(Tech) Job Searching – a few tips and tricks

I am qualified to speak on this. Really. Trust me. No, really. And is this really only for tech jobs? Well, I’m not qualified to speak to other professions, but as the old Jewish lady said about offering her dead husband chicken soup, “what could it hurt?”

I’ve been in the position to do a lot of interviewing of candidates over quite a few years. So, all I’m going to speak to here is what I’ve seen. No, I’m sure this doesn’t apply to you. Really. This has to do with all the other folks I met with.

The only time it definitely does apply to you is if you ever interview with me. So, get this: I am actively looking to fill a position. Whoever applies can look me up online. They can find this posting and actually prepare. I mean, how much of a give away is that! I’ll make it that easy. I’ll tell you exactly what I do and don’t want to see and hear. Whether that’s of any interest to those of you who are applying for jobs with other people – well that’s for you to figure out. In short, well, maybe I just want to make sure I start seeing candidates who’re better prepared when I meet with them. Afterall, I like hiring and hate spending lots of time interviewing massive numbers of applicants.

So here we go. We’ll address three areas.

Part 1 –  Career Direction

Step one and most important: figure out who and what you want to be when you grow up. If I have to deal with yet one more person who wants to be a manager, but portrays himself as a developer, I’m gonna hurl. If you want to be a developer, train yourself for that. The same is true of a development manager. Research the career direction you want to persue and learn as much as possible, if you’re not already an expert. If you have no experience or your training is out of date, then take your future into your own hands and teach yourself. Between books, online courses, websites, there is no excuse for not learning what you truly want to do in your career.

Oh, and what about the “yeah, but Eric, I didn’t have a chance to do that at my job” – faggetabowtit. That is not an excuse. The majority of the best tech guys taught themselves what they needed to learn on weekends or on the side. It’s a perfectly respectable alternative to having proven yourself on the job. But, please note, if you go that route, you should be able to demonstrate what you’re claiming to have learned. For instance, let’s say you’re a support guy and you want to become a web guy. Well, in your copious free time, you should figure out what kind of web work you want to do, then figure out how to set up a development environment in your home. With that, you’ll also need to figure out how to deploy real life web apps that can impress people you’ll interview with. Yes, this is easier with the LAMP stack than with Microsoft, but there are still plenty of options for doing both. No matter what route you pick, though, you should create a development and deployment environment for real and use those URL’s on your resume for potential employers to check out.

Another imporant trick is to make sure you’re presenting yourself as already in the career you want to go in. I met with a really nice guy to help consult on his career direction. He wanted to move from sales to product management. The most important idea for him to master was how he was already in project management – whether he’d previously realized it or not. Framing your current job as part of your next career move is something that takes work. If you can find a bridge, that can be helpful. For example, being able to say, “My job title was X, but in fact, most of the time I ended up doing Y, just like you’re looking for”.

Part 2 – Resume

Message. Message. Message. Your resume should NOT be a collection of work and education history. It should paint a picture. It should tell a story. And no, not everything needs to be directly relvent to the current job you’re looking for. On my own resume, for instance, I list C++ and DCOM work. That bears little direct relevance to the jobs I look for these days. And yet, I know that
when I’m looking for employees, if they have those skills, I know they’re actually fairly sharp: it’s hard to BS your way through DCOM in C++. On my resume, there’s a reference to my degree in French. Will I need French in my next job? Ummm… I wish! But, probably not. And yet, with that, people know that I can likely read and write reasonably well.

I was asked to help consult on the resume for a friend of a friend. The problem he had was that his resume was based on what he did, not what he wanted to do.
If you retain only one thing from this blog, let it be this: At times, in certain ways, we are lucky enough to be able to form our own reality. That’s a very rare opportunity. Don’t waste it. Resume writing is such a situation. If you used to be a support guy who did some IT Maintenance and want to be a developer, then for God’s sake, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and call yourself a developer on your resume. You’re a developer who happened to do support and maintenance work. But, you are a developer.

If you can put samples of your work for employers to preview, then that can set you apart from the onset.

  • Graphics designer?
    Put screenshots of your work on flicker with links to your galleries on the resume.
  • Developer?
    Links to web applications are good on the resume. Similarly, bringing architecture documents to interviews can ace the job for you. In fact, I hired someone based exactly on such documentation because it told me:

    1. He could write and document well – a very important skill these days – and definitely rare. It can be an important differentiator if most of your competition does not speak English well.
    2. In talking through the architecture, I was able to determine how well he could think on his feet and talk about both high level concepts as well as low level details.
    3. Honestly, by the way, if you walk in with architecture docs, you’ll most likely never need to discuss them. Most often a hiring manager will see that you have the ability, check that off the list, and move on.
  • QA?
    Links to companies that you’ve worked for and the product lines. If a financial company trusted you with their QA (or development or reporting or….), then that adds a lot of confidence in you right there.

Part 3 – Interview

Do NOT Bullshit. Yes, that is a technical term, thanks for asking. If you say you’re a master of C++, I will find out if you are or aren’t. If you’re not, well, then it’s mostly game over. One real life interview started and ended with someone saying they were a C++ expert and he didn’t know what a virtual function was. That interview lasted 5 minutes. He’d lost all credibility by that point.

Just for fun, here’s a question I usually ask of people who say they’re experts in C++:
“I’ve got a base class called Base. It has a function called Initialize that is overloaded in some derived classes. What exactly happens when you call it in Base’s constructor?”
Variant:If they say they’re a COM expert as well, it’s usually asked as:
“I have a COM object with a COM method of Initialize. What happens when I call it from my object’s constructor?”

By contrast, if you say that you did some C++ work, but weren’t an expert, I would simply try and figure out your skill level and move on to what you, yourself said your strengths were. In short: Know your skill level and communicate that honestly.

Socially: Leave your ego at the door. That’s something hiring managers look for. While being an arrogant jerk may have been a sign of greatness in the 80’s and 90’s, it just doesn’t fly these days. I know I will not hire anyone, regardless of how brilliant they are, if they’re not first a good fit with my existing group. Luckily for everyone involved, that’s a very easy requirement, since I have some of the most likeable, affable, sweet, wonderful people it is anyone’s luck to work with. (Note to self: make sure they never read this.)

While it’s counter-intuitive, you should make sure to listen as much as you talk. If you’re the only one talking, likely things are not going as well as they could. An interview is still a conversation, and as such needs to be balanced. Asking intelligent questions is an important skill to develop. BEWARE: Movie Reference Coming… Do you remember in Yentl, when (s)he is first accepted into Yeshiva, the Rebe says, “It is not only by their answers, but by their question that they are judged.” Oh come on, of course you remember that….

To ask interesting questions (as opposed to merely asking questions), you’ll need to come informed. Research the company. Research who you’ll interview with, if you can. Listen to your interviewer. Ask about the nature of the job, company direction, etc.

If you can seem like you’re already working there, then you’re way ahead. If you can paint the image for your potential boss of what it would look like for him to work with you, then you’ve bridged a good imporant gap. Tricks for how to do this? Well,… when you talk about the company try saying “we”. WHen you talk about the work to be done, try this: “So I’ll be setting up the database and then…” or “The way I’d to go about this would be to …… does that sound right?”

Smile and relax. Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone says it and it’s damn hard to do. But, the fact that everyone says it means there’s probably something to it, right? Why does it even matter? Well, when it’s 9:30 at night and you’re all there trying to debug a production issue, you want to make sure you’re in the trenches with someone you actually enjoy being with. Or maybe even like. One word of wisdom: if you can get your interviewer to actually like you, if he actually would enjoy spending time with you, or working with you, then she or he will be trying as hard as he can to find compelling reasons to hire you. In that case, you’ve switched the entire context of the interview around. Instead of you having to prove yourself, you can relax and tell him all the great reasons you’ll be an asset to the company. And there’s a huge difference in those two conversations.

~ by naturarerum on July 17, 2008.

3 Responses to “(Tech) Job Searching – a few tips and tricks”

  1. nIcE PoSt – MaY wE uSe It On OuR bLoG?

  2. Eric has truly bestowed a most generous gift upon anyone lucky enough to stumble across his “musings”. The bevy of tips, tools, and strategies shared throughout this blog is truly invaluable; the information is practical, relevant, and may be applied to any situation (regardless of the prospective interviewer).

    I also want to bring attention to Eric’s usage of real life situations to support and illustrate his points. I can corroborate one of the situations he speaks of because it’s actually an extracted snapshot of my own personal experience; my resume did cross his desk.

    Although the contents were factually and verifiably true, I had effectively (but inadvertently) muddied the overall “picture” of my goals and capabilities by understating experiences that could help promote my overall objectives, and by not appropriately discarding previous experiences that added little value and/or deemed irrelevant to current objectives. This was a huge and glaring problem for Eric who “took me to task” in an exquisitely abrupt, gavel-be-lowering, authority figure-be-scolding, student-be-chastising, detention-be-dispensing, confidence-be-shattering, red boldfaced and uppercase font-be-smattering, relentlessly detailed narrative!

    I can’t thank Eric enough for the eye-opening enlightenment, wake-up call, and valuable wisdom he imparted and continues to impart here.

    The real lessons learned are that there’s always room for improvement and it’s never too late to learn.

    “what could it hurt?” — Indeed!

  3. Well written article.

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