12/27/2013 01:49 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2014

What to Look for in Your First Job

One semester to go and you graduate. No more tests, no more projects, no more defining your success with a grade each semester.

But now comes a giant question -- which job do you take? (This is written specifically for computer science majors but I think these suggestions hold for most any job.) Get this wrong and your first job will suck. Get it right and you'll like your job so much, it won't be work, it'll be fun -- and you get paid!

Trust me, I've made each of the below mistakes. Getting it wrong sucks. Here they are in priority order.
  1. How smart and imaginative are the employees? If the employees there are below your level, you're going to find it drudgery to carry them along. If they're well above you, they'll find you a pain and will push you off to the side. If you're not at the same level as the people at a company, you'll have a short unhappy experience there before quitting or being fired.
  2. How motivated are the employees? I worked at a company where the people were all brilliant but there was no urgency to ship the product. Everyone has their own speed as they balance functionality vs delivery, but you want to work with people who balance that similarly. If you're way different, then you will find the speed of the team frustrating. The larger the difference, the greater the frustration.
  3. How well do employees work together? At Windward (my company), we have a no negative people rule. You're not going to find perfection anywhere, but if you find a company where there are no negative drains, that makes for a much more pleasant (and productive) experience.
  4. What do people do in their spare time? This matters more in smaller companies where there's often less diversity in personal interests. If your life is extreme mountain biking and others at a company are into sports, that makes for common interests to discuss at lunch, or even go biking together on the weekends. This is not make or break, but it can make the experience better.
  5. What are the expected number of hours each week? At Windward, I tell people 44 hours/week max (and then often yell at talk with people who work more). At other companies the expectation is 90 hours/week. When I was younger, I worked the killer hours and loved it so I'm not saying one is better than the other. But make sure you're OK with the expectations.
  6. Measure the salary vs. the cost of living. Silicon Valley pays about twice what Boulder, Colorado does. And with that doubled pay... you'll have less left over after covering rent & food (and a much smaller apartment to boot).
  7. Are they looking for a fox or a hedgehog? And which are you? You want a job that plays to your strengths, not your weaknesses. If the job is working for Amazon on the AWS backbone, you better be a hedgehog. If it's creating a new killer social media app, you better be a fox.
  8. The technology at the company? No big deal. If a company (five years ago) said they were working on a subscription based messaging system, you probably would have said "no way, too boring." That was Twitter.

So, great list of questions, but how do you get answers when interviewing? This is pretty easy -- ask what you'll be working on. As they explain, ask for more details on the interesting parts. Ask what the big challenges are, ask what the market response has been so far, ask what the company has struggled with the most. And ask what it's like working there in general.

Listen to the answers carefully, not just for what is said but how it's said and what is not said. Are the problems key to the program or peripheral? Do they have a good handle on what they face? Are these problems trivial, impossible, or difficult but solvable? Do they mention co-workers as part of the problem?

Don't be afraid to ask these questions. If you do so in a way that is friendly & curious, it is viewed as a good sign in an interview. It means you are interested in the job and are looking for someplace where you can contribute. One of the best questions you can ask is, "What do you need from me to make the company successful?" The answer tells you a lot, and the interviewer wants to hear that question (unless the company is a complete mess).

Here's hoping you find a job that's a good fit for you. But you will also get one or two turkeys. When you do, learn what you can from that job and when you are 95 percent certain it's a bad fit, move on to something else. And with that said, every job is hard at times, frustrating at times, all wrong at times.