How a Craigslist post landed me my first job at Tesla
The year was 2008. You may have omitted this year from memory, like a hotelier omits Floor 13 from an elevator control panel. The pain at the pump was very real, with gas climbing to over $4.00 a gallon. The real estate market in most suburbs was in freefall, adding a new “f-word” to our shared vernacular — “foreclosure.” Extreme austerity swept through the banking sector, halting all growth and expansion.
Amidst this chaos, the job market was bleak.
In a case of Extremely Bad Timing, 2008 was the year I graduated from Elon University with a shiny new Business degree. I had moved to North Carolina from Wisconsin to attend school, but my dream was to go west (young man).
I wanted to work in the innovative center of the universe, 2,700 miles away in California.
The spring break before my graduation, I naively booked a cheap flight to Los Angeles, thinking I could pop over to Silicon Valley from LA. With non-refundable tickets in-hand I googled driving directions from LA to San Jose… 5 hours!?
I had been under the impression these cities were in the same state…
As I exited the aptly-named Hertz rental lot in LAX, I allowed myself a moment to soak in the warm sunshine beaming through the windscreen.
Only a moment, though, because I had driving to do.
After 6 hours on the less scenic I-5, I pulled into my motel parking lot. The next morning, bright and early, I decided to head straight to the epicenter of the tech universe — The Googleplex.
I thought myself well-prepared as I entered the Googleplex parking lot, honing in on a rectangular patch of unused asphalt for my rental Taurus. My confidence quickly deteriorated at a rate proportional to my proximity to the lobby entrance.
The Googlers I passed on my way in seemed to be as unkempt and disheveled as a group of frat bros the morning after a house party.
Suddenly the painstaking effort I had taken to pack a suit and tie, carefully folding to avoid wrinkles, felt amateurish. No matter. I would soldier on, and as I approached the receptionist in the lobby I would seal my fate… or so I thought.
Me: Hello, I’m graduating this May and was interested in speaking with someone about opportunities here at Google.
Receptionist: We have a website where you can apply for positions.
Me: Yes, I know about your website and I have applied, but I am in town for just a few days before heading back… May I leave my resume with you?
Receptionist: No, we are not allowed to take resumes, so you will need to apply through the website.
Me: Hmm, but I traveled here all the way from North Carolina.
Receptionist: Sorry this is our policy…
[ End Scene ]
Crushed by my first interaction, I retreated to the refuge of my Ford Taurus to regain control of my respiratory system.
Long story short, after about fifteen more interactions like this, I’d seriously started doubting my future working in Silicon Valley. Even though I knew the economy sucked, I took the rejection quite personally.
I returned to school, having all but given up. A few days later, an email from Apple was waiting, gleaming, in my inbox! Here is that email:
Thank you for your interest in Apple. We no longer accept hard copy resumes. Please visit our career center website at www.apple.com/jobs to apply electronically for current openings.
If you have already applied to a position, your most updated resume will be used.
Apple Worldwide Staffing
I had believed the old adage, that you could get what you wanted with a firm handshake, good eye contact, and a direct, confident approach. I’m sure I was feeling similar to how a young Elon Musk felt after his attempt to get hired at Netscape, by “hanging out” in their lobby…
Thanks to equal parts youthful exuberance and naïveté, I would not quit there.
Along with countless others, my sights were set on the growing tech darling Google, but how would I stand apart from the crowd especially while lacking a computer science background?
I had heard of clever stunts from applicants who’d caught the attention of their dream employer, so I thought I would give that approach a shot.
I decided to design a clever business card and ‘mail’ it to them. These cards were designed to look like a typical Google search result at the time, and pointed back to a crude self-made website which hosted my resume. I installed a Google Analytics tracking script on the site so I could see if I was getting any traffic from California.
I crammed about 15 of these cards into an envelope and along with my cover letter shipped these off once again to the Googleplex. I have no idea where these cards are today, but I’d say there is a good chance they were shredded into mulch to fertilize the campus’ several soccer fields.
It was nearing the end of May. As I accepted my diploma and a handshake from the school president, I also had to accept the fact I was moving back home to Wisconsin, unemployed. Collateral damage served as a new statistic used to describe the weary state of the jobs market for new graduates during this time.
There is a happy ending in here somewhere, I promise. We’ll get to that… eventually.
The distance and mountainous territory that separated me from California was vast. But I was determined. Without knowing anyone living out there, I needed to find a way to be noticed. Craigslist was still pretty popular at this time, and the ability to post an ad I could target geographically made the most sense. I thought I would attempt to create a classified ad posted to the Silicon Valley sections of Craigslist, to see what kind of attention I could drum up.
My ad was dubbed, The 6-Degree Challenge based on the concept of Six Degrees of Separation.
The challenge: If you can introduce me to someone at Google which results in me getting a job, I will split my first-year salary with you, right down the middle, even-steven!
Novel right? Well, 99% of the responses weren’t exactly positive. Here is one of my favorites, and I don’t deny he had some decent points either:
subject: I wouldn’t hire you
to be a secretary in my company.
1) The layout is hideous.
2) Your education is a dime a dozen and your skills/abilities are laughable at best. Google can hire 1000 B.S. CS degrees with MBAs over you, you know for that touch of diversity.
3) Your website is amateur at best.
5) Practically ZERO experience.
6) Things like this: “Deep understanding of new trends shaping the world and business” doesn’t work so well when you don’t have the experience to back it up.
From what I understand Google receives like ~3,000 resumes a day. With that many resumes a day, they don’t exactly have issues finding people with vastly superior skill sets, experience, and education.
How can I explain this best. I’m like Simon on American Idol, you’re like one of those horrific auditions where they think they’re the greatest singer on earth.
Truth hurts. I would suggest you gain some relevant experience, beef up with a masters degree, then give it another shot after several years.
Not all the responses were as brutal. A couple of people found the time to leave some positive words of encouragement and feedback. A friendly Silicon Valley recruiter even took the time to help out:
I have a buddy who recruits for Google part time. I sent him your resume and I blind CC’d you on it. He’s a good guy, let’s see what he can do for you.
Ultimately the recruiter wasn’t able to help out with a role at Google because I had missed the East Coast University recruiting event on Duke’s campus that spring. Lisa suggested I make a few changes to my resume and create a toned down Craigslist post which more specifically stated what kind of job I wanted in Silicon Valley.
At this point, I had moved back home and was in my childhood bedroom. I posted a new ad on Craigslist looking for B2B software sales opportunities. The next several days were spent deleting all the spam rolling in promising to pay me a six-figure income to work at home in my underwear. I also started recalibrating my hopes on jobs in Chicago, closer to my home market.
Finally, on May 28th an email that would dramatically alter the course of my future arrived. I read it while on my way with friends to a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game.
I understand that you are looking for a position with a TECH company in Sales and Marketing. Although I don’t have B2B sales position to offer, considering your passion for technology and serving your community as a tech “guru” would you be interested in putting some of those skills to use as a Systems Specialist in the Sales, Marketing and Service department at Tesla Motors?
Tesla Motors www.teslamotors.com is a an aggressive, well-funded start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area that is making advanced electric vehicles, batteries, and drive systems a reality and working to change the future of the transportation industry. We are building technically strong, motivated and very fast-moving engineering team which prides itself on superior execution.
Here is a copy of the job listing: http://www.teslamotors.com/learn_more/employment.php?id=891.
Please let me know if you are interested.
I was thrilled, but didn’t want to come off as desperate. I replied straight away, but chose my words carefully, saying I had heard of their cool electric car and was certainly interested in learning more.
What followed was one of the quickest, most intense interview processes of my life.
The interview process started with four back to back (to back to back) phone screens with department directors from Sales, Marketing, and Service. I took the calls while pacing barefoot in my backyard in Wisconsin, where our awful cell reception was strongest..
An hour after those calls, Sandra, the recruiter phoned. They wanted me to fly to California for the next round of in-person interviews. She had tickets purchased for me to fly from Milwaukee to California two days later.
I was so young and inexperienced that I actually asked Sandra if I needed to send them money to pay for the flights…
As I was boarding the flight to California I realized I had not heard back from Sandra letting me know where my hotel was that evening. I placed a quick call to her and she said I’d have the confirmations in my inbox when I touched down, phew…
I toggled airplane mode off as we touched down in SFO to check my email. No hotel confirmations… I called my recruiter, and got voicemail. My interviews began at 8 am the next day, and I had no clue where I was staying that night.
I decided the hotel must be near the office headquarters naturally so I drove to the closest Holiday Inn and asked if they had a reservation for me… they did not. I quickly checked the map and tried the Country Inn and Suites just up the road. This time to my great relief, they were expecting me. I hurried up the stairs and did my best to get some sleep.
The next morning I arrived at One Circle Star Way in San Carlos, the company headquarters at the time. (If you live in the Bay Area, you may recognize the blue mirrored office buildings along highway 101).
Once More, with Feeling
Overdressed once again, I still felt better knowing I’d be let past the front desk gatekeeper this time around. I was ready for my full day of interviews. One-on-one interviews were scheduled with the same directors I’d spoken to on the phone.
At one point during one of the interviews I was warned, accurately, “This could be the hardest job of your entire career — are you sure?”
They ended up being some of the most impressive people I’d ever have the pleasure of working with.
My last interview would be more involved. I met Nicole, whose friendliness is only amplified with her endearing Texan accent. She also looked as if her baby might be born later that afternoon. Because she was in charge of so many different systems, she had created several testing logins and passwords for me to write down. She informed me there would be a test later, and that I would need to be able to login to complete the tasks.
The interviews ran longer than expected. Nicole had hoped I’d have an hour to spend completing the test, but I only had about 30 minutes before I needed to head to the airport. She asked me to finish what I could and said she’d be back in 20 minutes. She returned and surprisingly I had managed to finish all the tasks, which worked in my favor. I thanked Nicole for the opportunity and hurried back to the airport to catch my flight back to Wisconsin.
This time after touching down in Milwaukee, the recruiter had sent me an email, now waiting in my inbox:
Tesla Motors is proud to offer you this opportunity for employment. Attached please find a soft copy of your offer letter. Please review, print and sign your offer letter and fax it back to me at (650) xxx–xxxx. Please bring one of the original signed copies on your first day. Also attached is an Equity Incentive Plan to give you an idea of the terms associated with Tesla stock options.
We appreciate your interest in Tesla Motors, and look forward to you joining the Tesla team!
Please confirm you have received this email and let me know if you have any questions.
The only condition was they needed me to start ASAP, so Nicole had enough time to train me. Turns out I only had 4 days of training before the baby arrived. Less than 2 weeks elapsed between Nicole’s initial email about my Craigslist post and my first day on the job, June 10, 2008.
Things at Tesla always move quickly.
Suddenly I was living my dream, finished at Elon University and entering a new phase of education at the unconventional school of Elon Musk.
If people enjoy this post, I may share more stories from my 5 years working at Tesla. Thank you for reading.
More about Colin:
I’ve been traveling and helping startups since leaving Tesla in 2013 and am currently exploring the startup scene in Lisbon. Head to colin.gillingh.am to get in touch or learn more.
Shout-out to Liz, and her literary wizardry for help editing this post.