How do I get a job in Silicon Valley?
July 21, 2012 1:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm a physicist, working to get hired in the tech sector in Silicon Valley. I'm an experimentalist having worked on collider and free electron laser experiments. I've done a lot of coding, most of it in C++ and Python, scripting in bash etc. The problems I solved, though, seem very different from ones relevant to the tech industry. My experience doesn't seem to count for much!

I'm trying to reinvent myself now, trying to learn some DevOps tools (eg Puppet).

One problem I face is that it is hard for me to get actual experience that I can show to employers (other than my years of experience as a physicist). Ideas on how I can develop some credentials an employer might like to see, fast?

How do I get exposure to people I can work with?
posted by funkbrain to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you actually applied anywhere? It sounds like you're putting up barriers to making applications in your own head.

The word on the street is that SV companies are desperate for talent right now & if you're a willing & able candidate with proven programming ability you ought to have no problem securing job offers.

In the meantime, if you have any programming projects you could throw up on github then that might help you get past the initial applicant screening.
posted by pharm at 3:45 AM on July 21, 2012

You have a PhD in physics and you don't know how to get Silicon Valley companies to hire you?

These companies are desperate for numerate, computer literate people who can look at complex problems and provide solutions rapidly. That is exactly what physicists do.

The people I know in SV (and other tech hubs) are absolutely desperate for quality talent and are throwing money at qualified programmers.

If your concern is that you don't know a particular language that a job description is looking for, you can allay that concern by contacting companies directly via networking events, etc., in which you present your qualifications. Again, these companies are desperate for talent; if your skillset does not exactly match that of a particular job description, that is no obstacle for you.
posted by dfriedman at 5:41 AM on July 21, 2012

I don't normally recommend working with headhunters, but since it looks like you are 1500 miles from SV, finding some Bay Area headhunters and giving them your resume will be a good first step. If you are as qualified as you sound, they should be able to line up some interviews fairly quickly. Note: Do not pay for their services and do not sign any sort of contract. It's a simple transaction. They put you in front of companies that need your skills, and the company, especially in SV where there is a talent shortage, is happy to pay their fee.
posted by COD at 6:13 AM on July 21, 2012

Many Silicon Valley companies seem impressed by programming puzzles. Here's a list of websites full of such puzzles. TopCoder exercise the sort of data structures and algorithms knowledge that would be covered in a standard CS undergrad's curriculum and Project Euler has more of a mathematical bent. Dropbox, Instagram, and Facebook have posted their own, explicitly or implicitly connected to recruiting, and now there's a start-up InterviewStreet that runs programming contests on the weekends just so other companies can recruit from them.

By the way, how specifically committed are you to Silicon Valley? If you're just looking for a start-up atmosphere and a lot of computer people in close proximity, Chicago actually does have a start-up scene which notably includes GrubHub and Groupon (disclosure: I've interviewed at and been rejected from both). You might consider going to a few meetings of the Chicago Python users group; even if you're definitely not interested in a Chicago position, you will probably meet people who can help you get into Silicon Valley.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:31 AM on July 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

Also, seconding dfriedman to say you've already got a few things the tech sector likes:

- C++ and Python are both popular languages in their own right, and also have the advantage of spanning both ends of the low-level/high-level, interpreted/compiled, statically-typed/dynamically-typed axes which means no matter what language you have to learn for your new job, you'll see something familiar.

- From what I saw of physics research back when I was in school, writing C++ for a collider often means either implementing complicated simulations from the primary literature or interfacing with instruments; and writing Python for a collider often means munging large datasets from bizarre instrument output formats and then analyzing them. If you did any of these, definitely mention them.

- A Ph.D. in general means you're not discouraged by repeated failure, you can work well unsupervised, and if you've had any exposure to the academic funding circus, you probably understand how to pitch and prove value and all that good sell-sell-sell stuff.

- A Ph.D. in physics probably means you're comfortable with more math than most programmers and more numbers than most mathematicians. If you know any specialty topics like numeric methods, stability, and cluster/mainframe/grid computing, definitely mention those.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:50 AM on July 21, 2012

Read and post to Hacker news

There is also a posting monthly that have folks chime in about who's hiring.
posted by sammyo at 7:49 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Since you worked on colliders and things maybe you can slowly transition to computers and get expereince? Maybe working in NY for a while ? Try to get into running the machines over at the rhic? This way you can start doing a job you know about while gaining programming experience in the pc field?
posted by majortom1981 at 7:58 AM on July 21, 2012

I know a lot of physicists in the semiconductor industry; it's not coding directly but you might find that a good angle. Laser experiments - there are companies that manufacture lasers, and if you have experience with building or tweaking your own then that's a good foot in the door. In general, if you have any experience with building or fixing experimental hardware, that kind of hands-on experience is a big plus for a lot of engineering positions.

More generally, taking complex systems and figuring them out and writing experiments for them is pretty much exactly the job of a Process Engineer. And if your background is strong in coding: there are pure software positions, and in all the other positions I've seen being able to write a script to process your data more quickly is an asset too. Pretty much every department I've seen has or wants one guy who writes data collection and analysis scripts for everyone else, or for the manufacturing floor to use, etc.

There are also a lot of "Research Scientist" type positions, check the solar and semiconductor industries for those. I think they're tuned more towards materials science background, and the exact research you've done won't be quite right, but you'll still find that a lot of your past experience and skills gained are valuable there.
posted by Lady Li at 10:24 AM on July 21, 2012

The people I know in SV (and other tech hubs) are absolutely desperate for quality talent and are throwing money at qualified programmers.
I've done web programming at startups and math/simulation programming in a physics-like grad school environment. The two are very different.

To OP:

This shouldn't actually be too hard for you. What I'd do is either make or contribute significantly to an open-source project or make some kind of app/website that you can show people. Whatever you do should be similar to whatever it is you want to do. For example, a lot of PhD folks at my company work on our big data team, so if you wanted to get into that, good projects would involve doing cool stuff with readily-accessible data.

Some examples of side-projects I've seen that were cool in or near this area were a bot that finds tweets in iambic pentameter and RTs them (this may have been on Mefi projects) and a guy I work with who did some analysis on optimizing investment strategies on LendingClub.

Doing something like this will do two things for you: give your resume a hook that gets people interested by showing something cool and relevant you did, and give you some code that you can show people to show that you know your stuff.

Also, as others have said, you should also definitely just start applying. It sounds like if you could get an interview, you'd probably make a pretty easy hire for the right position. Work on getting interviews in parallel with doing some kind of project that makes you more enticing.
posted by !Jim at 12:37 PM on July 21, 2012

Do you have any friends from grad school or previous jobs who are working as coders in the valley already? I'd imagine they could help you out with referrals and resume advice, and if they're really kind they'll also do a practice interview with you :) The more practice you get at software industry interviews, the better.

Keep in mind that interviews are often luck-of-the-draw in that sometimes you just get questions that only play to your weaknesses. I've noticed that actually, my go-to interview question is one that people with hard science research experience tend to find very easy.

Where I work we are swimming in physics and math PhDs so you there's definitely a place for you somewhere. I'd say just start applying and interviewing so you get the hang of it, and in the meantime, work on a side project like !Jim suggested. Perhaps in a language you don't know that you think will come in useful.
posted by town of cats at 4:27 PM on July 21, 2012

Hey! I have a PhD in astrophysics. Have you thought about selling yourself as a data scientist? That's what I did, I now work in the financial services industry. Because you're not just a programmer, you're a programmer with science! and likely with some stats! If you're thinking about going this path, I'd start with learning R to add to your CV. Some type of stats background will be necessary.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 5:39 PM on July 21, 2012

Most of the data guys I know have physics PhDs.
posted by twblalock at 5:56 PM on July 21, 2012

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