Want to Work for a Startup? Drop Your Computer Science Classes

People often ask me how to land a job at a leading tech startup. And my answer always surprises them: Drop your computer science classes…

People often ask me how to land a job at a leading tech startup. And my answer always surprises them: Drop your computer science classes and take a multidisciplinary approach to your education. Step away from the computer screen and sign up for classes that will help you understand the world - the entire world, not just your corner of it.

I've dedicated most of my life to technology. I grew up in Palo Alto, where most people are born with a game controller or a mouse in their hand instead of a silver spoon. I built my first web page when I was 11. In high school, I took three years of advanced computer science classes. But those were the last formal CS classes I ever took.

I’d like to say I had a specific plan laid out. But the truth is,  I didn't know if I was going to go to law school or medical school. I didn't end up going to either. Instead, I double-majored in History and Psychology. It turned out to be the right choice for me because, throughout my career, I’ve benefited the most from these courses in the startup world than any other. Here's why...

Are You Really the Type?


It takes a specific personality to work for a startup, particularly as a developer. To be an app developer doesn’t mean you’re an academic computer science junkie. Why? The best developers will teach themselves everything they need to know. They are inherently inquisitive. They want take things apart and figure out how they work and rebuild it in a better way.

When I was 12, I was one of the first beta testers of Frontpage, (seriously) and was generally disappointed by how it distanced me from the actual code that told the browser what to render. In high school in Palo Alto, I worked with my journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki (mother-in-law of Sergey Brin) to build V.2 of our school newspaper's website (the first part of which was taking apart the old website, which didn’t really work).

When I was a freshman in college, the first commercial WiFi cards rolled out, I spent the better half of my first semester hacking through the school's network infrastructure to make a WiFi router work in my dorm. The point is to do these things in your spare time, not in a classroom setting.

Dump Your Shiny Toys


Sure, we all want to have the latest and greatest Mac. But my advice to high school and college students is to get a cheap PC. Revel in the olden days and figure out how computers work. Take apart the laptop and learn how it works by putting it back together. Get Linux on it. Start playing. This will be more valuable than any CS class you could take.

What Classes to Take

So, if not computer science, what classes should you take?


Math. Understanding math is key. Calculus and algebra are the most important. These skills are extremely helpful in a fast-paced business environment. At Fueled, I work with our startup clients on how to best mold their products to secure future financing. That often involves complicated financial modeling, both in terms of structuring stock and justifying valuations with revenue projections. The former involves a lot of algebra -- especially when dealing with vesting schedules (how long it takes an employee to earn stock and under what conditions) -- and the latter gets into calculus territory. But this is just one example of how a firm grasp on mathematics can come in handy in a startup environment.

Writing. Creative writing, not code writing. Expository writing. In any Internet-powered business, the bulk of your communication takes place through writing, and you need to communicate high-tech concepts to people who might not be high-tech themselves. You also need to be witty - and have a personality - in your writing. We’re not asking for “Revenge of the Nerds”-level humor. But in an environment where everyone is working long hours, please don’t give us another reason to fall asleep.

Also, don’t be afraid to “write from the heart."  Be human. For developers, sometimes this can take practice. Another reason to take writing courses.

Expand Your Mind

There's much more to life than a computer screen and making money.


Astronomy was the most stimulating class I ever took. We would meet on the roof of the geology building or in the middle of an alfalfa field in an environment with minimal light pollution to work with hobby-level optical telescopes. The class directly connected my experience of the universe with technology. It’s incredibly powerful to attain a rudimentary understanding of special and general relativity, how stars are born and die, and the technological advances that made these insights possible.

Does this relate to app code? No. But it was one of the most mind-expanding educational experiences I've ever had. I connected concrete engineering work to the real world, specifically how the development of CCDs (the integral component of every digital camera) was propelled primarily by cosmologists and astronomers in need of tech capable of detecting light that was so faint that it would never be visible to the naked eye. The Hubble Deep Field image is the best example of how this tech produced something "real".

This mimicked the entrepreneurial experience of building a product to meet a need of the market and it's what I try to do with the products I build. 

See the World

Don't stop at taking a broader, multidisciplinary approach to your studies, change the way you explore the world.

Getting a computer science degree is great for working as a developer at an established company. But it’s not relevant to starting a company.

I recommend to those who want to work for a startup to take a gap year. Work an entry-level position at a business that appeals to your interests or hobbies, somewhere that provides entrepreneurial experience. Or, donate your time to a nonprofit and tackle a social problem.

The world is truly yours for the taking, don't get lost behind your computer screen.

Find Aaron Cohen's Google Plus profile here: Google

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