How to get a great job

The most common question I get asked on Twitch Streams and Twitter DMs is how do I get a good job?

This question comes in a few variations

  • “I didn’t study in the US, how can I get a job in the US?”
  • “Do you think I need a PhD? Or Masters?”
  • “I just need to start working at BigLab to work on X”
  • “I get too stressed in tech interviews, what should I do?”
  • “Isn’t it too late for me to switch careers?”

Thankfully, all these questions can be approached in the same way.

Earlier in my career at Microsoft, I wanted my day to day tasks to align perfectly with my interests at the time. This is a challenging proposition as projects take a long time to deliver whereas my interests are a lot more fickle often influenced by whatever happens to be favored by the Hacker News ranking algorithm.

Why can’t I find someone to talk about causality libraries to, isn’t there anyone building a category theory deep learning library, what about differentiable differential equations?

Thankfully I’ve learnt that it is both unfair to expect my colleagues to share all my interests but it’s also counterproductive. Instead, it’s best to reach out and meet people online that are already doing the kind of work I find interesting.

The key to getting people to respond is asking interesting questions and the best way to ask interesting questions is to have a good high level overview of a field and the best way to do that is to write a blogpost or make a video about the topic.

Writing has a ridiculous number of hidden advantages from clarifying your thinking to making your name more recognizable online but it’s by far the best way to meet like minded people online.

Sure there are lots of tutorials on CNNs, RNNs and Transformers online but if you veer slightly off the beaten path you’ll notice that very few technical topics actually have great tutorials and the vast majority of interesting open source projects have no documentation or users. So the maintainers will be thrilled to help you out.

I’ve had library maintainers come to my streams and answer questions for 2h about the library I was working with, I’ve had hiring managers refer me to great jobs I never knew existed, I had investors start long chats with me about numerical computing, I was invited to the Julia slack channel where I learn an incredible amount about science, I’ve met researchers, developers and entrepreneurs who are happy to mentor me and junior developers who want to be mentored by me.

So how do you use this trick to actually get a job?

The best way to do get your dream job is to start doing it

Consider that some of the clearest and best resources on any topic are all freely available online.

If you want to learn Machine Learning, you can go to the Keras docs and peruse through Arxiv and Github for anything that looks interesting.

If you want career advice, you can write a good question to people you admire on Twitter on LinkedIn.

If you want to understand the intricacies of the Mongol Khanate you are much more likely to find an expert online instead of your immediate social circle.

You can produce live action movies with Da Vinci Resolve with nothing but a $25 dollar green screen.

You can make fully featured animated movies with Blender or make your dream game with Unity.

Some are even building entire biolabs in their garages.

We live in a unique time where you have freely available tools to become a solo media company which you can then monetize when you have the skills to build useful products.

Your goal should be to apply to jobs with a portfolio not a CV

However, a portfolio is much harder to beef up than a CV because you need to actually produce lots of visible work.

But before you actually produce unique and valuable work you need to learn how to at least copy the work of others. So share what you learn and turn it into an asset, whether it’s a Tweet, YouTube video, Twitch livestream — keeping a public journal of everything interesting you’ve been learning will keep you motivated and give you an easy way to actually start producing unique and valuable work.

That said, CVs and prestige still matter— graduating MIT signals that you’re smart. Thinking of college as good/bad relative to self directed online learning isn’t the right question — if the first job you get out of college easily pays your tuition then it was worth it and if it didn’t then it’s a scam. The point is that you can produce an impressive portfolio regardless of whether you choose to attend college or not.

So instead of spending months trying to crack coding interviews or spamming recruiters —

Start building a portfolio of things you’re learning, modify them and eventually make them better. You’ll learn more, meet like minded peers, get hiring managers reaching out to you and most importantly you’ll be far happier.

Optimizing for an amazing CV has a tremendous amount of luck involved, optimizing for a portfolio is entirely within your control — you just need to spend a few minutes everyday.

Don’t stress if the outcome doesn’t match your expectations, maybe you won’t develop a widely popular open source library but here’s a secret neither have most hiring managers.

Consider that there’s only a few hundred popular open source projects that exist at any given time and each of those libraries is generally maintained by 1–2 people (including Pytorch) so the reality is most people can’t actually produce robust open source software even though lots of people think it. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You’ll still learn a lot by trying and if you succeed you may not need a job.

Does this approach work for everyone? Probably not. But it worked for me so I can’t help but recommend it. However, I don’t buy the time that portfolios bias towards rich candidates with lots of free time — tech interviews take loads of time to prepare and also bias towards rich candidates with lots of free time. The difference is portfolios are actually indicative of ability.

If you have any questions about this article or have any job related questions you’d like to ask me, feel free to DM on Twitter with your questions https://twitter.com/marksaroufim

Robots will save us