Question: I doubt you actually read many of these but I figured it was worth a shot. My name is Matthew and I’m an English major with a journalism minor at the University of Delaware. You pretty much have my dream job, and I would love to know how you went about becoming a technology reviewer.Matthew: Thanks for writing in, and I couldn’t agree more—this is a dream job, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. And I’m happy to share my story. Strangely enough, though, my advice has little to do with my actual experience in getting here.
Why’s that? Well, here’s the thing: I graduated from college (UC Davis, to be exact) in 1991, more than (gulp) 17 years ago. Between then and now, something huge happened that changed everything: the Internet.
Well, that’s not exactly true—there was an Internet in 1991, it’s just that hardly anyone (well, hardly anyone outside of academia, engineering, and the military) knew about it. I certainly didn’t.
Now, if I was graduating college today and looking to review gadgets for a living, here’s what I’d do:
Start your own tech blog. Right now. Pretend you have an audience of thousands, and write accordingly (i.e., fake it ’till you make it). Blog about the hottest topics, and be as timely as possible. Get noticed—link to other, bigger blogs, score invites to trade events (they’re mostly in San Francisco, New York City, and Vegas—you might have to fly, but it’s worth it), and chat up some tech editors (hint: they’re over at the bar). Lean on your Facebook/Linkedin/MySpace pals (they might know someone who knows someone who knows … oh, you know the drill). Keep an eye out for job opportunities (the big guys—like Engadget and Gizmodo—post job openings pretty regularly) and apply promptly (and make sure to follow their instructions). Rinse and repeat, until you get lucky; the more persistent you are, the luckier you’ll get.
Back in the early 90s, though—when I was just getting started—things couldn’t have been more different. Instead, it was all about internships.
At the risk of sounding like one of those “I used to trudge to school through 10 feet of snow” guys (cue up the “remember when” music), back then you couldn’t scour Mediabistro or ping your buddies on Linkedin or Facebook for job leads; instead, you’d go to a job placement office (in person) and flip through three-ring binders—yes, filled with paper—looking for entry-level jobs or (even better) promising internships.
Indeed, I wouldn’t be in journalism at all without internships. I got my foot in the door through a summer internship at a small newspaper in Northern California—The Reporter, in Vacaville (and here’s a shout-out to then-City Editor Diane Barney, who took a chance on me and essentially launched my career). A year or so later (think 1994), I was hired full-time, and I started on the education beat, writing three-to-five stories a day.
At the Reporter, I learned (again) how to write—and write fast. (Great training for blogging, now that I think about it.) I wrote my stories on a clunky old PC with a monochrome screen—text-only, mind you. And while we got AP wire feeds, there was no Internet—at least not on my terminal. The paper’s librarian had a PC with Mosaic, but I rarely looked at it.
Fast-forward to 1997; picture me in another job placement office, this time in San Francisco. I plowed through more three-ring binders, looking for another internship. I found one for Wired magazine, applied on a whim, and luckily (I had little tech experience and no connections), I got it.
I didn’t know it then, but my three-month Wired internship was crucial. Once I had “Wired” on my resume, editors started returning my calls, and one of them worked at CNET. By Halloween in 1997, I was a production assistant at Download.com.
Finally, I was doing daily Web publishing—no more print! But no blogging, either. In fact, the very first blog wouldn’t appear until December 1997, a couple of months after I got the CNET gig, and I didn’t start blogging myself until 2000 (just a personal blog—CNET didn’t launch any tech blogs until much later, and Engadget and Gizmodo were still a few years away).
After five years at CNET, I moved to New York, freelanced full-time for a couple of years (lots of articles, but no blogging), went to trade shows (connections, connections) and eventually got a call from a certain Chris Null, of Yahoo! Tech fame (for whom I’d freelanced in the past). The rest, as they say, is history.
So Matthew: I hope you enjoyed my stroll down memory lane. That said, the best advice I can give is back in paragraph five: Start blogging (and send me the URL once you do). Blog early and often. Make those connections. And keep at it.
Best of luck.