Dear College Seniors: Designing Your Career Search

Millions of college seniors will graduate in 2016, and many of them are looking for jobs, hoping to line something up before they graduate. Many of them want to break into the software industry, or, more broadly and more succinctly, “tech.” Below are some words of general advice for students looking forward to their first job in just about any industry. It also includes some specific advice for looking for a first job in Design, Product Management, or Strategy.

Dear Graduating Senior,

I know that finding your first job can be frustrating, especially when you’ll hear a lot of people make it sound so easy! The reality is not very glamorous. It takes time and patience. The good news is that you’re doing the right thing: asking people for advice, and staying open to new things.

1. My first general piece of advice is: do not limit yourself to a particular career track, or imagine that there is only one path. There are many possible paths to interesting work, and mine is just one particular manifestation. Here is a list of some of my job titles: 

Research Assistant > QA Engineer > Associate Product Manager > Product Manager > Director of Product Management > UX Designer > Senior UX Designer > Director of Product Design > Director of Strategy. 

In other words, I went and did things that I enjoyed, and looked for the next thing from there. But I wasn’t in any hurry to get to the finish line right away. (Hint: there is no “finish line.”) That said, I had a notion that I would enjoy UX design as a career as early as that QA Engineer job… so my path was long and indirect, but enjoyable, and I ended up with a bunch of skills that make me unique in this industry. Bottom line: I’m better at what I do now because I took the long road.

2. Think of each job as an opportunity to learn. At this early stage in your career, getting a job is not about money—don’t let money be the determining factor in any career decision for at least the next 15 years (or, ever). It’s about learning the basics: how to go to work every day, how to finish projects, how to deal with having a boss, how to deal with having colleagues. Then it’s about learning how to be good at something, and learning about other things you want to be good at. Don’t leave your first job until at least the two-year mark. Try to stay at any new job for at least two years.

3. Regardless of the specifics of what you’re doing every day, read about and practice things that interest you. (If it doesn’t directly relate to your job, don’t do it on company time, though.) Spend time in the evenings and on the weekends reading and experimenting. Read about design. Read about product strategy. There’s a lot to read about product management and the software industry. Try your hand at programming. Do some sketching. Do some writing and post it on Medium. Solve a problem that interests you. But, again, don’t limit yourself. 

4. Read the news. This is both a self-improvement tip and a networking tip. I can’t tell you how many good first impressions I’ve made because I could talk in a semi-informed way about a particular topic after reading something about it in the news—real estate on Cape Cod, trends in hip hop, epidemiology in North Africa, pollution in East Asia. (A caveat: avoid conversations on overly-political topics in a professional setting. My personal rule is to simply politely decline to discuss politics at work or with clients, or to smile and nod and say “how interesting” and ask questions, but offer nothing new.)

These general pieces of advice suggest a basic search strategy: cast a wide net, stay curious, and don’t worry too much about whether the job fits your pre-conceived notion of what it should be. Your first job will not be perfect—it will not be the end of the road. It will be the beginning! In general, what you get out of a job is approximately equivalent to what you put into it. Unlike school, nobody will tell you what to do next. You have to ask, and watch, and decide on your own. 

All that said, you asked me about starting points, so I’ll suggest a few specific things that you might not have thought of yet: 

  • Broaden your search to look for jobs with the following titles: QA Engineer, and Business Analyst. Both of these jobs might be entry-level, and will offer an opportunity to learn about the industry of building software. They are both paths to product management, strategy, and design. 
  • Do some research and look for recruiters who will put your name into a database, and alert you when something shows up that might match your qualifications. 
  • Read about: software quality (theory, applications), the basics of software engineering, the basics of product management, and the basics of UX design. Be informed on these subjects, so you can think about how to apply them in whatever job you end up with. 
  • Meet people, preferably in person. The more professional contacts you make, the more likely one of them can steer you to an actual opportunity. Connect with them on LinkedIn, send them a follow-up note, and look for ways to help them (without any expectation of anything in return). When appropriate, ask for an informational interview, and follow this advice. This will pay dividends over time.

As for your resume, my general advice is to: 

  • Get at least one other person to proofread
  • Don’t report GPA (unless it’s 4.0 or close) 
  • Don’t include “Interests” (e.g. horseback riding, cooking, etc.) unless it directly relates to the position or culture of the company, and then it shouldn’t be buried under other things, but featured prominently in your cover letter as a “passion” (with examples) 
  • Spend time on your LinkedIn profile 
  • Try not to focus too much on your past work (e.g. McDonalds, babysitting) or even things you did at each job, but instead talk about specific projects, things you’ve accomplished or learned, and outcomes. As an RA in the dorms, you probably did things like made sure the young kids didn’t party too hard, or occasionally provided a shoulder to cry on. But you learned about leadership and conflict resolution, which are far more interesting to potential employers.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about failures—it shows that you are self-aware and introspective, and failure happens to be a trendy topic in the Silicon Valley scene these days. Above all, though, you want to demonstrate what you learned from the failure.
  • When applying to any job, remember that your resume is relatively unimportant. The cover letter should convey (quickly) why you think the job or the company is a great fit for you (and vice versa). Be transparent and completely honest.

Good luck with the search, and don’t be afraid to take the first step.

(Image credit:

Nate Clinton

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