When I applied at Cofactor I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to work in biotech, I wasn’t even thinking that I wanted to work at a startup. I just wanted a job. It is one of the few Craigslist ad stories with a happy ending.
I graduated from college in 2013 planning to go into academic history (Modern European History 1780-1950 with a focus on WWI and Colonialism, thanks for asking). I was going to be a famous Professor/ Female Indian Jones/ TV historian. Which is not an actual job. For a shockingly unrelated reason, I found myself back in St. Louis, not in a PhD program, and struggling to find a purpose outside of an archive. I worked a string of jobs that paid my bills, but used none of my skills. Which is the exact type of job I thought I was applying to again.
When you come from the world of the humanities, you are told that there is some sort of Great Divide between those with a highly developed set of right-brain and left-brain based skills. You’re told that as an artist or a “non-technical” person you will have difficulty working with people who are “technical”. What people are telling you is simply an illusion.
My background and history taught me how to sort through information, quickly find patterns that others wouldn’t, and derive unique analysis and answers. That’s essentially what any good historian does. They say something new. Something that no one else at the table was going to think of. They take complex patterns and ideas and turn them into something you can easily explain to others. Then they convince the world they are right. My English minor enabled me to become a semi-competent writer, and every discussion based class gave me the skills to articulate my ideas effectively.
Jarret later told me that while working at the Human Genome Project they would put interdisciplinary teams together. Physicists would work with chemists who would work with biologists. Writers would help artists and everybody would come together to find solutions and answers to problems. Having something different to say at the table is how you earn your place there. Having a different background from my team members and the other applicants was the exact reason he hired me.
Maybe, had I not shown my set of skills (or had not been given the chance to), if my value had been dismissed from the beginning, my job here might have been like the others before it. Instead, when I walk in the door, and when I sit at the table, I know that I bring a different perspective. In an ever growing, frequently outward facing company that interacts with people like me daily, my voice becomes more and more useful to my team.
Here are some simple pieces of advice to anyone who is a non-traditional start-up employee that might help you out your first month:
- Show how serious you are about the field you are trained for. Skills are transferable, and showing you can passionately devote yourself to work is the language of start ups. I’m pretty sure this saved me in the interview. That, and my uncanny ability to get extra discounts at our favorite lunch places.
- Don’t be afraid to voice your questions, or question work (you are not always wrong, they often have the same question). Defending or explaining parts of your work leads to a better understanding on the part of the creator, or allows them to explain their process. That can be very useful to people who will be forced to defend that work outside the company.
- Take advantage of the industry-savvy coworkers around you. Ask them to explain things. They will be happy to explain. They love explaining things. You have a responsibility to learn as much about your new field as you can. Also don’t worry too much about learning it all overnight. People usually understand.
- Find where your voice fits. If you can explain the company to outsiders, to people who don’t have the background or knowledge base to understand your product or service, that is a valuable skill.
- You need to tell them when you need help, and when you need space to use your skills. If you have an idea, tell them.