I first heard about Alice Lee last month through Twitter. Amid a flurry of 140-character statements, the headline about a Wharton student skipping class and deserving a job at Instagram caught my eye. Instagram? Skipping class? My mouse honed in. I arrived at Dear Instagram – With Love, Alice, a website with pretty cursive typeface floating daintily among clouds on a clear blue sky. Like a love letter, its greeting words expressed unabashed admiration:
“In a nutshell: I am a huge, huge fan of Instagram. And I want to be a part of your team.”
Love in the digital age? Some have called Dear Instagram an over-the-top ode to the popular iPhone photo sharing portal, Instagram, which has been downloaded more than 15 million times. But beyond the cute and welcoming background reminiscent of a day on the Bay (sailboats and sunglasses adorn the four pages), Dear Instagram is a thoughtful collection of ideas from a 20-year old who just really wants to work for Instagram. Within two days of its launch on February 16, it received more than 40,000 hits – not too shabby for a site built from scratch in 2.5 days. Media outlets from The Atlantic to Business Insider were quick to highlight how many classes Wharton junior Alice Lee skipped to produce the viral sensation- four- effectively using this ‘act of rebellion’ as clicking bait. But for Lee, skipping class is no big deal. Never afraid to breakaway, she took the entire fall semester off to work at the start-upFoursquare, build her photo business, and go to Africa.
I briefly met Lee this weekend while she was in New York for a client meeting. She has maintained a flow of design and photography projects, even since before Dear Instagram was born. Lee began her own photo business two years ago, despite having never taken a professional photo class.
“I learn better when I experiment. I started messing around with photography when my Dad returned from China with a Nikon D100, one of the first DSLRs that Nikon came out with. I learned by following people, reaching out to other photographers, creating a photoblog, and posting my photos to Facebook, ” says Lee. “All the gigs I’ve gotten have been through friends, or friends of friends.”
Naturally, she references these experiences in her Instagram application. But more than a digital resume, Dear Instagram outlines concrete things Lee would actually do if given the opportunity to work at Instagram, which includes revamping the developer site and connecting with more photographers. On the final page of the site, which reads like a storybook, Lee concludes with the question “So why me?”, then quickly summarizes her own answer in a concise batch of sentences and graphics. Perhaps the more logical question to ask, however, is why NOT?
The outstanding nature of a website like Dear Instagram begs the question: Is this the new standard for resumes? Do we all need to create a viral website to receive a second glance from respected companies these days? If so, save my spot in the unemployment line now!
Thankfully, Lee offers resoundingly simple advice that doesn’t require coding. In fact, her number one tip for job applicants is to just be genuine.
“Don’t do things for the sake of doing them, ” she says. “Don’t feel compelled to make a resume-y website just because “everyone else is doing it” – because that’s not a real reason to!”
Lee suggests showing, not just telling, how your strengths will add value. Think about what a company is lacking and provide a solution. If you are a writer, write potential copy for the website. If you are a designer, send a potential design, which is what she did. Lee thought the current Instagram developer site could use some improvement so she redesigned it and sent them a mock-up.
Proactivity is a strategy she often uses to much success. While helping a potential client with something unrelated to design, she decided to create website icons free of charge for the team to use. This established a regular collaboration and she is currently working on a major design project with the organization.
Lee’s interest in Instagram stands uniquely at the intersection of her photography and technology passions. With ten employees based out of San Francisco, Instagram is at the center of the start-up revolution – all the more reason why Lee loves the company. However, she cautions that start-up culture is not for everyone.
“I think that it’s a certain type of person who wants to go into the start-up world and it’s really important to be honest with yourself in deciding if you’re that kind of person,” says Lee. “You have to work hard at your traditional corporate job, but in the start-up world, the onus is really on you and you are truly irreplaceable to the organization that you are a part of.”
Start-up or corporate, Lee’s career advice applies across the spectrum. Professionally, be smart and offer valid ideas, but what is equally important is being likable. This is significantly easier when you love what you do. Lee wakes up with a smile knowing she has “a whole day ahead that I can spend building cool things.”
Lee and Instagram have talked but so far, no work arrangement is set. Rest assured, with or without the InstaGig, this is not the last you will hear of her.