I consider myself fortunate to have the career I have. When people ask me what has contributed to this success, my go-to answer is to seize every opportunity. That is what I did in my early career, and I assumed that was the best course. My perspective changed when I reviewed a number of new graduates’ resumes and noticed a common theme. Many of them have a list of projects and internship experiences while they were in college. Normally this is a great thing, but what I noticed was these experiences had no relation to each other. It was difficult for me to find any connection between them. It was difficult to see their interests. This led me to rethink my answer. Is seizing every opportunity the best advice to someone who is kick-starting their career? One thing I am sure of is that luck is certainly a factor, but it’s not the only one. After several discussions with a few mentees, I have reframed my answer. To get ahead of your career, it boils down to three things: First, find your curiosity and interest, then show your initiative, and connect with others who share that same interest.
When you are going through the interviews, someone will most definitely ask you the question Why do you want to work at [Company X]? The good answers are “[Company X] is a well-respected global brand and I believe in your company’s mission statement”, “I use [Product Y] on a daily basis and I love how easy and innovative it is”. But a great answer often demonstrates a specific interest of yours.
For example, if I was going to apply for a job at Netflix tomorrow and the interviewer asked me the same question, my answer would be the following:
The reason why I want to join Netflix is that I have been following the Netflix Tech Blog for a while and I love the culture of building technology to improve internal operations efficiency. The first time I came across the blog was from reading the series “Engineering to Improve Marketing Effectiveness”. I understood the pain points and challenges the team was experiencing, since I have encountered similar scaling problems at PayPal. The solutions the team designed were world-class and I want to be part of this culture.
That’s it. Be specific and highlight your curiosity and interest to the interviewer. Allow them to ask you questions and create a memorable conversation. I often say that your experience is unique to you, and the story you tell is what will make you stand out from the crowd.
Once you have identified your curiosity and interest, it is important that you explore that interest and share it with the world. If you are a developer, build something. If you are a designer, design something, and if you are non-technical, write something. Use mediums that you are comfortable with and share your knowledge, e.g. Twitter, Linkedin, personal blog, etc. The objective here is to demonstrate your ability to explore the depth of a question or problem, and see how well you can explain your point of view. I tell people you do not need to be technical to demonstrate your knowledge. In fact, it’s not a product manager’s job to solve problems but to clearly explain what the problem is.
I cannot stress the importance of networking. The theory I had when I was in college was that life is not about what you know, but who you know. And the best way to build a professional relationship with someone is to share your interest and point of view with that individual.
When you reach out to someone, don’t just introduce yourself. Share your works and ask the person for suggestions and feedback. If the individual is an expert in the area, ask them to be your mentor. My mentors played an important role in my early career development. They taught me the skills and tactics I need to accelerate in building and marketing products. But more importantly, they connected me with other individuals which led me to new opportunities in my later career. Remember, you are not building connections, you are building relationships. And these fruitful relationships will bring you new opportunities in the future.
“Inexperienced yet smart people with initiative will almost always exceed your expectations” - Scott Belsky
While I am searching for a potential candidate, I am looking at what their interest is, and whether this person has been proactively exploring their interest. So my advice to those who are in the early stage of their career is to first, take a moment to think about why and what it is that you want to join that company, what is it that interests you. Second, start advancing this curiosity and interest by thinking about the problem. Write it down. Writing is thinking. Third, building relationships with other experts on LinkedIn or other communities. Express your interest to them. Share what you have been thinking about and ask them to share their perspective and point of view. By doing this, it enables you to tell a more interesting story during your interviews. If you are inexperienced yet smart with initiative, it puts you ahead of someone who is experienced but dull.