Non-techie needs help with startup interviews!
May 28, 2013 10:04 AM   Subscribe

I need resources for dealing with the vague job descriptions, short interview lead time, and sometimes nonexistent web presences that are apparently typical of startups.

I'm having an incredibly hard time dealing with interviews at startups. I am a non-techie, a humanities major, who has interviewed for both tech and non-tech positions at startups over the last six years or so, and I have never received an offer. These are some issues I've identified:

-Applying to one position and being offered a different role to interview for that imo is less of a fit right out of the gate (i.e., applying for editorial and being told that I will instead be considered for "technical data wrangler" (not a real position but an example of the kind of nebulous job descriptions I have encountered.)
-No official job description, sometimes no real job description at all, maybe just a title like "technical data wrangler."
-Getting a job description for "technical data wrangler" that is forwarded to friends in both the tech and non-tech worlds that leaves them scratching their heads as well.
-No real website or web presence beyond "Coming soon, another social web thing!" or single-paragraph news mentions like "Stealth-mode just got $2 million in funding from the VentureCrunchers," so I can't even research the company like I would with A NORMAL BUSINESS THAT GIVES ME A WEEK TO PREPARE FOR THE INTERVIEW.
-Which leads me to how I won't hear anything for weeks after an application, then will get a request for a phone interview that day or an in-person one within 24 hours. Which, inevitably, I apparently fail, but I am afraid that requesting more lead time will remove me from consideration.
-Preparing for behavioral interview questions and getting practical or technical ones. And vice versa.
-Dealing with interviewers who seem to visibly lose interest before the interview is even over.
-Interviewing with multiple individuals and teams in the office, who contradict one another about what the job actually entails/can't seem to agree on a job description themselves.

I have asked startup employees elsewhere for feedback on interviewing, and I've heard things like "I'm just trying to find out if I'll like the person," or "They want 23-year-olds who will be passionate about giving their lives to the company." Neither of these are terribly actionable suggestions, especially since I'm no longer 23, which should be evident from my resume anyway.

How have you gotten hired for these sorts of positions or, if on the hiring side, what is it that you're looking for exactly? Are there websites, books, epubs, any sort of practical advice for dealing with these questions?

Also, do I ditch the suit or what?
posted by ziggly to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Random thoughts from someone who may or may not have any good ideas on the matter, but who likes working for startups and small tech companies:
  • Ditch the suit - Nobody wants to work with a suit, it's something we do later if we have to have that sort of person around, for the sake of customers or vendors or whatever.
  • Why do you want to work for a startup? Long hours, low pay, and this is attractive? Whether it's the chance of a big payoff or that you're passionate about the technology of the field, let the people you're talking with know that.
  • Differing job descriptions from different people? Address that: "Hey, I noticed that X thinks this job is actually Y, but you think it's Z: In practice, how are we going to resolve this?" The point is that a young company doesn't have processes in place yet, it doesn't yet have a culture, they're going to have to figure out how to resolve these issues, and if you can be the person who helps them do it then you bring value to the company. If you can see these conflicts, that's a big step on the way there.
  • Bad job description? Part of the interview (or the pre-interview phone conversation) is to find out what the job entails. Also, often we don't know what skills are necessary. My top LinkedIn recommendation is for a language I've never worked in professionally, but I'd have no problems at all diving into that if it seemed like the right tool to solve a problem. "What do you see this role being? Okay, let me tell you how my skills mesh with solving that problem."
Somewhere in this (potential) company there's a person who's got an idea. They don't want to share too much of that idea with the outside world, because they know that it's vulnerable, and because the idea is still being fleshed out. They want help bringing that idea to fruition, so they want to surround themselves with people who can take that idea and run with it, who can see how that idea may change the world, and how to practically take steps towards implementing that idea. Your job as an interviewee is to discover what the steps towards and blocks to implementing that idea are that the company doesn't know about yet, and communicate that you have ways to solve those problems.

And you need to do that without projecting a "and I can steal your idea and implement it myself and make millions (muahahahaha)" vibe.
posted by straw at 10:34 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

1) I work for a startup. My interview did however have a position title and description, and they had a website. However, the position changed over time. More responsibilities were added.

Are you saying you want to work for a startup? Because unless you really want to have a range of skills and handle tasks that aren't really in your job description...

Know that a startup manager or owner doesn't always know what they need technically in an employee. They aren't an expert in all fields. They maybe know they need a manager or a web designer and they know the tasks they will give you, but they don't always know the tasks that are usually involved in that position title.

2) I have gotten calls with non-startups that want you to interview the next day. I don't think that's much of a problem, and if you know most of your stuff, then you shouldn't need an entire week to prepare. You need to have examples of your qualifications and learn what you can about their company.

Would a week really help you for a startup if they don't have a website or job description? I don't think so.

3) Maybe you just aren't the fit for a startup? I have done job postings and intern hiring for the startup I work for. The list of requirements is much longer and I needed to know right off the bat from an interview that they were responsible and could handle the frenzy of a startup, mostly work from home, environment.

4) If they were unclear about the job requirements, just ask them. That's really the best way to find out. It's pretty standard in an interview to be clear on what they are asking of you.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:37 AM on May 28, 2013


So, I've built my entire career in a field that doesn't work that way. And which, in fact, seems to resemble these startup hiring situations a lot (little to no info on the project before the interview, very quick turnaround time between applying, interviewing, and starting work, no job descriptions, etc).

Here are my suggestions.

- Some of this sounds like you're interviewing for positions you're not really a fit for. If you're a non-techie Liberal Arts type and getting asked technical questions you can't answer at the interviews, that's a huge red flag.

- Some of this sounds like you're just straight up bombing these interviews, and/or the people you're interviewing with don't have a lot of experience with this and don't know how not to broadcast UR NOT GETTING THIS JOB.

- If you really want to work in a start-up environment, I would just throw all your expectations of research, turnaround time, formalized job descriptions, etc. out the window right now. It is definitely possible to work in a legit job that you will enjoy and not go through the traditional corporate hiring process. If the traditional corporate hiring process is vital to you, stop applying to work at startups.

- In terms of research, it might be easier not to expect to do very specific research on this particular company and what their needs are in your specific job description. Instead, come in with a familiarity with the kind of product they're offering (surely if you get ", another social internet thing!" splash pages... uh... that should tell you something about what this company is and what they intend to do.), or a familiarity with the needs of recently funded startups in their particular space, or a very strong awareness of your skills and what you can bring to a startup like theirs.

- Ditch the suit. This, or other out-of-step ways of presenting yourself, might be a larger factor than you realize. One thing that concerns me is your attitude about how hiring SHOULD work. In my field, if a potential hire I hadn't even interviewed yet asked me for a written job description, and then had it vetted by others, and then turned around and told me that nobody could make heads or tails of it, I would never in a million bazillion years even remotely consider hiring them. If that person then threw shade for being asked to interview at short notice, and seemed generally inflexible, AND then they showed up in a suit, sorry, but I'd probably have trouble even going through the motions, too.
posted by Sara C. at 10:37 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Suit? What?!?! Yeah, i don't think you should be wearing a suit to interviews for roles that don't obviously require someone in a suit. I personally think it doesn't hurt to dress like you give a damn, but at most startups a suit is so far from the norm that it is going to, if only subconciously, register as "not a good fit."

When interviewing it is really important for both sides to believe what the other side is communicating. In this case, I think what you should be paying attention to is that startups are in a constant state of flux. Flexibility and the willingness to act on imperfect information are important qualities of new hires.

It sounds like you are trying to roll with the chaos, but it also seems like it is really starting to get to you. That might suggest that it isn't a good fit for you. It might also be that you just need to shift your outlook. The chaos is an opportunity, a chance for you to define your own role, to show leadership. You can start that process during the interview phase. The fact that all those groups don't have the same understanding is ultimately, itself, a problem that needs solving.

It might help if, for now, you treat each interview not as a chance for you to persuade them to hire you, but as a chance to learn more about the details of that startup in particular, and startups in general.

Also, you've been at this for 6 years? What else have you been doing to learn about startups?
posted by Good Brain at 11:11 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

The chaos is an opportunity, a chance for you to define your own role, to show leadership. You can start that process during the interview phase.

Seconding this. I once got a job because the office was chaos and the person interviewing me either lost or was never given a copy of my resume, and I was able to just hand them a copy that I had brought along and roll with the interview as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

I mean I don't know that it's the ONLY thing that got me the job, but generally the ability to be a sea of calm preparedness in the face of chaos looks better than "what do you MEAN nobody knows what I'd be doing?!"
posted by Sara C. at 11:17 AM on May 28, 2013

Best answer: OP:

There are multiple problems happening here, and they are not easily solved through a forum. You need someone on the inside of start-up culture that can advise you (books won't work, you need a live person to do some hard assessment first).

You need to do this before your next resume submission. Do you have any friends who can sit down with you and are skilled in this? If not, MeMail.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:23 AM on May 28, 2013

Re Good Brain's "It might help if, for now, you treat each interview not as a chance for you to persuade them to hire you, but as a chance to learn more about the details of that startup in particular, and startups in general.":

Yes. Your job as an interviewee is not to convince them to hire you. Take that as a given. You are the deities' gift to that field, you know it, you know that they'll see it, fine, if you have to condescend to answer their questions that's great, but that's not why you are there: Your job is to figure out if you can be successful in that position. Full stop. You are making the decision as to whether or not you'd enjoy working with them.

There's a prerequisite here: You have to know what success means to you. Money? Cool technology? Interesting coworkers and stimulating ideas? The opportunity to fix problems that you see during the interview? Something else that you need to discover?

Smart people assume that you can learn whatever it is about the technical details to solve whatever problem you come up against. If you can't do that, you'll never rise above the role you're hired for. If they're asking technical questions, they're not asking them for that role, they're asking them to see if you know how to learn and adapt, and whether you've already learned and adapted.

A good job interview is like a date, not a skills assessment or a standardized test.
posted by straw at 11:25 AM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't know how a non-tech-y person even gets hired at a tech start-up unless you know somebody or they're in an admin or marketing role, which is usually clearly denoted in the job description.

Chances are if you don't understand the job description, you aren't qualified for the job.
posted by empath at 12:12 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't let them interview you - you interview them. This is really easy when the interviewer doesn't really know how to interview in the first place. Start asking questions, get them talking and answering your questions, and don't give them a chance to take back control of the interview. This is especially important when you are interviewing with the founder. They will prattle on forever about "their baby" (the startup) if you don't steer the conversation in a direction that sells your ability to help the company.

I try to do this in every interview, however professional HR people never let me get control of the conversation. With techies and founders it's easy. They usually don't really like interviews anyway and are happy if the interviewee takes control.
posted by COD at 12:41 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Do not wear a suit. I see also that you mentioned 'No official job description' - startups are all hands on deck. If something needs to get done, you do it. You really can't be at a startup and say "that's not in my job description" to tasks. Your job is to make the company succeed, period.

I'm curious, why are you interested in working at a startup? Do you have some specific traits you are seeking in the company? Can you articulate why you are interested in them?

I've worked as a software engineer at startups where I ended up packing boxes in our warehouse, talking to customers, building lego models, and just generally doing nonsense that needed to get done. When we would interview we'd look for energy, belief in the startup's idea and willingness to invest a lot of sweat and effort in it, and people who were going to roll up their sleeves and jump in. I've interviewed a lot of folks who had worked large companies all their life and couldn't explain why they wanted the 90 hour a week startup job- I would get vague answers like "I want a challenge". That's not really going to convince folks that you're willing to commit to a lot of work.
posted by lyra4 at 12:57 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your strategy is to understand their business, and then sell yourself and your skills on how well you understand it, and that you can contribute to it. The problem: startups often don't have a well-defined business.

The most important thing to do is to appear unusually smart and interesting. Assuming you can pull that off, the main challenge that you can't do anything about is that most tech people can't evaluate someone's smartness except by asking them technical questions. So the best way to get hired is to be smart and have technical skills, even if they aren't relevant.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:09 PM on May 28, 2013

The suit question is a key indicator to me that you don't really "get it" when you're looking at startups. In fact, that's exactly what I would say about a candidate who wore a suit to the San Francisco startup I work at. It's not that I would outright refuse to hire someone who happened to wear a suit to an interview, but it would be a big immediate red flag that they may not understand who we are and what we're about. That would be doubly true for a humanities major with no startup experience.

Especially in smaller startups, job descriptions are speculative at best. In my case, I was hired with the vague idea I'd be doing iOS development (where I had no experience), actually started doing Android development (also no experience), then switched to iOS work, and then switched more to JavaScript and Ruby on Rails development. That's in something like a year and a half. Startups tend to be looking for smart adaptable people with a good skill base so they can dive into whatever the company requires.

As others have said, part of the process is you interviewing the company, and this is especially important with startups. You're talking to employers that are going to want a big investment of your time and energy and have a non-trivial chance of not being around in a year. Many of these people and companies may be utterly disorganized, sociopathic, deluded (well, they are all deluded, but more than average), or otherwise not have their shit together. While that's true of larger companies too, joining a startup is much more like becoming an investor: you are usually forgoing some of the compensation, stability, and benefits of working at a more established business in exchange for equity and the chance to try to build something big. For this to work, you need to really like and believe in the people you'll be working with and their vision, or at least enjoy hanging out with them and see it as a nice place to crash for a bit while you're looking for something else. If you interview with a bunch of startups, I'd fully expect you to come out of some interviews shaking your head thinking those folks are crazy.
posted by zachlipton at 2:15 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone else - you're going about this way wrong.

I worked in nonprofits for a long time and just got a job at the tech startup. I got the job because I had a friend who worked there and I emailed him asking if they happened to have anything open. He said yes, they were gearing up to hire for a brand new person. He never sent me a job description. He did ask me about salary requirements, and I told him what I was looking for, but I was open.

About a week later, the president of the company emailed me to ask me to come in for an in-person interview. Still no job description. When I came in for the interview that day, there was no one to greet me and everyone was oohing and ahhing over my now-coworker's new baby. I interviewed with the president and now-COO. It was a very loose interview. They talked a lot about the company and referred a lot to my extensive resume without asking me a lot of "typical" interview questions, like how would I handle X situation, tell me about a time when X, etc.

We talked salary at the end of the interview and then the president of the company offered me the job on the spot. I started two weeks later.

I do not have a job title or a formal job description. Depending on what task I am doing, I refer to myself with different titles for different clients. I have a general job description in terms of what I am expected to do day-to-day, but there is nothing in writing. There is an employee handbook, but what actually happens in the office is a lot looser than what is written in the handbook.

It is definitely not a culture for everybody, and it sounds like you're expecting things that you just aren't going to get with a tech startup. That said, there are great perks: the staff is tiny and I get along great with my coworkers; there's very little red tape ("Oh, that's a great idea! Let's start doing that today!"); and we have beers every Friday. You just need to adjust your expectations if this is the direction you want to go in.
posted by anotheraccount at 5:45 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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