Job advice for recent grads; and working at Mercy Corps

Published 2010-07-27

I get “networked” a lot, especially now that I’m working at Mercy Corps (which is a really great place to work). Similarly, a lot of people come to me with leads: “do you know any Drupal developers?” That kind of thing. I’ve been joking that I should start a referral service.

I never turn away the opportunity to help someone who wants to use me for these purposes. Never. If you want to “network” me, send me an email. The address is [my first name] @ [this domain].

I get most of my work through either my reputation or through friends, and I almost never need to show off my portfolio. The more I give, the more I get in return. Not usually in a tit-for-tat sense, but maybe more generally in karmic sense. It seems that, professionally at least, I receive in proportion to what I give.

I’ve typed a lot of emails with job advice, and advice about life at Mercy Corps. I like giving advice, probably more than most people like receiving it. So, for the sake of efficiency, I’ve compiled those emails here.

Job advice for recent grads

(Excerpted from emails to recent college grads)

Spend a lot of time on fun creative projects. If you can get known for a cool website about Godzilla movies or a Banksy-style public art stunt, that gives you some name recognition. I once hired a junior designer in part because she managed several fansites. It demonstrated she enjoyed creating things, even if they weren’t related to her life as a designer. At a minimum you should blog, put photos on Flickr, and put your sketchbook online.

Make your portfolio, not your resume, the center of your job application. (Non-creatives: make a portfolio! Show off what you did not where you worked.)

Put. Your. Portoflio. Online. Blogspot, WordPress, or Flickr are fine if you don’t want to make your own website.

Apply for senior level jobs, stuff that’s way above you. I did this successfully once and actually got the job. Even if you don’t get it, someone will probably look at your portfolio. So when a junior level job opens up, they’ll be thinking of you already. I’ve been involved twice in hiring designers who applied for Art Director-level jobs. They didn’t have the experience to handle clients but they had such strong books we created positions for them.

Networking doesn’t just mean business contacts or people who will give you jobs. I look at it as socializing. Having drinks with friends is networking, if you all work in the same business.

If you have a job lead show it to all your classmates. In the long run this will serve you better than holding leads close to your chest. I have a large group of designer/developer/marketing friends. We share leads all the time and often scoop them from one another but now we are all busy all the time.

Do favors, give stuff away, show how your work is done. The Internet economy rewards sharing. Designers and marketers are lousy at this for whatever reason but programmers do it all the time and respect non-programmers who think that way.

Don’t just apply at agencies. Lots of software companies and small businesses have occasional needs for designers.

Freelance. Work for free if you have to but don’t call it that. Present a bill but discount it 100%. Friends in bands, coffee shops, dogsitting ... all those people need websites, flyers, youtube ads, whatever. Errol Morris called this the “best commercial ever made” and I think it was a side project for the filmmakers. Make something like this and people will be begging you to work for them.

Working at Mercy Corps

(Excerpted from emails to people looking for advice on whether to apply for work here)

This is the best job I’ve had after I left archaeology 11 years ago. It’s also the longest I’ve EVER held a job (three years this month.)

I work in Internet Marketing; we generate our own budget which is a key distinction from other places at Mercy Corps. I’ll describe my work environment but it won’t exactly be everyone’s work environment.

We have a crazy lean team for the size of website we have: one designer (me), one developer, one social media marketer, and two writers. We’re adding another marketer and a developer. I have daily live-to-production deliverables, often several a day. So it’s an immensely productive environment. I probably produce/deliver 3–4 times as much as I did working at agencies, dot-coms, or software shops. Despite which I somehow manage to work 8-hour days on pretty much my own schedule, and almost never late nights or weekends. (Except during a large-scale disaster like the Haiti Earthquake.)

It’s also a family-positive (downright wholesome) work environment: compared to agency life it’s OK to leave early for daycare runs and there aren’t any late-night drunkfests at the local strip club. My coworkers are mainly earnest do-gooder milk-drinker types (like me). Lots of yoga bodies, Peace Corps veterans, bike commuters and homebrewers.

Compared to the for-profit world the amount of office politics and drama is much lower. Not nonexistent certainly but there are fewer of those barriers to producing good work. Because we must meet very lean overhead standards the emphasis is almost always “will it work/is it sufficient?” not “does this satisfy some political goal?” In my group we frequently launch projects and rev them on production after they generate (internal) feedback; this is “agile” I suppose but also veers close to “beg forgiveness not ask permission.”

We have an awesome new building in a great location.

We are our own clients, so we own all our work and eat all our own dog food. We almost never launch something then walk away from it; we see everything we do every day.

All of our work is held to high ethical standards (basically: no lying) which is a double-edged sword. I believe in what we do which has a wonderful clarifying effect, and I was tired of the ethical compromises I felt I was making in for-profit marketing. But on the other hand, we are marketing and fundraising; the dollars matter. We have no product and thus no demand creation. We can only sell our story, we can’t stretch the truth, and we have a fraction the budget a for-profit marketing team would have. Programs staff (i.e. those people who work with our clients/beneficiaries) may get a “helping other people all day” warm fuzzy feeling, but the fundraising team doesn’t feel it. I’ve written elsewhere about how frustrating this can be.