Adventures in Ethics and Science

That Julie and her challenges!

A few days ago, Guy [Kawasaki] wrote a post called Everything You Wanted to Know About Getting a Job in Silicon Valley But Didn’t Know Who to Ask. Having spent several years in the mid-90s being a contractor, meaning every six or eight weeks I was off on an interview with someone or another, I can tell you his post is spot-on.


All you academics who have been through the job market, how would you amend his list for academics?

I’ve looked at the tips. There are 15 of them! Tips 4, 5, 6, and 10 carry right over in a fairly straightforward way. I’ll adapt two of the remaining 11 tips. The adaptation of the other 9 is wide open for anyone else who’d like to chime in.

1. Love what the company does. Passion for what a company makes or does is the most important factor in getting a job in Silicon Valley. Companies here are built on passion–indeed, perhaps more passion than reality. Hence, they hire passionate people who are already in the Reality Distortion Field. The question is, How do you show your passion?

The best way is to profess your love of the company’s product or service, and I literally mean “love” not “read about,” “have used,” or “looked at the web site.” If the company is at all enlightened, passion can overcome the lack of a “perfect” educational background and work experience.

Here’s my academic job-seeker’s version: Believe in the mission of the department and school. Of course, it helps if you have done your homweork and know what that mission is.

I suspect that doing this helped me a lot the year I was on the market and actually got offers (including the one that brought me to my present position, which I love to pieces). And my passion can be attributed, at least in part, to some of what I did not like about the teaching I was doing (and had been doing for awhile) while I was on the market.

I was teaching first year students at a very prestigious private university (with a big tuition, natch). And, all too frequently, I was encountering 18-year-olds who were so self-assured that, as far as they were concerned, there was nothing of value I could teach them. Did I not realize that my job, when reading their papers, was not to note areas for improvement but rather to recognize their pre-existing brilliance and shower them with accolades?

No, I did not see that as my job.

Granted, it was a relatively small proportion of my students that moved through their first year of college with this sense of entitlement, but it wasn’t fun to deal with them, since they were resistant to pretty much anything you could characterize as learning. And hey, many of them already had the money and connections to do OK without having to dirty their hands with anything as plebian as thinking. So, who was I to tell them that learning might be of value?

I was pretty excited that a bunch of the schools advertising tenure track positions that fit my area of specialization were school that weren’t teeming with this kind of first year student. Indeed, the three that made me offers were notable for having a large proportion of students who were the first in their families to even go to college (and who work crazy hours to support their own education). These are populations of students who do not assume that there’s nothing left for them to learn. I thought that was cool.

As well, since I was interviewing with philosophy departments, it was key for me to communicate to those departments something that I believe with all my heart: a college education ought to be something deeper and broader than mere job training. It would be a shame to restrict the opportunity to live a “life of the mind” — even if just for a few years — to the privileged kids who can foot the tuition at the prestigious private universities. The opportunity to think hard and find pleasure in it ought to be the birthright of every human being.

When you find yourself getting a catch in your throat talking about what a department sees as its deepest calling — and the folks in that department get a little misty as you’re talking about it — you know you’re on the same page about core values. This may be the most important aspect of “good fit” between candidate and department. Trying to fake this would probably be disasterous.

13. Prepare five ways that you think the company could improve. If you are new to Silicon Valley, you’ll quickly learn something: We’re just as clueless as any other place on the face of this earth. Here the blind lead the blind, and in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed candidate is very attractive. All this means you should prepare five good ideas about what the company can do to improve its product, fix its marketing, and increase sales. When all the dust settles, it would be great if the interviewers remember you as “the guy with the good ideas.”

For the academic job-seeker, it’s hard to know until you’re in the belly of the beast just what aspects of a department or school might need improvement. Still, Prepare six strategies for turning challenges into success. Why six? Appointments committees often ask about teaching, research, and service (which may well mean committee work), and having two good ideas in each of these areas will suggest that you’ll be able to come up with even more good ideas on the job. It’s even better if your good ideas seem like they’d be useful in the context in which you’d be working if you got the job (e.g., dealing with big classes or lulls in enrollment, bringing in outside funding or lining up promising collaborations).

In our last search, some of the candidates we interviewed had great teaching tips — some of which various members of our faculty have taken to using. They can each tell you the name of the candidate who’s the source of the tip they’re using.


  1. #1 Nathan
    August 18, 2006

    Prepare five ways that you think the company could improve.

    Oh, no, no, no. That’s very wrong, and if you did that in an interview with me, you’d definitely not be hired.

    Rather, Prepare five ways that you can help the company reach its business goals. Now that I would be very interested in hearing, and it would definitely place you at the head of the pack.

  2. #2 K8
    August 18, 2006

    You know, I think you described exactly the two things that got me the offer I have right now. And I too have attended and taught at elite institutions with entitlementitis. As someone who is second generation college (my parents went, though they were non-traditional — my mom paid her own way in her mid twenties and my dad went on the GI bill after Vietnam) and a public school K-12 kid, it was maddening. I am particularly looking forward to teaching at a public university where, while many students will feel they’re there for vocational learning, I hope to build relationships and encourage learning simply because material is exciting or interesting or relevant to your life… not just because it’s a requirement or is another step to get to your degree.

  3. #3 JM
    August 18, 2006

    challenges? I prefer to look at them as _assignments_, and therefore _payback_. 🙂

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