Why your job application is dead on arrival and how to win
receive a lot of messages from people looking for help and advice on getting a job in tech, startups, and in data and analytics specifically. Most of the time, I’m happy to help. The fact is, we are all looking to learn, grow and move from where we are to where we want to be. People are the only way we can get there. Unfortunately the hiring/recruiting process is incredibly broken and your online job application is most likely dead on arrival. Don’t let that get you down. There are several things you can do to turn things in your favor.
I’ve worked in analytics in one form or another for over ten years. I started my career at a large bank and eventually moved into technology where I’ve worked at several consumer facing tech companies from early stage startups, mid to late stage, to public growth companies. I know first-hand how challenging it is to get your first job or transition to a new industry.
Anyone who has applied for a job knows the classic “experience conundrum”. Most roles seek individuals with a minimum of 1-2 years of experience. So how do you get a job when every job requires you to have had a job? From my experience, there are a few things that you can do to help put yourself in the best position. Whether you're looking to work at a Fortune 50 or a startup, whether you're interested in marketing or data. Most of these tips are widely applicable. Here are my recommendations for the five things you can do today to put yourself on a path toward winning your big break.
1. Start crafting your narrative
Start here. Open up a blank document in your notepad of choice. Begin to write down your story. Who are you? What are the things that you've enjoyed doing and learning about as far back as you can remember. What’s your calling? Paint a picture of yourself ten years from now. What are you doing? What does your day to day look like? Where do your interests and experience intersect with the needs of the companies and teams you want to be a part of? We’ll cover how you go about figuring out what a company and a team needs later. If this is the first time you are going through this process and you are staring at a blank piece of paper for awhile it might be time to take a step back and forget about seeking a specific job in a specific field and just reflect on your broader interests and skills, a topic for a separate post.
If you’re well on your way to detailing your own data manifesto then you’re ready to hear this and you likely already know it. Data and analytics are in a new chapter in their evolution. Even five years ago, you could find many companies in tech or elsewhere where you could be the ‘data person’. You could be a general data analyst or a general data scientist. That is nearly extinct. Nearly behind us. Today, data is everywhere. Every team in every company has to be able to use data to answer questions, understand problems and test solutions.
Data analysis and data science are methods of understanding problems. An interest in data is a starting point but in itself it’s insufficient guidance for the future of your career. Ultimately, you will have to reflect on what your deeper interest is. What kinds of problems do you like solving? What kinds of things do you enjoy reading about, thinking about?
- If you're interested in the mechanics of data collection, data storage, and data access that's a unique space within data that has its own lingo, tools, advances, challenges, leaders, etc.
- If you're interested in understanding how to identify, target, reach, and engage users and customers, there is a deep field of marketing analytics, again with its own lingo, tools, advances, challenges, leaders, etc. The list goes on and on.
There are data and analytics needs within every industry and within every department in every company. Figure out what your specific calling is. If you’re early on in your career or search, you might not know what you’re calling is. That’s fine. Most people even later in their career don’t know what their calling is. Reflect on what interests you most. If you love using the tools and methodologies of an analyst or a data scientist. Great, where do you want to apply them? What kind of problems are you interested in understanding? Start crafting your narrative that explains to anyone you meet - what gets you excited, what knowledge you've been acquiring and how it fits with what their company and their team is looking to do.
This process is never finished but you have to start it. The process itself will help you clarify your interests and your story. It will also help you identify gaps in your knowledge. Those gaps should help you create your list of questions to ask when someone in the field shares their time. You’ll learn more over time, you’ll talk to people, you’ll refine your narrative but you need to have something to refine, so start putting words on paper.
2. Get your docs in order
Once your narrative is tight, it's time to ensure your materials tell the same story. When it comes to docs, it seems like there are a handful of profiles and documents that are relevant in the job search. My personal view, make sure your LinkedIn profile, your resume and a personal site, if you have one, are aligned. To the reader it should read like they are all connected to the same person who has had the same experience. Ideally that experience points to the job you are applying for.
I'm not a resume expert. There's lots of advice out there on crafting one. If your school has a career services department they will likely have their own set of recommendations, tips, standards etc. My opinion. Keep it simple, keep it brief and put the most relevant info at the top. So, what’s relevant? If you have anywork experience, at any company, that fits into your narrative, start with that. What was it, what did it involve, what was your role, what did you contribute, what did you take away from it? The industry and size of the company are less relevant than the experience you had there so don't be afraid to list a company that's less known (unkown) if the experience you had there can be relevant for the job you're applying to.
- There are only a couple of scenarios where I can see it relevant to start with your educational credentials. The first is if you have had no relevant full time work experience. I worked at The Home Depot one summer after high school. It was not full time work and it was not super relevant for my application to be a Summer Analyst at a large bank. In both positions I would be tasked with answering questions I didn’t know, but the similarities ended there. So, my education credentials were still at the top of resume back then.
- The second scenario in which I can see it making sense to include your educational experience at the top of your resume is if you have very thin work experience (less than two years of work experience that isn't highly relevant for the job you are seeking), AND you went to a school that has such notoriety and respect in the city, state, country in which you are applying that it's there as a hook to get the reader to at least read through the rest of your resume and not instantly dismiss.
Those two scenarios aside, put your professional experience at the top of your resume. When it comes to ‘academic experience’, don’t list out the details of all the class projects that you worked on that were ‘real world’ projects. Delete all of the verbiage and reduce it to tags that represent what you took away from the experience, [subject matter] [tool][skill set] etc. These academic project are just there to show that you have had some exposure to the topic. No one really considers it 'work experience' when it's academic. Obviously be ready to talk through anything you put on your resume, but save the space and don't go into a long explanation on the resume itself.
3. Hack some real experience together
It’s a cactch-22. Every position you will see, says 1-2 or 2-3 years of experience preferred or required. So how can you get a job if every job requires you to have had a job? Truth is, you have to get creative and you have to hustle.
The path of least resistance is on-campus recruiting. If you are still in school undergrad or grad then there will be a number of times throughout the year where companies come to your campus specifically looking to hire a certain number of graduates. It's not easy but it's the path of least resistance for many reasons. The companies are there, you don't have to find or chase them. They're there to hire, and they're there to hire students. If there are companies and roles interesting to you, go. Be prepared. Be on time. Be polite. Follow up with short thank you notes that reiterate your interest.
If the companies and roles you are interested in are NOT on campus or those roles didn't go your way, don't get discouraged, just get ready. You'll have to hustle, you'll have to dig, you'll have to get creative. Take a very wide view of your background and your experience. What are things you know how to do? What's experience that you have? What's information that you have? Don't just think about jobs and internships but think about your life. Chances are there is someone out there looking for your insight. Your insight as a student, consumer, dog owner, photographer, glasses wearer. You get the idea.
Right now, right this very minute - there are thousands of entrepreneurs, builders, side hustlers, small startups launching projects and products. Often 1-2 people testing the market with their idea. You may see adverts, posts, emails that mention they're doing research and looking to conduct customer discovery interviews to understand a category of consumers that you may fit into. They'll offer $10, $20, sometimes way more for your 30-60 minutes of your time over the phone, video orin-person. They'll be seeking to learn from you about your thoughts, opinions, experiences. You can make the most of it and ask them for the same amount of time to learn from them. There are people behind these research projects and startups. Learn about them. What experience do they have? What industries have they worked in? What advice do they have?
- If they have experience in a field you're interested, even better.
- If they have a need for someone to help them with something you have experience in, then you've just hacked your way to an internship, a consulting gig, a side hustle, maybe even if a full time job.
4. Get out from behind your computer
This is an important one. Stop spending excessive amounts of time applying for jobs. I've learned this one myself the hard way. Job applications are like social media likes. They’re a quick hit. They’re something quick that you can do, that gives yourself the illusion of productivity. Find the company website. Click on careers. Find a job posting with some interesting words. Attach and upload current resume. Submit. It's a powerful five step process in itself. You can easily get sucked into it and lose hours submitting applications like a gambler in a windowless casino. Problem is 99.9%of the time it leads to nothing. You get that email that says "We've received your application" and you think, Yes! Then a few days later you're like, mmmm, I guess I won't hear from them.
I don't pretend to know every reason why it doesn't work. But I do know it doesn't work.
We know that today, our resumes are most often scanned by a program. If/when your resume does make it to a human, we know that the amount of time spent looking at is very brief, something like 30-60 seconds. Let's say for argument sake that there was a company out there that had a human read through every resume. Let's also say in this imaginary company that in addition to every resume being read by a human it was read and reviewed for a serious amount of time, 10 minutes by each person. And it was read by multiple people, a panel. Let's say that every resume submitted to our utopian company was read by a panel of people for 10 minutes each and then discussed as a group for 30 minutes. A dozen different people from varying seniorities and education and cultural backgrounds all getting together to review your resume and see if it merits even an initial phone call. Would the outcome be different? I don't think so and here's why.
The job application process is seriously broken and unfortunately your application is likely dead on arrival. In most companies, a hiring manager works with the recruiting team to come up with a job description. Some of the application is boilerplate material from the recruiting and legal department and some of it is specific to the job. Maybe the hiring manager had a few people on their team supply input in terms of the characteristics, skills, experiences they think are important. Whether it's the product of one person or ten, the requirements themselves are always loaded with lots of words that at best, mean something to the person who wrote them but often mean different things to different people. Even different people who have lots of experience in the industry.
Enter you, the applicant. At best, you have a vague understanding of the job you just applied to and maybe a little relevant experience or exposure. What are the odds that you (with 0-2 years of experience the field) have the exact same understanding of a series of ambiguous words as the hiring manager (with 5-10 years of experience in the field) such that you know what the job entails, what the day to day looks like, what this team is looking for, and why you're the perfect fit. The likelihood is that 0.1% from before. The same as the likelihood that you actually hear back. So what are you supposed to do? How do you beat the odds? It all comes back to people.
5. Start creating your network
It used to be that if you had an idea of a career you were interested in, you asked your five closest family and friends if they knew anyone who did that thing. If they said no, you were like 'hmm' and that was pretty much it. Today, there's no excuse. There is more content and information put out on the internet every minute than you can possibly consume. You can and should use every article, post, blog you can find to learn about topics you're interested in and the people doing interesting things in that space. Whether its LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. the greatest strength in these networks is enabling you to find, connect and learn from the people doing work you're interested in. Use it.
If you know one person that you could learn from, great. Start there. But don't stop there. Read up on the companies doing interesting things in the areas you're eager to learn. There's a team of people behind those initiatives. Figure out who they are. Go to local talks and fireside chats. Figure out what events exist where industry experts are talking. Show up. Listen. Introduce yourself. Ask if they would be willing to grab a coffee. You may get ignored 9/10 times but I don't believe it will be10/10. Someone will share 20 minutes. Be on time. Be prepared. Be polite. Be eager to learn. Then, do it again. And again. And again.
These chats are the most important thing you can do in your job search. They are a chance to learn, a chance to demonstrate your interest, most importantly, they are a chance to start building your network in your field. This is the network that will help you navigate your search.
The goal is not necessarily for the person you’re meeting with to have an open job on their team that directly meets your interests and skills. That’s possible but not likely. The goal is for you to learn from this individual. What do they do? What’s their day to day look like? How did they find their way to that company and job? What experiences helped them craft key skills and develop key relationships?
If you have a good rapport with someone that has agreed to share a few minutes over coffee, amazing! This person could be an amazing resource to get guidance, advice, and possibly help you fill in some blanks you have when it comes to industry knowledge. Go back to your narrative. How clear is it? Where is your knowledge of a job, skill or industry fuzzy? Does this person have the knowledge and experience to help you close that knowledge gap and fill in some blanks, recommend some reading, introduce you to other people that could be good resources. Approach this network and this phase as learning, not pitching. If you do this enough you’ll start to form a network of contacts that can help learn about and navigate the field you’re interested in. Follow through and educate yourself enough and that preparation, exposure and interest will translate to an opportunity. Have faith. Trust the process. Email me if you've received 9 coffee rejections in a row and I'll be your 1/10.
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