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Answer by Mira Zaslove, Fortune 500 manager:
I began my career on Wall Street and subsequently have worked for more than a decade in Silicon Valley startups.
There are three main similarities: You work with smart and engaged people, there are large potential payoffs, and the work is interesting and “sexy.”
The differences are in the types of smart and engaged people:
Work hours and perception
On Wall Street people love to brag about how hard they work. People exaggerate the number of hours they work, and it's considered a badge of honor to pull all-nighters and work throughout the weekend. Face time is critical, and generally people do not leave until they are told they can. Managers expect their team to show up before they do and to leave after they do. It's OK to go to the gym in the middle of the day, and “hours” are more flexible than many people on Wall Street make them out to be, but nevertheless hours spent at the office (working or not) are long.
In Silicon Valley people may work these same types of hours (often even longer), but instead they like to brag about how quickly they came up with the solution or about the shortcut they found. Nobody likes to be seen as working throughout the weekend but rather wants to be seen as someone who takes advantage of his or her time off. Being in the office is not nearly as critical as getting work done. Managers are unlikely to care where you got your job done or what time you come and go; they care more about the work you deliver.
Credentials and perception
On Wall Street nearly everyone asks what college you went to. You will know who went to Harvard, Stanford, etc. Many people have MBAs, and this information is likely to come first on even the most senior employee's resume. People on Wall Street generally dress well, and you can tell where someone is in the organization by the clothes that they wear and they way they look. Executives and managing directors carry leather briefcases and wear well-tailored suits, Rolex watches, and Ferragamo shoes. People generally drive fancy cars and live in nice apartments.
In Silicon Valley people rarely talk about what college they went to or make it a point to ask others. Education is unlikely to be the first thing mentioned on a résumé or in a job interview. People at top-tier startups generally have similar alma maters as those on Wall Street, but there are fewer MBAs in Silicon Valley than Wall Street. Executives and directors wear jeans, sweatshirts, hoodies, Apple watches, and sneakers. It is often hard to tell the executives from the interns at first glance. People often take Ubers, and few people live in fancy apartments.
The large potential payoffs
Money on Wall Street is generally made on the annual bonus. For people making the big bucks, bonuses are often more like commissions and tied to some clear-cut money-making activity such as trading or investment banking revenue. Big bonuses one year do not always mean big bonuses another year, and there is a lot of focus on making fast cash rather than on the longer-term viability of the company.
Payoffs in Silicon Valley generally take more time. It is rare to “score big” in one year. It can happen, but most startups don't pay large bonuses; rather, employees get stock options, RSUs, and the like. Stock packages are necessarily tied to a concrete activity. Employees are going to make money if the company succeeds. So a massive underperformer who got into Facebook at the right time is going to make a lot more money than a rock-star performer who worked for VebVan. This is generally not the case on Wall Street. If you are a good trader or investment banker who brings in revenue, you will make money even if the company is going under.
The interesting and sexy work
Work on Wall Street is generally more defined than it is in Silicon Valley. I had a job trading commercial paper, and that is all I did. It was easy for me to know exactly what I was going to do on a given day. It was rare for me to do anything other than what I was hired for. Trading is exciting, and the adrenaline certainly pumps when you win and lose money (and I did plenty of both). However, there are a lot of established rules and regulations, and working on Wall Street is a more certain path. Clients pay for experience and expect a certain level of service. It is hard to move up quickly without “paying your dues.” People generally don't like change, and it isn't considered helpful to suggest new ways of doing things.
Working at a startup, I did something new almost every week. I wore a lot of hats and was expected to do whatever I could to help the cause. It is easier to move up fast, and promotions are more a result of performance than anything else. Work can change quickly as companies pivot, and you are unlikely to be doing what you were hired for at a startup even six months later. You are expected to think of new ways of doing things, and established rules and “ways of doing things” aren't really taken seriously.
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