For Y Combinator’s Work at a Startup, I have the pleasure of matching bright engineers with great startups in the YC network.
I’m most excited to help people gain invaluable work experience, level-up their technical skills, and ship code alongside CTOs & founders who previously worked at places like Facebook, Gusto, Uber and more.
In my role at YC, I also do a lot of career advising & resume/LinkedIn review. I’ve seen thousands of resumes (and probably spoken to as many candidates!) throughout my career, and I want to share a few tips on how to make you a stronger candidate for your next role.
Be specific with technologies & tools you’ve used in prior jobs/projects/classwork.
Hiring managers (and recruiters) often start by looking for technologies on your resume — to know you’re programming day-to-day. They will look for Python, Rails, React, Swift or other keywords — and it might not even match their own technical stack. They’re looking for people who have a base familiarity with writing and shipping code; the rest you can learn on the job.
Even better: if you used specific open source libraries or development tools, be sure to add it. Built ML models in TensorFlow? Wrote APIs with django-rest-framework? Made clean, manageable UIs with slim? Let the reader know what skills you’ve gained and the depth of your experience in an area.
You’d be surprised, but I see a lot of resumes that omit these simple details, and effectively remove themselves for consideration from the start.
Use your work experience to tell a story for the job you’re applying.
Another resume faux paus I often see is having a laundry list of job/schoolwork/extra curricular experiences, but no clear path of learning or development. As a result, the resume/profile is flooded with activities unrelated to the role, and makes the applicant far less appealing to the reader.
Alternatively: imagine your resume as a showcase not only of your past work, but also of your future potential. Your earlier experiences — coursework, labs, TA positions — are the ones that get you your first jobs. Your first jobs are the ones that teach you how to build code and ship in a production environment. And your later jobs/personal projects/activities exhibit your interests and passion about a particular subject. That story is far more compelling to a hiring manager, and makes them want to learn more about you.
As a last note on the subject: if you have a wildly diverse set of experiences, keep a master document with all the relevant work, and pare down/customize your resume for specific roles. Don’t be afraid to continually revise your story, especially as it evolves over the course of your career.
Include one impressive thing you’ve done that reveals your work ethic and/or mastery of a subject.
One of the most important criteria for hiring an engineer — and really any employee — is how quickly they learn. This is partially because people rarely have the on-the-job skills they’ll need to work at company X, and also because bright & hard-working people figure things out themselves.
This is why we ask the question “Describe an impressive thing you’ve done” on both the YC application and on Work at a Startup. We want to know what motivates you, and what kinds of problems you spend your time trying to solve. Some of the best answers I’ve seen to this for Work at a Startup include Github side project links (with public commits!) or Youtube demos that are amazing. Having an impressive thing can make up for having less work experience or a less relevant background.
In the context of a manager, having somebody with strong intrinsic motivation and the desire to learn is probably the best asset you can find in an employee. So show what impressive thing you’ve built/shipped/done, and be that employee.
As a final note: I know a lot of people earlier on in their career (specifically students) might not have landed their first “dream” role, or might feel like they are “behind”. I felt that way when I was in school, and that’s perfectly normal.
First, if you’re a student, your career center might have job boards and/or externship opportunities to get you that first step in the door. I got my first role via the career center at Berkeley, and it gave me skills in APIs and Perl that were invaluable tools for later in my career.
Also, reach out to friends who you’ve worked with and ask them to refer you to the companies they’ll be working/interning at. A strong referral is one of your most powerful tools to getting your first — and any — job.
Also remember that your career is long, and it’s sometimes helpful working backward from where you want to go. Read this article again as a playbook for what you should work towards, and think about how you can pick up opportunities along the way. Say yes to personal projects, self-taught classes/online courses and hacking with friends on the weekends.
Let these tips be a starting point, and with a little luck, the ball will start rolling your way.
Ryan was an early engineer at Salesforce and did Product/Partnerships at Twitter and Lyft. He now works at YC and helps people find jobs at YC companies — from 2-person startups to larger ones like Airbnb, Stripe & Instacart.
If you’re thinking about what’s next, Ryan’s here to help. Reach out at [email protected].