Many people ask me for advice about getting a job in Silicon Valley, so here’s the inside scoop. Not everyone will agree with this advice, and some will outright deny what I’m saying, but if you use these tips you will stand head and shoulders above most candidates.

  1. Love what the company does. Passion for what a company makes or does is the most important factor in getting a job in Silicon Valley. Companies here are built on passion—indeed, perhaps more passion than reality. Hence, they hire passionate people who are already in the Reality Distortion Field. The question is, How do you show your passion?

    The best way is to profess your love of the company’s product or service, and I literally mean “love” not “read about,” “have used,” or “looked at the web site.” If the company is at all enlightened, passion can overcome the lack of a “perfect” educational background and work experience.

    The second best answer is to “know” the company. There never was, but there certainly isn’t now, any excuse for not knowing a great deal about the company. Hardly rocket science, right? But you’d be amazed at how many candidates show up with very little knowledge and sink their chances by asking something as stupid as, “What do you guys do?”

    Corollary: Rather than hoping that the openings that you like are at companies that you like, find out if the companies that you like have openings that you like. (Forgive me Harold Keables, for this sentence sets a new record for the number of “thats.”)

  2. Create a solid pitch and bring it with you. In Silicon Valley, you can tell that a person is pitching because her lips are moving. Think of your resume as a “PowerPoint pitch” for you, the product. Hopefully you’ve heard of the 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint…here’s the 1/2/3 Rule of Resumes:

    • 1 page long. When some job candidates read this, they will think, “Guy is referring to the hoi polloi and unwashed masses, not me. I have ten years of experience at four different companies covering five different positions. My resume needs to be two—maybe even three-pages—to adequately explain the totality of my wonderfulness. And the more I mention, the more the company might see things they like.”

      As a rule of thumb, if you can’t pitch your company in ten slides or pitch yourself in one page, your idea is stupid and you suck, respectively.

    • 2 key points. Your resume (and interview) should communicate only two, perhaps three, key points. Key points include pertinent work experience, applicable education, or a love for what the company does. One key point is too few, and three is at the edge of too many.

    • 3 sections. “Two key points” means that your resume should only have three sections: contact information, work experience, and educational background. This specifically excludes “objectives” (do you really think that a company cares what you want to be when you grow up?), “references available on upon request” (duh, of course you’ll have to give references if you’re asked; more on this later), and “outside interests” (that Lamaze class training will come in really handy when the company stops delivering software by C section but not right now).

    While I’m at it, here are some additional resume tiplets:

    • Have some fresh eyes take a look at it. Fresh eyes will always find mistakes that you missed.

    • Begin each line item of the experience section with an active verb such as “created,” “designed,” “wrote,” or “sold.”

    • Follow this active-verb description with what you accomplished. The best “whats” are quantifiable results such as sales, cost reductions, or shipped products. The worst “whats” are the number of people you managed and the amount of budget you blew through. The key is not the size of the staff or the the size of the budget—it’s what you accomplished with them.

    • Bring copies of your resume to the interview. Suppose that one of the interviewers asks for a copy of your resume. It would be nice to have it with you because much of Silicon Valley suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, so once you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind.

  3. Know—or better yet—dislike the competition. Another form of passion is a dislike of a company’s competition. Don’t take this too far because no company you’d want to work for will hire a psychopath but expressing the desire to defeat Microsoft at Apple, Google at Microsoft, or Nintendo at Sony is a positive thing. If nothing else, it shows that you understand the competitive marketplace.

  4. Expect the funny farm. Most likely you’ll go through a group grope of interviews by four or five people. Most likely only one of them has hired and managed people before. Most likely this is the cast of characters that you’ll meet. Use these stereotypes to prepare answers to their questions and concerns.

    Stereotype Description Key Question Key Answer
    Wunderkind Dropped out of Stanford while getting an advanced degree. Scored 1600 on the SAT. Still a virgin. Needs a regression equation to buy a pack of gum. On his way to being farmed out (that is, made CTO), but he doesn’t know it yet. How did your PhD orals go? Fine, how did yours go?
    Mom Maybe the only adult on the team. Part office manager, part psychiatrist, part mother, and part school principal. Easy to dismiss as “clerical staff,” but she’s the go-to lady when the wunderkinds need real-world advice. Besides work, what are your passions? I have lovely children. Would you like to see their pictures?


    I’m at that stage in life where I concentrate on my career, but I eventually want a family.

    Mr. CPG Brought in by the wunderkinds to fix marketing even though they think the company’s gizmo is so cool that it doesn’t need marketing. Can’t do a demo of the product but believes that everything is a consumer packaged good. MBA. Worked for five years for Playtex marketing tampons. Leases a Cadillac. What do you think of Kotler’s Four Ps of marketing? They are still important, but the Internet and online communities have made life much more complex for marketers. I’m glad you’re running that function here because I can learn a lot from you.
    Sunil Veep of engineering. After six months of searching, the wunderkinds finally settled on someone who they thought could scale the infrastructure and had room temperature IQ. (How hard could it be support six million simultaneous users?) The venture capitalists were very happy when he was hired. Brother-in-law runs an outsourcing programming shop in Bangalore that the company uses. What do you think of Squid web proxy caching? I think that good architecture makes proxy caching unnecessary.
    Jasmine McGuire The sales expert. Finally, the wunderkinds found a sales person that they could stand for more than fifteen minutes. Pissed off that there aren’t more women managers in the company. Worked for ten years at an established Silicon Valley firm where she exceeded quota every year. Sporadic guilt pangs about not seeing her kids enough. What do you think is the key selling proposition of our product? There are so many possibilities: ease of use, speed, scalability, world-class tech support… But you’re the expert: what’s worked for you?
    Lifer Started at the company when computers were as big as a room and “partner” was a noun, not a verb. Only person in the company who uses a RPN calculator. Wants to make sure that the company never forgets its roots. Perfectly happy just to be a great engineer. Drives a second-hand Prius. Did you watch the History Channel special about Arpanet? Yeah, I sure did; in fact, I recorded it on my Betamax machine. I still think the Beta format is better than VHS.
    Grecian Gray A Mr. CPG who lasted. Knows everyone in the industry but only an inch deep. Too old to go to another startup but too young to retire. Schedules offsites wherever there’s a great golf course. Has had several affairs with employees in the company. Leases a Boxster. What do you think of the 7 Series BMWs? They’re nice, but that’s for a family man. Give me a sportscar anyday.
    HR Professional Loves the company. Loves her job. Been there and seen that. Bull-shiitake proof. You may think she’s “just an HR person,” but she’ll torpedo you if you piss her off. One of the first people you’d recruit if you leave the company to start something. What would you like to be doing in five years? I would like to grow into a management position at this company by further developing my skillset.
    Ms. CEO Proof that ice water can run in people’s veins. Tough, talented. Shattered the glass ceiling into a thousand pieces. Sports a trophy husband. Makes the Merrill Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada look like a girl scout. Friends with Carly Fiorina. Did you see that article in Forbes about me? “Seen it?” Are you kidding? I have a copy right here. I was going to ask you to autograph it.
    Don Corleone Executive with the company for twenty years. Feared by employees who don’t know him. Loved by those who do. Net worth exceeds $50 million. Empty nester but got his kids summer jobs at the company when they were still in the house. Board member. Secretary answers his email. What makes you think you can conribute to this company? I’ve read about how much you contributed to the company over your career, and I can only hope to make a contribution as large as yours.

  5. Show up early. Get to your interview at least thirty minutes early because (a) you might hit traffic; (b) it make take a while to get signed in and badged; (c) you might learn something from the receptionist; and (d) you don’t want to be rushed and flustered when you start your interview.

  6. Overdress, or, ask what to wear. Tech companies are notorious for t-shirts-and-jeans dress codes, but whether this is appropriate dress for an interview depends on the position and on the interviewer (it might just be your luck that the interviewer recently joined from another organization that had a much stricter dress code). A good rule of thumb is to dress one level above the company norm: for example, for a t-shirt style company, wear a collared polo shirt. If in doubt, ask what’s appropriate for the interview.

  7. Answer the first question, “How are you?” with a great response. For example, a great response is, “I feel great. I’m really anxious to learn more about this job and tell you about myself, so that we can determine if we’re a good match.” In other settings, this question is an unimportant formality. In an interview it’s an opening to blow away the interviewer with your enthusiasm.

    Whatever you do, don’t answer the question with the truth: “I’m stuck in a dead-end marriage, my kids have chronic diseases, so I need a good medical plan, and the credit card companies are calling.” Tech companies do not hire out of sympathy, and this is a job interview, not out-patient psychiatric counseling.

  8. Get the scoop from the first interviewer. A job interview is a sales call: Listen to what the customer says she wants and then explain why you are the solution. Many interviewers will tell you how to sell to their company. The sooner you get this information, the better.

    These are good questions to ask to get the ball rolling:

    • “What are you concerned about in filling this role?”

    • “What are the company’s greatest challenges?”

    • “What are the hot buttons of the other people I’ll be meeting?”

  9. Think: Plug and play, plug and play, plug and play. Sorry, but Silicon Valley companies do not develop employees. (“Management trainee” is an oxymoron in Silicon Valley.) Metaphorically speaking, we like to open the box, plug in the gizmo, and be up and running, so you should always be answering the question: How can I immediately help this company? If you can’t help the company immediately, then maybe this isn’t the right company for you.

    This isn’t to say that you need five years of experience to get a job in Silicon Valley. For example, someone straight out of college (or high school) can help by testing software, answering the phone, answering tech support questions, whatever. But don’t expect the luxury of a long training program before you start contributing to the bottom line.

  10. Take notes. I wouldn’t whip out a Windows tablet PC if I were interviewing at Apple, but taking notes is a good idea for three reasons: first, you can use what you learn in follow-on interviews; second, if an interviewer asks, “Who have you talked to here so far?” it would be good to be able to answer; and third, it will make you look like a serious, attentive candidate.

  11. Confess your sins. If you did something stupid in your past, the company will find out, so it’s better if it finds out from you rather than from a search on the Internet. A tech entrepreneur once told me how he rented out his chest as a billboard and made $2,500 (it’s a long story). A woman that he met on found this out, and it was an issue. If a date can find this stuff from your past, you can bet an interviewer will. Hopefully, this makes you think twice about the stupid things you’re tempted do on MySpace.

  12. Retract your mistakes. If you screw up an answer in an interview, it’s cool to say, “That was a crappy answer. Let me try again.” If nothing else, it shows that you can realize and correct a mistake in real time. It’s better to retract a stupid answer than to leave a permanent impression of cluelessness.

  13. Prepare five ways that you think the company could improve. If you are new to Silicon Valley, you’ll quickly learn something: We’re just as clueless as any other place on the face of this earth. Here the blind lead the blind, and in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed candidate is very attractive. All this means you should prepare five good ideas about what the company can do to improve its product, fix its marketing, and increase sales. When all the dust settles, it would be great if the interviewers remember you as “the guy with the good ideas.”

  14. Provide your references on the spot. Print your list of references so that you can provide them in the interview—as opposed to providing them later. In general, try to anticipate every possible request that would turn into a follow-up item: providing references, sample work, examples from your portfolio, software that you’ve written, whatever.

    One more thing about references: Provide only people who will swear on a stack of bibles that you’re great. Before you use a person as a reference you should ask the $64,000 question: “I don’t want you to provide a reference unless you feel 100% comfortable doing it: Are you 100% sure?” This accomplishes two things: you eliminate the references who will “damn you with faint praise” and you secure a commitment to a great reference to the extent that such a thing can be secured.

    If you really want to play the reference game at the highest level, ask your best reference to proactively call the interviewer. This works well especially if your reference is famous.

  15. Tell the interviewer you see a good fit and want the job if this is the truth.You’d also be amazed at how few candidates go for the close. You should clearly communicate that you want the job because aggressiveness counts for a lot in job interviews in Silicon Valley. Then ask what else the company needs to learn about you and what the next steps are.

    If you don’t think there’s a good fit, say so too. At least you’ll be remembered as an honest person. Perhaps the company will have a position in the future that is a good fit.

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