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. 

Seven Ways to Rock Your Current Job

I generally find that people are way to focused on finding the next job than they are at being awesome in the role they currently have.  A lot of times I think that's because there's way more advice out there about how to climb than there is about to succeed--and we confuse the two.  We spend our whole careers moving up so fast, that we're unable to hone any specific skills. 

Here are a few ways I've found the successful people I need stay focused on the present, and become awesome at what they're currently doing--so much so that it sets them up for whatever they want to do next.

Get a mentor.  Having a mentor is like having a board member for the company that is you.  They don't tell you what to do, but a good one will help you set goals and stick to them by keeping you accountable, and help you put important decisions in the kind of context you'll have trouble doing because you're so deep into your own life.

Figure out why you succeed and why you fail.  Success attribution is one of the hardest things to do, but one of the most important.  We need to learn from our mistakes as well as our successes to figure out patterns of results.  When am I at my best and where do I consistantly screw up?  Identifying those situations are the first step to figuring out what makes those things happen.

Write about it.  A lot of people don't want to blog because they're too focused on the audience--they're not sure if they have anything worth saying or they're worried about oversharing.  For me, after over seven years of blogging, it's most important function has been keeping me writing regularly about what I do and the ecosystem I live in--and, in particular, thinking about it.  Kind of like when we all started carrying around cameras, small ones in our pockets or on our phones, and a part of our brain suddenly turned on that paid attention to things worth taking a picture of, having a platform to publish your writing makes you a trend watcher.  Suddenly, you start collecting seemingly otherwise random facts and elements in a way you never did before and piecing them together.  When you pattern match, you can think quicker and more strategically versus when you need to process every single new piece of information from scratch, and writing helps build stories and structure into an otherwise chaotic world.

Be a leader among peers, helping others succeed.  Great leaders create more leaders.  The most you'll ever get done is when you don't have to do everything yourself--and that often times means training others and delegating.  That's really hard for people to do, especially when they feel like they could do everything themselves.  If you're going to be top of the class, you need to be the kind of person who brings the whole class up--because the best people lead the best teams and you need to do your part to make the team around you great.

Continuous improvement. If you're not hounding yourself everyday trying to figure out how you can be better than you were yesterday, you're not doing your job.  Each day, people get new skills, learn something, find better ways to do things, and if you're not evolving, you'll quickly find that you're not able to do your job as well as others.  This is where innovation comes from--the quest not to leave unsolved problems unsolved and the insistance that things could be done better.  Feeling like there's a way to be better and trying to figure that out should stick like a splinter in the back of your mind all the time.

Find ways to be innovative.  I don't care how boring your current job is--there have to be problems that need solving that no one else is willing to take on.  Is your current company operating as well as it could be?  How can you spend your nights/weekends/downtime trying to diagnose opportunities to do things better--things that no one told you to do but that you took the initiative on.  Go around to folks and try and figure out what their biggest problems are--some internal customer development and well thought out process improvements can go a long way. 

Recognize greatness and how high you should set the bar.  This is a big one for me.  I think that, too often, people and companies build reputations for excellence that aren't necessarily well deserved.  On the flip side, there are lots of under the radar companies that excel in areas that you'd never hear about.  Find out who the really great people and teams are in your field.  Who is the best marketing organization in NYC?  It's not the company you hear most about--its the company that knows exactly who its target audience is and efficiently and effectively goes after them, converting them profitably.  Dig deep enough and you'll find that company and who is responsible for architecting that plan.  That's where you should set the bar--to be as good or better than the best people doing your job.  Who are they and what do they do to be great?  If you're just doing what your boss tells you to do, without looking outside your own company to figure out who is setting the bar high, you're never going to rock it.

A Summer Plan for Unemployed New Grads

There's no silver bullet way to get a job these days--or at any time--but what college grads should be optimizing for is a) making sure they're choosing something they're actually interested in, b) casting a wide enough net to find the best path possible in their field and c) making sure they have enough skills and connections to be the right candidate when they do find the job they want.  This is a suggested path for the summer after graduation or really anyone who can put in a few months to get something that really fits them and that they're happy with.

1) Pick whatever industry you think you have the most interest in.  Don’t worry, you don’t have to be totally sure you want to do it for the rest of your life… just go with whoever the lead dog is for now.

2) Draw a rough sketch of an industry map.  Let’s say your interest was “fashion”.  Who are all the players, in a general sense.  Ok, let’s see.. there are designers, retail stores, ecommerce companies, fashion media, PR, investors and analysts, manufacturers, etc.  Where do they all fit together on a map?

3) Try and identify at least 3-5 companies in each of those buckets in a place where you want to live.  Google works well for “fashion PR nyc”, for example.

4) Go to and search for the jobs at those companies that require less than 3 years experience.  What kinds of jobs seem to be available at each company?   Do the same thing with LinkedIn (You might need to start actually using LinkedIn and getting your contacts on there first…teachers, alumni that you know, fellow students, etc).  Who is working at which jobs at these types of firms?

5) Now actually start reaching out to people in these positions.   There's no replacement for a significant amount of first person research--actual live conversations with real professionals.  Reach out anyway you can--through LinkedIn, Twitter, even guessing at the firstname.lastname convention of their company.  Warm intros are always good, but if you don't have that as an option, if you send out 100 notes to different professionals asking for informational interviews about their jobs, guarantee you get at least a 10% hit rate--probably even more with a good letter. 

6) Document your search on a blog--one at a custom, professional domain.  You wouldn't ever suggest a client get a account, so why would you.  Use a site that doesn't require a ton of customization to look good--Squarespace is what this blog runs on.  Mix in interesting things you learn from the people you talk to (with their permission) and things you find compelling about your industry.

7) Identify, through your research, what would make the *best* possible candidate at the companies and positions you want.  If a hot new fashion startup is hiring for a marketing associate, have them identify their dream candidate.  Compare yourself--how far are you and what specific steps can you take and things can you do to be that candidate.  There's really only one surefire way to get a job these days--be the best possible hire.  There's no excuse for not knowing *exactly* what that is and how to get there--and putting the work in to do it.

8) I've said this before, but try and identify who the top "30 under 30" in your industry is--so you can figure out your medium term goals.  If you wanted to be *the* top professional and an industry leader within a decade, what do you have to do?  If you really liked this industry, why wouldn't you try?  It's not about ambition--its about understand how far down the rabbit hole goes.  If you love PR, just knowing that there are people who start their own successful PR firms in their 20's might be eye opening for you.  It might help you realize that you don't just have to work for a big firm your whole life, waiting for someone else to promote you.  You can go out on your own.  Make sure you connect with those people and find out how they got there and what things they did would work for you.  How do you create this list?  Start asking around for nominations.  Then ask those people for more.  Before you know it, people start naming the same folks and you'll soon have a commonly accepted list.

9) Try and work on a consulting project of some kind--or something on your own--if you can't get work.  If you want to do marketing, go find a startup that you like that has no money, and offer to do a marketing plan for them.  Actually run it.  Manage their street teams, do their PR outreach.  Anything to get some real life experience and make connections.  As you're doing this, get some mentors.  Run your marketing plan by some experts who have a lot more experience than you do.  Your goals are to improve and learn, not just to fill a resume.

10) Start organize or offer to help someone else organize an industry professional group of somekind--the Fashion PR Meetup, the Young Media Buyers Meetup, or the Up and Coming Traders Meetup.  It will be a great chance to bond with your peer group, learn from them--and it will be a great platform to reach out to more experienced professionals from--not for a job, but to get them to come speak at events. 


Brazenly wrong about generations and networking

Penelope Trunk is supposed to be some kind of expert on generations and the workplace, but I don't think she could get the following more wrong:

"Do you know who is using social media? Gen X. The average Twitter user is in their 30s. The median age of LinkedIn is 40. The majority of people who are joining Facebook right now are over 35. This is because Gen X wants to meet new people online and reconnect with all the friends they lost along the way. Gen X is using social media to network. "

Actually, the average age of internet users--and the US population in general, is around the mid 30's.  To say that Gen X is doing more networking, and disproportionately so, is just misleading--it's just flat out wrong.  Social networkers pretty much reflect the makeup of the US internet user audience.  Gen X isn't any more networking savvy than any other group.

"Gen Y doesn’t need to. They never lost their connections because they’ve been online since they were ten. They do not need to meet more people online to expand their network because they are native networkers – they have had the tools and the predisposition to use them since before Gen X even knew what Facebook was."

This is just utterly ridiculous.  Gen Y doesn't need to meet more people online to expand their network because they've been online since they were 10?  I don't know about you, but nobody I know basically made all the career connections they ever needed to make between the ages of 10 and 21.  If anything, Gen Y needs the most networking help because they grew up with "Stranger Danger."  They got taught that people they don't know are likely to try to hurt them, so they tend to connect online to people they already know.  Facebook reflects that and it's the reason why Gen Y is so much less likely to use LinkedIn.  On Facebook you connect to your friends, and on LinkedIn you build your professional network, often reaching out to new people.  Getting Gen Y to use LinkedIn is like pulling teeth.  Perhaps Penelope should teach a class of college students over a full semester like I do to get a better sense of how Gen Y really networks online.

"So while Gen X is busy using Twitter to let people know what they are up to and promote the hell out of whatever they are doing, Gen Y is using Twitter for tweetups – meetups set up via Twitter. Which is a way of making genuine friends offline."

So Gen Y does tweetups more than Gen X?  Most tweetups are tied around some kind of professional group--not likely to be attended by a majority of Gen Yers.  Disagree?  Flip through who is actually Tweeting Up right this minute.  On top of that, most people on Twitter aren't really promoting anything.  Sure, the "gurus" and social media mavens are, but by number, most people on Twitter just follow a handful of people they know and just Tweet about their life.

Sherry Mason from Bowdoin College wrote "College kids I work with need coaching on tone & style" and she's absolutely right.  Just because a Gen Yer may have 1000 Facebook friends doesn't make them an expert at networking any more than following 10,000+ people on Twitter does so they follow you back.  (I always thought networking involved listening... I'm sorry, but you can't listen to 10,000+ people at once, even if you're using Tweetdeck.)

Networking involves the following basics, none of which I've found Gen Y to be particularly good at:

  • Self awareness: How are people perceiving you?  Gen Yers, because of their lack of experience, don't have a great sense of professionalism and professional appearence.
  • Storytelling: How can you package up your experiences, interests, goals into something memorable that others take with them and remember.
  • Listening: I don't think any generation is good at this, Gen Y included.
  • Outreach: Reaching out to the right people to build relationships--this is where Gen Y majorly falls down because those kids aren't any good at going outside the comfort zone of their own network--unless their mom schedules a playdate for them. 

Gen Y sucks at networking.  Don't let their Facebook friend list fool you.

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Be an asskicker

Someone sent a note to the nextNY list about how he was unemployed and looking to work for a startup--how it was really hard to find something.  He sent a link to a piece he wrote on a site about being unemployed.

This was my response:

"So the one link you send us is on a site about being unemployed?

Why on earth would you market yourself as an unemployed guy?  In your first instance of participation in this group, you cast yourself as laid off and desperate.  Who wants to hire an unemployed person?

No one.

If I showed up to a date and the girl introduces herself by saying, "I've just been going on nothing but first dates and they never work out...   I'm so desperate to find someone" I'd be looking for the door in a heartbeat.

We all want to hire someone who kicks ass at something.  If you do not kick ass at anything, you should at least be in the process of learning how to kick ass at something.  Startups, or frankly any company for that matter, cannot afford to hire a non-asskicking generalist.

Think of it this way...  If you know the media, perhaps you could have spent the last five months doing free PR and marketing for a handful of startups.  You weren't working anyway.  The goal would be to be so good at it that one of those companies can't help but hire you--or some other company would hire you because they noticed how good you were at it--or worst case you'd suck at it but you'd really learn something.

Forget pursuing.  Spend 110% of your time honing some kind of value proposition that you'd be a no-brainer hire for.

Forget the "I'm unemployed" shtick and work on the being awesome without advertising the fact that you are awesome to everyone.  If you do not know what awesomeness is, try and figure out who the top 30 most awesome people in the NY tech scene are and interview them.  Publish the interviews on your blog.  Make a list and publish it.  Here are my suggestions:  David Karp, Anthony Volodkin, Chris Hughes...

And God help you if I see your blog and it's  To be awesome, you must splurge for the $13 domain name."

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