Focussing On The Big Four

Many communities of young software engineers focus on several of the largest software houses in the world - why?

One of the subreddits I frequent is CSCareerQuestions. I rarely participate there, but it’s definitely THE sub that I pay the most attention to - and the reason is obvious, as a CS undergraduate I want to learn as much about the software engineering field as possible so that I’m best prepared when it comes around to decision time (choosing where to apply, how to act in interviews, and evaluating offers all have big impacts).

One of the topics in CSCareerQuestions most often discussed is the matter of the “Big 4”. The original Big 4 (from seeing many people talk about them) seems to consists of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. When people refer to the Big 4 now they mostly seem to mean more around 5 - 8, or even a dozen different companies including Apple, and Twitter. The exact choice of companies seems very personal to people, but generally always includes Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

A term I’ve seen used the past week or so is “Big N” which seems much more fitting to me. When people refer to the Big 4, they don’t necessarily mean to talk about the exact individual companies, but merely the general idea of “extremely large internet-based software houses”. This is a rapidly increasing category, with several “start-ups” growing to employ thousands of software engineers in cities across the world. Thus the Big 4 is a piece of aging terminology, with Big N being a suitable substitute for the short-term.

You don’t have to look far for evidence of the discussions. A search on CSCareerQuestions will reveal thousands of separate discussions spanning years. In fact, I predict that the Big N (more likely the Big 4) are mentioned at least once in one of the threads on the current front-page of CSCareerQuestions.

So why do people talk so incessantly about the Big N? Obviously working for one of these companies is highly desirable. Disregarding some experiences of long hours, and seemingly meaningless work - the companies provide some of the most rewarding pay-packages (base rate, company stock, benefits, and promotion opportunity), as well as opportunities at other less well-known but perhaps more competitive companies simply by having a big name on your CV (or resume, if you prefer).

The Big N also give a common talking point for young engineers, a common goal to strive for. These companies hire so many engineers that there are thousands of stories and experiences on the internet of interviews, and experiences from interns and full-time hires. It provides a framework of knowledge that become standard to know to achieve a “good” software engineering job. Some of this standard knowledge is even provided by the company, for example Google provides a list of things to know that they look for.

Talking about the Big N somewhat reduces the number of purely anecdotal evidence of people applying to smaller companies. Companies that are unlikely to have other people on the subreddit applying to, and therefore cannot back up or refute any points put forward. Therefore I believe talking about the Big N is beneficial, as long as we all realise that reading about “how to get a job at a Big N” applies to far more companies than just this dozen or so. The knowledge is beneficial to all applicants of all companies. After all, isn’t it better to over-prepare than to under-prepare?

I have another post planned about my experiences when applying for an internship at an Amazon Development Centre, and what I believe helped secure me an offer there - again, not to purely help guide people hoping to apply to the same place, but to the help people applying anywhere.

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