You Don’t Need a CS Degree to Work for a Startup
Around this time every year, thousands of talented college seniors abandon their entrepreneurial dreams in favor of the financial stability and prestige of consulting or finance jobs. And to be honest, I don’t blame them.
Without a degree in Computer Science, it might feel like 99.9% of job openings at technology startups are out of your reach. Maybe you studied Business or Economics and are suddenly realizing that even though you’ve taken Intro to Programming and have “Java” in the “Skills” section of your resume, you still don’t come close to meeting the qualifications for most entry-level engineering roles. Maybe you don’t even know where to find these job openings — do early-stage companies even hire new grads? (Yes, all the time.) And how much do people actually get paid at these startups anyways? (Often more than you would think!) But you have this exploding job offer from McBain Consulting Group, and Goldman Stanley is hosting on-campus interviews next week… better decide quick.
In this post, I’ll outline a strategic approach for finding work with a startup, even if you have no idea where to start. My aim is to encourage non-technical college seniors or recent graduates to hold out for the right opportunity and focus their efforts on finding satisfying and meaningful work.
1. Figure out what kind of role you’re looking for.
Play to your strengths. Below are a just a few examples of non-technical roles at startups and the requisite skillsets, some of which you probably have or could rapidly learn. Even if there’s no official job listing, these are important roles and you should assume that companies can create them for you.
You can still break into engineering if you’re determined. As an engineer, you’ll likely have better job security, a higher salary, and more credibility early on. But if you want to get hired as a developer or product manager, you’ll need to enjoy what you’re doing and also prove that you excel at it. If you want a technical role, you can always transition out of it; it’s harder to transition in. Check out programs like App Academy, and Hack Reactor. After graduating from one of the top programming bootcamps (lasting 9-12 weeks) your chances of landing a job with a starting salary of $80k+ are over 90%.  (If you’re trying to figure out how to afford one of these camps, Upstart.com isn’t a bad place to start!)
Remember, where you start out isn’t necessarily where you’ll end up. You can leverage your existing skill set to get your foot in the door, and you’ll be able to grow within a company as you learn new skills and gain responsibility.
2. Organize your search, prepare your application, and keep hitting “Send”.
Create a spreadsheet with leads and potential opportunities. Organize it by location, size, and industry. Include a “status” field where you can keep track of where you are in the process and anything else you think is important. When I was going through my search, I divided it into two categories: big tech and smaller startups.
Follow some tech blogs/sites and keep tabs on companies that look interesting (e.g. TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Hacker News, etc.). Check if these companies have job openings listed on their site. But even if they don’t, email them with your resume, any relevant work samples, and a few very compelling sentences about how you think you would be able to contribute to their company. Rather than merely saying “I’m wondering if there are openings for someone with my skillset”, it’s more valuable to say things like “I noticed that you’re currently working on X, and if you hire me I’ll work on Y to make X better”.
Browse the portfolios of venture capital firms to find interesting, recently funded startups. For example, True Ventures maintains a jobs page where they list job openings of companies in their portfolio, and First Round Capital lets you upload your resume so they can match you with jobs at portfolio companies. If you’re more interested in early-stage companies, then start by looking at early-stage VCs and check out companies coming out of startup incubators like Y Combinator. Explore AngelList and VentureLoop, which both make it easy to search for information and opportunities.
Apply to all the big companies. Go to the “Jobs” pages of any late-stage companies you might be interested in (Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, Microsoft, etc.) to see if there are interesting openings. If so, send them your resume right away. Even if you’re unsure about the company/role, it’s valuable to see what kind of responses you get, and interviewing is an important skill that requires practice. You can also use existing job offers as leverage for negotiating future offers.
As one example of non-technical job openings in big tech, both Dropbox and Box have rotational programs in Sales & Business Development that you might want to apply for. Box says you need an MBA to apply, but you shouldn’t care — hustle and prove your value, and they will throw the requirements out the window.
Most importantly, use your network. What percent of job openings would you guess are filled through referrals? The answer is an astounding 70%. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40% of job opportunities are never even advertised to the public! That means you should focus on discovering opportunities through friends, friends of friends, and their friends too. Warm introductions are the most likely to result in a hire, since both sides have validation from the moment the conversation starts. Startups have limited resources to dedicate to recruiting; they value efficiency and hire opportunistically. Take advantage of this and don’t be afraid to ask for help from the people who can help you. A few well-placed emails and phone calls and a post on your social networks can go a long way.
3. These companies need you, they just don’t know it yet. Convince them.
Not many startups admit that they’re hiring for non-technical positions, but if they find the right person and have the funds, they’ll create the role. Most early-stage companies are struggling hard to attract users, increase conversions, and reach product/market fit. Your job is to show them how you can help.
Pick up a couple of books relevant to your desired role, like Contagious or Four Steps to the Epiphany for a growth-related job. Start thinking of specific projects you can do for the company, and describe them concisely when you reach out: “On Day One, here’s how I can add value…”
Show, don’t tell — and don’t worry about how relevant your previous work is. If you’re a great writer, send over a writing sample. If you have a talent for sales, prove it by describing what you’ve achieved in the past and how you can do it again in your new role. If you have awesome skills that might be completely unrelated, like making music videos or playing poker, include them in your application. It helps to have a basic portfolio site that has some info on projects you’ve worked on, a blog, or at least a solid resume.
At the end of the day, you might not have many relevant skills for the position you’re applying for. But by showing them the work you have done, you show a capacity for excellence. That in itself is impressive.
4. Nail the interview.
So you got an interview. That’s awesome. Now how do you prepare so you can show yourself at your best?
Make a list of potential questions. Research the company online and ask around to see what their interview is like — you can even ask the recruiter. Become intimately familiar with their product and business model, and come up with a few creative ideas in the domain of the position you’re seeking. It’s very impressive to show a deep understanding of the business, and equally unimpressive if you haven’t spent enough time thinking about the company to have insightful questions. Do practice interviews with friends; be prepared for behavioral questions, logic puzzles, hypotheticals, and anything else they might throw at you.
5. A few last DO’s and DON’Ts:
- Do build something. Anything. A portfolio of projects you did in school; a fun online resume that has links to videos of you performing or playing sports. The more of your personality, determination, and skill you can show, the easier it is for the company to see how you can fit in.
- Do make sure you’re compensated fairly. See this blog post by Dave Girouard (Upstart’s CEO) for tips on negotiating job offers.
- Don’t send a generic cover letter. Think to yourself: is my email concise and interesting enough to grab the attention of the CEO in a 5-second skim?
- Don’t procrastinate. Send your applications the first chance you get, early and often. You’ll feel good when you cast your net wide and start hearing back.
- Don’t give up. This will not be easy. You might request dozens of introductions and send a hundred applications before you get a single serious lead. But one is all it takes.
And finally: it’s worth it.
If you’re considering a job that you’re not passionate about, but you’re confident in your ability to persevere and prove yourself, stay strong and hold out. Opportunities abound if you know where to look, and if you keep hustling, you will find one that’s right for you. Trust yourself, take the leap, and live your dream.