Working for SMEs and start-ups in IT

29 Apr 2014

Are you an IT professional considering working for SMEs or start-ups? IT recruitment specialist Chris Redmond outlines the factors you need to consider to ensure you are suited to the jobs.

It is relatively easy to discover what it’s like to work for the global blue chip companies. The huge HR departments and PR machine they provide make it easy to find out the company culture and the IT jobs on offer. Whether you’re considering working for one of the big tech companies, such as IBM, Microsoft or Google, or a corporate with a big IT department, such as AIG, Citi or Kerry Group, you can obtain a good idea of what it’s like to work there.

But what if you’re an IT professional considering working for SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises)? Are there many differences to working for a large corporate? Do you need a different skill set? What are the benefits and challenges?

According to recent research, the IT industry is the fastest-growing industry in Ireland at the moment, representing five out of the top 10 multinational employers in Ireland.

However, SMEs have also made a considerable contribution to Ireland’s GDP. The Technology Outlook Report released in March 2014, published by AIB and conducted by Amárach Research, says that “as well as having a strong multinational presence in Ireland, there is a scaling indigenous technology sector worth €2bn in annual sales. This sector alone employs 30,000 people accompanied by a buoyant emerging technology start-up ecosystem that has evolved across the country.”

The established SME

When we talk about SMEs in relation to IT, it’s useful to distinguish between a typical SME, which has between 1-250 employees and a start-up which employs 1-20 people. While a start-up is in effect a small company, the dynamics are different to an established company, whose corporate strategy is not aggressive growth.

To be employed by a typical SME as an IT professional, you need to be prepared to work on a broad range of projects and carry out a wide variety of tasks. Of course the bigger the company, the more specialised your role will be. However, it’s not uncommon for an IT employee in an SME to provide tech support for the whole IT infrastructure, including all of the systems, networks, hardware and software.

You could be the proverbial ‘jack of all trades’. And in some cases your job description may even stretch beyond IT duties, however, there is a danger you’ll get over-stretched.

So if you’re interested in specialisation, this may not be for you. That said, if you like a lot of variety in your job, a feeling of autonomy and being the expert, then you will get a lot of job satisfaction working for an SME. Of course this does mean you have to be self-motivated and very adaptable. In return, you’ll learn a broad range of skills and gain exposure to a lot of elements of the IT function. There will be less structured training, so you may have to keep yourself abreast with developments. But if you had plans to set up your own company at some stage, this would provide a sound foundation.

The flip side of that is if you were a software architect or tester, wanting to focus on particular languages, or wanting to pursue a career in business analysis or project management, the opportunities can be more limited with SMEs. Then there’s the topic of job security, a well-established medium-sized enterprise could provide a very steady job, whereas somewhere smaller and more volatile could be precarious.

The start-up

When we talk about start-ups, we’re generally focusing on the tech industry where a scalable company in a short space of time is the main objective. The company culture here might be more dynamic. There will be more opportunity to specialise and grow within that field, such as development of the software/middleware/hardware. However, unlike the larger corporations, there might be more entrepreneurial skills required. You will need to believe in the product or service and be passionate about it.

You might be required to be customer facing, delivering presentations and getting involved in pitches, or helping with the hiring by reviewing CVs and interviewing candidates. Maybe you’ll even get involved in the financial side of things. You’ll feel more part of the bigger team, and receive job satisfaction from helping the company to grow.

Do note that working for a start-up is unlikely be a typical nine-to-five job. There could be many late nights, with take-away pizzas and weekends without the sports team or the family. You need to be able to thrive in this environment, to love the constant pressure and have the energy and capability to constantly deliver to a very high level. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

From a job security perspective, there’s a chance you could work for a firm with a great product or service, that finds the funding required to grow and you end up with a very satisfactory salary, with benefits thrown in. However, you might also start on a low salary, with no benefits, and the company might never get off the ground. But if you love the buzz, you’ll probably keep looking for that company that’s going to be the next Google.

The challenge for SMEs is competing with the blue chips, big nationals, public sector and semi-sector. Not only is there the attraction of job security, good wages, benefits, structured training and development to compete against, SMEs are also competing against the attraction of big brands.

In my job it’s much easier to convince overseas talent to come to Ireland to work for the big multinationals for the reasons above, but there are certain character traits required to work in SMEs and again a different personality required for tech start-ups. And they can be hard to bring in from overseas when the skill set isn’t available locally. I’ve observed that some migrate from the large firms as they want a bigger challenge or less bureaucracy.

So if you’re interested in working for a typical SME you’ll find their IT jobs advertised on their own website, LinkedIn, job boards or through a recruitment consultancy, such as Hays. The start-ups are a little harder to find, their recruitment budgets would be much smaller so keep your eye on the news – sources such as are always promoting local tech businesses that do well. Then see if you can find a contact for a business that interests you on its website or on LinkedIn or get in touch with Enterprise Ireland. If you have the drive and ambition to find a job with a start-up, you’re already well on your way to being a success there.

Chris Redmond

Chris Redmond is an expert recruiter with Hays IT, specialising in IT infrastructure, and working with large nationals, multinationals and SMEs in the Leinster area.

IT workers image via Shutterstock

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