When I was an undergrad student in Turkey 10-15 years ago, coming to Silicon Valley seemed like a distant goal. Now it has been about 7 years that I am working in tech and one year that I have been the Valley. The journey proved to be challenging: I got many rejections over the years, including from big names like Amazon and Facebook. But then later I also got multiple offers from big names, like Amazon and Facebook, and Microsoft – which is where I am working right now. In hindsight, it was not as challenging as I once thought. In this series of posts, I want to share what I have learned along the way.
Here is what you will read in the series:
- Landing the first job is tough: Differentiate yourself.
- It takes time to build all the skills needed: Be a marathon runner.
- Interviewing is an imperfect process: Don’t get demotivated.
- The world is moving fast: Always think about what the next steps are.
This post covers the first item in this list. Let’s get started.
Landing the first job is tough
In case you have not realized, it could be daunting to get your first internship/job. Here are only a few examples about what my experience was like:
- When I was an undergrad, I applied a big telecom company in Turkey for an internship. The company gave all the candidates an English test, which I found pretty easy – I was in a top department in the country, whose language of education was English. But then I got rejected, the company citing my “insufficient performance” in the test. I hardly believed that reason. And to this day, I still wonder how I could not get even a phone interview. Moreover, I did not hear back from most of my other applications either.
- When I was doing my Ph.D., I again applied for many internship positions, like dozens and dozens of them. I did not even get a reply from the vast majority of those applications.
- One of the very few phone interviews I secured was with Facebook in 2011, and for a marketing position. The interviewer asked me about what I would propose to add to the Facebook platform if I had the resources. I proposed implementing a marketplace. The interviewer did not like the idea. Facebook introduced the Marketplace in 2016.
- When I was about to graduate, I got only two interviews, among my many applications. The one I could not pass was partially due to my lack of SQL knowledge. As a Ph.D. candidate, I had not really thought that it could be a problem.
In later parts of those years, I was married, in an expensive city like Boston, with a single income that was my graduate school stipend (as some of you may know, F2 dependent visa holders, which my wife was, are not allowed to work or study in a degree program). I was striving to land a good job, and the process was far from being fun.
As I had lost a great deal of self-confidence, I was wondering why it had to be so difficult. I understood the reason when I had finally switched to the other side of the fence with my first job, while trying to hire an intern for our team in. After sending the job description to 3-4 college programs, we got 200+ resumes in a week. I remember really struggling with how to come up with a shortlist of candidates for phone interviews; because most resumes looked alike. And, this makes a segue into our topic today: The importance of differentiating yourself.
Put yourself into the interviewer’s shoes: How can that person tell that you deserve the position more than others? Compare your resume to your peers’. What are the differences? I often see students listing the courses they took in school – and that is fine. But how is your list different than your classmates’? Often times, it is not…
So, it comes down to differentiating your portfolio, so it stands out in a pile of applications. Here is what I think you should do.
Get into a good (grad)school/program
This advice is more for people who are earlier in their careers. And I hear them saying “Yeah, sure… Really, was this the advice you wanted to give?” But I need to emphasize how important this is.
I really want to say “your degree does not matter.” I really do. But it does… I have seen numerous times how people’s resumes got overlooked because they are from one of the lesser-known schools/programs. It is a sad reality. And sometimes it is not intentional, but due to the biases most of us have. Don’t set yourself to be in such a spot, whenever you can.
I want to make sure what I am saying is clear: I am not saying that people who are not Ivy League are less capable. They are not, more often than not. Because another sad reality is that not all of us have had the same opportunities to get the support and resources needed to get into such programs. And I have seen many people who are college dropouts, extremely smart and working in big tech companies in high positions. But still, they are exceptions, not the norm. All I am saying is that don’t think your school name does not matter – do your best to get a good diploma. (If you are a genius like Steve Jobs, you probably don’t need my advice anyway.)
And a final note on this: I had students who thought their GPA is not important. Well, it is. Guess what was the first filter we applied to the pile of resumes we received for the internship position I mentioned. How are you planning to get ahead of someone with a 3.5 GPA if yours is 2.5 anyway? If you have a good plan, that’s fine. What I saw, though, oftentimes, people don’t have one.
And again, I had many students who had to work part-time out of financial need. This inevitably impacts the time one could spend on their classes. All I am saying is do your best in your situation.
Go the extra mile with additional projects/experience
Have you successfully completed your internship? Have you successfully submitted your course/bootcamp project? Congratulations. So did your peers. And chances are you all talk about the same things on your resume/in your interviews. I am not saying that you will not find a job – a solid school/bootcamp work could very well get you to your destination. But then you are in this big pool of candidates competing for the same positions. You will probably get a job, but it is likely to take longer than it could have if you had gone the extra mile.
In short, differentiate yourself. Here are some ways of doing so for tech jobs:
- Contribute to open-source. This is often a fantastic indicator that the candidate is willing to go the extra mile, and can do teamwork in a large project. Find a decent-size open-source project for this (well, not Linux or Python codebases, but something bigger than a toy project).
- Try to do an extra internship. You don’t have to be very picky about what the company/organization or the pay is. The most valuable currency for you is experience.
- Take additional (online) classes. Wouldn’t it be nice to talk about the “project management” course (or something you like) you took as a computer science student? That knowledge you have acquired will definitely come handy, and your interviewer knows it.
- Participate in competitions, such as Kaggle-like online competitions or the ones organized by companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, IBM, etc. For me, the math competition that I got an award in during my high school played a role in getting acceptance from my Ph.D. program.
- Have a side gig. I have had a ton of side projects that did not end up anywhere. But the experience I gained was almost never a wasted effort. I talked about them countless times in my interviews, sometimes even more than a decade after I did the project.
- Take on additional projects at work. If you are a working professional, going above and beyond what you are already tasked is a great way of learning, making connections with other teams, and achieving many great successes.
This is a list that I can think of right now, but you get the idea.
Get feedback on your resume
So you have done a great deal of job to build a shining portfolio. Unfortunately, if it does not come across on your resume, it diminishes all the hard work you put in. I have seen people with amazing backgrounds could not get interviews because the message on their resume was not clear in terms of what their strengths and goals are.
So, it is important to collect feedback on your resume from people who have experience in your field.
Use your connections
Not that I assume you know people in high places, nor do I. But you might actually have more connections that you might be thinking. People who are alumni of your school/bootcamp, who are from the same small town of yours, or who attend the same congregation are usually great potential contacts. Look for opportunities to get in touch with them. This is usually much more effective than randomly pinging people on LinkedIn.
And this is for a good reason. When an HR person/hiring manager from a different background looks at your resume, they may not be able to immediately tell how high quality your bootcamp program was. But an alumnus of your program can pose a good example / be a good messenger to them. Leverage those connections whenever you can.
The first step in landing a good job is to get an interview. When you are at the beginning of your career, this could be difficult. So, it is important to build a portfolio that stands out among those of the other candidates. I hope this post gives you an idea about what to do.
In my next post, I will discuss why it takes to run a marathon to build the skills you need for a good job. Follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter, and subscribe to my email list using the box on the sidebar to get notified about future posts.
(Featured image source: The NY Post)