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October 25, 2012 / jeremycarr

How to Start your Career in Technology

A number of friends have recently reached out trying to better understand technology, Silicon Valley, and how to think about a career switch/getting a job in Silicon Valley.  What follows is a collection of reflections based on living and breathing Silicon Valley for what feels like a few dozen lifetimes.

If you want to land your first job in technology, I have three important homework assignments for you: Know thyself. Know thy domain.  Know others.
Know Thyself
1) Motivation

First and foremost, understand your motivation. Why do you want to do it? Tech is fast paced, a lot of work. For better or worse, the ground is CONSTANTLY shifting beneath your feet. The payoff?  You get to invent the future!  And if you’re lucky, a chance to make your dent in the universe. As a navy seal recruiter once wisely said, “it’s not for everyone”.  Is it for you?

2) Compensation

A word on the elephant in the room. “Facebook created hundreds of millionaires! Working in tech is my ticket to the big time!” Yes, getting rich is a possibility. But so is winning the lottery. A healthier mindset may be to acknowledge that the majority of venture capitalists spend their entire careers hunting for winners, and are lucky to have even 1 big hit. As Mark Suster wisely points out, there’s a time to learn and a time to earn. Focus on learning how to create value before claiming it. The best way to get what you want is to deserve it.  The elevator to success is out of order, are you ready to take the stairs one step at a time?

3) How will you add value?  

Fundamentally there are 3 facets to a company: Builder, Seller, or G&A. This side of the business is full of makers, creators of value- engineers (CS, EE, Mech E, or otherwise), product managers, designers, etc. Sellers make sure that value makes it to the greater marketplace: distribution. The realm of sales, marketing, and business development. G&A comprises everything else. Law, finance, HR, operations, etc. Roles can certainly span all 3 spheres, but really ask yourself- where am I going to add value to my organization?

Know thy Domain
4) Which domains interest you?

Software is indeed eating the world. But the buffet extends as far as the eye can see. And technology doesn’t stop at software; life sciences, energy, hardware, the list goes on. Which domain captures your imagination?  Another important consideration is to think about whether you want to work in consumer or B2B. If consumer, prepare to spend a lot of time trying to understand user behavior, and uncovering what people REALLY value. If B2B, think about which part of the tech stack interests you- hardware, software, web, mobile, or otherwise?

5) Small Company or Big Company?
Small companies are lean and struggling to carve out a niche for themselves in the world. It should come as no surprise that smaller companies need primarily builders and sellers. It’s not unheard of, but it’s tough to get a G&A job at a smaller tech company, especially without a solid network. There is more equity to be found in smaller companies, but with it comes a great deal more risk and volatility. Big companies can be a great way to get your foot in the door. But make sure you’re cognizant of where you’re headed; one path is to specialize and relax into a comfortable existence, a potentially great outcome. If you’re intent on inventing the future, be mindful that innovation can be tough at larger organization. No matter what you do, keep learning as much as you can.

Know Others

6) Who do you know?

What you know and who you know are the yin and yang of career.  Silicon Valley is no different than anywhere else.  As a wise friend once said, “applying through a website is tantamount to throwing your resume into a garbage bin in Silicon Valley”.  It’s incredibly difficult getting a job remotely.  You need to live and breathe the air where you’re going to work.  Make friends in tech, talk to their friends in tech, go to random mixers, ask for advice from anyone who will give you the time of day.  It can be incredibly difficult to break into the social scene in the valley without knowing anyone, but if you put some elbow grease into your starcraft and other geek skills, you’re well on your way to success.

As a final thought, while there’s no real substitute for living and breathing the valley, blogs can do a reasonable job of approximating the atmosphere. Some of the more useful blogs include Techcrunch, Venturebeat, AllthingsD, and Gigaom. If you want to dig a little deeper, some of the best thinkers in the valley include Steve Blank, Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, and Ben Horowitz.

Good luck, and may the force be with you.

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