Could you go far in a small firm?

They may not offer the benefits and structured career path of big corporates, but small companies still have plenty to offer...

They may not offer the benefits and structured career path of big corporates, but small companies still have plenty to offer those looking for a rewarding IT role. Nathalie Towner reports

To be honest, I had doubts when I first joined. I really didn't see myself in a small company," says Alex Roberts, IT consultant in a software development firm of five employees.

When Roberts graduated from university he envisaged embarking on his IT career with a big player that could provide structured career progression, but things have turned out differently. He still aspires to a role in a big company, but Roberts has been forced to rethink his initial reaction to SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) after 18 months in the job.

"I think it has been a brilliant first job in IT, it has given me a real taste of what I do and don't like," he says. "I have had a lot of exposure because I have been involved in everything, although on the downside you also get involved in jobs you don't want to do."

SMEs have never had the same pull as large corporations when it comes to recruiting IT professionals. In fact, many are still having problems recruiting the appropriate IT staff despite the downturn in the jobs market, according to research compiled for Computer Weekly by E-Skills UK.

"SMEs have problems recruiting because they do not have a brand, it looks good to say you have worked for someone like IBM," says Terry Watts, chief operating officer at E-Skills UK. "There is a shortage of IT professionals in the SME sector. Positions are proving hard to fill, with SMEs registering a 50% shortage of IT professionals compared to just 35% in large companies."

Small firms tend to have very different expectations of their employees compared to large corporations, and not all ITers fit the bill. SMEs are more likely to need generalists who are prepared to try their hand at a broad range of tasks.

Adam Pickering has worked for both large and small firms and is currently network manager in a company which employs 300 people. "I actually prefer to do a general job and have a wider variety of tasks," he says. "You definitely get more responsibility by being in a small company. If you are somewhere bigger you are more likely to get pigeon-holed into a specialism."

Some IT professionals are put off working for SMEs because they want to focus on a specific area of IT and build their career from there. However, the SME environment could help you decide which area you want to specialise in.

"I definitely see myself as a jack of all trades and working here has helped me learn what aspect of IT I enjoy best," says Pickering. "I now know that I really enjoy Linux and Unix."

Working for an SME can be an excellent grounding for ITers in the early stages of their career. "Younger candidates can really appreciate not being on a production-line training scheme and really being in at the deep end, whereas a seasoned hand from a big company may not find it such an attractive prospect," says David Bishop, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses.

If an ITer has been a specialist in one field for several years it can be tough switching to an SME, where you have a far broader range of responsibilities. However, this should not put off anyone considering the move, says Watts.

"IT is not all about product knowledge," he explains. "An ASP programmer will believe this is all he can do, and this is true to an extent, but he has the competency and will find it easier to pick up other skills."

The ability to don several hats is key to success in an SME, and you are almost guaranteed to gain skills that will not become devalued over time. "In a big company you are far more cosseted, you can depend on someone else to make up for the skills you lack, in an SME you are front- and back-line support," says Watts.

ITers can also be put off SMEs by the perceived lack of training. The IT staff in small businesses are often self-taught in key areas of their roles and few firms employing less than 50 people have an allocated training budget.

According to E-Skills UK's quarterly review of the IT labour market, the percentage of the workforce receiving education or training increases significantly with the size of the employer, rising to a peak of 22% for IT staff in firms with 500 or more employees. In comparison, the British Chambers of Commerce found that 40% of small firms have provided no IT training for their employees in the past two years.

"There is no doubt that small firms struggle to compete with the benefits packages offered by the big companies," says Bishop. "But, in their favour, they take the lead on the level of responsibility and variety they can offer the IT professional. You will often find that SMEs are attractive to IT professionals as they appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit and the challenges this offers."

However, it is not impossible to find an SME that provides a high-level of training. Technical operations specialist William Rendle works in a company of 50 employees and has had all his MCSE (Microsoft certified systems engineer) courses and exams paid for. "We are backed by some huge players, so money can be found as and when necessary, and as it has been decided that I will be the Microsoft expert for the company it will obviously cost," he says.

Assuming you have the skills, your personality may ultimately determine whether you are a corporate or an SME person. According to Bishop, small firms often recruit more on the basis of personality and attitude. A Small Business Federation survey found that 63% of small business owners cites attitude and character as very important attributes when taking on new staff, with only 3% valuing a university degree as highly.

"Can-do types, positive people, are the sort who will flourish in an SME environment," says Watts. "It looks good on your CV to have worked in an SME because it shows you have been at the coal face, that you know how to work in a team and ultimately that you have a strong understanding that IT is a tool for business."

Although SMEs tend to advertise positions in the local paper and trade press, Watts recommends networking because a lot of positions are never advertised. The companies want personal recommendations because they cannot afford to make a mistake.

SMEs cannot always compete with the salary and training packages of the large organisations but they can offer an environment full of challenges, with many of them being innovators in their field. And with E-Skills UK predicting that a higher percentage of small firms will show employment growth than large corporates in the next quarter, they should not be overlooked by IT job hunters.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)