One week after I got canned, my inbox flooded with companies seeking to meet me. The impetus was a two sentence email written by my friend John:
“My very close friend Alex just entered the job market. He’s a savage- if we needed to bring on a marketing hire right now, there’s no question he’d be it.”
Savage is right. In six weeks, I had 72 interviews—as many as 7 a day—with 33 companies. The list included 22 Y Combinator graduates and some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. They all shared one thing in common: one year ago, my résumé would have been buried in their queue and forgotten.
It was unbelievable. I started job searching 10 days before Christmas. Most employers were sipping eggnog and planning their holiday parties, not recruiting. But if finding a job is a battle, I stormed JobLand like Attila the Hun.
When the dust settled, three companies offered me jobs, all for incredible positions with a pay raise. Between the hundreds of email chains, phone calls, and coffee meetings, I discovered patterns and tested theories, iterating on blunders and capitalizing on triumphs. And after reading dozens of job searching articles, I concluded that most are useless at best (“show up 15 minutes early!”) or harmful at worst (“gotta take what you can get!”).
I’m now three weeks into my new job. I’d like to share everything I learned from fired to hired.
The 5 Steps
Step Zero: What do you want to do?
Step One: The basics (résumé, cover letter, LinkedIn, Google)
Step Two: Getting the interview
Step Three: The interview
Step Four: After the interview
[Disclaimer: The following is based on my observation, and is thus inherently biased towards 18-35 year-olds (with a slight slant towards tech/startups/SF). If you have kids, a mortgage, or 15-years experience, your priorities and roadmap might differ from mine.]
STEP ZERO: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
In six weeks, I got so much damn advice that I could put Dear Abby out of print. The most valuable: work on interesting things with interesting people; value learning above all else. Forget the brand name. Forget the title. Forget the paycheck. Learn. Simple as that.
Because of that, 90% of your job search boils down to two questions: What do you want to learn? Who do you want to learn it from? You can ask other questions to get to 100% (i.e. how big is the team? where is the company? what’s the culture like?), but those two initial questions form the bedrock.
In my case, I wanted to continue learning growth hacking, and wanted to study under a veteran VP of Marketing. I also wanted to learn about an industry aligned with one of my passions (books, music, travel, education).
No skipping this step. Otherwise, it’s like hacking through a jungle with a fork and a horoscope.
STEP ONE: THE BASICS
Oriented? Good. Now it’s time to get the books in order. It pains me to admit this, but résumés and cover letters are still relevant. LinkedIn profiles and Google results too. None of these things will win you jobs, but they can lose you interviews.
This step is all about mitigating risk. Here’s how to avoid looking like a dumbass.
There’s all kinds of mundane shit I could say about résumés, so here’s something practical: don’t format your résumé like an idiot. Can you use bolded fonts, bullet points, and consistent margins? Do you know the difference between one page and two? Does your Word processor have spell check? Yes, yes, and yes? Congratulations, you passed the idiot test.
The big secret: employers don’t actually read résumés. At least not fully. They’ll glance at the company names, skim a few bullet points, and search for a couple key phrases. They want to quickly decide: is meeting this person worth 30 minutes of my time? The most efficient way to determine otherwise is if the candidate’s résumé resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. I’ve hired for a dozen jobs, and it’s unimaginable how many ostensibly smart people chose to take a shit on their keyboard rather than hit Tab a couple of times.
There are other considerations of course—focus on specific projects, use metrics whenever possible, put the most relevant/impressive bullet point first, and add one interesting personal fact (my buddy puts “amateur dinosaur enthusiast”). But for the love of God, ask a smarter friend to give you the idiot test. If your friends are all fellow idiots (read: college students), email me and I’ll help you out (alexgivesupblog at gmail dot com).
The cover letter
Cover letters are obsolete. At least, a cover letter that exists as a separate document. Whether you know it or not, your first point of written contact is your cover letter. Whenever I see an email with the words “I’ve attached my cover letter,” I immediately think: Clown! That email IS the cover letter!
A cover letter is also not regurgitation of your résumé. Instead of translating bullet points to sentences, elaborate on why you’d like to work for said company. Do some homework. Make it personal. What do you find interesting about their model or role within their industry? What skills do you have that would contribute to their success? It’s fine to spend a few sentences talking about what you’ve worked on, but make the cover letter primarily about them, not about you.
Finally, don’t use language that’s stuffy and formal—it will read better if it sounds like you are writing to a friend. And Jesus Christ, don’t open with “To Whom It May Concern.” Just say “Hi.”
People have written thousands of words about LinkedIn. Here are the only 27 that count: Complete LinkedIn’s onboarding process. Make sure your profile is up-to-date. Get a former colleague to endorse you. Don’t spell words wrong. Have more than 100 connections. Aaaand you’re done.
Employers always check LinkedIn (it’s often the #1 search result for your name), so spend a little time brushing it up. Bonus points: if you’re a guy, use a picture where you’re not smiling like a goofball. If you’re a girl, pick the hottest possible picture of you in a semi-professional setting. Sexist? Yep. Welcome to the working world.
Google yourself. Seriously. Employers will. Search in an incognito window for precision and click the first 10 links. Get rid of anything that makes you look like an imbecile. That means deleting the time you tweeted “#CHRONIC4LIFE” at A$AP Rocky or removing that totally epic beer pong video you submitted to CollegeHumor.
For example, my mom called a week into the job search and we had this wonderfully awkward conversation: “Alex, when you Google your name, why is there a picture of you smoking a joint?” It was a cigarette, and it was complemented by a glass of Fernet and a rose between my teeth (ah… Buenos Aires), but even still, I promptly deleted it.
If your name is common and not derived from an obscure sect of Ukrainians like mine, you can bask in your blandness and skip this step.
STEP TWO: GETTING THE INTERVIEW
The oldest maxim in the book is also the truest: jobs come from people. Not from CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, or Craigslist. At least not the good ones. Somehow that timeless advice has been tangled in a knot of ethernet cords.
In my case, I used a job searching tool or internal application system exactly zero times. My tools and systems were people. Those people led to job opportunities and before I knew it, I had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the companies I was speaking with.
Here’s how I did it:
Make a list of friends
The first thing I did after I got fired was make a list of people to call (well… right after scarfing down a mountain of mashed potatoes gurgling with gravy). I jotted down the names of friends, former colleagues, and local acquaintances. Some were VPs and CEOs, but just as many were junior-level. Some had access to mailing lists, but most didn’t. Some had direct industry knowledge, others were tangential at best. When I stopped 20 minutes later, the list was over 40 people long.
In my case, I’m fortunate to have a great network of folks that were ready to help at a moment’s notice. You might not be as lucky, but not to worry—your list list can consist of anyone. Maybe a fellow university alumni works at your dream company. Or maybe your dad’s friend is an expert in your chosen field. It really doesn’t matter—you’ll quickly discover how open people are to help, especially if you’re respectful, honest, and eager. Everyone’s been where you are, and they want to return the favor.
Here’s where things get interesting: don’t email them. The easy route is crafting the perfect email and bcc’ing 40 names. Don’t get me wrong—that’s better than shotgun blasting your résumé out to Monster.com, but it’s like hitting a ball in deep left and stopping short of first.
Pick up the phone and call. If they don’t answer, don’t leave a voicemail (nobody likes voicemails). Just text: “Hey _____, give me a call when you got a minute? Had a question for you.”
A real human conversation provides so much more nuance and depth than a computer screen. If you can swing meeting for coffee or chatting over a beer, even better. The personal touch makes a world of difference.
Once on the call, respect their time, keep the rambling to a minimum, and have a clear ask for help. I’m not going to script a conversation for you, but if you primarily use your phone to order delivery Chinese, here’s a primer. Bullshit for a bit—30 seconds or whatever feels natural. Then make a simple request: “Hey I’m looking for work, and I could use your advice. Do you have a minute?” You should explain what type of work you’re looking for, or at the very least, what you would like to learn (see Step Zero). It doesn’t have to be precise, but it should be actionable.
People are incredibly willing to help; they just need you to tell them how. You will be inevitably asked, “How can I help?” The answer can be as simple as “Can I send you my résumé? Let me know if you hear of anyone hiring?” Or “Is it alright if I look through your LinkedIn once we get off the phone and ask for a couple intros?” Or maybe “Anyway you could intro me to [Person X] at [Company Y]?” Whatever it is, be specific.
If you’re a keyboard junky that hates using the phone, it’s time to learn. The phone is the most powerful tool in your job searching toolkit.
Your work doesn’t end when the call’s over. Right after you hop off the call, shoot them a quick email with a thank you and a tidbit of their advice that you loved. Attach your resume and a 3-5 sentence blurb about you that they can forward along. If you discussed a specific intro, ask for it.
Most importantly, take notes. Buy a notebook (my favorite) and jot down any tips, pearls of wisdom, or companies to consider. This forces you to crystallize the most important things, and you can readily reference it before any future meetings.
A word of cynicism: at least half of these people won’t deliver any promising leads. That’s OK. They gave you their time and their wisdom, and that’s premium value in itself. But talk to enough people and leads will come. Some will provide more than others (the aforementioned John, for example, delivered a whopping 22 leads), but just keep hustling.
From there, wait for the intros to trickle in.
STEP THREE: THE INTERVIEW
Hello, and welcome to Step Three. You done good. A friend got you an intro, and a company wants to interview you. Rub your hands together. Do a little dance. The fun stuff begins.
“Nah, I’m just gonna wing it,” said no successful job seeker ever. Don’t be an asshole—spend 30 minutes researching. Browse through their company website, read their Wikipedia page, and skim a press piece or two. Write down anything that looks important (value props, size/market cap, company direction, new developments, etc). Stalk your interviewer a bit on LinkedIn so you know who you’re talking to. If the company has a service or a website, sign up and go through the welcome flow. Remember: take notes.
Done with the basics? Good. Slide on your creativity cap. Brainstorm 1-2 things that they should be doing in your field (the ideas don’t have to be good—the process is the important part). If applicable, pinpoint one aspect of their web presence that you can improve. Reflect on why you’d like to work for them.
Mark my words: you will be asked one of the following two questions, if not both, in your first interview:
”What do you know about our company?”
”Why do you want to work for our company?”
The reason? It’s an amazing predictor of a candidate’s genuine interest. When that question comes, and it will: boom. Fastball down the motherfucking middle.
Directly before the interview
When it comes to what to wear, follow the herd. If you’re interviewing at an investment bank, don’t wear a t-shirt—wear a suit. If you’re interviewing at a 5-person startup, ditch the tie—you’ll be more comfortable in a hoodie. [And no, I did not dress in jorsts and a sleeveless button-down for any interviews.]
Don’t be late. Obviously. But just as bad: the clown who feigns initiative and arrives at the interview 20 minutes early. Stop. It’s annoying. Interviewers are busy—they want to finish their hour’s task without Tweedle Dee dorking around in the lobby. Arrive early, but if you’re too early, take a walk around the block. I usually like to arrive at the address 10-15 minutes early and walk through the door 1-3 minutes before the interview starts.
Above all else: RELAX. You’re not disarming a bomb. Listen to your favorite song. Read an inspiring article. Watch a stupid cat video. It’s just a job interview. You’ll be fine.
Once the interview starts
This is it. The big moment. Introductions commenced (smile; look them in the eye), handshakes were exchanged (no limp wrists), and you’re sitting in a black-backed swivel chair. You now have one job and one job only: bullshit for as long as possible.
What most interviewees fail to grasp is that the success of a job interview is determined by two factors, often in this order: A) Do I like this person? B) Is this person competent for the job?
You’re not going to win any likability battles with your knowledge of balance sheets, cost per acquisition metrics, or jQuery. You will, however, win points for chatting through your mutual love of Argentina, or about that Niners win, or about a great book that you’re reading.
Interviewers need to get a feel for you as a person before they can envision working with you as an employee. If your interviewer wants to shoot the shit, she’s trying to get to know you. But if the interviewer clearly hates small talk, don’t force it—let him dictate the pace. The point is not to be the one who transitions into serious interview mode.
At some point, you’ll feel the conversation turn a corner. The following five words will decide the next 20 minutes.
“So… tell me about yourself.”
This is the first “real” question 90% of the time, and its an open invitation to pitch yourself. Everyone’s pitch is different. In general, talk for more than 30 seconds but less 3 minutes.
Stories matter. People forget facts; they’ll remember stories. Avoid listing stats like you’re a Pokemon card and craft your own personal narrative. Tie in projects that you’ve worked on and skills you’ve developed. Anticipate questions (like “why did you leave [x job]?”) and answer them in advance.
In my case, I wanted to emphasize that I’m both creative and analytical (an important blend in my field), so I always started my answer with, “Well the best place to start is my freshman year of college when I was picking between a math major and an English major.” I got terribly sick of that line, but it was effective—it neatly framed my journey as math major to entrepreneur to book marketer to startup growth marketer.
The interviewer might ask you follow up questions about each project to gauge how you work and think. Just answer honestly, be authentic, and don’t overinflate your role. If you’ve worked on interesting things with interesting people, the rest will work itself out. If you haven’t, it should be clear why you need to start now.
You’ll get asked a ton of industry- and company-specific questions that I can’t help with (this is why we prep, class). That said, generic questions are frequent as well. Here are 4 common ones that can trip you up without some care.
1. “You’ve been given a project about [x]. Where do you start?”
Most times, you’ll have no fucking clue. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s the point. The interviewer wants to see how you react to uncertainty. Even further, the interviewer is possibly struggling with this project and wants an outside perspective. There’s no right answer, but there is a right approach. Ask questions immediately for more detail (e.g. What’s the objective? How do you measure that?) Then discuss your process for digesting and implementing new information into action. Mine consists of a little bit of research, talking with a ton of smart people, starting before I’m ready, and constantly iterating. Yours might be different, but be comfortable talking through it.
2. “What do you see yourself doing in five years?”
At first, this question drove me to fits. Five years?! I’ll be 30 in five years. I guess praying that my hairline doesn’t recede and my back hair doesn’t spread? Unfortunately, this question requires a better answer than flippant references to mid-adulthood puberty. Here’s why: if the job in question does nothing to advance your long-term goals, that’s a major red flag. Your five-year plan doesn’t need to be precise (in fact, it’s better if it’s somewhat open-ended), but this next move should be one rung in a ladder, not a shot on a dartboard. If you’re struggling to put together any sort of answer, revert back to Step Zero: what do you want to learn in the next 5 years?
3. “Tell me about a time that you failed”
Here’s your chance to win respect for sucking. Don’t hold back—the more epic the fail, the better. Failure is life’s great teacher; if you can show that you learned from that time you cataclysmically face-planted, that’s 10x better than bragging about the one time you did something right. Done with thoughtfulness and authenticity, this tactic can be incredibly disarming.
4. “What salary are you targeting?”
Before the interview starts, project a yearly salary. Add another $5,000. Say that number. Now shut the fuck up. No, no, no—don’t rationalize. Don’t give more detail. Shut the fuck up. Immediately justifying your number shows insecurity. Save the explanation for any possible follow-up questions. If they want to negotiate (and they might), you’ll already be $5,000 ahead.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
Doofus McDumbass will take this golden opportunity to ask about the hours, the paycheck, and the vacation policy. Don’t be Doofus McDumbass. This is your last chance to to glean key information and wow the person sitting across from you.
I care about a company’s culture and values. Whenever I asked what those were outright, however, I received a canned response. These two questions give more authentic insight:
1. “What’s been your favorite day at the company?”
2. “Who is the best person that you’ve worked with?”
By forcing the interview out of rote responses, I learned much more about the culture and type of people within the company. The answers were filled with illuminating stories, not modified PowerPoint slides. These questions are also overwhelmingly positive and chances are the interviewer will love reminiscing. Not a bad note to end an interview with, eh?
I also like to employ the sneaky catch-all:
Are there any other questions that you think I should be asking?
A note on body language
I won’t be so bold as to reduce an entire mode of communication to a paragraph (if you’d like a book, this is a good one). On second thought, you’re damn right I will. Here’s the 80/20: when talking, don’t touch your face, neck, head, or opposite shoulder. At best, it shows insecurity. At worst, it looks like you’re lying. Keep things simple and leave your hands on your knees or the desk in front of you.
STEP FOUR: AFTER THE INTERVIEW
The good news: you’re through the thick of it. The bad news: at this point, things are mostly out of your control.
Immediately following the interview, take notes. What are the position’s responsibilities? Any notable bits of info about the company? Questions you stumbled on? This will be an invaluable reference.
Follow-up notes are overrated, but they help move the conversation along. The next day, send a quick message, “Hey ____, really enjoyed speaking today. Would love to keep talking, let me know any next steps?” Unless, of course, ____ sucked and you have zero interesting in continuing the discussion.
The goal of most second, third, and fourth round interviews is for the rest of the team to vet you, and make sure that they can work well with you. And to prove that you’re not completely full of shit. To prepare, review your notes, brainstorm a few initiatives, relax, and hope that people like you.
To maintain your sanity, keep this in mind: most job opportunities won’t pan out. There could be any number of reasons: someone else has more experience, the field is unfamiliar, more specialized skills are required, the position ceases to exist, whatever. Don’t get hung up. In fact, if you’re batting above .500 on job opportunities, you’re selling yourself short and need to cast your net wider. My “success rate” was less than 10%. Even though I turned down a number of second round interviews, I also didn’t get offers from some top choices. And you know what? It all worked itself out—my new job is amazing.
Above all, remember this: when the offers start coming—and they will—don’t choose the higher salary. Don’t choose the prestigious title. Don’t choose the safe career move. When the time comes to walk a new path, there is only one question worth answering:
What will you be paid to learn?