How to Get a Job

From Bloomberg Businessweek

At Palantir
By Alex Karp

 Illustration by Neal FoxCompanies typically look for well-rounded people. They want an A-plus in every category. We tend to think it’s better to have an A-triple-plus in one area, which presupposes an F in other areas. So maybe we end up with someone who solves problems very creatively but can’t interact with people. We look for people within uneven IQs, then we build a role around their strengths. I like to meet candidates with no data about them: no résumé, no preliminary discussions or job description, just the candidate and me in a room. I ask a fairly random question, one that is orthogonal to anything they would be doing at Palantir. I then watch how they disaggregate the question, if they appreciate how many different ways there are to see the same thing. I like to keep interviews short, about 10 minutes. Otherwise, people move into their learned responses and you don’t get a sense of who they really are.
Karp is CEO of Palantir Technologies, which mines data for intelligence and law enforcement communities.
— As told to Ashlee Vance 

Do Important Things

Do important things.  Work on big problems.  Change the world for the better.  You’ve probably heard countless variations on these themes, but how often have you considered that they might actually be possible, and what it would take to get there?  Even more radically, what if you could start working towards such lofty goals right now?  It’s certainly easy to get fired up about such possibilities in the abstract.  It’s equally easy to get discouraged when asking yourself the hard but vital question of how best to make it happen.  There are no step-by-step guides for how to make a massive impact, and that isn’t my goal here either.  Instead, what I want to give you is a framework for doing things that matter. 

As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned the hard way that plans are fragile – as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact.  However, frameworks can be extremely useful – especially when you have outsized goals.   Changing the world is a fine guiding principle, but without any further parameters, this can be pretty confusing.  The best engineers I know have adopted a fluid, but essential framework: Don’t be constrained by what your product can do now; do be constrained to dealing with current problems and current realities.  I would suggest a similar framework for making your biggest impact: Don’t be constrained by what you know now; do optimize on your chances for success in the real world.

1. Be in the right place.  To pre-empt the inevitable cries of protest, yes, there are people doing amazing things all over the world.  However, if you are realistic about making a transformative contribution in any field, you will find that field’s center of gravity.  Of course, certain cities transcend mere industries – New York and Washington, DC are very important cities if you want to do very important things, period.  Silicon Valley is widely acknowledged as the center of the computing world and a cradle of entrepreneurship in general, but not everyone realizes the full extent of what technology has to offer government, finance, and the international community.  Ideally, you want to be interacting with New York, DC, and Silicon Valley at once.  Counterintuitive as it may seem, if you want to accomplish this, Silicon Valley is still your best bet as home base.  The culture is conducive to disruption in a way that New York and DC fundamentally aren’t, and technology is actually the most leveraged way to effect change on a grand scale, even in the rarified realms of policy.  More on that in a future post. 

2. Don't join a company to be a minion.  Few people would admit to aspiring to be a minion, but this is exactly what you’re signing up for with many companies, however selective and prestigious they may appear.  Some of the trappings of a minion workforce are obvious – when interviewing, you will quickly develop radar for which companies prize conformity and prefer young employees to be seen and not heard.  This can be a purely cultural phenomenon, but the root cause usually lies with the nature of the work itself.  Sadly, some businesses are entirely predicated on doing things the way they’ve always been done, even if there is an outstanding opportunity to create more value.  If potentially transformative ideas from junior employees are not merely ignored, but viewed as a threat to business as usual, chances are that company is looking for minions.  

It’s often tempting to view a minion position as a necessary evil, simply the price you pay for the rewards and opportunities to come.  Don’t be fooled.  If you have to be a good minion to get in at the bottom, you will almost certainly have to remain a good minion to rise to the top.

Perhaps the most demoralizing part of being a minion is the sense that you’re fungible.  Many blue-chip companies, especially in management consulting and banking, successfully obscure this ugly realization by famously recruiting the most polished people from the most prestigious schools.  However, just because you possess elite qualifications doesn’t mean you’re not easily replaced.  Think of the Stormtroopers: they are recruited and trained as the best of the best of Imperial forces, and yes, their helmets are awesome, but as anyone who’s seen more than five minutes of “Star Wars” knows, they are ultimately disposable.

3.  Join – or start - a company that supports your ability to innovate and solve problems.  This can take many forms, but regardless of the details, a company that doesn’t care about innovation as a business probably won’t care about innovation as a junior employee.   Banks may find innovative ways to move and securitize assets, but are not in the business of creating value from scratch.  Consultants are too concerned with incremental improvements to do anything truly new.  Large government contractors are in the business of renting labor, not innovating.  A commitment to innovation is hardly sufficient, but it is certainly necessary.  Once you’ve determined a company’s level of commitment, the next key consideration here is how your abilities are supported:

- Do they give you meaningful work?  Granted, you won’t be handed the lead on negotiations for your company’s biggest contract to date, but will you be invited into the boardroom at any point in the process?  You might not have ownership of a major software release, but it would be nice to have ownership over a key section of the code if you’ve shown you’re up to the task.

- Is the company positioned to harness your most innovative work?  I know a talented but extremely frustrated systems engineer.  He’s worked for a major government contractor since college, and had half a dozen patents in his name at the age of 25.  Unfortunately, those patents are just sitting around collecting dust, because his company is 100% focused on operating costs and top line, and has no mechanism for monetizing or productizing new IP.  

- Do they hold you accountable for execution?  Many well-meaning managers think that they’re encouraging innovation, but don’t demand concrete deliverables or a viable action plan before lending their support to a project, leading it to inevitably die a quiet death.  As Ramit Sethi says, think in weeks, not years.  New ideas should be welcome, but only if the originator is allowed to take appropriate ownership right away.

- Are they open to criticism and self-improvement? If a company expects employees to be humble and driven to learn, it should certainly expect the same of itself and its leadership.  I’ll never forget my interview with Dave, one of my first business development hires.  Dave literally laughed in my face when I admitted I was unfamiliar with Getting Things Done!  Fortunately, I forgave his recklessness, Dave is now running one of our largest teams, and Getting Things Done is an essential part of our onboarding process and general approach to efficiency.

Of course, no one company has optimized on all of these facets equally.  There is no such thing as the perfect company - what matters is whether a company is open to being perfected.

4. Don’t join a company because you think you’ll learn a lot...  People will often tell you that you should spend a few years out of college working for a huge, highly hierarchical corporation – particularly in industries notorious for grinding down talented young people - because it’s a “great place to learn”.  This is just silly for many reasons:

- The best way to learn is still by doing things.  For this reason alone, you should go someplace where you can have an immediate and tangible impact. If you can find a workplace where your actions matter, I guarantee that you will learn a ton about your world, your profession, and yourself.

- You may learn a lot, but what will you be learning? Most likely, how to adapt to the processes, politics, and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies of the organization.  Joining an environment that doesn’t appeal to you so you can learn to succeed in that environment is a tragic, but all too common, form of unwitting circular reasoning. 

You may be told that if you put in a couple of years at Firm X, you can write your own ticket anywhere.  However, the skills you learn doing substantive, innovative work generally have far more carry-over to other fields than formulaic and anonymous work for a big-name firm.  In Silicon Valley, it’s not uncommon to see a serial entrepreneur leap from Internet to energy.  This is partly because Silicon Valley attracts people with diverse interests and ambitions, but it only works because the principles of agility, execution, and continuous learning and adaptation apply to any industry.  By contrast, my friends who went into banking and consulting and made it past the entry level are almost all still in banking and consulting. 

5.  …But never forget how much you have to learn.  Given the swagger and iconoclasm associated with entrepreneurship in most people’s minds (especially in the Valley), it might be tempting to conclude that you don’t have a lot to learn after all.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Actual innovation is an extremely humbling process of trial and error, all the more so if you aspire to any sort of lasting societal impact.  We all have a lot to learn, at any stage, and this is precisely what drew me and so many others to Silicon Valley in the first place.  Of course, the willingness to learn is only the beginning.  The willingness to do something is the true test.  More on that next time… 

Your Future

I've been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time this year with the bright minds graduating for universities this year (and many who still have several years to go).  As someone who travels a lot between Silicon Valley, DC, and New York, I've developed a stark appreciation of the cultural differences of each that ultimately manifest into the best and worst of each.  There is a similar parallel for students at University.  

A substantial amount of your education outside the classroom is influenced by the center of gravity of your school.  If you go to school in Virgina, the DC outlook and worldview greatly influences what you want to do and what you will be exposed to.  If you go to school at say, Cornell, my alma mater, then it is near impossible to escape the pull of New York.  One of the best things Stanford gives its computer scientists is a fluency of what it takes to start a company and an appeciation and basic literacy for those that are interested.  In fact, the entropy takes you there.  You have to be particularly disinterested in entrepreneurship to escape it.  

Now I'm hugely biased.  I headed to grad school at Stanford to create a vehicle to come to Silicon Valley. Within a few months of being in Palo Alto I was working fulltime at startup as the 5th employee and loving it. I knew I wanted to be the Valley, but what I didn't know is how my own journey would take my back to New York and DC in deeply substantive and fulfilling ways -- that's I'd be able to work with the best of all three cities.  

Now as I meet college students I find myself talking about the other two relevant perspectives they might not have ready access to.  And that inspires the series "Your Future" -- the posts that will follow.

Chile's Puyehue Volcano

From Foreign Policy Passport...

Lightning is seen amid a cloud of ash billowing from Puyehue volcano near Osorno in southern Chile, 870 km south of Santiago, on June 5, 2011. Puyehue volcano erupted for the first time in half a century on June 4, 2011, prompting evacuations for 3,500 people as it sent a cloud of ash that reached Argentina. The National Service of Geology and Mining said the explosion that sparked the eruption also produced a column of gas 10 kilometers (six miles) high, hours after warning of strong seismic activity in the area.

More info here.

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Chinese prisoners labor in World of Warcraft

interesting post from Foreign Policy Passport...

From the Guardian, yet more proof that world we live in is, in fact, a William Gibson novel:

Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do.

"Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour," Liu told the Guardian. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off."[...]

It is known as "gold farming", the practice of building up credits and online value through the monotonous repetition of basic tasks in online games such as World of Warcraft. The trade in virtual assets is very real, and outside the control of the games' makers. Millions of gamers around the world are prepared to pay real money for such online credits, which they can use to progress in the online games.

So the same country that imprisons kids for "internet addiction" forces prisoners to plays hours of online games?

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