How I Landed the Dream Job

on Jan 17, 2011

As you may know, I’d been looking for work for a while and recently started at Google. Many friends are astounded by this news and are so happy that I landed the dream job. Likewise, I know many folks that are looking for work so I’d like to share the things that helped me get to where I am now.

Unconventional {Methods, Companies, People}

Much of what I discuss here is unconventional and even backwards seeming. Bear in mind that consistency is important: while the process below is unconventional, so too are the companies I targeted and the kind of person I am. What I did would not work for most potential jobs. Likewise, these methods may not work for many people. Let’s get a few definitions straight for the purposes of this article: the dream job resides at an unconventional company (and the world would be better off if we had more of these). This is the sort of company that offers much freedom (like work hours, working conditions, and projects), a nurturing environment (one that promotes learning, growth, and little bureaucracy), and solid compensation (salary, benefits, perks). By the same token, this job expects incredible work out of their employees: solving hairy (but interesting) problems, using creativity and thought to make significant decisions, and taking responsibility for getting stuff done and done well. I consider it more than a fair tradeoff. (Note: the dream job is not something that is easy where you can just cruise around on your managerial chair, raking in the dough.)  I feel it takes an unconventional person to take on this role (I could be wrong, but the description that follows won’t suit everyone). These are the sort of people that are go-getters. They’re the ones that like challenges and may take on difficult work (like in school) for fun. They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They’re troublemakers for sure, but they also make the impossible a reality. They’re the ones that want to do work that matters. If this applies to you, then read on.

Think Long Term

Pretty much everything I cover here involves a long term approach. I can almost guarantee that you won’t find any instant results. This entire process took about one year for me – but it was well worth it and my success would have been impossible if I didn’t invest in building for the future at the cost of the present. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t work out. Keep pressing on – your efforts will compound and at some point you’ll pass the tipping point.

Some Good Reading and Great Ideas

It seems I’m not alone in these unconventional thoughts. Desire for meaningful work has grown in the past few years. Seth Godin, marketing genius and someone who has his head on straight regarding good work, has discussed this for at least a year. His book, Linchpin, chronicles his thoughts and offers unconventional advice to practically do work that matters. Many of the strategies below were inspired or solidified by what he says. I highly advise checking it out, along with his blog, which is filled with succinct yet insightful posts.

Know Yourself

What is it that moves you? What is it that drives you to get up every morning? Knowing what you care for gives you a strong foundation for every part of your work and approach to finding work. It’s surprising how elusive it can be to determine what exactly this is. Having been involved in so many disciplines myself, I was especially unclear on this. I had so much in my head, but it was a jumbled mess. So I began organizing it, in the form of a blog. As I discussed in detail in my previous post, this helped immensely. The blog also helped to establish other attractive traits: from exhibiting my unique thoughts and insights to showing communication skills. A blog presents a great opportunity to show what you can do as I discuss below.

Show What You Can Do

A common error is to spend a lot of time polishing a resumé and not on much else. While having an acceptable resumé is important, it rarely makes someone stand out (resumés actually serve to weed out applicants more than anything else). Instead, focus on showing off your work and abilities in a tangible, visible, and lively way: through a portfolio. Unconventional people, without a doubt, have an arsenal of work, past and present, that they can show off. These don’t have to be anything outrageous or complicated – most of the larger projects on my own portfolio are from my university courses. Conversely, a portfolio is an opportunity to show off your original style and personality.

Learn at Every Moment

We’re surrounded by information – way more than we ever possibly consume. The upshot is that there’s more opportunity to learn than ever before. Will you take advantage? Or will you spend your time watching tv and playing video games? In 2010, I read more than 30 books, most of which were non-fiction. I watched many TED Talks. There’s no doubt that these things drastically improved my understanding of the world. Likewise, I invested much time in broadening my technical knowledge, whether it was learning the tried and true (through computer science algorithms video lectures) or the new hotness (iPhone development and jQuery). These were things I started doing long before I seriously considered delving into the tech world – I understood that the knowledge would prove useful in some regard.

Do Interesting Things

Perhaps you find a lot of what I mentioned above less than exciting. That’s fine; there should be space for fun – there’s plenty that’s also “productive”. Over the past five years, I took up two forms of martial arts (Kyokushin karate and capoeira) and joined the NYC inline skating community. What did it cost me? A great deal of time and effort, along with some money. What did I gain? Enjoyment, discipline, good friends, good health, and character. People like to be around (and work with) interesting people. You have nothing to lose by taking on some interesting hobbies and it’s another thing to make you stand out.

Try Different Things (and accept that some things won’t work out)

In one of my earliest blog posts, I discussed how it takes many bad ideas to come up with good ideas. This process applies well to finding the right calling and job. Don’t be afraid to try different and interesting things. There’s a good chance that some things won’t come to fruition. Don’t let that discourage you. One – you never know what might work out to an incredible project or experience. And two – just about anything can be a learning experience. Over the course of last year, I had several projects that didn’t pan out. It seemed that I’d wasted time and energy. But I can’t say that I didn’t learn anything. Likewise, I did manage to add a few pieces to my portfolio and also had solid things to discuss at job interviews.

Tell a Story

Another critical error is to skimp on the cover letter (or not have one at all). I followed the generic advice on cover letters and found that this pretty much didn’t work. So I tried something unconventional (naturally). I told my story. I was honest and real and personal. Go ahead and read the one I sent to Google. It teems with something that can’t be quantified. The meat of it (the second and third paragraphs) don’t even pertain to the position! And I actually copied this section nearly word for word in cover letters for other places I applied to. Note that these words couldn’t be “copied” by anyone else. It stood out as unique to me – no one else shares my story. I conveyed competence, curiosity, and leadership skills in a subtle way (which is often more convincing than a direct approach). This cover letter was the tipping point for me. This is when I started getting callbacks and interviews. The cover letter is a legitimate chance to wow someone; don’t throw it away.

Go Above and Beyond

Going the extra mile is effort; most people don’t bother doing more than the requirement when it comes to applying for work. Hence, there’s a big opportunity for those willing to put in a little more (also an easy way to stand out). What I covered so far (like the portfolio, blog, and cover letter) are a part of this. Is there room for more? I think so. I snuck in some unconventional material (see above) in my LinkedIn profile. I’m sure that this is a turn-off for many hiring organizations – probably the very type of companies I wouldn’t want to be a part of anyway. Conversely, this can grab the attention of organizations in which you’d have a good cultural fit with. Strikingly enough, a recruiter from Google reached out to me after seeing my LinkedIn profile. The potential cultural fit “visible” in my profile did play a role in this. There’s a thousand other ways to go. At a job fair, I snuck in a general version of my cover letter with my resumé. One company I interviewed at told me that this made a profound impact.
With Google, I pressed harder. I knew they wanted references at some point, so I included them with my resumé and cover letter. Not just names and phone numbers, but also a photo of each of my references, a short description of their incredible work, and a description of my work with each of them. Even more: I included a picture of myself in my home workspace (which I felt matched their culture very well). I have no idea if this helped, but considering that I got the job, I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

Prep, Practice, and Be Real

Know the companies you’re applying to inside and out. For technical positions, know your stuff and be ready. I spent a few solid weeks going over computer science stuff after receiving contact from a Google recruiter. I was sure to practice writing code by hand. Let your potential future employer know how important this is for you and how deeply you’ve prepared. I asked my Google recruiters on what to expect so that I could prep. On the interview day, I brought my own whiteboard markers (it helped immensely to have thin, functioning markers considering the amount of code I wrote that day) and was unashamed in telling my interviewers of this (at least one of them seemed impressed at my “unusual level of preparedness”). I learned from my progress – every interview with a company inadvertently served as practice for following interviews (the Google one was the last one I had so at that point I was pretty comfortable). Lastly, it helps to get along with those you meet. If you’re the interesting, knowledgeable, and capable person you claim to be (according to the unconventional advice above), then you should have little trouble connecting on interview days.

Don’t Be Shy to Ask for Help

Too many of us have this idea in our heads that we have to make it on our own – that we must prove ourselves this way. Not only is this a terrible way to approach things, it’s also potentially damaging. I’ve had support from so many people in the years it took me to figure out direction in life. My parents unconditionally gave me a home, meals, gas money, and trusted my judgement. Two professors I worked with fought bureaucracy to help me get some pocket money in exchange for helping them on their university course. They also allowed me to be a part of their own organization. Another two professors, in technical disciplines, offered their advice in career matters (one of which truly understood my creative nature and helped to shape my portfolio). All of them offered fruitful discussion without imposing judgement. Friends provided great emotional support (and sometimes covered my tab so I could come hang out with them). A mentor like friend helped me meet more folks in the tech world and offered his wisdom in looking for work. There’s no question that all this support went a long way. I was sure to take whatever help I could get, while giving back as much as I could – I still have unpaid debts to many of them; I’ll be sure to reconcile these in time.

Odds, Ends, and Some Final Thoughts

I haven’t really mentioned resumés. I don’t consider them as important as the other factors I discussed. Likewise, there’s plenty of good advice around for resumés. I’ll mention a couple of things: Avoid buzzwords and don’t blast your resumé. If you’re gonna go for real, meaningful work, then go all out. You won’t be able to apply to as many places, but your success rate will be higher, and it’ll be with interesting organizations. Quality over quantity.

Another thing to mention is that having a good academic record helps, especially if you don’t have much experience. I’ve had many classmates consider me silly for really pushing for solid work in every one of my courses. This is a testament to show that it did make a difference: my GPA and transcript was looked over during my job application process.

A little bit of luck always helps out. I was fortunate that interesting companies were hiring and that I wasn’t blown away in some important interviews. Still. you can make your own luck by being prepared – tip the scales in your favor.

Overall, I was determined to not compromise and not sell out. I was fortunate enough to have support so that I could stand by these principles. Not everyone has this option and I don’t hold it against anyone that’s trapped in this position.

I hope you enjoyed the story I shared above. Likewise, I hope you find some of the ideas helpful. There’s no right way to go about landing the dream job, but I’m sure there are plenty of wrong ways. There are other great ideas to consider still. I didn’t follow every one of them but I did find a path that worked for me. No matter what the process, expect it to take great effort and time – it’ll be worth it.