Sonja Erickson is the VP of engineering at tech start-up, We Heart It. She works in an industry that is largely dominated by men. She never went to college, yet she has had a long, successful career in high tech – mostly working at start-ups. She took her first technical job in 1987. These days her specialty is putting together great teams that help start-ups make it as profitable companies. Erickson has seen a lot of companies, technologies, and people come and go over the years. And she has learned a lot along the way. Much of what she has learned about getting work you love, and keeping it, is exactly not what your guidance counselor told you. I asked her the secret to not only surviving in high tech but creating a career you can someday look back on and say, "That was awesome!"
Your degree is cool but it's just a start
You studied the right stuff at the right schools. Good for you. But that is only a start. "School can teach you the fundamentals of coding, science, or math," says Erickson. "But how to operate at work? How to solve problems? How to participate in a business? These are things you don't get in school." For that you will need on-the-job experience and a willingness to pay some dues, get your hands dirty, ask questions, and maybe even fail a little to learn the ropes. In fact, failing may be one of the ropes you need to learn ASAP. "When I was starting out," she says. "None of this work was something you could study in school." Everyone learned on the job. "In this business, we break things. Then we fix them. It's how we solve problems." She considers accepting failure and learning from it an essential skill in an industry where things are so new they may not have existed when you were in college – or may not exist yet. And schools still don't do a great job of teaching people that failure is part of learning. "You have to be able to work through it, break it, and learn what works and what doesn't through that failure."
Knowing is good, but you have to do
Knowing things, brainstorming, collaborating on ideas, having amazing abilities will not get you anywhere if you don't get work done. "Meet your deadlines," she says. "Exceed them. Do better than what's expected of you. There is a lot to be said for keeping your head down, paying your dues, and getting the job done."
Smart and capable won't be good enough
Of course you're a genius! Your mother told you so. And she's never wrong. And, besides, you were top of your class. Erickson is willing to tell you something most of people won't. "There may be a long tradition of that grumpy engineer who is brilliant but gets along with no one. But when it comes to getting jobs, it's all about who you know." And if everyone you know would rather not hang out with you, they will probably won't hire you either. "I spent the early part of my career moving from place to place with the same group of people," says Erickson. "Even when I worked at a place where I didn't know anyone, someone recommended me for that job. I see this all the time. Getting a job in this industry – maybe as much as in Hollywood – is about who you know." Her advice? Build your skills, of course. But don't neglect relationships. "Never underestimate the importance of getting along with people," she says. It is an important part of getting work, getting good assignments, and keeping all of that. Plus, it's good to have friends.
Find your next job now
"Have a two-year or a three-year plan," suggests Erickson. "Know what you want from this job, what you hope to learn there, and where you want to go next." No one ever stays at the same job for their entire career. So you have to come up with a plan for yourself that takes you to the job you eventually want to do. You may want to be the one making high-level decisions some day. For that, you will need a variety of work experience and skills. You will also need to know people. "You want to be the person who, when the new thing comes along, they want to hire." Your next job is always around the corner. Always be on the lookout for it.