The Crash Guide: How to Start Your Operations Career in 2020 With No Experience

November 2019
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Are you the friend everyone looks to when making plans? Do you enjoy a fresh new set of pens or playing around in Excel spreadsheets? Is everything in your workspace or apartment organized?

If you’re Type A like me, then you’ve probably been the butt of a lot of jokes in your life for what your friends consider weird idiosyncrasies or nervous ticks–like organizing all of your dry-erase markers by color or the organization method of books on your bookshelf. Often, what others see as oddities are no more than the result of an inner need to manage the chaos in your own personal universe.

The need to be and feel organized can be a superpower, properly leveraged. Just like it can be a major cause for distraction and procrastination if left unattended.

But if you consider yourself one of those always-prepared, plan-ahead types of people, well, operations just might be the perfect place to channel your energy and launch your career.

How to Start Your Operations Career in 2020 With No Experience (Ultimate Guide)

So . . . what is operations, anyway?

Operations encompasses a broad range of, well, operations within a business. It varies from business to business and by company stage. Shopify offers a fantastic definition of operations: Everything that happens within a company to keep it running and earning money.

One great advantage of launching a career in operations is the deep exposure to the ins and outs of how a business actually works. At a company’s earlier stages, it can also mean a lot of facetime with people who make decisions–like the CEO, CFO, and COO, or other executives. And, as a function that focuses on efficiency, this department tends to run lean–which offers ample opportunity early in a company’s life cycle to wear different hats.

For the most part, operations can encompass everything from finance, accounting, human resources, and IT to system administration. In some organizations, customer or technical support also live in the operations organization. As companies get bigger, many of the departments that once lived in the operations function tend to split off into their own separate functions.

Operations prioritizes several distinct elements:

Business processes: the way departments and team function together, administering systems and infrastructure, and more
Human capital management: staffing, recruitment, training and development, and more
Office management: day-to-day operations at a headquarters, vendor management, and more
Asset management: choosing a companies technology, equipment, and more

Regardless of the specific department within operations, the foundational skill sets that apply to each of these functions are a great baseline for your career–even if you take a different path later in life.

What career paths are there in operations?

There are a lot of different paths into operations–from working as an associate in IT or Human Resources to apprenticing or assisting executives.

If you look on a jobs board, you may find titles like Operations Associate, Business Associate, Business Analyst, or Chief of Staff.

Regardless of the entry point, often entry level roles in operations are about finding ways to give the business–or a key higher-level employee–additional leverage. Think of roles in operations like a force multiplier for the business.
And if you’re just starting out your career and looking for a role to get a crash course in the way businesses operate, this resource page highlights different tools and benefits of launching a career in operations.
A graphic with columns on entry-level operations  positions, common roles for entry-level operations jobs (Operations, Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Accounting, Finance, Billing, Business Operations, Sales Operations, Marketing Operations, Revenue Operations, Human Resources, Information Technology, Recruiting, Office Manager, Executive Assistant, Administrative Assistant, Billing Clerk), title variations for entry-level operations jobs (Intern, Associate, Analyst, Specialist, Coordinator, Assistant), average years of experience for entry-level operations jobs (0-3+), and average income for entry-level marketers ($47k for office manager, $55k for operations analyst). Also includes operations manager title variations (Manager, Supervisor, General Manager, Senior, Branch Manager) and operations director title variations (Director, Supervisor, General Manager, Regional Manager), operations manager average years of experience (3-7+) and operations director years of experience (5-10+), and average income for operations managers ($64k) and average income for operations directors ($91k) from Payscale. There is a breakdown of operations vice president positions–operations vice president title variations (Chief of Staff, Head of Operations, Lead, VP of Operations, SVP of Operations, People Management, Strategic Planning), operations vice president average years of experience (10+),  and average income for operations vice presidents ($127k). Also included in the last column is operations c-suite positions–title variations for operations c-suite jobs (Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief People Officer, Chief Administrative Officer), average years of experience for c-suite operations jobs (10-20+), and average income for c-suite operations jobs ($142k).

How much money can you make in a career in operations?

Your income potential in an operations career path will largely depend on the niche within operations you choose, the stage and size of the company, the industry, and the technical nature of the role.

Keep in mind, some paths within business operations may require more extensive training–and even special types of certifications. For instance, to become a Chief Financial Officer, you would most likely need to have a background in accounting and finance, and quite possibly even hold a CPA designation.

Regardless, a career in operations offers a reliable earning trajectory.

To highlight a few of the common ranges, here’s a breakdown by experience level, courtesy of Payscale.
A graph of average income for entry, manager, director, VP, and c-suite operations jobs, courtesy of Payscale.
See more details on the Payscale reports for entry, entry analyst, manager, director, vice president, and c-suite operations salaries.

How can I get started in operations?

If you’re not already sure what kind of work makes you come alive, then the nearly-limitless options of a career path in operations might have you feeling serious choice anxiety. But don’t get too worked up–I think the best way to figure it out is to start experimenting. If you don’t enjoy a certain type of work, you can always pivot to something else later.

For operations, even though there are so many different options, there’s remarkable consistency in the types of skills that will set you up for success. Understanding how a business works, figuring out how to improve processes, making things work more efficiently–all of these are valuable concepts for a career in operations.

So, if you’re interested in trying out operations as a potential career path, I suggest trying to plug yourself into a business owner’s mindset.

One good place to start might be finding a small business owner or entrepreneur to shadow for a couple weeks. Offer to help out for free for a period of time in exchange for gaining some valuable exposure to the inner workings of the business.

When you’re early in your career, your lack of experience can be a strong bargaining chip–most people are eager to help young people. So, use that to your advantage, but also be sure you put your best foot forward. If someone gives you a chance, don’t abuse it. Show up early. Stay late. Give extra effort and take initiative to help with any project you can take on.

If you can’t find someone to shadow locally, then go pick a business online–any business. Do some research about the company. Demo their product or service if you can. Take note of the experience. Ask questions about the process and document anything you think might need improvement. Then, if you’re feeling extra bold, reach out to someone on that company’s team and let them know your suggestion. Offer to buy them coffee in exchange for fifteen minutes of conversation about what a day in the life is like in their role. Then, repeat this step for other businesses, too.

You don’t have to have a job yet to get started experimenting with operations. Sure, it helps. But if you can’t find an opportunity fast, just try to start thinking creatively about the way businesses work and can improve. Document the things you learn as you go through that exercise, and any chance you can create to learn from someone who’s already working in a role that interests you, take it.

Operations empowers a business to operate more effectively.
If you want a crash course in business, enjoy improving processes or systems or finding better ways to solve problems, operations provides a great career path. The skills you’ll cultivate in operations will prepare you to manage projects, teams, or even establish a great baseline of business acumen if you want to start your own business some day.

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What skills do you need for a career in operations?

Most operations functions of a business ask questions like, “How could we make this more efficient?” or “How do we solve this problem?” So a natural curiosity or interest in tinkering are useful traits.

Soft skills like time and task management, organization, clear communication, and the ability to organize and present data will also serve you well. Additionally, the ability to learn different softwares and use tools to solve problems is also a huge plus.

Here are some common skills you’ll want to consider for a career in operations:

• Strong organization
• Attention to detail
• Administrative skills
• Accounting
• Financial analysis
• Budgeting
• Financial management
• Basic understanding of business systems
• General business acumen
• Industry knowledge
• Product knowledge
• An understanding of the different business departments
• Staffing
• Training and development
• Project management
• Time management
• Reporting
• Analytical skills
• Strong written and verbal communication skills

What are the most common softwares and tools used in operations?

To dive deeper into what that looks like in tangible terms, we’ve highlighted some of the most popular softwares and tools operations teams at startups use to make their businesses run more smoothly and effectively.

Click on the categories to see more!
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What are the best resources for learning more about what a career in operations is like?

To help you kickstart your learning on how to launch your career in operations, we curated some of the best content, thought leaders, and companies from around the web to help point you in the right direction. Enjoy!

The Best Operations Podcasts to Start Your Career

Here are some excellent podcasts ranging from business operations to how startups work. While not all of these are specific to operations, we recommend them all as great resources to gain a deeper understanding of business as a whole.

The Official Saastr Podcast, Harry Stebbings
This Week in Startups, Jason Calacanis
How I Built This, Guy Raz
Masters of Scale, Reid Hoffman
a16z Podcast, Andreeson Horowitz
Seeking Wisdom, Dave Gerhardt and David Cancel
The Tropical MBA Podcast, Dan Andrews and Ian Schoen

The Best Operations Books to Start Your Career

Want to learn how to run a business, manage a team, or grow your organization better? Well, this is a category that is rich with insight from across the entire spectrum–including coaching legends, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and tell-all memoirs. If you’re looking to level up, then this list is a great starting point.

So without further ado, check out our Essential Reading List for Every Operations Professional in 2020. Here it is:

How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
Work Rules!, Lazlo Bock
Radical Candor, Kim Scott
Shoe Dog, Phil Knight
Permission to Screw Up, Kristen Hadeed
Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard
Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsiegh
Made in America, Sam Walton
The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker
The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber
The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman
The Science of Success, Charles Koch
Start With Why, Simon Sinek
The Essays of Warren Buffett, Warren Buffett
The Everything Store, Brad Stone
The One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey
The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, John C. Maxwell
The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell
The Virgin Way, Richard Branson
My Life and Work, Henry Ford
Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Charlie Munger and Peter D. Kaufman
Pour Your Heart Into It, Howard Schultz
Grinding It Out, Ray Kroc
Good to Great, Jim Collins
Built to Last, Jim Collins
Principles, Ray Dalio
Winning, Jack Welch
Winning with Data, Tomasz Tunguz and Frank Bien
Wooden on Leadership, John Wooden
Zero to One, Peter Thiel
The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz

The Best Operations Leaders to Follow as You Start Your Career

Operations is not just about building a better company–it’s also about understanding people and figuring out how to help individual contributors achieve their maximum potential, while keeping an entire team moving forward.

To that end, we’ve put together a list of awesome operations leaders who are worth studying. Not everyone on this list is a regular content creator, but the list is jam-packed with a wide variety of legendary operations leaders.

Bill Belichick
Blake Murray
Brian Halligan
Brock Blake
Charlie Munger
Dabo Swinney
Dan Cathy
Dave Grow
David Cancel
Elon Musk
Eric Schmidt
Gregg Popovich
Jeff Bezos
Jerry Murrell
Jim Collins
John Calipari
John Collison
Julian Shapiro
Kim Scott
Mack Brown
Marissa Mayer
Max Levchin
Mike Krzyzewski
Mike Maples
Mike Volpe
Nick Saban
Patrick Collison
Paul Graham
Peter Theil
Phil Jackson
Reid Hoffman
Roy Williams
Sheryl Sandberg
Steve Balmer
Tim Cook
Urban Meyer
Warren Buffett

P.S. Know someone we missed? Tweet their name and why you like ‘em at @CareerCrash, and we just might add them.

The Best Companies to Work Full-Time in Operations

What does it even mean to be good at operations? Wouldn’t that just mean finding the most profitable companies and trying to get hired? Well, maybe.

To give some tangible examples, we want to highlight a few specific companies who are creating awesome tools to tackle making operations more efficient. Their products and services are helping professionals the world over better manage their jobs and companies.
Companies and Why We Like 'Em
Airtable – Airtable's mission is making big waves in the #NoCode movement, with a mission to "democratize software creation by enabling anyone to build the tools that meet their needs."

Asana – Asana's built a beautiful, user-friendly project management platform – that combines calendars, projects, deadlines, communication, lists...basically, you name it, all in one easy-to-use interface.

Basecamp – Their career page boldly reads: "Do the best work of your career." And this is a team that means it. Basecamp is an awesome company with a unique philosophy on work, culture, and what it means to build a business.

Notion – Notion has created a note-taking app + project management + collaboration tool on steroids. Plus, they've got a personable and approachable brand story and point of view that feels very human, conversational, and like it'd be a great team to be part of. From their About page, they "want to break away from today's tools—and bring back some of the ideas of those early pioneers."

Doist – The Doist team is an organization focused on bringing balance to the universe and the future of work by building better tools for the workplace and living. They launched in 2007 with their flagship product, Todoist, and have continued building and growing ever since–without raising a cent in venture capital.

Trello – Trello created an easy and flexible kanban-style project management and collaboration tool that makes it easy to stay on top of any task, project, or more.

Zapier – Zapier’s built a world-class platform that allows you to connect all your favorite apps and create workflows to make those softwares talk to one another easily. We use this to save countless hours every month on a wide variety of tasks. And the best part? The entirely-remote team seems as cool as the product they've built.

What are some of the best operations success stories you've ever heard?

So how have people actually gone about making their start and building a legendary career in operations?

It’s a great question. And to highlight some stories–both inspirational and informative–we’ve curated a few real-world stories from people who’ve done exactly that.


Bailey Heldfond


Bailey knew she wanted to go into operations. But she opted to disregard the advice to apply to hundreds of openings and, instead, started creating a digital body of work. And it got her noticed by a startup in Silicon Valley.

Read Bailey's full story here.

Emony Anderson

After working in a popcorn shop, Emony got hired at a startup–and she got to help keep a business operating smoothly and learn the ins and outs of business. Here's a bit of her story and her take on why operations is the amazing thing that keeps operations, well, operating.

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