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Aerospace: Large vs. Small Companies

  1. Mar 11, 2014 #1
    I am a mechanical engineering student that plans to work in the aerospace industry. My question is: in terms of how rewarding your job is, is a small company or a large company more satisfying for an engineer?

    I would imagine that in some of the large companies, the tasks are divided up so much that an engineer could be stuck doing less-diverse work while at a small company, an engineer would be dealt a larger "piece of the pie" for a given project.

    Any thoughts or advice?
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  3. Mar 11, 2014 #2


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    I am a young engineer at a large aerospace company. This is my first job out of college, so i only have my internships as a reference.

    I have found that the tasks get broken up a lot, and everyone gets some responsibility. One persons job might be writting a test for the software on the box. another person designs a hardware test. 3 people split the design of the box. 2 people do the high level systems paperwork and customer interface. two more people split the software. etc...

    i'm in a leadership program (not a management program, its really just a program to train new "high potential" engineers). I get to rotate my position every year. I have found this experience at a big company to be VERY beneficial, as there is a lot that they bring to the table. I have a ton of different roles i can fill, and there is never a shortage of work. that being said, while i am in one rotation, it is a lot of similar work. right now all i do is firmware but i get to do the entire firmware process (requirement definition, design, debug, final test). other people end up doing olny one thing.

    large companies have both large and small projects (at least mine does). the smaller the project, the more you personally get to do.
  4. Mar 11, 2014 #3


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    that being said, i will HIGHLY recommend that you try to get into a rotational program unless you get a job doing 100% what you want to do.
  5. Mar 11, 2014 #4


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    Large companies tend to work on large projects (i.e. thousands of engineers and a few years duration) and those projects are obviously "divided up" to make them manageable.

    On the other hand, the advantage of a large company is that you have the chance to move jobs internally, without the hassle of relocating, new health insurance / pension plans, etc, etc. In fact you will probably be doing that every 2 or 3 years if your career is progressing. In any case, you will move from working on one big project to another, as each one starts up and ends.

    In a small company the career risks and rewards can both be higher. Small companies can close down, or get taken over. If a small company ends up being effectively a subcontractor to just one large company, it doesn't really have much control over its own future in the long term.

    The "best" choice is person-dependent.
  6. Mar 11, 2014 #5

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    Regarding your second question, yes, tasks are more rigorously defined in larger companies. You don't get a very big piece of the pie. On the other hand, the pie can be very small in small companies. You might have a big piece of the pie, but the pie can be very small. And it might just vanish.

    Regarding your first question, small versus large isn't quite descriptive enough for companies that range from a handful of employees to over a hundred thousand. From my experience, there are huge differences between tiny vs small vs medium vs large vs Borg-like.

    Working for a tiny aerospace company (<~25 employees) is potentially immensely rewarding, but is immensely fraught with risk. Working for a tiny company is a roller coaster ride. That tiny company has the potential to grow from tiny to small to medium to large in short order. Witness SpaceX. It is now a largish company with 3800 employees. It made that progression from tiny to small to medium to large in a bit over a decade, and the young employees who started with it and stuck with are now are still youngish (30s rather than 20s) and are now livin' the dream. The downside: The odds that the 20 person company you interview with today will be the next SpaceX are vanishingly small. Much more likely is that it will be a zero, one, or two person company within the next year or so -- and you won't be the one or two that survive.

    I've worked for two tiny aerospace companies, 35 years ago and 10 years ago. The first roller coaster ride sent me all over the world, but the ride only lasted a couple of years. That company ceased to exist shortly after I left it, two months short on my salary. The second roller coaster ride: That lasted less than six months. We're no longer a tiny company, and we haven't been for 9.5 years.

    Small companies, companies with 25 to 100 employees, can shrink to tiny, grow to medium/large, or stay in that "small company" range for a long time. The company's stability and growth depends a lot on who's at the top. When you interview with a small company you will interview with one of the top people. Your job in the interview is to assess the quality of that top person. Do you want to work for them?

    There's a company dynamic that changes at around 100 employees. Less than that, the owner knows everyone by name. More than that, that's not possible. That the president/CEO knows you by name and that you can talk directly to upper management without retribution can make a big difference. That's why I made the break at "small" as less than 100 rather than the Small Business Administration breakpoint of 500.

    Medium companies, companies with 100 to 1000 employees, are where bureaucracy starts to creep in. It's inevitable. The problem is that they might not be very good at it. Medium sized companies tend to fluctuate from medium to small, back to medium, then up to borderline large, then back to medium. I've worked for two medium sized companies. Neither one exists now.

    Large companies, companies with 1000 to 100,000 employees, are where most aerospace engineers end up working. I've worked for one large company, for eleven years. There inevitably is a well-entrenched bureaucracy in such companies. There are two ladders up which you can climb, the management ladder and the technical ladder. If you don't climb one or the other you're toast. That job ended when a fool with a PhD (who was also a VP) told the NASA center director where I work how incredibly stupid NASA was. That NASA center director was notoriously vindictive. Job gone.

    The Borg-like companies, companies with over 100,000 employees, are large companies on steroids. I personally do not want to be brought into the collective.
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