I first wrote this piece in 2013, and a lot has changed since then. Base, the company I joined, ran out of money, laid a bunch of us off, and was bought by Zendesk. Many of the links stopped working, and I removed most of them but left a few redirects. For me.
This piece was originally published on Medium with the subtitle ‘Breaking every rule of common sense along the way’, and it was moderately popular! I still get a notification about it every now and then.
Julie Mehretu, Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation
Six months ago, I was being herded out of Ohio Stadium after a four-hour commencement ceremony, one in a graduating class of over 10,000.
I wasn’t excited. I didn’t feel special — just unprepared, and poor.
The world of employment seemed impenetrable through the Clinton-era web design of online job boards, and I ended up deciding on something of a gamble. The degree I’d just earned would have given me far more leverage in Columbus, but I made up my mind that I wanted to move to Chicago, even though I had no idea where I was going to live, or how I was going to get there.
I had 90 days to find a job, or I would be on a plane back to Kuala Lumpur. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I was also about to be dumped by my then-girlfriend.
Two months ago, I started work in the marketing department of an enterprise SaaS startup. It’s been everything I’d dared to hope for in my first job and more.
An office that may or may not be the office where I work.
A disclaimer: this is no how-to guide for the immigrant job seeker. The things I did were risky and, looking back, extremely foolish.
I’m writing this just to share my story, because friends have asked, and to be honest, I’ve never heard one quite like mine.
First, a little context:
What I had going for me
I had above average grades. In the interests of transparency, I’ll admit that I graduated with a 3.6-something. So I didn’t exactly make my ancestors turn in their graves, but it wasn’t exactly outstanding for a social science major, and there might have been a twitch or two.
I spent my last two semesters poking my nose into the Columbus startup community. Being a really small community, it didn’t take a whole lot of time or skill for a newbie like myself to get involved in a respectable number of projects. I leveraged the little experience I had designing posters for student organizations to make myself useful with interface and marketing design.
I had a couple of decent sounding club positions. Marketing Director, Public Relations Officer. Nothing too outstanding.
I could write kind of okay. And I had a blog or two to show for it.
What I had against me
I was remarkably unprepared for the workforce as an undergrad. Mainly because I pissed away so much time dancing and in cultural organizations that were more focused on building friendships than resumes.
I majored in psychology. To be more accurate, I defaulted to psychology when I ran out of GECs to take. The field of psychology is full of rich opportunities, but when you’re a directionless, newly-minted graduate with no research experience, no specializations, and no grad school plans, the forecast calls for an 80% chance of ramen, maybe with an egg when you’re feeling fancy.
I held no real jobs in college. Just a brief stint as part of the student union’s catering staff that ended when I failed to complete my paperwork on time.
I had zero internships. Apart from one summer in 2012 when I worked for my dad’s 5-person human resources office in Kuala Lumpur for a month.
I never went to a single career fair. I didn’t even start writing a resume until weeks after I’d graduated.
I had no connections.
And like that wasn’t enough, I broke two cardinal rules of the job search process for international students:
- Apply to as many companies as possible
- Apply to MNCs with an established visa process
Instead, I ended up applying for a position I found tucked away in the corner of a job board whose name I don’t even remember. It was an internship, but it was paid, and there was the promise of a full-time job at the end if I proved myself. The company’s website hooked me, the recruitment video sold me, and I got to work.
Here’s what I did:
I studied the industry
Intensively. I kept an RSS feed about topics related to the position and the industry I was applying for, and I would read not just the articles in my feed, but relevant news, books, whatever I could get my hands on. I would take notes and come up with my own ideas and reflections for hours a day. I created a new notebook in Evernote just to scribble down thoughts and summaries of the articles I found most helpful, and by the end of my application, I’d collected 45 notes.
You could say that my Evernote account and I have an important relationship.
I’ve had dreams entirely about organizing my Evernote account. But I had a lot of catching up to do — my university classes had done little to prepare me for the position.
I studied the company
I stalked employees online. I read their Twitter feeds, their blogs, their TechCrunch articles. I spent an embarrassing amount of time on the company website, collecting 37 notes on just the one company in my ‘Interview Prep’ notebook, in addition to the ones I’d written about the industry in general.
And I tried my best to drop knowledge about things they’d written about online into our conversations without sounding creepy.
(I may or may not have sounded creepy.)
I created my own opportunity
During a discussion on video production in one of my interviews, I was forced to admit I didn’t have any experience with the type of project we were talking about — the video work I’d done in the past was somewhat… Workplace inappropriate.
We scheduled an in-person interview for the next day, but I decided to treat my knowledge gap as an opportunity to prove myself, partially inspired by the video Karen Cheng made when she was applying for Evernote.
I didn’t sleep that night. I researched video production and screencasting software and processes and tried for hours to come up with an idea for a video I could make that I could bring to the office the following day.
You can see the video I made here if you want. I think it sucks, but the entire process from conception to presentation took less than 16 hours using software I’d never used before, and my then-future coworkers were nice enough to tell me they liked it.
I dropped almost every other part of my life that wasn’t related to finding a job. Apart from the first night I was in the city, I didn’t visit a single club or bar in Chicago. I didn’t go to any museums, attend any festivals, go to any shows, or watch any movies. My entire existence consisted of the walls of my rented room on the seedier side of town and staring into empty cups of coffee at cafes.
For the Base position, I submitted one application online, answered a round of questions through email, took two phone calls, had a group interview at the office, Skyped the Krakow office twice, came back to the office for a one-on-one, got sent back with a homework assignment, and returned to give a final presentation before finally getting an offer.
The entire process took 60 days from the time I submitted that first application, to the moment I saw the acceptance email on my phone and proceeded to lose my shit outside a Buffalo Wild Wings in Skokie.
I messed up
I almost left out this part of the story.
One of the reasons the process took so long was because there was an interview near the end that I bombed particularly hard. They told me to “take some time off to figure out what you really want, and get back to us if you’re serious about continuing the conversation”.
The shaky confidence I’d been building up to that point shattered like a glass door in the path of a nearsighted quarterback. I was a phone call away from booking the next flight home to sell knockoff Parisian ice cream with my friends.
Instead, I sat in Millennium Park for an afternoon (figures that my favorite Chicago landmark would be the biggest damn mirror in the city), spent a couple of days in reflection figuring out what I really wanted, and… Got back to them, serious about continuing the conversation.
Seriously, I could stare into that thing for hours.
How it all came together
My final interviewer was impressed by my efforts, but my lack of experience gave him pause. He wanted me to prove my knowledge could be applied and challenged me to come up with a plan to connect the company with a very specific target market.
I slaved away in those two days, knowing that if I showed up with anything less than my best I’d never forgive myself. I brought in physical props to cement my ideas (a cardboard box with a sticky note reading ‘caution: hot’).
I made a prediction about the role a certain social media giant could play in the future of marketing. He was unconvinced. The next day, that same company acquired an advertising company in a move that was predicted to change the future of online marketing. I emailed him the article.
That night, I got the job.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to make me happy. I still haven’t gotten over working with two screens.
What I learned
I was lucky. Lucky enough to stand out from the stack of online resumes and cover letters in my initial application; lucky enough to be given a chance to reinvent myself when I stumbled.
If I had to do it all over again, here’s what I would do differently:
I would apply to more places. Not 20 or 100, but 3 or 4. Putting all my eggs in one basket was foolish, but diluting my efforts by sending out a slew of poorly researched cover letters wouldn’t have been the best strategy either.
I would put more effort into my first point of contact. Let me explain what I mean. I said I was lucky enough to stand out from the stack of cover letters and resumes. This is true. My resume and cover letter, like almost everyone else’s out there, were just a couple of digitized pieces of paper.
I did a lot later on in the interview process to get noticed; in addition to making a video and preparing a presentation, when my interviewers asked for a writing sample, I wrote a blog post; when they asked about my design experience, I created my projects page and published an infographic.
But if I had to do it again I would have started as soon as I submitted my initial application.
There are so many ways to stand out now, especially since you can include a link to anything you want in your resume — a video, a picture, a website, a business plan. There’s no reason for you to limit yourself to a couple of scraps of digitized paper.
Sure, maybe you’ll put some effort in and they won’t like it. But that’s still better than being ignored completely.
Here’s what I would do the same:
I would make sure to put the same kind of rabid dedication into pursuing each one.
When you have no connections, ‘good enough’ is nowhere close. Do what it takes to cut through the noise, and don’t be afraid to put in 100 hours of work or more when applying for a position you really want. You’re probably already doing the same for classes and projects you don’t even care about. I used to spend that much time preparing for parties, going to parties, and recovering from parties every damn month.
So be bold.
Go all out, and I promise you that someone, somewhere, will notice. Don’t be lured by the trap of apathy and stories you’ve heard about people who breeze through life without lifting a finger. If you are one of those people, congrats on winning the lottery, and let’s grab a drink. You’re buying.
But if, like me, you aren’t - and chances are you aren’t - well, I told you what I did.
What are you going to do?