How I Got Hired — Networking

Hey, welcome back to the newsletter! This past week I published a follow-up to the first post on my blog from three years ago: How I Got Hired by DigitalOcean. You guessed it:

How I Got Hired by GitHub

Like the original DigitalOcean post, this is literally just the homework assignment I submitted when I applied to GitHub—exactly as it was sent. I’m a big believer in transparency, and I figured some of you might find it interesting. I hope that’s true!

Now, the post’s title (while catchy and SEO-y) kind of over-promises. Yes, the homework was a key part in the process—if I’d submitted bad homework, I’d likely be working somewhere else right now. But it’s not what got me through the on-site interview, and it’s definitely not what opened the door in the first place.

There are a lot of factors that got me the job, and I’m hoping to fill some of gaps with this newsletter. 
Each of these turned out way longer than I anticipated, so I’m breaking them up into weeks. This week I’m covering:

  • Why networking is important.
  • How I network in a way that doesn’t feel icky.

I want this to be valuable, so I’m going to be super candid in these emails. In the coming weeks I’ll explore:

  • How I’ve framed myself as a designer. Why brand matters.
  • How  to match your skillset to job opportunities.
  • The mountains of privilege that opened up most doors in my life.
  • What I think about homework as part of a design hiring process.
  • Any other questions you ask along the way.

With that, let’s get into it. And hey, if you enjoy it, tell your friends!

Do I have to network, though? 😱

When people think about Networking™, it’s usually this uncomfortable and largely useless exchange of business cards and LinkedIn endorsements. That’s not what it is for me.

Networking in its various forms was crucial to most of the opportunities I’ve been given throughout my career. If I wasn’t part of the design community—I wouldn’t be working at GitHub. Period. 

When I first heard about the role at GitHub, I was well into interviewing with a few other companies. I was on second stages with most and already had had an offer on the table. I searched far and wide for available Product Design gigs, and GitHub wasn’t even on the radar. They didn’t have their job listings publicized.

Side note: this doesn’t mean they weren’t looking to hire; they were. If you’ve ever been part of a hiring process you’ll know it’s not rare to have the headcount for a new hire before you have the job listing up. Sometimes months can go by. GitHub is hiring Product Designers right now and we still don’t have a job listing publicized.

Anyway, one day during the job search, Diana, a friend of mine and Design Systems Manager at GitHub, posted the Product Design job on Twitter. I asked her to intro me to Fabian, the hiring manager for the role, who I’d already met at one of her parties. That’s what got the ball rolling.

I wasn’t special here. Everyone who followed Diana on Twitter had access to that job listing. Here’s the thing: just following someone in the industry is a form of networking. Hearing what they have to say, learning from them, seeing who they find interesting. All of this is a way to tap into your industry and grow your connection to it. In this case it meant the difference between knowing about an opportunity and not knowing about it.

The part where I was different from most other people was that instead of applying directly, I was referred in by someone who could genuinely vouch for me. As someone who’s been a hiring manager in the past, I can tell you that this carries a lot of weight. Like all of the stuff I’ll talk about—it’s not what got me hired—but it was definitely a leg up.

Having a strong network also allowed me to broadcast my job search via friends who themselves have strong networks. Fun story: I had a founder friend shoot an email out to the entire YC list, and within literally less than a day one of my designers knew I was looking to leave. Don’t do that.

Ok so how do you network? 🤔

Here’s my super secret method of networking: genuinely wanting to get to know people in the industry and always being decent.

It’s really that simple. Designers are usually nice, interesting people. When I get to hang out with them, I always learn something new. So, obviously, I like meeting them, and if someone I find interesting asks for coffee, I try to make time for it.

For instance, I met Diana 4 years ago when she was working at Etsy. Cap Watkins saw my portfolio and invited me to come out for drinks with the Etsy designers. At this point, I’d just accepted the DigitalOcean offer, so it wasn’t going to lead a job or anything concrete, but I came anyway and it led to a lot of new friends.

Obviously it’s harder to ask someone to meet than it is to accept it. I also do that a lot. My first trip to SF was in 2015. I had some time off work and decided to spend it on a pilgrimage to tech Mecca. For 10 days, I crashed on couches, hung out with designers I’d never met before, got tours of offices and free lunches. 

I did this by pinging people on Twitter asking them if they wanted to hang. See, the secret is that people are actually pretty nice. All I had to my name at the time were a couple blog posts, a nice portfolio, and a slightly well-known company name on my hoodie. There weren’t any concrete incentives to meeting me other than maybe it seemed like it might be a good time. You’d be surprised how generous people are with their time if you just ask.

I ended up hanging with and getting to know talented designers such as Alexandra Bond, Jon Gold, Carolyn Zhang, Tim Van Damme, Brian Lovin, George Kedenburg, Paul Stammy, Marcin Wichary, Matthew Farag, and many more. I got tours of Facebook, Airbnb, Twitter, Ueno, Dropbox, Uber, Square, Segment, etc, where I met many other friendly designers.

To be clear: I didn’t have an agenda here. All of this was fun. But it ended up being extremely valuable fun. I grew up on the internet, but meeting people in person can create the start of a strong bond very quickly. And this shit is exponential—once you know one person, you’re much likelier to meet people they’re connected to. Sooner or later you know a bunch of people out of a group of friends and it’s easier to get to know that entire group.

The second part is being decent: always be kind to everyone because you never know where opportunity might come from. More importantly, it’s a much more rewarding way to live. When someone asks me to help with something, and I have the time, I do my best to help. When I have an opportunity to do something nice for someone, I take it. When I can connect two people I think can help each other, I always do. I don’t expect anything in return.

Try your best to do right by everyone you meet and you’ll slowly gain a reputation for that within the industry’s whisper network. A good reputation is the most powerful thing you can have in a small industry like ours, and it can go a long way to landing the gig you want.

The trick here is that it isn’t a trick at all. This stuff works so well because it isn’t that weird, mechanical, stereotypical Networking. It doesn’t work if it isn’t genuine. You can recognize and accept the benefits of doing it while not doing it for them.

[harry potter]

Anyway, that’s it. That’s the entire trick. It’s fun, and you should do it. Being extroverted helps, but even if you can’t do this regularly, I’d try to do at least a little of it.

I hope this was valuable!

Weekly Q&A

This week’s newsletter took me a little longer than I thought, so I’m only answer one reader question and I’ll answer the rest next week—I promise! This week’s question is from Daniel Fosco:

Would love to hear how do you balance being able to achieve all these things and still have a personal life that does not revolve around “I make computers do stuff bleep bloop”

I'm not sure what "things" Daniel's referring to, but I'm going to assume the blog posts that I've been posting recently. Usually my method of publishing posts is writing a draft, letting it sit for 6 months of procrastination, and then polishing (sometimes totally overhauling) and shipping within a week. I add notes on Workflowy over the months every time I have a new relevant thought, and that builds into what could be a compelling post.

Here are a few drafts in my Medium. Some are published, others are still waiting for me to stop procrastinating:

The way I maintain a life throughout this is, well, by not really doing that much work. These are the things I'm thinking anyway. It's not trivial to build a coherent and engaging narrative, but it's not a full-time job. If you have any thoughts about our craft, writing is a really effective way to evolve and distill your thinking. I highly recommend it!

As for work, I care about maintaining a work-life balance, and thankfully GitHub doesn't make that hard. I have a life because I choose to and I'm diligent about it. Being in New York City—not surrounded exclusively by tech folks—also helps keep my life a bit saner 🙃.

That's it! Hope I answered the question!

This email will always be sent directly from my personal email, so feel free to respond directly with any question you might have (or shoot me a note on Twitter), and I'll try to answer next week.


This is the second week of the long-form newsletter, and I'd really love to hear your feedback!

- Was this valuable? Too short? Too long? 
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- How was the Q&A?

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Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Copyright © 2018 Joel Califa, All rights reserved I guess maybe?

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Joel Califa · Brooklyn · New York, NY 11211 · USA

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