How to Get a Job That You Don’t Hate

First of all, if you have not seen the movie Office Space, stop reading this blog post and watch it. I will wait.

Welcome back.

I am often asked to give career advice. This is strange since I don’t think I ever had a career. I had jobs, some terrible, some pretty good ones. I started a company in 2010. I am starting another one now. But a career, never. OK, so with that out of the way …

Earlier this month I was invited to discuss job search strategies with students in the MA in Statistics program at Columbia University. After the discussion, I posted the following blurb on my Facebook page.

Talking about careers in data analysis and stats with students in the MA in Statistics program at Columbia. My key messages: 1) if you want to work for banks, make sure you know what you are getting into; 2) think of an interview as a two way street: they interview you, you interview them; 3) if you hate your job, quit (if you can) and don’t worry about what it would look like on your resume; 4) don’t apply online, get a referral, go to meet ups, etc.; 5) learn some Bayesian stats — you will be a better human and know more than most of your peers.

I thought it would be useful to people if I elaborated on these a bit so here it goes.

If you want to work for banks, make sure you know what you are getting into

A lot of students in the MA in Stats program want to work for banks. I am not sure why that is but it must have something do with the geography and expectations of high earnings. Whatever the motivation, it is a good idea to know what you are getting into. Not everyone hates working for banks, but in my experience, technical people who end up working there are not very happy. I think they find that the culture does not agree with them very much. My advice is always to ask to speak with your potential future peers and ask them, the future peers, about three things they love and three things they hate about their work. You would be surprised what you will learn. Having said that, I have met people on the “business” side of banks that absolutely love it. Like with anything else do your research and make your decisions based on conditional probabilities, not population averages.

Think of an interview as a two-way street: they interview you, you interview them

This should be obvious, but most people don’t do it. The thing to recognize is that there is an inherent risk asymmetry between you and your prospective employer. You are just one candidate or employee out of many. They can make a mistake with you and they would probably be ok, but you are about to commit several years of your life to them (in expectation) and so you should be the one doing the interviewing! Of course, the realities of the sparse labor market is such that usually, you need them more than they need you, and so the roles are flipped. This fact, although daunting, should not deter you.

You want to find out what it would be like spending most of your waking hours at a job you do not yet have. This is not easy. To get started, make a simple two-category list: 1) culture; and 2) technical. For example, if you want flexible working hours, put that in the culture column and if you just must program in R, put that in the technical. Once you are done making the list, rank order the items. Do this before you take any interviews. After the interview, try to score the prospective employer along those dimensions. Where is the money column, you ask? That part is easy: know your minimum number and don’t be afraid to let them know what that is … but be reasonable, which means know what the market is paying and where you are on the skill / experience curve.

If you hate your job, quit if you can and don’t worry about what it would look like on your resume

Some jobs are just plain awful. If you do what I recommended above, you will probably avoid most of those, but every now and again one will creep up on you. What to do? Quit! Sure, this is easier said than done, but at the very least immediately start looking for a new job and make some notes about how you were duped with this one. Introspection is a great tool and I use it often.

A friend of mine spent years working at a company for a horrible boss and even though he eventually quit he still has emotional anxiety over the whole affair. Life is way too short to work for assholes. Get out now. But what about the resume, you ask, and I answer: if you are a technical person, github (or something like that) is your resume.

Don’t apply online, get a referral, go to meet-ups, and so on, but I am sorry I can’t refer you because I don’t know you

When I was working for a bank we had an opening for a business analyst. Now, here is the thing: business analyst does not analyze the business. What does she do? She writes requirements for a proposed piece of software. Anyway, that’s beside the point. When this job was posted by the HR department we received over 200 resumes! I don’t remember if we hired anyone, but you can imagine your chances of getting such a job. (Well, you can just compute them, but whatever.) The short story is, don’t apply online.

The best jobs I ever got were referred to me by my friends and classmates. Meetups are also some of the best places to get technical jobs. New York Statistical Programming Meetup is a great one for stats people and they often advertise jobs during their events. Another great way is to start contributing to some open source software. Where can you find great open source projects? Github, of course.

But Eric, why can’t you introduce me to some of those friends of yours that have all these great jobs? The truth is that they will not be my friends for much longer if I started doing that and you should not do it either. Your referral is a reflection on you — use it wisely and only introduce people you know well.

Learn some Bayesian statistics — you will be a better human and know more than most of your peers

When I was getting my MA in Stats at CU, they did not have a masters level Bayesian class. This is a tragedy of modern statistical education, but things are getting better. My friend and co-founder Ben Goodrich is teaching an excellent Bayesian class for masters students in the QMSS program. The stats department also offers the class and Andrew Gelman teaches a PhD level Bayesian course. If you are not at Columbia, Coursera recently started offering Bayesian classes. This one looks particularly interesting.

So why all the hype about Bayes? It’s a long story, but here were my initial views on the subject. I now work exclusively in the Bayesian framework. In short, Bayes keeps me close to the reasons why I fell in love with statistics in the first place — it lets me model the world directly using probability distributions.

Even if you are not a statistician you should learn about conditional probabilities and Bayes rule so you do not commit many common fallacies such as the prosecutor’s fallacy, especially if you are a prosecutor.

Bonus feature: why do you want a regular job anyway?

Recently I was on the Google hangouts call with a friend of mine who works as a contract programmer. His arrangement with  the company is that he works remotely. For most people remotely means working from home. For him, it means working from anywhere in the world. Right now he lives in a small apartment in Medellín, Columbia. He showed me the view from his window. It looks approximately like this:


To quote Tina Fey: I want to go to there.

The idea that an employer dictates both the hours during which you must work and the location of where the work must be performed is somewhat outdated. Sure, there are lots of jobs out there that legitimately require this kind of commitment, but it is no longer the norm. Take a look at that culture column I mentioned before and see where you stand relative to hours / location flexibility and choose accordingly.

Note to people seeking H1B visa

A lot of people I speak with are in the US on F1 (student) visa. It is really tragic that the US does not award work visas to foreign graduates, but this is unlikely to change anytime soon. The common misconception is that you need to find a large company to sponsor your H1B (work visa). You do not. Lot’s of small companies can and do sponsor H1s. When I was working for a small startup in San Francisco in the mid-90s, we sponsored several H1Bs for Eastern European immigrants. The key is finding an experienced attorney who processes many applications and ask her for advice. Reputable attorneys will not charge you for the initial consultation.

If you have any other questions, please ask them in the comments.

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