How not to get a job with a startup

Hugh Mongoose wants you
10gen is in super-recruiting mode, trying to scoop up all the great graduates before Google and Microsoft absorb them. I’ve been doing what feels like endless recruiting activities, and I’ve noticed that lot of applicants shoot themselves in the foot. So, here’s what not to do:

First contact

Don’t: contact the startup before you know what they do. I’ve recruited at a couple college job fairs and almost everyone comes up and says, “Hi, I’m a masters student in computer science and I’m looking for a job. Can I give you my resume?” Yes, you can, and I’ll put it on the pile of 200 other resumes.

Also, please don’t walk me through your resume line-by-line: it’s boring. I’ll hate you and I won’t be able to think of a polite way of cutting you off.

Do: say, “I love MongoDB! I’ve been using it with Ruby for <some project> and I would love to work on it full time! I’m really interested in replication/sharding/geospatial/etc. stuff!” Keep in mind: you’re talking to startup employees. Working is our life (which sounds depressing, but we’re doing what we love). It’s annoying to have people apply who are looking for a job, any job, and obviously don’t give a crap what we do.

Startups tend to get romanticized (and I’m about to romanticize them out the wazoo), but working at one definitely isn’t for everyone. The salary isn’t as good, the job security is going to suck, it’s tons more work and investment than a “normal” company, and in all likelihood, after pouring your heart and soul into it for years, it’ll flop.

On the other hand, working at a startup is awesome. You get to do everything: I’ve done C socket programming and jQuery and everything in between. I’m two years out of school and manage release cycles and user communities. I’ve gotten to travel everywhere from Belgium to Brazil and written a book.

It’s a great match if you like being independent: not the Rambo-“don’t tie me down, baby”-independent, the “::snerk::, I like dinosaurs so I wrote a research paper on sauropods”-independent. You have to be willing to work hard under your own steam.

Your resume

Don’t: have a boring resume.

Your resume should prove that we are fools if we don’t bring you in for an interview.

If yours doesn’t, think about what your dream job would look for on your resume. Open source development? Independent research? A penchant for robot design? Now go out and get that stuff on your resume.

Don’t use fluffy language, your resume is going to be read by programmers, not managers. “Did in-depth research to enable optimization of processes” is going to make us groan. “Made a genome-crunching aggregation script 50 times faster by researching how Java memory allocation works” is going to make us go “cool!” Have you done other optimization research? Do you like benchmarking? Do you know a lot about Java internals? Heck, tell us about the human genome.

Your interview is going to be a lot more fun for everyone involved (and much more likely to actually occur) if you make us think, “this person sounds really interesting, I want to talk to them.”

When I was in college I had no idea what I wanted to do, other than a vague idea of “solving interesting problems.” So, you don’t exactly have to be dedicated to the cause to get a job at a startup. Just express some enthusiasm for what they do, write a kick-ass resume, and the rest is up to your technical ability.

Oh, and by the way: if you’re looking for an awesome job, 10gen is recruiting!

26 thoughts on “How not to get a job with a startup

    1. Well, it’s actually a mongoose. And I suppose you’d get a lot of sleep, Dwight wants our new office to have a nap room 🙂


  1. “Don’t use fluffy language, you’re resume is going…” should be “Don’t use fluffy language, your resume is going…” -GrammarNazi


  2. I have to disagree with your first point re: recruitment fairs. When I go to your website and send you my CV, I’m advertising myself to you and you should rightly expect me to know about your company and show an interest. However, at a recruitment fair, your company is there with, about what? 20-30 other companies (at least you would be in the UK), so you are advertising to me in effect. What do you do? Why should I want to work for your company? So the onus is on you to persuade me that your startup is the one that offers me the opportunities I want!


    1. It’s reasonable to not know what the company does (especially a small startup), but as I said, we get hundreds of (basically identical) resumes at these things. Unless you make yourself stand out to us, there is an infinitesimally small chance of your resume making it through the slush pile.

      If you want to find out more and maybe apply later, then it’s a great time to come up and ask questions and learn about the company.


    1. Have you screened applicants and interviewed candidates? You’d be surprised how many people fail the most basic common sense points of introducing themselves.


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  4. Great Article. Very relevant information. I like that it’s direct from a technical person and to me that is much more interesting than reading about my fellow comrades in the recruiting industry. Keep the posts coming!




  5. Agreed. Except that maybe you’re circling around the most important point: people that you hire have to be a *great* fit. If you’re not like MongoDB itself, don’t try to get a job at 10gen. MongoDB is humble and straightforward – it gets the job done. So should be the people who work there.


    1. Thank you!

      I think you’re right about the fit thing: this is just my perspective on what makes an awesome coworker. The hiring process is kind of wonky, you only get a few hours to figure out if you want to spend the next couple of years there! One person’s perfect company is another’s hell hole.


  6. I worked at a start-up a couple years back that had an intelligent, polite and humble black lab that used to walk around all day, stopping to visit people in their cubes, just to get petted for a while. It was nice.


  7. I worked at a start-up a couple years back that had an intelligent, polite and humble black lab that used to walk around all day, stopping to visit people in their cubes, just to get petted for a while. It was nice.


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