My job hunt experience

July 2014

Some people have been asking me how my job search went–how I found out about and decided on the current company that I’m working for. I thought I’d write a bit about it, as a case study for other folks interested in doing similar things and because I learned some interesting stuff along the way.

Contents

Background

For my first few years of college I prioritized getting experience in a bunch of different potential fields–I tried working at Fog Creek, Jane Street, and GiveWell, and cofounding a startup. By the end of that I came to a couple conclusions about what I wanted to do.

In terms of altruistic career choice considerations, I decided I should probably focus on doing the things I could be most awesome at, rather than trying to naively maximize earnings or maximize direct good done–basically, because I’m fairly uncertain about whether having lots of money will be helpful, and I’m fairly uncertain about what does the most direct good, but being awesome at things is a robustly good outcome that can be parlayed into many different advantages later.

Historically, technology- and software-related things seemed to have some of the greatest potential for me to be awesome at them, and also the widest breadth of opportunities to improve the world with those abilities later, so they seemed like the most promising options to pursue further. But I had already done one software internship, and while it was a fun experience, I didn’t want to do anything very similar–I guessed that I’d hit diminishing returns for standard software-engineering internships.

I was concurrently in the process of realizing that studying at Harvard for a fourth year didn’t seem especially high-value, and that I could graduate in three years if I wanted to thanks to my Advanced Placement credits. So I realized that I needed to put a lot of effort into my summer job search to make sure I found something that wasn’t a repeat of my previous internship, and that I would be happy turning into a full-time job if I decided I didn’t want to go back to Harvard.

Searching

I looked for opportunities in a bunch of different ways:

At the end of all of these I had a list of about 20-30 companies, which I then had to prune.

Filtering

The next step was to figure out what I actually wanted from a job. The criteria I eventually decided on were:

I think these were all pretty straightforward criteria. The only notable omission is probably salary: I’m not sure that in the long term I want to use my tech skills to earn to give. And even if I do, my lifetime earnings depend as much on the career capital and skills I develop right now as they do on my salary. So I didn’t think it was that important to have my first job be high-paying.

Applying

In the end, after considering dozens of firms, I applied to five (D. E. Shaw, Bridgewater, Planet Labs, Clever and ALR), and had a few more on my to-do list when I decided to accept an offer and end my search.

The application processes ranged from extremely rigorous (Shaw flew me to New York for a full day of one-hour grillings on math problems) to fairly casual (ALR gave me just a couple Skype interviews–more understandable since I was applying for an internship originally).

I got offers from all five and ended up picking ALR, a start-up that uses machine learning to understand how loans work, for a few reasons:

About a month after I started, I decided that working for ALR was in fact cooler than doing another year of college, so I sent the cofounders a nice email recounting all the progress I had made for them and suggesting they hire me full-time, which they promptly did.

(Obligatory P.S.: We’re hiring! Shoot me an email if this sounds interesting.)

Lessons

I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot of the most interesting parts of this process. Do you have other questions about how it worked? That’s what comment threads are for!

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girish sastry

How would you compare/contrast the things you’re learning on the job with what you learned in school? Which learning process do you enjoy more, and do you feel intellectually satisfied? Just curious!


Ben

Compared to school, the pros are that I have much more self-direction and autonomy; the problems are better-motivated and more relevant; and I can go at my own pace. The main cons are that I have fewer resources when I get stuck, spend more hours a day on the same thing, and my peer group is somewhat less diversely awesome.

Obviously the type of stuff I’m learning is different: there’s a lot of overlap on the machine-learning side, but in school I could select a larger breadth of academic subjects (math, physics, history, literature) while on the job I can learn more non-academic things (engineering methodology, people skills, etc.).

On balance I think the pros pretty strongly outweigh the cons, at least for me right now. For the most part I am intellectually satisfied–certainly more than I was in my last semester or two at Harvard. I occasionally have to write boring bits of code, but at Harvard I had to write boring papers much more than occasionally.


Marine

Thanks for the story, it really is inspiring! I just wondered, out of personal curiosity, what’s the place of the company itself in your decision? Did you get to meet them before? what did you like/dislike etc? How did your experience with them influenced your decision? :)


Ben

@Marine: I actually don’t think my decision was very strongly influenced by personal fit with the company. That is–I knew I liked the founders and got along well with them, but I get along well with many people and fit in well at many companies. None of the places I interviewed stood out particularly in that respect.