Busting Down the Side Door – My Silicon Valley Quest as a Jobless New Grad in the 2009 Global Financial Crisis

Busting Down the Side Door

By the end of this May, another round of new college graduates will be commenced and entering into the work force. Many of whom may have a job already lined up, many may not. When I graduated, I wasn’t so lucky — it was at the bottom of a recession (2009) and the job market was going through what seemed like a famine for a new grad.

I did not have a job waiting for me after graduation but I eventually obtained one. This article is about the journey of a jobless new grad. With this, I’d like to share some rather unconventional hacks I learned along the way which helped me land a solid position.

College is expensive and more graduates are feeling immense pressure to collect the fruits of their degree in the job market. So I hope to provide encouragement for future graduates seeking a job. Also, for those who are considering making the bold decision of moving to Silicon Valley to find new opportunity, this is especially for you…

Climbing out of my situation

In 2009, I found myself graduating college without any job offer at the bottom of a global financial crisis. As most people know, this was a time of record high unemployment, massive layoffs and hiring freezes. It became known as “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” which basically meant it was a really shit time to graduate college with limited experience.

However, I was determined and I wanted my next chapter of life to be in Silicon Valley. So without any job offer, I began my journey to California from a small town in Michigan. I had a car, a cell phone, formal attire and some money in a bank account to last about four months on a tight budget. It took four days to drive. Along the way I picked up hitchhikers found on Craigslist “ride share” to split gas and save money. I was on a very tight budget.

Upon arrival, I spotted a cheap place to rent in the west-most part of San Jose. I lived in a Chinese lady’s living room sectioned off by a single thin layer of veneer held up by a set of two-by-fours. I could hear my roommates’ every whisper as they cooked curry out in the kitchen — one guy was from Bangladesh. I slept on a mattress that I found in a parking garage which I wrapped up in two layers of vinyl for protection. Laying my head down the first night, I was reminded of my recent breakup with my ex-fiance, and for a brief season, this was my life.

With limited funds, I had a short window of time to make something happen, so I got to work immediately. I tried and tested a lot of things in my job search. It was lonely and scary, and full of rejection. But in the end, I received multiple interviews not only with smaller and mid-sized businesses but with top Fortune 500 companies including Brocade, Google and Intel. I didn’t pass all the interviews but I got my foot in the door and landed a position with CA Technologies, then later at HP and then Amazon.

There are all kinds of job search books out there and I won’t get into details about resume writing or elevator pitches — I’ll leave that to you. But here, I’ll leave you with the following top three items that were instrumental in my search…

1. My cold calling strategy

Everyone knows what happens to resumes when they’re randomly submitted to a company’s online job portal…

Cold calling was by far one of the most valuable things I did as a recent graduate. Sure, you can submit your resume to the corporate website where (unless you have years of track record to show) it’ll likely get lost in a pile of digital abyss. Or, you can go through the side door by contacting people directly within the company and connecting with them using the phone. For recent college graduates, guess which one works better.

The key is to add value for each person every step of the way and then get your resume into the hands of the specific hiring manager or recruiter responsible for the position you seek. Here’s an example of what I did…

I put together an event that resonated — The San Jose Sharks hockey team was scheduled to play against the Detroit Red Wings in San Jose. Since I went to Michigan State University (MSU), I knew that this sort of event might be interesting for my fellow alumni as well as for the University of Michigan (UofM) alumni. In other words, bringing our alumni together to see the Detroit Red Wings game was likely a shared interest we could all connect on and a way for me to add immediate value.

Logging onto LinkedIn, I performed a filtered search for people who either went to MSU or UofM and who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. This provided me with a superb list of contacts I can resonate with — fellow alumni in the Silicon Valley who work for really good companies. With this list of people, I started picking up the phone…

Ring Ring… “Hello?”

Me: “Hi Sarah, thanks for taking my call, so sorry to bother you. My name’s Jason, I’m a fellow alumnus at MSU, would you happen to have a minute for a quick talk?”

Sarah: “Uhmm, sure Jason, what’s up?”

Me: “Just wanted to let you know that the MSU and UofM alumni are getting together to watch the Detroit Red Wings play the San Jose Sharks at the stadium in about three weeks from today. I found you’re a fellow alumnus and I wanted to invite you to join. If you’re interested, I can send you the details.”

Sarah: “That sounds like a great idea, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it but feel free to forward the details.”

Me: “Sure Sarah, no problem, I’ll send you the link to the tickets as to where we’ll be sitting. Hopefully you can join. Can you tell me the email I should send it to?”

Sarah proceeds to spell out her email over phone. I’m typing.

Me: “Got it. I’ll send the details shortly,” pecking keyboard, “one more thing, Sarah, could I ask for a favor?”

Sarah: “Sure, what’s up?” Sarah responds with a friendly tone.

Me: “There’s this job opening at your company I found on your corporate website. I’d like to apply, I think I’d make a great fit. I have a link to the job REQ and was wondering if I could attach my resume to the email I’m about to send you. I would sincerely appreciate if you could forward my resume to the hiring manager or recruiter involved.”

Sarah: “No problem. Send me your resume and I’ll see what I can do.”

Resume sent.

A couple things to note about this… First, I aimed to connect with the individual and immediately add value. Connections are personal and this strategy is open to customization, so take a moment to think of how you can connect and add immediate value to any subset of people you’d like to target.

Second, I was immediately providing the individual with a favor, which reduced the friction to boldly ask for a favor in return. This reduces the chance of rejection, it also reduces the personal impact of being rejected. Why? Because I felt like I was providing for the greater good of our alumni, which made it matter less to me when someone would turn me down. This was undoubtedly a win-win on all sides, which felt good. And feeling good during a cold call makes a big difference.

I would perform this cold calling technique on several people at the same company who would end up sending my resume to the same hiring manager or recruiter involved with the job REQ. When executed correctly, eventually I would get a call back from the manager/recruiter who would either a.) beg me to stop having dispersed individuals in their company forward my resume or b.) bring me into the company for an interview. Either way, I was getting noticed, which was exactly my intention.

This is the side door. Through this method I received several interviews at top companies.

You might be asking how I got the list of phone numbers to contact people in the first place. Sometimes people will put this information on their LinkedIn profile but many cases not. This leads into my next topic…

2. Building the call list

When you have someone to contact but the phone number isn’t provided on their LinkedIn profile, there’s a couple things you can do…

Call the front desk of the company. Lots of companies (especially larger corporations) have an automated receptionist where all you have to do is call the front desk. From there you just dial in or say the name of the person and it’ll forward you to your contact’s extension. Simple. You can find the front desk phone number by looking up the office location via Google Maps. Other ways to find are through resources like The Book of Lists from the San Francisco Times. Check the local library for a free copy.

If a human answers the front desk number just ask them to forward your call. Either way, if you’re having trouble getting to the individual contact, you can search for their direct phone number through websites like jigsaw.com or data.com. Websites like these host an extensive database of professional contacts from crowd sources. However, they may require you to pay a fee or require you to upload your list of contacts in return.

3. Live with other people

Don’t rent a place on your own. There’s multiple reasons for this…

First, if you’re coming to Silicon Valley with no job, you’re not in a position to sign a long-term lease. This is mainly because you don’t want to be bound to one location when you’ve found a job in another location. Plus, you’ll quickly find the renter’s market here is very competitive and landlords won’t accept you without a job offer anyway.

Second (and more importantly) sharing a home is an amazing way to make friends and quickly immerse yourself in Silicon Valley. There’s no faster way to connect with people than to share with them a kitchen and common living space. If you can find what’s called a “hacker house”, by all means check it out. Just be sure to screen for a well maintained, hygienic place and one that has a good vibe. I don’t recommend living in a place that’s too cooped up or disorganized. I also don’t recommend living in someone’s living room like I did (see above section “Climbing out of my situation”).

In Silicon Valley, there’s lots of successful people living in shared houses who can be supportive as long as you’re not too pushy with your agenda. Deep friendships are formed all the time between occupants. People are driven and have very inspiring backgrounds. Sometimes occupants even start projects together or help each other out with things like resumes and providing leads to jobs.

Final Thoughts

There’s a common myth that’s been around for a while. The myth seems to go something like this…

‘Getting a job at a great company with a great salary is largely based on who you know.’

This point of view is partially true but I think it’s often misinterpreted and tends to hold people back from taking action. I’m calling the misinterpretation a myth, let me explain…

Of course it’s an asset to have an existing network of people behind you, but when you move to a new location or enter an industry, you might not know many people at all. So when you’re pioneering into unknown territory and you don’t know anybody, then you can’t rely on who you already know. Therefore, getting your dream job becomes about who you meet and become acquainted with along the way.

It’s about who you seek a connection with, not just about who you already know.

Furthermore, consider that depending mostly on who you already know may limit your opportunities. I’m not saying that finding a job through your existing network is a bad thing, just consider avoiding the comfortable attachment. Make some calls, develop your own unique hustle and work through meeting new people in the field. Convert strangers into allies and friends. Pioneer. When you aim high for your dream job — a position that you’re specifically targeting within a well-known, highly-sought-after company — often times you will find that you do not have anyone in your existing network to help you reach your target.

With that said, embrace the possibility of becoming acquainted with new people in order to get where you need to go. Hustle. It’s hard work, and in most cases, there’s no way out of the hard work. But I promise you, it’s very rewarding and you’ll connect with a lot of good people along the way.

About the Editor: Jason Weber is a Director at Wiseflow Ventures. He’s built several profitable companies in SaaS, IT Consulting, and Corporate Housing, and has worked at top tech firms including Amazon, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel. He holds four issued patents and is passionate about practical Zen, the Flow State, high-tech, and the hustle.