do great design for ten years.
If you join an enterprise that is getting its act together, you have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of exciting changes where you can immediately have a massive impact.
It’s not all great
There are plenty of downsides to enterprise companies. The people outside of your design team often have a massive stick up their butts and no sense of humor. The pace can be slow. It can be frustrating to frequently compromise on what the right thing is. Many enterprise products are a convoluted mess and there is no organizational desire to improve. But those things aren’t exclusive to enterprise. I saw the same things when I was at Google, and at a number of startups I’ve met with.
What to take from this
When I teach new designers, I often ask people where they want to work. Eighty percent of the time they say, “I want to work at Facebook/Apple/Google.”
But when I ask them, “Why do you want to work there?” they stutter and stammer, and they can’t give me a real answer. They don’t know the inner workings of those companies. They just want the ego gratification of being able to say that they worked there.
The point is to not discount working at a company just because the brand may not be one that people know about. The ego boost of seeing the face people make when you tell them you work at a well-known company, the perks you get for working there — all that stuff loses its novelty after about six months.
What matters most is to identify what type of work you want to do and the kinds of people you want to do it with. The company doesn’t matter. If you look at job opportunities through that lens, entirely new doors open.
Originally published in Truth About Design.