So You Want to Work in Tech? 3 Questions to Ask Yourself First

Published in Inc.

I've had a lot of different jobs over the years - in city government, state government and on the Hill, on political campaigns, at a big investment bank, and through my own companies, in industries like consulting, gaming, and digital archiving.

My work today as a venture capitalist brings me into contact with people from virtually every industry and every sector. And I speak (probably too often) at conferences and universities, bringing me into contact with young people and students across the country.

The one question I tend to get from virtually everyone is: how do you break into tech? Since my answers are starting to get repetitive, I figured I'd try to capture them here and hopefully that will provide some value for others asking themselves the same question. Like most good answers, my response is really just a series of questions in return.

Why do you want to work in tech?

Do you want to work in tech for a tangible and specific reason or just because you love your iPhone and tech seems interesting and cool? In the 80s, tv shows like LA Law had people applying to law school in droves. In the 90s, employers like McKinsey were the rage. Pre-financial crisis, everyone wanted to work at Goldman. Now it's tech.

But tech really either means working for a very big company (Amazon, Google, Apple) that, at this point, is pretty much just another massive bureaucracy, so you're really working at Proctor & Gamble with a more interesting product line. Or, you're working at a startup, which can be a lot of fun, but statistically speaking, you're going to work insane hours for a relatively low salary and, in the end, probably see your equity be worth absolutely nothing (the odds of your getting in on the ground floor of the next Uber aren't that much better than winning the next Powerball).

So tech seeming cool isn't enough and before pursuing tech jobs, you need a much better reason than "I've always found it interesting."

Why would they hire you?

Given that my work tends to revolve around politics, investing, communications, branding, and policy, if you're coming to see me, you're probably not an engineer. And if you're not an engineer, why would a tech company hire you?

Sure, more established startups may have an in-house pr person or a General Counsel or a head of marketing. But the non-technical jobs at startups can be counted on your fingers and toes (and even most of those startups will ultimately fail). Unless you think you have an incredibly unique skill set that matches the exact particular needs of a particular startup at that exact moment, there's no reason for a promising startup to even talk to you.

Hiring is a marketplace that tries to efficiently match the interests and skills of the applicant with the immediate needs and priorities of the employer. Absent a really compelling case for how and why your skills match perfectly with a specific startup's needs at that exact moment, there's no reason for them to even consider hiring you.

Are you really that risk friendly?

Because the societal image of a swashbuckling entrepreneur is exciting, people like the idea of working in tech. And sure, if you have absolutely no responsibilities, financial obligations, student loans and are completely comfortable emerging with nothing after two years, then working at a startup can be a good learning experience.

But if you cannot actually afford a serious pay cut or you don't really want to work 16 hours a day or you don't want to move to the Valley or you can't sacrifice 2-5 years of your life to work for equity that will probably be worth absolutely nothing, then this is not for you.

Be realistic about how much risk you can really take and don't waste your time and resources pursuing something that ultimately doesn't work for you.

At the end of the day, the number of people who can give you useful advice about your next job and provide meaningful connections and recommendations is very limited. And those people do not have an endless supply of time, political capital or patience to keep helping you (remember, every time someone does a favor on your behalf, they then owe someone else something in return and it ultimately costs them money or resources that you never think about or see).

So while it may seem exciting to work in tech, that doesn't mean it's right for you -- and it's even less likely that you're right for them. Before you waste your valuable chits, time and connections, make sure you have good answers to these three questions first.

Bradley Tusk