Getting a job in the clean energy industry (or, in my experience, the solar industry) isn’t necessarily easy. Most technology-heavy firms tend to have one or two business people for every dozen engineers. So in the interest of helping out those non-engineers who are trying to break in, I wanted to share a few things I learned.
My interest in energy didn’t start until relatively late. I started out studying math in college, and then spent four years in management consulting. I went to business school with the hopes of finding a career to focus in. I decided pretty early in grad school that I wanted to do energy, and took an internship with Abound Solar. I had an amazing time there, and then decided that solar was the industry for me.
I did a networked job search. Before this process, I never thought of myself as a networker. “Networking” seemed like a euphemism for pretending to like people you barely know, in the hopes that they will someday contribute to your political campaign. It turned out to not be as bad as advertised, but it took a lot of work. Here is my summary of how a networked job search works:
- Get introduced to someone.
- Meet with them over coffee, or have a phone call.
- Try to ask smart-sounding questions, talk about projects I’ve been working on.
- At the end, ask them if they know anyone hiring, and ask them to connect me with other people who I should meet.
This job search continued the entire second year of my MBA program. I flew to the Bay Area every 6 weeks, crashed on couches, and tried to meet as many people as possible. I read the news. I also read patents about companies that I wanted to learn more about and companies I was meeting with. I did projects – I worked for free (or nearly free) with two Boston startups (one a water startup, another one a waste heat technology); these gave me things to talk about during the networked job search, and they helped me get smarter about how things actually worked in energy startups.
Eventually, I landed a job offer. That fateful day, I went from first meeting the team to a handshake offer in under five hours. I had spent nearly 12 months with nothing to show for it, and then closed an offer in half a day. By the time I found this job, I had met with 118 people.
(For an interview with Paul Grana about how to navigate the clean energy jobs market, listen to this week’s podcast linked below.)
Based on my time searching for jobs and my subsequent experience in the solar industry, here are some lessons learned that might apply to your job search:
1. Burn the boats
If you’re not all-in on the industry, then your odds of success are really low. I’ve known a bunch of people who were half-trying to get into solar. Their success rate so far is 0%. Stop considering jobs at McKinsey or Google. You have to live and breathe your future industry, or you won’t get traction.
2. Pick a specific sector as early as possible
You might think of it all as “cleantech,” but nobody in the industry calls it that. Solar people work in the solar industry. And solar has very little in common with other sectors (water, wind, biofuels, etc.). The sooner you narrow down to the sector you enjoy most, the deeper you’ll be able to go in becoming an expert in that sector. You don’t have to be ultra-specific, but you should be making your solar/smart grid/water/electric vehicles decisions as soon as you can.
3. Tell your personal network – they’ll help you
Now that you’ve burned your bridges, let everyone know. Tell your friends from school, your friends from previous jobs, and your family. They will bring you job leads.
4. Consider working for free at first
When you don’t have any experience, the best thing to do is get some. And that often involves working for free. It may be difficult to find a role at first. You may have to start with some unglamorous projects, and eventually can help out with business plans, financial models, or work planning. My first project was simply doing paperwork for a government grant application – as unglamorous as it gets. But I liked the team, and it proved that I was willing to do whatever needed to get done.
5. Startups don’t need “strategy” help
Sure, you’re an MBA. And you used to work for McKinsey. But startups don’t need someone to put their issues into a 2×2 matrix. Earn respect by doing menial work (see the point right above this), and by learning the technology and the market. If you’re a generalist, then expect to do a lot of business development (which usually means cold-calling potential customers or partners).
6. Read patents
There is a ton of information out there if you’re willing to look for it. Most companies have patents that can tell you a lot about the company’s technology. And they’re public domain – fair game for anyone to read. I use patentlens.com, but any patent search would do the job. Be warned – it’s tedious reading. But you will learn things that very few people know about. And it differentiates you from other job seekers.
7. Get some networking momentum
Everyone has to start somewhere. The first five conversations you have are going to be pure charity. You’re going to have people putting information into your head, while you have nothing to offer in return (except for your gratitude). It’s difficult at first. Eventually, you’ll start to have a good enough network, and a good enough grasp of the industry, where you can help people out – whether it’s an introduction or a heads-up on a new technology.
This is a big turning point: first, the job search becomes more fun. It’s always nice to feel like you’re helping other people. This creates a positive feedback loop (your confidence makes you more effective). Second, you get taken more seriously. When you sound like you know what you’re talking about, people assume that you’re really going to end up in the industry.
8. Don’t forget the junior people when networking
Senior people may have tons of experience and heavy-hitter contacts, but they have very little time to help you out. Junior people make up for their lack of seniority with their willingness to help. I got way more help from people my own age than I did from people my father’s age.
9. Hit the road
If you want to work at a Silicon Valley startup, then you have to come out to the valley on a regular basis. Early-stage startups don’t have a hiring budget – so they don’t travel. And they don’t hire over the phone. Do the math.
10. Try to have fun – because you have to do work where the payoff isn’t clear
I genuinely found the solar industry really interesting. This was important because I was then willing to do work even if I wasn’t positive that it was worth it. It’s difficult to convince yourself that reading a patent (or ten of them) will lead to a new job. But if you can find a way to enjoy reading the patents, then the professional value just becomes a bonus.
Some of these pieces of advice may differ a bit depending on the exact sector you want to get into. But I find them to be great guidelines to follow when looking for a job.