How a Passion Project Becomes a Job

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Tight as the market for tech talent may be, employers still prefer candidates who demonstrate not only great skills, but real passion for their work.

Hiring managers and recruiters consistently say that your eagerness to spend time on technology projects outside of work can make a real difference in how they perceive you as a potential employee. Working on projects simply because you’re intrigued by the technology goes a long way toward demonstrating your excitement about the field.

Kendall Dawson, now a technology entrepreneur operating under the radar in San Diego, Calif., is a great example of this. In 2002, as a project manager for a Web publisher in Massachusetts, he became intrigued after reading about Michael Robertson’s Lindows.com—also known as LindowsOS and Linspire—on Slashdot. When the first Beta launched, he became active on the project’s forums, both beta testing and offering tech support to new users. After a few months, as one of the forums’ top contributors, he was made a moderator.

He continued to spend “a lot of time” on forums as well as testing software and submitting bug reports to the engineering group. Along the way, he got to know a number of people at the company, including its CEO, president, engineers and members of the QA, marketing and support teams. At one point, as the firm labored toward releasing a new beta, Dawson sent them two cases of heavily caffeinated drinks. “This was a great success,” he recalled. “The Lindows employees were raving about me. They even took pictures of themselves drinking the beverages and posted them on their site.”

Soon after that, Dawson and President Kevin Carmony began emailing about a possible job. After several telephone interviews, Dawson flew to San Diego in September 2003 to meet the team in person. “Everyone in the office knew who I was,” Dawson said. “They offered me a job and created a brand new position for me called ‘Community Liaison.’ I moved to San Diego and started in October.” He remained there until 2007, when he joined mp3tunes.com as a project manager.

Ken Dawson’s story is a great example of how plunging into a project on your own time, and showing off your skills on sites such as Slashdot or Stack Overflow, can impact your career. After we heard about his experience, we asked him to give us some ideas about the lessons he’d learned.

So, how would you sum the whole experience of getting your job at Lindows?

I would sum up the experience as “surreal.” Even after being there for two years, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” When I first joined the Lindows community and started experimenting with the operating system, I never would have believed that I’d be working for the company. I had a full time job and I wasn’t looking for another one. I just was doing something fun. It was a hobby—something to do after hours or on the weekends. I was trying to get away from Microsoft Windows and wanted to learn about Linux.

Based on all this, do you have advice for other tech pros?

Sure. Invest the time in yourself and be willing to take a chance. I was doing this as a hobby, for fun, to teach myself Linux. I never intended to work for the company. I wanted to learn a new operating system.

If you’re going to invest a lot of time, do it because it’s good for you, not because you’re expecting to land the job. This makes a difference because others can see your dedication and enthusiasm. If you’re already doing what they need, it’s easy to see you as a good fit for the position.

Your story makes me think you combined passion, a little bit of luck and job-hunting smarts—even if you weren’t actively looking—into a great opportunity.

My passion turned into a job because I was at the right place at the right time doing the right thing. None of it was planned as a job-seeking endeavor because I already had a job. A passion project has to be just about your passion—doing something because you love doing it. If you’re really good at it, others may take notice and want to hire you.

Let’s net it out. How, specifically, do you think your work on the forums led to the job at Lindows?

First, it gave me domain knowledge. I learned a lot about the product. I wasn’t pretending just to get a job, I really knew the product from front to back.

Next, I shared information. I was good at helping other people learn about the product. I shared my knowledge freely via FAQs, posts and documentation. Open Source is the way to go.

Then there’s networking. I talked to a lot of different people, both customers and employees. Everyone in the community knew me. The company employees knew me.

And, there was bribery. I sent the company those cases of caffeinated drinks from Think Geek. I did it on a whim. Truth is, I didn’t really see it as a bribe, just something for my friends. But later, as I was going through the hiring process, I discovered that act turned out to be quite valuable. People knew me because of the free drinks. Many of the engineers, support staff and QA guys already knew me, but the free drinks made their way to the executives, the accounting department, the marketing department, Sales, Web developers, the IT guys, etc. I was walking around meeting people for the first time and they all knew who I was. Things you don’t think are important sometimes turn out to be quite memorable for others.

Finally, there was my willingness to take a chance. I think this was the thing that landed me the job. I was 3,000 miles away and they only “knew” me via Internet forums and email. The company was experiencing rapid growth and needed someone to manage the online community full time.

I really didn’t have anything holding me back, so I took the chance and made it happen. If I’d dragged my feet or been indecisive, I think they would have offered the job to someone else. After I’d worked there awhile I found that the company disliked moving people from other regions and preferred hiring local talent.

Luckily, I was in a position to move quickly. I was renting an apartment and didn’t have any other obligations in Massachusetts besides my job. It still took a HUGE amount of effort to get to San Diego in a month. But, I saw the whole experience like the Janis Joplin song: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

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