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How to apply
Get real people to read your CV, not the scanning software
Do not apply on the website

If you've got to this chapter, you should already have your key assets prepared: the list of shortlisted positions and your polished CV. You did your research. You are well prepared, and you feel more confident now. You can't wait anymore to get the first interviews.

So you go to the website, submit your online application, and are waiting for the call back with the invitation to the next stage... But this rarely happens... You feel disappointed, so you continue submitting more and more applications, but you never hear back from them... You rewrite your CV, start trying other roles, but it's still the same... You think you'll never get there...

Hang on, please! It's not about you and your experience but how you chose to introduce yourself through an online application on the website. The first rule of the job application process at tech companies is simple:

Do not apply on the company's website. Get real people to read your CV, not the scanning software.
It sounds counter-intuitive, right? But if you think of it, you'll understand that:

  1. There are thousands or tens of thousands of applications like yours. It's not that you're not unique and special. It's just technically not possible to manually review every single application. For instance, tech giant like Google receives roughly three million applications per year. That's huge! This is why most big companies are using scanning software that parses every resume submitted and filters the most "relevant" and "qualified" job applications. You can try to "beat the machine" by tweaking the parameters and keywords back and forth, although you'll probably fail.

  2. Companies want to fill a position with minimal risk. They prefer rather a candidate referred and pre-filtered by their employees, not to discover someone who breaks the mould.

  3. Many positions are never posted, especially for senior jobs. If you don't know someone from current employees at this company personally, you don't have access to this information and even never have a chance to apply.
It sounds unfair, but in fact, it makes sense, and soon, you'll get why. In this chapter, you'll find a better approach than just trying to trick resume scanning software. We'll show you how to get and apply through a referral.
Get employee referrals
Many people mistakenly believe that they can get employee referral only if they know someone working at that company personally, e.g., they worked or studied together. However, you don't necessarily have to share a common background to be referred by someone.

First of all, there is a difference between "referral" and "recommendation." Refer is to direct to a source for help or information. Recommend is to endorse. For job application purposes, you do not always need to be endorsed but rather directed to the recruiter, so a referral is usually enough. This means employees can refer you without having worked with you before but based on evaluating your profile and persona.

Why do referrals make sense? As mentioned before, companies can't afford to take a risk by hiring strangers or wasting resources to check every single applicant. So they partially delegate this function to their employees who passed this check before. Big companies incentivize their employee with a great bonus for every hire they referred. As you can see, employees are interested in referring you as much as you are interested in being hired. When requesting a referral, you're not only asking for a favor but actually create the opportunity for your referrals to be rewarded in case of a successful outcome.
The employees are interested in submitting a referral for you as much as you're interested in getting hired.
Don't apply on the website straight away. First, find the person who will submit a referral for you. How does this work?

  1. The employee submits the referral for you.
  2. The recruiter receives a notification about your referral. Because your application is not from the website like tens of thousands of other applications, the recruiter actually looks through and reads your CV. Humans, not machines.
  3. If your CV meets the job posting requirements, the recruiter will schedule a screening call with you. If your CV doesn't fit the role, the recruiter will let you know. Although you still don't have guarantees to be invited for the interview, you have more chances to catch a recruiter's eye with a referral. With a referral, you are moving up through the screening threshold.
Employees referring you are interested in your hire, so feel free to ask them for help with interview prep and other company-related questions that they are allowed to share.
Who to ask for a job referral
Start with 1st-degree connections

Start with your close network and 1st-degree connections on LinkedIn. Initially, we believed that it's not polite to ask for a referral straight away in the first message. We thought we had to start the dialogue with small talk and after a few messages to mention "by the way" that we found a position we're interested in ... That's not the worst scenario but if you already know what you want to ask this person for, make sure you respect their time and make your intent explicit from the beginning. There is nothing wrong with asking for a referral straightaway if only you do it right and polite. Here is the message we used:
Here is one of the many responses I received. In 90% of cases people expressed their willingness to help with my application:
When we progressed to the next stages, these people helped us by following up with recruiters and often helped with preparation for the interview. Moreover, some people we chatted over the phone and had a good conversation with became our good connections afterward, even when we didn't land the job in their team.

You can play with wording and try other also longer templates like here. However, eventually, we realized the more concise your message is, the better.
Find "We're hiring" folks

For every referred candidate who is hired, an employee receives a referral bonus, usually a fixed cash amount $$. Because of financial incentives (maybe also because of intrinsic motivation to bring more qualified people on board), some employees proactively communicate their willingness to help with the hiring process by adding "We're hiring!" in their headlines:
Once you are finished with the list of all your direct contacts, we recommend starting building connections with these hiring ambassadors at companies from your list. Just go to LinkedIn, type "we're hiring", select "People" category, and filter by one company at a time. If your LinkedIn network size is not small (>1,000 connections), you can also filter by 2nd- or 3rd-degree connection to increase your chances of getting a response.

Build your list of people that might help you, and reach out to one person from the same company at a time to avoid awkward situations when two or more would simultaneously confirm they would be happy to submit a referral for you (this did happen with us!).
Reach out to one person from the same company at a time to avoid awkward situations when two or more would simultaneously confirm they would be happy to submit a referral for you.
We used the same message (link) above that we used for 1st-degree connections. We'll repeat it once again: it doesn't matter that you haven't met before. Just clearly and explicitly explain what you're looking for.

Yuliana reached out to a total of 300+ people on LinkedIn, including both "we're hiring" and other employees. She got 180+ responses, 60% Response Rate (!), marketers can only dream of that. Yes, some people will refuse to refer you just because they only refer people they worked with in the past. Other people might say "no" because they don't see how your profile matches the role. It's absolutely fine. The more people you reach out to, the more different responses you'll get.
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Check your 2nd- and 3rd-degree connections

This "We're hiring!" thing might not be that popular among all tech companies you're considering. Once you're done with this list well, it's time to try reaching out to other people, neither "we're hiring" nor your connections.

We recommend checking 2nd- and 3rd-degree connections first because you have more chances to get introduced by your shared connections. Or at least you won't look like a stranger when you are reaching out to them because they'll see you both have shared connections:
Again, build your list, and send an invitation to connect with the same custom message [link] where you're asking for a referral for a specific role at the company they're working for.

Tip: Experiment with different roles and teams. From Yuliana's experience (roles in Marketing), Sales and Business Development Managers were most responsive. This is the only assumption, but it might be worth reaching out to more people with similar titles and/or backgrounds. People are more likely to like and trust other people if they think they are similar to them.
Keep your CRM tidy, and follow up!

In the chapter Interviews as a sales pipeline, we already mentioned that you should track your progress with CRM. Especially when reaching multiple people at the same company, you might end with the list of hundreds of profiles you're in touch with regards your referral. If this is your case, you might need a second (optional) CRM to keep track of all contacts you're asking for a referral:
We recommend adding some more columns to your table/CRM of contacts such as "Last Contact Date", "Contact details", and "Next Actions". This will help you to know who you should contact and when.

We'll repeat it again: just like a proper sales manager, this would be your function to follow up timely and keep your application progressing.
Trusted networks
Alternatively, to a referral, you can apply on trusted networks and niche communities dedicated to job searches:

  • Startup jobs at YC companies. With over 2000 YC startups and nearly 500 more funded each year, YC startups are always hiring. There are three ways:

  • AngelList. Research the fastest-growing companies, and find a job you love.

    • Keep your AnglelList profile updated just like your CV, and list your projects in detail (if applicable).
    • But even more important here is that once you select open job positions, you want to apply for, prepare your intro message very carefully. This is your elevator pitch opportunity. Don't just press "apply" but always add a custom and concise message for a hiring manager. You'll have more chances to get your profile to be considered and not automatically rejected straightaway.

  • Niche communities. Product School, Product Tank, etc.

  • Mentorship services helping to land a job in tech:

    • Hired. Get matched with a job you love, anywhere. Hired is free and does not take a cut of your salary. Hired is paid for by employers looking for top tech talent such as yourself. Currently available only in the US, UK, and France.
    • Pathrise. Unlimited 1-on-1 time with an expert at a top tech company and insider knowledge. The program is completely free until you're hired (Income share agreement). Currently available only in the US and Canada.
    • Outtalent. Online accelerator for software engineers that want to move to the US, Canada, or Europe.
Note. Not every network would equally work for marketing and engineering roles. Vitaliy had a few companies reaching out to him for engineering leadership positions via the YC startup jobs network. Yuliana received offers for Marketing roles on Angel List.

1. Do not apply on the company's website. Apply only through a referral. Get real people to read your CV, not the scanning software.

2. Don't be embarrassed to ask for a job referral. The employees are interested in submitting a referral for you as much as you're interested in getting hired.

3. Build and track a list of all employees you want to ask for a referral. Start with your 1st-degree connections, then find "We're hiring" folks, and finally check your 2nd- and 3rd-degree connections.

4. Reach out to one person from the same company at a time to avoid awkward situations when two or more would simultaneously confirm they would be happy to submit a referral for you.

5. Keep your CRM tidy and timely follow-up! You must know when was the last time you talked to this person, and what comes next. Track your progress.

6. As an alternative, explore trusted networks and niche communities such as Y Combinator jobs, AngelList, slack channels of Product School, and Mind the Product, but also consider mentorship services like Pathrise, Hire, or Outtalent that should speed up the process.

Action items

1. Find people who can submit a referral for you. Apply!
In the next chapter, we go over all interview stages to help you to allocate your preparation time better