Reverse Engineering a Career

I run into a lot of people trying to switch careers and join a startup.  They're trying to get product positions and marketing jobs in particular, but they don't have any prior experience.  That leaves them in the infinite loop of not being able to get the job because you don't have experience, but not being able to get any experience, etc, etc. 

It's a solvable problem.  You can do nearly absolutely anything within one or two years time--as long as you put your mind to it and construct a plan.  I'll talk more about this at my upcoming General Assembly talk, but here's the outline.

One of the inspirations behind the company I started in the career development space was a conversation I had with a Fordham student.  He was interested in venture capital and was a year away from graduation.  I realized that a position at Union Square Ventures was going to be open in a year and that he had a terrific chance of getting it.  He seemed perplexed that they'd even consider hiring someone out of school.  What I told him was that no other people had a year head start.  It was unlikely that *anyone* was thinking out a year ahead that getting that particular job was their goal.  He could decide right then and there that he was going to get that job in one year--he just had to do all sorts of stuff to be the number one recruit--after figuring out what that was.  It was an exercise in reverse engineering.

This can apply to most jobs--save for things like coding and design that tend to be more hard skill based.  However, I'd make the case that if you really did dedicate yourself to something, you could make a lot of headway in two years time--especially if you had some natural inclination.  Me, I can't draw my way out of a stick hat, so I'd be a lost cause--but a creative person could do a lot with design classes in two years.

In any case, you're going to have to start out with a very detailed job spec.  You need to know exactly what someone in this role is doing now--and there's no better way to do that then to just ask.  If you want to be in venture capital, ask a bunch of junior VC types what they actually do all day, and ask a bunch of partners what they expect the junior VC types to do all day (I wonder if this would come anywhere close to matching up.)  Write down all the tasks done, skills used, etc. and see which ones overlap the most.  Those are the "requireds" and the rest are the "preferred".  See if you can group these attributes into types.  Some product managers might be more technical, working on feature requirements and interfacing with the engineering team, while others might be more like brand managers who are the GM of their brands.  Not every employee needs to be the same, but everyone needs to be awesome in some way--just figure out the various types of awesome that fit into that particular role.

Your job description now becomes your checklist.  When a product manager tells you that they monitor and track analytics using the following pieces of software, now you have to go out and learn how to do that.  That could mean taking classes that cover Google Analytics, asking different product people to sit down with you for 30 minutes to show you how they use the tool, or maybe even contacting someone at Google to invite them to run a class on Google Analytics best practices not just for you, but for others trying to do the same thing.  Service providers are generally apt to do this kind of thing--showing you how smart they are by teaching you tips and tricks for the stuff they use, knowing that a lot of people won't have the time to do this on their own, so you'll probably wind up paying them to do it.

There's also a ton of content out there.  Just start looking for blog posts on "10 SEO tips for startups" or "How to write a marketing survey".  The web is a big open textbook written by practitioners. 

Now you need some practice.  You've learned what exactly other people do, and how they do it.  Now you need to get out there and start offering it.  Unfortunately, you're still stuck with the experience issue.  Then again, how many lean startups are out there with lots of stuff to do without the time to do it.  If you were trying to teach yourself to become a UX expert, and you've interviewed a bunch of people about conducting user interviews and looked up every great blog post on the subject, is it really that hard to find a startup willing to let you do this with new and existing users?  Just ask around at the companies you like and ask them whether or not they've actually sat down and tried to work through real user interviews.  I'll bet you get a lot of "Yeah, we listen to our users" or "We showed it to some people before we launched and they liked it".  These are prime candidates, because they haven't really committed to doing this the right way--and I'm sure they'd let you conduct user sessions.

You'll also want to journal what you're learning.  Writing about the techniques you learned about, where you learned them, and even what set of skills you found that most professionals considered to be important accomplishes three things.

First, it acts as a mechanism for synthesizing what you've learned.  You'll never learn so much as when you have to teach someone else to do something--and blogging about something you just learned is a way to do that. 

Also, sharing the resources you found will also encourage others to add to the list.  When you post the most useful blog posts on sales that you found, people will undoubtedly leave others in the comments.  Sharing knowledge leverages the community by encouraging others to share back.

Lastly, it helps your brand as a continuous learner.  When you do apply for a job, being able to show someone what you've been doing over the last year to learn creates a very favorable image of you that will undoubtedly set you apart from others.  You set a goal, did the leg work, and executed well.  It will give someone the confidence that you can learn new things with the same zeal and that you'll work hard to achieve goals. 

When you offer your newly learned skills for free in a project (something you can do while you have another job) and you write about it, if you create a good public case study, undoubtedly others will want you to do the same for them.  If you spent a Saturday afternoon conducting user interviews and you learned a lot about how people do something on a particular site, leading to some really interesting insites, you're going to have your Saturdays booked for a while.  Eventually, you're going to be able to say, "Hey, I'm actually pretty swamped right now" and the response will be "We'll pay you!"  Bam.  Welcome to being a paid consultant for something you didn't even know how to do a year ago.

It's also important to take these projects and loop back with the professionals you've talked to.  Take the sales plan you wrote up for a startup back to the head of sales for a more mature company and get their feedback.  Iterate based on their feedback and your experience.  With each new project you do, you're going to get better and better at it if you incorporate your learnings into a good feedback loop that improves the way you execute. 

This doesn't necessarily have to take 1-2 years either.  I'm sure someone who tries this will wind up with a job after six months.  I just don't want to promise anything too soon, because becoming a top tier professional takes a lot of long term determination. 

Oh, and by the way, I've given this advice to tons of people over the years, and rarely does anyone ever take it--so if you do decide to do this, let me know, so can at least have more than one example that it works.

One thing that's important to note that to imply that anyone can do just about any other job with a year of work doesn't necessarily mean they'll become an expert.  In fact, I once wrote a post called "Respecting the Craft" about how too many people think they're a smidgen away from greatness in a lot of fields.  No, this post is meant to encourage people to put in the work that gets them in the door somewhere--to start out.  Reading a bunch of blog posts isn't a substitute for a career's worth of experience--but it will definitely, when put into practice, get people focusing more on your projects then how you look like all the other MBAs out there that they've met. 

Unpaid internships are a ripoff

There.  I said it.  More often than not, when you "employ" students as unpaid interns, you and the school facilitating this practice by offering credit are giving students the short end of the stick.

Companies say the students are picking up valuable experience, but how many unpaid internships are really worth a damn?  Maybe if they were learning transferable, in high demand/short supply skills, but filing, photocopying, cold calling, getting coffee, answering client gopher requests, and answering phones do not fit into that category.  Those are the things your well paid executive assistant would rather not do and so they get passed off to the free labor.

If you're going to help a student hone their PHP coding skills, then I'd have a different opinion--but funny enough, internships in computer science, where real skills are used and developed, are paid!  It often seems to be the least interesting, most commoditized work that is most often unpaid.

The "getting free experience" argument doesn't hold water. It isn't free for the student when they have to use college credits to justify the fact that they weren't being paid. They're paying thousands of dollars for those college credits. The system that demands that they receive credit if they're working for free, designed to prevent actual slave labor, actually hurts the student. If the experience itself was actually worth it for its own sake, a student would be better off just getting the job on their resume and not having to pay all that money for the credit. In fact, if I were the student, it would be a better economic deal for me to offer to write a check to the company for my own minimum wage salary, because it will probably be cheaper than paying the school for the credit.

The bottom line is that if someone is work of any value to you, you should compensate them for it, even if its just minimum wage. If your organization can't afford the hundred bucks or so a week for 15-20 hours of work because it isn't worth it, then how good is this experience that the student gets?  Plus, if your company can't afford $6 an hour labor, perhaps your business isn't economically viable--and that goes for startups, too.  If it isn't a no-brainer to get that work done for six bucks an hour, I find it hard to believe that work will impress anyone when it's on a resume. 

Companies make out like bandits with this practice. Not only do they get free labor, but they have no incentive to invest in the education of the student. If they don't stick around or don't like the work, who cares? Doesn't cost them anything! Give them an incentive to make sure the student is doing meaningful work.

You know who benefits pretty well from this practice, too? The school! Imagine if for every degree earned with 120 credits, 3 of those credits were earned by completing an internship. That represents a 2.5% reduction in the cost of faculty normally paid to teach them something useful in exchange for those 3 credits. Schools that allow 2 "for credit" internships are cutting their faculty overhead by 5%!

Two of the most common unpaid internships are in private client/high net worth asset management, and marketing/pr. Here are some alternatives for students to getting ripped off at unpaid internships in these fields:

Private client/high net worth asset management:

Lots of folks make a lot of money being entrusted to individuals' savings. Those people bring big trusted networks and financial expertice to the table--two things students completely lack and will lack for quite a while. A great marketing intern could have a big impact on a marketing campaign, but a private client intern isn't going anywhere near portfolios, so they basically get relegated to cold calling and "interacting with clients" (answering phones and being a gopher). Try getting a big investment banking internship with this on your resume.

Instead, open up a fake portfolio on Yahoo! Finance Or Google Finance, or a trading game site like UpDown. If you don't know what stocks to pick, just pick things you either know or that you might be interested in following (food companies, fashion, autos, Apple). Track the hell out of it. Download your daily gains and losses per stock to Excel. Enter the performance for the indexes--the S&P 500, the Dow, etc. Crunch the numbers. Open up a blog on blogspot or similar service with a fun domain name like TickerU or BullMarketMajor or something and write about your portfolio and the market EVERY DAY. Read and comment on the blogs of experienced investors like TraderMike, Howard Lindzon, and Information Arbitrage. Interview your favorite stock bloggers on your blog, even by email. If you do this a whole semester, you will not have wasted paying for the credits to be at a crappy internship. Instead, you could have taken another accounting, financial modeling, stats, or programming class and gained a lot better experience watching and interacting with the market everyday. Plus, you will have put your name out there as an innovative, ambitious self starter, making it much more likely you'll get hired for a better internship.


If you're going to volunteer to market anything, market yourself. Actually you're already an expert on a certain kind of marketing and you may not realize it. Youth marketing, both offline and online (especially on social networks), is a huge lucrative business. Brands and agencies are always looking for people who are up on the latest trends and who have keen insight into what works and what doesn't.

Every single student who has an interest in marketing and public relations should be blogging about how they get approached by marketing campaigns, brands they love, and trends they see.  How about taking a poll at your school to find out what the top brands are and what people's associations with those brands are.  You should use Twitter, too...   You can use it to update your Facebook status messages, but moreover, you can use it to follow the updates of very high level marketing and PR folks

If I was hiring someone to help create a digital presence and brand for myself, I'd want to see them be able to do it for themselves first.  Learning how to do that by attending conferences (you can often go free as a student by volunteering), workshops, informational interviews could be a better learning experience than an unpaid internship.


If you're a college student (or anyone else) and you're worried about what you're going to do with your career, you should check out the site my company is working on, Path 101.  Sign up for our e-mail list and we'll keep you posted on what we're doing to help you figure all this career stuff out.



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Breaking open Experiential Learning: An opportunity?

On Monday, two people asked me what I *really* wanted to do, and both times what I can up with was to be the head of Career Services for Fordham.  (At Fordham just because that's my alma mater and the school I have the closest connection to... not because it needs the most help... seems that most schools are on par with each other in this area.)

That's not really realistic, though, for a number of reasons.  First, I don't want to run the current implementation of career services at any university... The whole thing needs to be completely reinvented and its unlikely any university would allow that without a serious change in its approach.  Too harsh?  Take a poll of current students and graduates...ask them how helpful career services has been to them.  Ask graduates how satisfied they are with their current job and whether or not career services even helped them get a job in the first place.  Find out how many graduates undergo a complete career change within the first three years of graduating.  It's just a broken model.  A career staff of 5 can't help 2000 graduates all find their dream jobs without seriously scalable educational structures.

I have no doubt that the numbers are sorrowful, but I also have no doubt that most schools don't even come close to keeping these statistics.  I teach.  I talk to students all the time and right now, especially right now, they're overwhelmed by the task of career fulfillment.  I'll write more later on this, but its not a quality issue in career services personnel.  They're dedicated, hardworking people.  Its a structural issue with the way these groups interact with students, employers, alumni, and information technology that creates serious inefficiencies. 

You've got alumni with a tremendous knowledge base that goes relatively untapped.  Counselors get tasked with the impossible task of helping a student get into book publishing one day and mortgage backed securities trading the next.  Plus, you've got all these fantastic information and networking resources online like blogs and social networks that the students aren't being taught how to use professionally because most schools don't actually have a career class.

What I realized, though, is that the problems with this kind of education are not limited to the college career office.  In general, structures for industry specific learning, particularly when it comes from learning from the accumulated wisdom of successful and experienced professionals, is horribly inefficient.  This occurs to me when I compare the success of grassroots efforts like nextNY and BarCamp to the conference industry at large.  As nonprofit, community driven organizations, they are often able to attract better, or at least more passionate, participants than their pricey, more capital intensive counterparts in a more open and intimate setting.  Many times, conferences amount to members of a community paying hundreds of dollars to talk to themselves--a tax on poor self organization.  Plus, you often wind up with industry newcomers having the material go over their heads and veterans finding the content relatively pedestrian.  And don't even get me started on how hard it is to find the three people you absolutely should meet.

One of the issues with these grassroots organizations is that the second you turn on the money part, it needs structure, oversight, and it sort of loses its authenticity.

What of this all?  I dunno...  but what we have now in terms of how I connect with likeminded folks, or how someone learns about a career and makes contacts... is just poor.   The amount of work I need to do to accomplish anything the least bit efficient on this front is ridiculous.

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