I’ve interviewed well over 100+ (maybe 200+) job candidates over the past several years, for marketing, sales, engineering, and design roles at my startup, and wanted to share some general principles and advice for younger professionals and first-time job seekers with limited experience looking to “break into tech” and land their dream gig.
I definitely see a broad range in overall candidate “preparedness” for today’s technology workforce; some students and early-career professionals have done a lot of relevant coursework, independent learning and career-path thinking (always a positive), while others may show high levels of intellectual firepower, motivation and potential but often don’t have a great deal of career maturity, perspective or work experience.
As a result I thought I’d put together a list of observations and recommendations that might help anyone interested in a job at a tech startup bolster their resume and be better prepared to land (and ace) that first interview. Although I’ve interviewed developers in the past, in my current role I’m mostly interviewing non-technical (or “soft technical”) business roles. Because I think the developer interview track is somewhat different (and also needs to move a lot faster given the industry-wide talent shortage for great engineers; for example, I’ve heard Facebook’s hiring strategy includes same-day offers if they really like a candidate, which in the conventional HR world is almost unheard of), I’m going to focus this essay on suggestions for early-career, non-technical job applicants looking to work at a startup.
If you’re applying for a job or internship at a tech startup in 2017 or heading into 2018, here are the biggest gaps, traps and potential pitfalls that can really hurt your application and prevent you from getting hired.
1. You don’t have a blog
Unless you can sell ice sculptures to Arctic explorers or have functional proficiency in a modern web framework like Rails or React, the startup you’re applying to will care a lot about how you communicate. Verbal communication is relatively straightforward to judge in an interview, and might even be considered the foundational test of an in-person interview. By comparison, it’s hard to interview for writing (or editing, synthesis and comprehension). However, in every job role, writing is vitally important. In fact, so much of business communication still centers around writing (emails, blog posts, Slacks, social posts, proposals and RFP responses, etc.), that baseline business writing abilities are a core pre-requisite for any aspiring job candidate. If you can’t deliver quality writing samples that demonstrate you have them, you’re not going to get hired.
However, with startups, I think the importance of writing for non-technical team members is even more pressing. In fact, I really want to see your blog. As a non-technical job candidate for most roles, your blog is your Github, your portfolio. Why is that?
Successful modern brands build audiences. Historically, brands didn’t need to build their own audiences; media vehicles like newspapers and TV provided them a simple set of channels where they could acquire captive impressions at scale. But the last decade in media has profoundly changed that: channels being increasingly fragmented by social and mobile, a fact that’s forcing brands to become audience builders across ecosystems like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google. Social advertising? Goal: audience building and customer acquisition. Growth hacking? Goal: audience building and customer acquisition. We’ve arrived in the era of brands as broadcasters, content developers, and message-owners and we’re not going back.
So what does that little aside have to do with your job prospects and your personal Squarespace? At a basic level, startups really need people who can help them build audiences and acquire customers, and — apart from being a platform to demonstrate writing professionalism — a blog is probably the single best way to show the world how you think about audience building. Overall, good blogs tend to have the same four characteristics:
- Brand: They develop a unique, consistent voice and perspective (Brand)
- Content: They understand who their audience is and tailor their content toward that audience (Content)
- Distribution: They employ strategies to expand their existing audience, like social sharing widgets on posts, building email lists, etc.
- Conversation: They build communities and start conversations around a common vocabulary and set of ideas.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m far from the best blogger — I often go silent for periods because I can’t find the time to write, and I don’t really market my blog as aggressively as I could — but I nonetheless orient my work here around a brand, a content strategy, a distribution strategy and an effort to start conversations. I want to see the foundation for that in job candidates too. You don’t need to write like Chaucer, you don’t need to have thousands of email subscribers like Neil Patel or Noah Kagan, and you definitely don’t need to be considered a “thought leader” on any particular topic, but I really want to see that you have a personal brand, you’re thoughtful about who your audience is and what kind of content they want to consume, you’ve thought about distribution (even if it’s simply to Facebook and/or Twitter) and you’re excited about starting conversations. To me, taking the initiative to plan and execute a thoughtful blog says more about you than even an email pitch or a good cover letter.
My colleague Gabe Brosby recently wrote an excellent essay called “Brand You: The Rise of the User Marketer,” where he notes:
“Users aren’t going to consistently declare themselves as a “brand” or business owner, but the side hustle is evolving from anathema to an almost standard practice… Platforms are moving away from likes and followers as your standard of reach. Think about who you’d really like to reach and why.”
I agree, and I don’t even really think it’s a hustle; I think it’s about finding a passion or a sense of purpose, communicating it, and building an audience around it. Thoughtful blogging demonstrates to employers you get this, and it’s a welcome quality to have for startups who are looking to build audiences (user, social, event, etc.) with limited time and resources.
2. You aren’t attentive to detail
Everyone makes mistakes. Heck, there are probably typos and inconsistencies in this blog post. BUT, as a job candidate, first impressions are critical and you have a very narrow margin for mistakes. Have you researched the company culture from looking at its website, blog, social handles, etc.? Do you know what the dress code is like when you show up for your interview? Is your resume a flawless, typo-free doc written in Proxima Nova font? Every little bit counts.
For example, I recently interviewed a candidate who was definitely qualified for the role — had good work experience, solid track record, etc. Then that same interviewee sent me a two sentence follow up “thank you” email with some really egregious typos. Sorry, it might be unfair, but to me that’s a clear no-hire.
Again, nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes. But at a startup that’s short on time and resources, you have to earn the right to be forgiven for them, and you’re doing yourself a disservice to dig yourself into that hole the first time you walk through the door trying to get hired.
3. You weren’t referred by someone the startup already knows and trusts
This is far from mandatory, but you will always significantly improve your prospects for getting hired if you can get a referral or recommendation from an existing employee, investor, advisor or partner. Having a trusted advocate say “[Your name] did a great job at [previous role] and has [these exceptional qualities]” goes a long way towards diffusing skepticism that you don’t deserve an interview or might not be cut out for the role. In fact, studies suggest you are ten times more likely to get hired at the startup of your dreams if you can get a warm referral.
4. Your body language doesn’t communicate good energy and positivity
Get enough sleep the night before you interview, spend the extra $2 for that extra-venti mega-espresso before you walk in the door — whatever you need to do just don’t come in flat and uninspired in an interview. Being likable (somebody the team is going to enjoy working with), coming off as an energetic self-starter who can take assignments and run with them — these qualities are so important because most startups (and hiring managers) don’t have the time and resources to properly train you.
At startups, we all really need teammates who we can give something to and say “Cool, I know [your name] is on it, I don’t have to worry about [whatever task] so I can go focus on my own massive to-do list.” Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of GE, called it “Four E’s and a P” – Energy (positive energy), Energize (the ability to energize teammates), Edge (the courage to make tough decisions), Execution (the ability to get stuff done) and Passion (heartfelt excitement about your work). That sounds about right to me, so sell a startup employer on those qualities when you come interview.
Remember, when someone is interacting with you or listening to you, what they’re hearing and taking in is only 35% verbal. 65% of someones assessment of you (particularly when it’s a first impression) is non-verbal: facial expression, tone of voice, posture, eye contact and other body language.
5. You don’t have a vision for your own personal growth
Every time I interview someone I ask them some equivalent of this question:
“Say we all do an incredible job growing this business, and in two or three years we’re the next AirBnB or Warby Parker. Where do you see your role at that point and what do you want to be doing?”
What I’m listening for are a couple different things:
- You’ve thought about upward mobility: no matter what level in the company you’re starting at you want to learn and grow professionally
- You’ve thought about the type of work that makes you happy and fulfilled
- How you quantify or qualify personal success
The better you’re able to answer this type of question, the more confident I’m likely to be that you can grow in your current role to be able to take on more responsibility, learn new things, get promoted, and hire, train and manage people yourself. It’s also a plus — but not a pre-requisite — if you can reference things that show you’re committed to professional growth. Did you recently take a class at General Assembly or Startup Institute? or on Coursera, Treehouse or CodeAcademy? Awesome, tell me about it. Startups need to grow, and startups grow by hiring people who scale with them.
The Art and Science of Startup Hiring
In my view, displaying the five shortcomings above are the most likely things that will kill your chances at landing a non-technical job at a startup. By comparison, coming in and demonstrating right off the bat that you can write, you understand audience-building, you’re detail-oriented, you’re energetic, you have a vision for your own personal growth and — ideally — you come recommended, sets you up really well to land the startup job so you’re so excited about. At the end of the day, interviewing (on both sides of the equation) is both an art and a science, but there are definitely pillars and frameworks both employers and prospective employees can use to set themselves up for success.
If you’re currently in the job market, I’d like to hear your feedback on this. If you’re hiring, I’d be interested in hearing how this does or doesn’t ring true, and some of your own strategies and frameworks for evaluating new hires.