A growing number of Capitol Hill and executive branch staffers are leaving D.C. to pursue careers in Silicon Valley, especially those who have worked on information technology, energy or cybersecurity policies.
Few can be blamed for wanting to trade in partisan gridlock for IPOs and a Mediterranean climate. Having made this transition almost a year ago myself, here are some observations — and tips — that might be helpful for anyone interested in doing the same.
Come out here for the right reasons. Like most people, I wanted to work in D.C. to make the world a better place. Although at times frustrating, I’d like to think that I had an impact, albeit in my own small way. Silicon Valley is also a great place from which to change the world, and people are doing it every day. However, there are a lot of smart, driven people here and competition is strong, so you’ll have to work just as hard as you do now. Additionally, while the potential financial upside is exciting, it isn’t guaranteed. That means you need to be enthusiastic about your pursuits or you’ll burn out. Just as in D.C., passion matters more than payout.
You probably can’t get a job as a venture capitalist. At first blush, it sounds logical. You’re a top-notch staffer with expertise in technical policy issues, a strong personal network, broad market perspective and access to national decision-makers. Unfortunately, unless you have enough financial liquidity to buy in or tangible entrepreneurial experience, it’s not going to happen. Venture capital firms don’t hire a lot of staff, and those they do hire usually have experience building products or founding companies. Instead, put yourself on this path by first proving that you can manage a cool product for a hot startup.
Consider doing business development. Startups don’t have the policy or strategy jobs that you really want (although some of the bigger companies do). Instead, everyone in a startup is either “building” or “selling.” Unless you’re an engineer or have the gravitas to found your own company, consider taking a business development or marketing job. Find a small company that is looking to expand into the federal market and offer to lead that practice. Most startups are clueless about D.C., and someone who can navigate the corridors of government could be very valuable. Then, after you do an awesome job, leverage your new business skills to pivot into something else.
Get some tangible skills. D.C. is a town of tough competitors and you have shown that you have the intangible skills required to succeed where others have failed. Now, consider using those intangible skills to acquire some tangible ones. If you want to work in IT, spend time learning how networks actually work and sign up for a program like Code Year . Learn something about corporate finance, including how to value stock options and what a term sheet looks like. Finally, start reading CEO blog posts and industry reports from research agencies like Gartner to get a feel for the marketplace. You don’t need to be an expert but you should be competent.
Plan ahead. The jump from D.C. to Silicon Valley is a big one. Start planning for it at least six months ahead. Begin taking trips out west and building your personal network. Meet with everyone you can, especially those who work in areas that interest you. Join professional networks and LinkedIn groups and go to industry happy hours. (This part should be easy for any seasoned D.C. politico.) After that, don’t be afraid to jump. Silicon Valley can be tough to penetrate from the outside but, if you take the risk to come out here, you’ll almost certainly find something cool very quickly.
Oh, and leave all of your suits behind (seriously, you won’t need a single one). Spend your money on designer hoodies and Tesla Roadsters instead.
Mike McNerney is a former Pentagon official and attorney who now works as an adviser to a number of startups. He currently lives in Palo Alto, Calif., and is a Truman security fellow.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.