3 phases of the job search process

There are few things that I find as grueling as a job search process. For most of us, I find that it brings out the worst insecurities within us as it continuously seems to tease that one question – “Am I good enough?”

The truth, of course, is that any job search process is a crap shoot. Interviews are rarely great indicators of a candidate’s performance on the job. And, it can all seem and be arbitrary. However, in a world where there are few things you can control, I’ve learnt to focus on the one thing we do control – our process. And, that’s what this post is about – the 3 phases of the job search process. This is a long post but I figured it’d be easier to put this all in one place rather than break it up into multiple posts. Also, while the overall framework applies to all kinds of interviews, this has a lot more information about the business side versus the technical side.

There are 3 phases to finding a job –
I. Figuring out where you want to apply
II. Getting an interview
III. Doing well in the interview.

I. Figuring out where you want to apply

Phase I has 3 broad steps –
1. Get information. First, get as much information as you possibly can about the possible options you’d like to pursue. Speak to people you respect, connect with friends who are knowledgeable and get out of your comfort zone and have a few conversations with friends of friends in companies/industries/roles that interest you.

2. Reflect and decide what your priorities are. Once you gather all the information, it falls on you to decide which paths make sense. If it helps, there are just five career priorities that you normally struggle with. It helps to sit with these, struggle with them and prioritize.

3. Do a quick reality check on the final list. Finally, when you make your shortlist of companies and roles, it is helpful to do a quick aspirations vs. reality check. To take a somewhat outlandish example, NASA may be high on your list of employers. But, have they hired people with your background? The more you find people with your background and experiences, the more realistic it is (LinkedIn should be able to help you with this). Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have NASA on your list – you could definitely break ground. But, it is best to work with risk as a portfolio and mix some very aspirational places with places that you know would be interested in speaking to you.

II. Getting an interview

There tend to be 2 ways to do this –

1. Traditional or resume drop. This means following the standard process. This can work very well if your background is a perfect fit. But, I am not a fan of the odds in this process.

The only exception might be if you are part of a standard university recruiting process. Even then, you have plenty of competition from your classmates and from peers in other schools. In that case, it is worth asking yourself how you could visibly show interest (without being too eager). If available, company visits are generally a good way of doing this.

2. Get an internal referral. Most places have internal referral systems. There’s plenty of evidence to show that this is the best way to get your resume seen. If you can get one of these, you are almost certainly likely to be on the top of the pile. It is important to navigate this well – try to plant trees long before you need the fruit. For students, this means it is best to stay away from desperate calls to alumni when you need a job. It is okay every once a while (assuming you have enough positive karma going around) – just be thoughtful when you do it.. But, it works so much better if you ask people who’ve worked with you for help.

Important thing to remember – this is the phase when things are least in your control.

III. Doing well in the interview

Assuming you’ve got through phases I and II, this is the section where things get most in your control. So, this is a section where we’ll spend plenty of time.

Overall framework: Warmth vs. competence
Doing well in interviews comes down to this fundamental question – do you have the right mix of warmth and competence? I say the right mix because different company cultures prefer different levels of warmth. Hence, the term “fit.”


So, how do we break this down when it comes to preparation? I think it comes down to 4 key questions –

i. Why industry?

If you are switching within your industry, you can skip this and move on. This becomes more important depending on how radical a switch you are attempting to make. The goal of this section is to dig deeper than the usual “I am very passionate about X” to find if your passion has translated to any real action. For example, do you understand how things really work in your industry? Do you have a point of view on trends? Do you keep up with what is going on?

If I had just 3 days to prepare for an interview, I wouldn’t focus on this. This is typically what differentiates a very good candidate from a stand out candidate. But, assuming you have longer to prepare, I think there are a few tried-and-tested ways to get good. I am going to use technology as the example as I made that switch. And, here are the 4 steps I would suggest –

1. Configure your information diet. Subscribe to technology news, good blogs and analysis. In my case, I subscribe to Venture Beat for news, to Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery (paid) for analysis, and to a collection of venture capitalist blogs. All of this means I have a good sense of what is going on.

2. Do a think week and write down your thesis. My single best tactic for getting smart on an industry is to take a few days (i.e. “think week”) where you aim to read a ton of material and synthesize what you are learning. In my case, I queued up a year of posts from Ben Evans and Ben Thompson. I then read, took notes, and read some more. A couple of days in, I had a lot of notes and a point of view on multiple topics would emerge. Then, I put together massive essay. I did this during winter break during both my years in school (2015, 2014). I think I took about 3 days to put this together. It is among the best investments I have made in understanding my industry.

3. Read good books. For those interested in technology for example, 2 books that I’d strongly recommend are The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (a nicely compiled history of technology) and “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly (a preview into the future). They’ll give you a solid ground of what has happened so far and what might happen.

4. Share this learning. In both my years of graduate school, I gave an hour’s presentation about Tech trends that involved compiling all this learning. It was a very useful experience. You can choose to create a learning group with folks who share similar interests. Either way, take the time to synthesize and share.

This is an investment that matters less for the interview but is worth a ton once you get on the job. Also, it is my belief that good interviewers will test this to make sure you have a point of view. But, then again, not everyone does.

ii. Why company?

This is critical. There are 2 things that are typically tested –

1. The “hard stuff” – business model, numbers, competitors, etc:

Must dos to help get on top of this are 
1. Investor filings. Read the latest 10k and 10Q documents and understand the basics about the company – key strategic priorities, revenue and profit numbers. Make sure you understand how the company makes money, what the big revenue and cost drivers are. Investor presentations and analyst call transcripts help a ton too.
2. News. Do a quick Google News search to make sure you know what is going on with the company.
3. Analyst report or internal view. If you have access to an analyst report on the company, reading that is highly recommended as you get a great view on the future growth prospects of the company. If you are unable to do that, it is worth looking for someone on the inside to understand the internal view on growth prospects, key competitors, etc.

Optional – Industry reports. Reports from places like Forrester, Gartner, etc., can be useful. But, they aren’t a “must do” in my book.

2. The “soft stuff” – vision, mission, culture, values:
1. Website and HR presentations. Read the website and any presentations or videos from HR. Understand the vision, mission, values, cultural tenets, etc.
2. Speak to people who either work there or have worked there. There is nothing like the insider’s view on this. You realize that some values or cultural tenets are more important than the others. You learn what the culture is really like. All this is very important information.

So, how do you put all this together? I think there is the heavy version and the light version.
a) The heavy version. I liked putting together a snapshot for the companies I was very serious about. Here is an example snapshot created in preparation for my interviews at LinkedIn from 2 years ago. On the back, I used to have notes about my interviewers and other insights I’d gleaned from speaking with people at LinkedIn.
2. The light version. Just keep a document or One Note file where you are consistently synthesizing what you learn. The most important thing is to feel comfortable about your own preparation.

If there’s ever a principle with prep, it is to not just take notes. Synthesis is key.

iii. Why role?

This is probably the most important of the 4 questions and is typically the area where interviews are won or lost. This assumes you are switching into a new function. If you know exactly what you are getting into, great. You can skip this.

There are 2 kinds of questions you should be prepared for –
a) The executive question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of the big picture in your role or function. These are typically discussion questions that are around the theme of – “What is the Global Head of your team worrying about?”

b) The role question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of what it takes to do the job well. This varies from role-to-role but the typical format is to go through a “case” question or a simulation of sorts. For sales role, this might involve a role play. For engineering roles, this might involve writing some code for a typical problem. And, for most other roles, it would involve working through a business case. For example, a case for a marketing role might be – “What is your favorite product and how would you analyze its marketing?” This type of question is guaranteed – and likely will be asked by multiple interviewers. And, a key step to preparing for these is to really understand what a day in your role at x company really means.

To understand how to tackle these questions, we need to go back to first principles. The 3 requisites to answering any question in an interview is –
1. Content. You should know what you are talking about
2. Structure. You should be able to frame it in a way that is easy to understand
3. Delivery. You will hopefully enjoy the process of solving these problems

The biggest challenge here is structure. So, let’s tackle that. There are 2 steps to developing an ability to structure problems –
i) Understand simple frameworks that help solve problems in your role. For example, most Marketing problems are contained if you understand how marketing plans are built – understand business objective, then marketing objective, then segment-> target -> position and then execute by focusing on product, price, place and promotion. Then, evaluate.

Strategy problems typically fall into 3 categories – decisions (cost/benefit analysis of both quantitative and qualitative criteria), profitability (break down into revenues, costs and their components) and market sizing (typically by triangulating using a “top down” approach, a “bottom up” approach and a quick gut check).

Product problems, similarly, involve analyzing products within the product management process which is some version of – Problem -> User -> Performance -> Prioritization -> Execution.

Depending on your function, there are plenty of great books that will help with the process.

2. Develop your own frameworks. As you work through problems, you will be able to improvize, simplify and develop your own frameworks. That’s a key part of the process. Telling an interviewer – “I am going to use the 4Ps” – is rather lame. :)

IV. Why You?

And, now, the final piece. This is tested by asking you all sorts of behavioral questions that ask you about how you behaved in various situations.

I have a detailed post about preparing for behavioral interviews – so I won’t spend as much time on this. Instead, I’ll focus on the overall strategy.

1. Use the “Tell me about yourself / Walk me through your resume” question to set the tone. This is an important question and one that is typically asked at the start of most behavioral interviews. Once you’ve taken the time to write down all your key stories and answered the “why’ questions, a clear pattern on your main themes should emerge.

I am a big fan of thinking about the one thing you’d want the interviewer to remember about you. Then, think about three things. Structure your “Tell me about yourself” around these 3 things rather than a simple chronological order. This question is important because you can already lead in to the why company/role questions if done well. Really take the time to get this right – the final product needs to be succinct and it definitely needs to reflect YOU. Practice and feedback goes a long way with this question.

A successful tell me about yourself question would tell me –
a) 3 things I must know about you or your themes
b) Why you made the career transitions you made
c)  why you think you’d be a fit for this company and role
d) the stories i should probe you more for..

2. Match your themes with what the role requires. Read the role description, understand what it is really about and ensuring you are highlighting how you fit. A bonus would be to make sure your stories emphasize the key values and cultural tenets of the company in question. The goal is to not necessarily have a story for every value.. but to at least have a few strong matches or things that resonate.

The Day

We all have our preferred “match day” routines. I tried to do 3 things –
1. Have a pre-interview routine. This involved lots of rest, good food and a couple of peppy songs before the interview.
2. Thank the interviewer and recruiter after the interview. 
3. Debrief with yourself. Take notes on what you thought about your performance and what you learnt. This is likely not the last interview you will do.

Whew, this was a #long-read. And, it definitely sounds like (and is) a lot of work.

But, it is fitting. The job search process is hard. There’s a ton of luck involved in the process and you can’t control for that. The only thing you can do is to make sure your process was solid and that you did everything possible to be the best you could be. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

Regardless of how things turn out, the final step would be to say thank you to everyone who helped you along the way.

And, of course, as someone once wisely told me, all it takes is for one to work out.

I hope this helps. And, may the force be with you!

Lessons learnt from internship recruiting – MBA Learnings

I hated looking for a job in my final year at university. It is one of those profoundly painful processes that I really wouldn’t wish on anyone. It seemed to bring to surface all my insecurities and really made me question if I had done anything of note in the past 20 odd years of my life.

So, when I decided to study again, one of my objectives was to understand how best to approach looking for a job. We’re in an age where we’re constant job seekers. Whether it is seeking an internal transfer within a company we work for or whether we’re looking for a role in a different company, it is clear that our age is one of many jobs, roles, careers and companies. In that sense, looking for an internship at school felt like a perfect laboratory to test how this process ought to be approached. I’ve decided to break the whole process down into three main steps, cataloged my process and then shared what I learnt. I’ve attempted to bring it all together in one post. So, it’ll be long. I hope it is worth it.

Stage 1- Figuring out what I want to do. This has to be the first step of any job or project search. There are always options you don’t want. And, it helps to really understand what you want to do rather than follow the crowd. A simple point to remember – for every job or role you don’t feel all that passionate about, there are a hundred who do.

My process.
i) Speak to as many smart people as possible. I liken this stage to market research. Take time to just get some perspective from people you like and respect. Just engage with them on general advice on careers, paths, and how you ought to approach them. It helps a GREAT deal if you already have a sense of the direction you’d like to take. For example, it is much easier to have conversations focused on careers in pharmaceuticals than just careers in general. Ideally, speak to people who’ve done what you’re about to do or something similar. These perspectives should give you data points and perspective to reflect. After every such conversation, take a few minutes to take short notes of what you took away.

ii) Take the time to reflect. Now, take the time and think about what you think you’d be interested in and what you’d like to explore. Write down what you learn. The ideal outcome of this process is a shortlist of roles and companies that you’d be interested in working at.

iii) Explore ways you can meet people in these target roles or companies. There are 2 ways to approach this. The intentional approach is very targeted and focused on getting a job. This involves looking into your LinkedIn connections and figuring out who you know in a certain industry. If you’re looking for connections in Pharma near New York, it makes your search straight forward. Once you find a few people who know people you’d like to meet, you reach out and set up some informational meetings.

The other way to approach this is to do this with less intention (my preferred approach). Reach out to people you know within the industry you’d like to work with and just ask to meet with interesting people. As long as your interest is genuine, this can lead to some really cool serendipitous connections. Take the time to visit these people in person (if at all possible) and just meet. No big agenda aside from a willingness to get to know them and list. In the long run, this approach makes a huge difference and is how good “networking” is done.

Lessons I took away.
i) Get started as early as possible. I was told to get started on this process well before I got to school. It is one of the better pieces of advice I have received. The principle here is straightforward – some things just take time. And, it is best to do so when you don’t have a burning deadline in sight.

ii) Approach this part of the process with the intention to learn as much as you can. Relationships are not built when by seeking specific favors. Relationships are built when you have a genuine interest in getting to know the person at the other end of the table. At this stage, it is critical to really get to know people as the perspective you’ll receive from an expert / someone who has gone through the same process as you is one that you’ll be hard pressed to find in a book.

iii) Think long term. This isn’t about getting what you think you want now. If it is, then you’re approaching it all wrong.

Stage 2 – Attempting to get your foot-in-the-door via an interview.

My process.
i) Finalize that target company and roles list to the extent possible. It helps having a pre-final list. Of course, it’ll change but it helps having an idea of the direction you’re heading.

ii) Work hard on that resume. I think my resume went through at least 20 iterations. It is really important you get as many external points of view as possible, filter out the feedback that suits your style and trust a few people to help finalize on a document that you are happy with. It isn’t over till you are happy with it.

iii) Find ways to signal strong interest. In school, this means showing up to company events and speaking to recruiters. Outside of schools, this means speaking to people within the company/within teams of your interest and making sure people within the company know of your interest.

iv) Work hard on that cover letter. There are a few companies out there who just expressly forbid cover letters. Aside from those, take the time to work on that cover letter. This is a wonderful way to signal interest and explain why you are a fit for the role you’re applying to. This is especially important if you are switching roles or careers. Make sure you run your company-specific cover letter with at least one person from each company you are applying to. The goal isn’t to use every piece of feedback you get. The goal is to filter it for what works for you, trusting a few people whose style suits yours and getting to a version that you are happy with.

v) Send your applications in early. Seriously. Don’t wait for the last minute.

i) Narrow or broad? Find an approach that suits you. There are many many ways to go about this process. But, the biggest difference tends to be whether you prefer casting a broad net of target roles and companies or whether you prefer a much targeted and narrow approach. I honestly don’t think there is a right or wrong here as I’ve seen both work exceptionally well. The important thing is to pick an approach that works for you. I’ve come to prefer a narrow approach that is very focused. But, that’s just preference. It has its downsides as you put your eggs in fewer baskets. But, the upside is that you only work on roles that really interest you.

ii) Don’t do things to check-the-box – do it because you care. This is a general life lesson but really applies here. Don’t reach out to recruiters to check the box. Do it because you have a question. This is not everyone’s approach. But, I’d find it hugely frustrating if I found myself on a call that was motivated by a desire to check the “I spoke to someone within the company” box rather than out of genuine desire to learn.

iii) Seek and get comfortable with hard feedback. Better to have hard feedback early on your resume and cover letter than just receive rejections when you apply. Seek hard feedback and celebrate when you do receive it.

iv) Personal contacts matter. If you’ve taken the time to build relationships at the places you want to work, interview calls come much easier. They know you, they like you, they’d like to give you a shot, and your resume submission is just a formality. Makes it easy for them and yourself. I know it is cliche – but, who you know does actually matter a lot.

Stage 3 – Be the best you can be in those interviews. It is easy to imagine the process of attempting to get an interview as a game where you notch up points. Once you have received that interview call, however, your score gets reset to zero. Now, you walk into territory where your previous contacts and relationships matter a lot less (if at all) and where your competence gets a shot at shining through.

Process –
i) Master the basic pieces – behavioral, the 4 why questions and strengths and weaknesses. There is a tried-and-tested approach to doing well at behavioral interviews. I’ve written about that and added my enhancements to the approach in my previous post on the topic. They key here is to just put in the time, write down all your key stories, take time to understand your own thought process as you approach different kinds of problems and work on communicating it.

With the 4 why questions – why industry?, why company?, why role?, and why you?, it matters that it feels passionate and genuine. Boring prepared answers fail this test almost immediately. If you’re not able to find enough passion to explain these in your practice, I’d really question if you’re interviewing for the right role.

Finally, with strengths and weakness questions (especially weaknesses), speak to people who know you well and practice your responses. This needs to feel genuine.

ii) Use the “Tell me about yourself / Walk me through your resume” question to set the tone. This is an important question. Once you’ve taken the time to write down all your key stories and answered the “why’ questions, a clear pattern on your main themes should emerge. I am a big fan of thinking about the one thing you’d want the interviewer to remember about you. Then, think about three things. Structure your “Tell me about yourself” around these 3 things rather than a chronological order. This question is important because you can already lead in to the why company/role questions if done well. Really take the time to get this right – the final product needs to be succinct and it definitely needs to reflect YOU. Practice and feedback goes a long way with this question.

iii) Work hard on technical/case interviews. My interviews required me to get really good on case-style interviews very quickly. For the roles I was looking at, these were either technology product cases (easier) or broad strategy cases (harder). In some ways, I was a bit late into this realization for broad strategy cases and had to work really hard over a 3 week period to catch up. I ended up looking back at 3 weeks where I read 2 books, worked out around 30 cases by myself, 20 with my wife, and 15 mock cases with friends and ex-colleagues. Work with people who’ve mastered the process and aim to find your own path.

4 books helped me greatly in the process.
Product cases: Cracking the PM interview (Gayle Laakmann, Jackie Bavaro) and Decode and Conquer (Lewis Lin)
Strategy cases: Case in Point (Marc Cosentino), Case Interview Secrets (Victor Cheng)

All thus reading and interviewing led to 2 synthesized approaches that I could apply across these 2 kinds of cases –
– For product cases, I had 5 step process – what is the problem the product exists to solve?, who are the users/buyers?, how does it perform?, what changes would I recommend?, and how would I prioritize these changes?
– For strategy cases, I think the crux is identifying whether the case is an estimation (estimate top down, bottom up and do a gut check), a profitability case (break it down into its drivers – revenue, costs, etc.) or a decision case (go/no go with qualitative and quantitative costs and benefits).

I’m staying away from any more specific advice on technical/case interviews as it is important you do all the reading required and develop a style that works for you.

iv) Customize your preparation for each company. Consider developing “snapshots” of your research of the company you’re interviewing for. Here’s an example of a page full of publicly available information on LinkedIn. This stuff takes time but my belief is that this sort of preparation just comes through in the interview.

iv) Develop a pre-interview routine. Confidence matters a lot in the interview game. Develop a routine that helps you feel good. I used to generally wake up early, scribble a few notes of my approach to case interviews, read through my snapshot + behavioral interview notes. Just before the interview, I’d listen to the same collection of songs. I’ve heard of others who did a few “power poses” before their interviews. This is very personal – so experiment with a few different routines and then settle on what works for you.

i) There is no substitute for practice and preparation. The only way is through.

ii) Try and do 3 interviews over 2 weeks with 1 person whose opinion you trust. While it is important to get as many mock interviews under your belt, I’d highly recommend doing 2-3 interviews over a 2 week period with 1 person whose opinion you trust. This way, you’ll be able to monitor your progress better than just doing 5 mock interviews with 5 different people.

iii) Pace your preparation. It is hard to sustain intensity over a long period of time. So, pace your interview preparation as far as possible. You will have peaks and troughs. If you pace yourself well, your peaks will come on your most important interview days.

Bringing it all together. If I had to look back at the past few months and give myself advice for the next time I did this, I would tell myself three things.

First, it is a team effort. So, take the time to build and nurture this team. Any successful process has a team of people who worked on it, e.g., your applications to school  were successful because of recommenders, parents and mentors. Similarly, it helps to have a support system of folk who want you to succeed. Ask for help when you need it (and you will). And, remember those who help, say thank you often, keep them informed of your progress (or lack of it in case of people who’re very close to you), be nice and commit to helping them in any way possible and/or paying it forward.

Second, allow luck to find you. In all of these processes, there is always a certain amount of dumb luck involved. Just remember – chance favors the prepared mind. So, be prepared.

Finally, aim to be the best version of yourself. We often attach ourselves to outcomes we don’t control. I’ve written about how admissions and hiring is largely a crap shoot after a certain point. Neither of these are easy processes. That said, they can be very educational. Just aim to learn and celebrate the fact that you’ve given it your best shot. In the long run, the habit of being prepared, showing up and giving it your best tend to matter more than most other things. And, besides, it is my belief that good processes lead to good results.

All the best. I hope it helps.

The truth about admissions and hiring

Thanks to the MBA learnings series, I’ve been hearing from many who’re going through the business school applications process. In these exchanges, I always try to make sure I share 3 points that I find helpful.

1. After a point, it becomes a crap shoot. I’d highly recommend taking a couple of minutes to read Seth Godin’s excellent post on ‘The truth about admissions‘. Here’s my favorite excerpt –

Worth saying again: In admissions, just as in casting or most other forced selection processes, once you get past the selection of people who are good enough, there are few selectors who have a track record of super-sorting successfully. False metrics combined with plenty of posturing leading to lots of drama. 

The winter and spring quarters are internship recruiting seasons here in school and it is easy to spot similar dynamics. I remember asking a friend how he thought HR picked cover letters out of a competitive pool. He imitated a person throwing a dart on the wall. That’s not to say it is completely random but, echoing Seth’s view, I think there’s a fair bit of pseudo science at play once you cross the threshold of competence.

2. It is a tough process and one that never fails to touch our insecurities (“Am I not good enough?”).  That’s just part of the process. We just have to expect it and be aware of it when it happens. In some ways, we’re always going to have such questions pop up when we ship. It gets easier when we’re shipping a product we designed vs. ourselves though. But, it is a worthwhile process and can be educational if we treat it as such.

The one thing that does help here is to be a bit self centered and just focus intensely on your own process. We’re all on different paths fighting different sorts of battles. Focus on what you need to do and make sure you ask for as much help as you need. These sorts of challenges are hardly ever overcome alone.

3. You only need one to work out. A close friend gave me this perspective and it is one that has stuck with me. Whenever we get started on a job search-like process, we always begin by pinning our hopes on a number of options. And, as these begin to disappear, we get disheartened. The only perspective we need to maintain here is that all it takes is for one to work out. Ideally, it’ll be the one we want. My experience has shown that it almost always is the one we need (and, every once in a while, the two intersect).

All the best. And, if I can be of help in any way through your search processes, do send me a note (rohan at rohanrajiv dot com) and I’ll do my best to be of assistance.