How to Navigate Silicon Valley as a Fresh Tech Graduate

This post targets fresh engineering graduates considering a first job in Silicon Valley. Besides the ‘how to land the job’ question, it is equally important to think about which jobs actually fit best. Being very clear about personal objectives is the first important step in this discussion.

Ask the Right Questions First

In the last couple of months, when my time in grad school at Stanford was slowly coming to an end, I had conversations with a lot of friends related to one underlying question:

How do I get a cool job or internship in tech in Silicon Valley?

I feel some people (including myself) are asking this question without actually thinking about two other more fundamental questions first:

  1. Is is a good idea to (e.g. leave Europe and) find a job in the San Francisco Bay Area?
  2. Which job is the right job for me that I should try to land in this area?
    After successfully answering these questions, you can ask the final question:
  3. How do I land this job?

Again, many people are asking the third question without knowing what they actually strive for regarding questions 1 and 2. Therefore, I certainly do feel the need to ‘clean up’ with some prejudices and widely spread misperceptions in this field.

The last couple of months as a recent tech graduate are usually spiked with a lot of fun but are equally exhausting as making the first real job decision can be as challenging as the job itself.

This post will provide you with thoughts and resources that helped me navigate the Bay Area’s tech world after graduating with a Master’s in Engineering from Stanford. When I started grad school in 2014 the tech world here was crazy new and overwhelming to me. During my time here I slowly got some deeper understanding about the unwritten laws of engineering in the Bay Area and developed some thought process around career decisions in particular. This is not meant to be a random list of ‘career hacks’ but rather an aggregation and consolidation of inspirational material that is not only related to the tech world in the San Francisco Bay Area but also to basic career considerations as a tech graduate in general.

Let’s look at the fundamental question first:

Is it a Good Idea to Leave Europe and Search for a Job in the Bay Area?

Europe

Here are three questions that you need to ask yourself when thinking about whether leaving your country and starting a tech job in this area is a good idea:

Am I doing it just because I want the ‘Silicon Valley stamp’ on my resume?

Some people certainly think that with some experience in Silicon Valley they will get their dream job, they will get an entry ticket to some kind of elite network, or they will ‘know everything about start-ups’ after having spent some time here. Even though some tech jobs will certainly be valuable for their future career, it’s by far not a guarantee for any other successes. And let’s be honest: There are so many kids spending some time in Silicon Valley nowadays that it is rather unlikely that one will get a real ‘competitive advantage’ in general. Ok, I guess having stamps such as Google, Apple, Facebook etc. does not hurt and can facilitate some nice introductions in the future, but one will still need to prove oneself.
Also, there are very few things that you can ‘only’ learn here in Silicon Valley. Yes, some trends and hypes tend to be born here. Media, press and business tend to pay more attention to what’s going on here than at other places in the world. And the density of VC money is ridiculously high. This still does not mean that everybody has to be here for this purpose. Maybe you fit much better into a niche tech company or research area somewhere else in the world?

Is it time for learning or for earning?

Often people actually think too much and too early about the earning aspect of their career. In particular, too many people don’t see the reality behind the ‘start or join a company and get rich’ stories. I am not saying this does not work, but one should just confront oneself with the right amount of rationality. People think hitting the lottery in Silicon Valley is so much easier than anywhere else in the world but if you are doing the math, you will soon realize this is not true. It is more healthy to think about it in a different way: What do you really want to learn now in your early career that makes you more valuable in general (and later in your career)? This can be the network, technical skills, technology insights, great leadership or entrepreneurial skills, for instance. But be very clear about these goals in advance. And then you will eventually realize whether you might find a better path towards these goals somewhere else.

Here is the excellent blog post that really makes the point even more clear: Learning vs earning. Don’t come to the Bay Area just for the earning aspect, you might easily get disappointed.

Am I really a tech person?

Recruiters fishing at tech university career fairs are often shockingly honest with students about jobs in the area: Simply speaking, some of them make you think that if you can’t code, your ‘market value’ is a lot less, in particular at the beginning of your career. I disagree with this statement of course, but be prepared to withstand this opinion. I am not saying you can’t get cool jobs in biz dev, marketing, sales, etc. – maybe you will just have a harder time. There are also non-tech guys that founded great companies of course (think of Peter Thiel) but I am just saying: Think twice whether it really makes sense for you to relocate here if you don’t want to work as a software engineer, data scientist, very technical product manager or in related positions.

Ok, after listing so many reasons why to not go here, what are the reasons you should join the club?

Three reasons to join a Silicon Valley tech company

During my time here I became fully convinced of the following benefits that a job in the Bay Area brings along:

  • Being in a super fast-pace environment with tons of smart and highly ambitious people. The main reason why people in the best business schools around the world become better leaders is because they are together with other highly talented leaders. It’s always about striving for an environment that you can learn from and that makes you better. In this sense: Don’t be afraid of being a small fish in a big pond with other small and big fish. You will learn from each other more than the big fish in the small pond! And the Bay area is definitely a big pond with a lot of big fish.

  • Doing and building things for real customers counts more than thinking about things and will be rewarded more. And it is just a great feeling to actually work on a product that customers will (hopefully) be using. In the Bay Area technologies meet applications with the speed of light. If you like to see how cutting-edge tech is brought to real customers successfully, this is the place to go.

  • The density of breakout companies. I strongly believe in Marc Andreessen’s statement that as a young and ambitious employee one should join a company on a breakout trajectory, i.e. a company where all the interesting stuff is happening and where all the talent is going to (more here: the Breakoutlist, which will hopefully be updated soon). And one fact holds for sure: The density of breakout companies in Silicon Valley is still unbelievably high.

In general, think about your decision whether Silicon Valley is the right place to be for you in this way: Are you really optimizing for a breakout company and do your skills and passion match these breakout companies in a great way that your chances of learning tons of new stuff are really high?

Let’s move on to the next question:

Which Job in Silicon Valley is the Right Fit for Me?

office

For most people, the fundamental question here will be:

Startup vs. big company?

Think about the type of company you want to work for. In particular, that means: Think about whether the classical ‘Silicon Valley tech startup’ is really the best option for you. Many people have this start-up fascination which is a healthy mindset but can sometimes be misleading to some extent.

Companies in the US work differently than in Germany or other places in the world. Working for an established company might already be a valuable experience, and you have other cool benefits that you don’t have at a startup, e.g. an easier handling of your visa situation and the certainty that your job will still exist in three months.

Marc Andreessen recommends joining a ‘younger, high-growth company’ - which sounds very general - but I still think parts of his guide to career planning summarize the situation in a very good way: In essence, he claims that young ambitious professionals should shoot for the sweet spot: a company bigger than a startup but more dynamic than a big company: The advantage: you are in a very dynamic environment, learn generalist skills, and you still learn from a successful environment where things work already well! According to Andreessen the issue with startups is the following: You don’t only have the financial aspect (high risk & huge upside potential return) but also a career risk, and that’s what many people underestimate: If you are lucky and you hit the right startup, you learn a lot and grow a lot, but it is also possible to be stuck in an environment where you won’t develop yourself in the same pace as in an already successful company.

Conclusion

Now, the question remains how to land this job (once a selection is made). Eventually we are planning another post about job hunting and interviewing but that area (a.k.a. how-to-crush-the-coding-interview) is also very well covered by so many books, Quora-posts, LinkedIn articles etc. All in all, I just hope I made a point in stating that the question ‘how to land the dream job‘ should follow previous, more fundamental considerations.

I am curious: Do you agree with this article? Can you share your personal experience? As always, feel free to reach out or comment here.