Stupid Recruiter Tricks, Vol. 1: “Where are you interviewing?”

Anyone who has worked with a recruiter has probably been asked “Where else are you interviewing?” or “What other companies have you applied to?“. The question comes from both agency recruiters (‘headhunter‘) representing several hiring firms and internal corporate recruiters hiring only for their company. Candidates are understandably not always willing to answer, and recruiters may stumble to give convincing explanations as to why they want to know. Some recruiters will insist that they need to know.

Technologists with some natural level of distrust for recruiters are likely to question a recruiter’s motives in asking. It’s useful to consider when naming names is relatively harmless, when to avoid the question, and one scenario where it may be in the candidate’s best interest to provide an honest answer. Let’s look at some common explanations given by recruiters and the possible motivations behind the request.

Recruiter Explanations

“I need to know so I don’t send your résumé to companies where you are already in play” – This answer is exclusive to agency recruiters, as internal recruiters don’t send resumes outside their company. On the surface this response seems valid. If your résumé is sent to a company that is already considering you it could be costly. Companies that receive the same résumé from two recruiters may fear being invoiced for two placement fees, or even see this as a sign that the candidate has poor communication skills.

The simple solution for candidates is to instruct agency recruiters to divulge client names and ask permission before submitting résumés anywhere. Be wary of recruiters who are unwilling to accept this compromise.

“I need to know if we need to speed things up” – If a candidate is already involved in the interview process with other companies, it is in the candidate’s best interest to inform the recruiter as to how early or late they are in the process. This maximizes the candidate’s chances of being able to have their candidacy expedited if necessary, which raises the potential for multiple competing offers. However, the identities of the companies competing for a candidate’s services are irrelevant unless the recruiter happens to know the typical process and estimated duration at the other firms. Are the competing firms historically slow or fast to act? Many recruiters will claim to know these details, but most will not.

It makes sense to say how far along you are in that process, but identifying the company isn’t useful.

Recruiter Motivations

A litmus test for candidate controlCandidate Control is a recruiting concept where a recruiter tries to establish influence on a candidate’s actions throughout the recruiting process which will in theory make it easier to get a “yes” from the candidate when an offer is made. This control is acquired over time, and the recruiter’s process in achieving control starts with the candidate complying to various simple requests. A recruiter can gauge how much control they might establish by asking questions that could make candidates uncomfortable.

Competitor lists – For internal recruiters, the answer reveals potential source companies where the firm can solicit and poach employees. This is harmless to candidates, which is why some may choose to help friendly recruiters by sharing information on where they were interviewing only after they have accepted any offer.

Fishing for new clients – If you tell an agency recruiter that you are interviewing with Companies A and B, that provides two new client leads where he/she can market other candidates with similar backgrounds. This practice is harmless to a candidate unless the recruiter immediately contacts the companies and attempts to insert other candidates into the pipeline that will now compete for the position. If a recruiter does choose to pursue named companies as new clients, they should feel some ethical obligation to wait until their candidate has completed the process.

Leverage at offer stage – If the recruiter (agency or corporate) learns you are considering an offer from a company that has public scandals, layoffs, bad public reviews, or some other negative association, prepare to hear about those reputation issues when the recruiter tries to get you to accept an offer from their client. Unscrupulous recruiters might concoct rumors just to influence your decision. Knowing details about the competition makes it relatively easy for skilled recruiters to highlight areas where their client’s offer is favorable to a competitor’s offer.

This motivation is the most damaging, as it is solely intended to dissuade candidates from taking other offers that may best for them. Independently validate any claims made by the recruiter regarding companies he/she does not represent.

When Should You Answer

In most cases, revealing the names of other companies where you are interviewing is helpful to the recruiter but not necessarily helpful to the candidate. One exception would be to name any firm(s) you are speaking to that has an outstanding employer reputation. This strategy could serve two purposes. First, it signals that your skills are in demand by major players, and suggests your skills are on par with high-end talent. Second, it lets the recruiter know that an offer will need to be competitive with what one might expect from top employers. Recruiters are likely to share this information with clients in order to set the client’s expectation regarding compensation package.

What I’ve Learned After 15 Years as a Java Group Leader

After founding the Philadelphia Area Java Users’ Group in 2000 and leading it for 15 years, I’ve decided to resign my post and pass on leadership to someone else. It’s time. At our first meeting in a small and long-forgotten dot com, 35 Java developers came to eat pizza and listen to a presentation on XML and JAXP. Since then we’ve had about 100 events (a few with 200 attendees) and a mailing list that peaked around 1,500 members.

My experience running this group has revealed some patterns that may be useful for other user group leaders (or those looking to start one), ideas for speakers, and observations on the career paths of many members I’ve known for an extended period of time.

Some thoughts.

Members

Topic suggesters and early adopters – A group of roughly ten members regularly suggested meeting topics then unfamiliar to me, but became widely popular a few years later. I relied on this group heavily for ideas at different times, and many of the suggestions were a bit beyond the scope for a JUG. Early on I typically rejected non-Java/JVM topic suggestions, so many of these meetings never developed. Consecutive meetings on Scala and Clojure in 2009 come to mind as an example of being timed ahead of popular adoption.

These ten members included both experienced developers and even a couple who were then only computer science undergrad students. Without exception, the career paths of these specific individuals have been noticeably positive relative to the average career path, and more than half have been promoted from developer to CTO or equivalent. I believe all of this small group have now gone on to using other languages as their primary tool, and all still code regularly.

Language migration – Of the overall membership, the vast majority (perhaps 80%+) are still using Java as their primary language by day. About 5% now focus on mobile development. Another 5% combined currently focus on Python or Ruby, and maybe 3% work in functional languages (Scala and Clojure).

Age – Although I don’t have data, it’s fairly clear that the average age of a member or meeting attendee has increased over the years even as the member roster changed. The group has received far fewer membership requests over the past five years than in the past, and new members are less likely to be fresh graduates than they were in the group’s early days.

Groups sense overhyped technologies – Some of our meeting topics were technologies or products that were heavily marketed through multiple channels (conferences, speaker tours, newsletters) at the time, yet failed to gain traction.  Many that RSVP’d to these meetings commented on their suspicions, and some admitted to a desire to attend in order to poke some holes in the hype.

Regulars – At any given meeting, about 50% of the attendees were regulars that attended almost every event regardless of their specific interest in that evening’s topic. Many of these people also regularly attend events held by other groups.

Presenters

Speaker name recognition – This should surprise no one, but our three largest events by far were all with speakers who had a fair amount of celebrity and industry credibility. These were open source advocate/author Eric ‘ESR’ Raymond (YouTube link), Spring framework creator Rod Johnson, and a joint meeting with Hibernate author Gavin King and JBoss founder Marc Fleury. We had Johnson, King and Fleury around the height of their products’ popularity, and ESR (who is not a figure specific to Java) in 2012. Each event was SRO, with many more in attendance than had RSVP’d.

The next level of attendance was for speakers who had either founded a company or created a product/tool, but perhaps did not have top-tier name recognition. We had eleven meetings of this nature (including the three mentioned), most drawing large crowds (150).

For speakers without a product that were relatively unknown, the strength of a bio definitely impacted attendance. Current job title, employer name recognition, overall industry experience, past speaking experience, and even academic credentials clearly influenced our members.

DaveandESR

Dave and Eric ‘ESR’ Raymond

Local speakers were our lifeblood – About 80% of our speakers lived within an hour drive of our meeting space. We had four presenters who combined for fifteen meetings, and another eleven who all spoke twice. Fifteen local speakers delivered almost 40% of our presentations.

Speakers benefit from presenting – Several of our local speakers have shared anecdotes of being discovered by an employer or new client through a JUG presentation. Even though we did not allow recruiting or sales/marketing people at events, most speakers are easy to contact. Speaking allowed some members to start building a ‘brand’ and increased visibility in the tech community.

The best way to sell is by not selling – Our official policy was to forbid pure product demos, but we knew that when a company flies out their ‘evangelist’ and buys pizza for 150 people, we’re getting at least a minimal level of demo. Speakers who dove into a sales pitch early on would almost always see members start to leave, a few times in droves.

The evangelists who were most effective in keeping an audience often used a similar presentation style where the first hour defined a problem and how it can be solved, and concluded with something like “My presentation is over. You can leave now, or if you want to stay another 15 minutes I’ll show you how our product solves the problem.” This usually led to discussions with the speaker that lasted beyond the meeting schedule, and sales. Making the demo optional and at the very end is a successful tactic.

Accomplished technologists aren’t all great speakers – A strong biography and list of accomplishments does not always result in a strong presentation. We were lucky that most of our speakers were quite good, but we did have at least a few disappointments from those active on the conference speaker circuit.

Sponsors

Ask everyone for something – Companies willing to spend money on sponsorship and travel costs clearly understand the value of goodwill and community visibility. There are also those that want to get that visibility and goodwill for free, and they ask leaders to announce a conference or product offering as a favor or “for the good of the community“. These requests are an opportunity to add additional value to the members.

Instead of complying with these requests, I would always request something in return. For conference announcements, I would ask for a discount code for members or a free pass to raffle off. Sponsors with a product might be asked for a license to give away, or at worst some swag. Most were willing to barter in exchange for their request being met.

Maintain control – Some sponsors clearly just want your membership roster and email addresses, which they may try to acquire by using the “fishbowl business card drawing” approach to raffles, sign-in sheets, speaker review forms, surveys, or perhaps through a bold request. Don’t sell your members’ private information to sponsors under any circumstances, and companies will still be willing to sponsor if you deny their attempts. We allowed a business card drawing once for an iPad, and all members were aware that if they decided to enter that drawing they would likely be getting a call from the vendor.

Job Security, Career Stability, and Employability For Startups

I was recently asked to answer a question on Quora about startups and stability, and as I read some of the other replies I noticed a trend. The question was basically “Would joining a startup be a mistake for someone with the goals of stability and career progression?”. The questioner then defined stability as being able to support a family and have nice things (financial stability).

The answers ranged from a flat-out “Yes” (i.e. “it’s a mistake“) to “startups provide no stability/career progression“, while another pointed out that most startups fail. The responses were familiar, and similar to objections I’ve received when pitching startups to software engineers over the past fifteen plus years.

Before answering, I considered the many I know who spent most of their careers at startups and small companies in comparison to the people who worked for larger shops. Have the ones that stuck with startups achieved less (or more) stability and/or career progression?

Stability vs Employability

Let’s consider Candidate A who has worked for ten years at one large company, most would say that shows job and career stability. After that length of time, we might assume (or hope for) some level of financial stability and at least a small increase in responsibility that could classify as career progression.

When presented Candidate B with experience at five startups over a ten year span, most conclude this demonstrates career instability or even “job hopping”. Without seeing job titles or any duties and accomplishments, it would be difficult to make any guesses about career progression, but many would assume that a series of relatively short stints might not allow for much forward movement.

Candidate A clearly has more career stability using traditional measures. However, Candidate B’s experience, at least in the tech world, is the somewhat new normal. Job security and career stability (marked by few job changes) is what professionals may have strived for historically, but now one could argue that employability is a much more important concept and goal to focus on.

Today, Candidate A’s company announced layoffs and Candidate B’s startup ran out of money. Who lands a job first? Who is more employable?

Startups Fail… But They’re (almost) Always Around

When job seekers voice concern about the stability of some software startup I’m pitching, I may cede that most startups will fail and the conversation may end there. I might even throw in a “Startups are risky“. These candidates are more concerned about job stability (the keeping of one job) than career stability (the ability to consistently have a job).

The fear is that a company will fail, and the candidate would then be a job seeker all over again with some frictional unemployment and the possibility of worse. Given the failure rate of startups, the fear of a company closing is rational. The fear of any sustained unemployment, at least for many startup veterans, probably is not.

Anecdotally, most of the people I know who gravitated towards small/new firms had little or no unemployment, and most appear to have at least the same levels of financial stability and career progression to those at larger firms. The only visible difference is usually that startup veterans had more companies listed on résumés, may have worked for and with some of the same people at different jobs, and some have a wider palette of technical skills. It’s reminiscent of a successful independent contractor’s background.

chart

Once You’re In, You’re In

After the first startup boom/bust some in the industry tied company stability to career stability or employability, as if being associated with a failed startup might negatively impact future employment options. Many discovered the opposite was true, as those who failed were tagged startup veterans unlikely to repeat the same mistakes twice.

I would expect that those who have worked for multiple startups would likely tell outsiders this: “Once you’re in, you’re in“. Let me explain.

While any individual startup may not provide job stability, an ecosystem of startups will provide candidates with career stability and usually increased employability.

When startups hire, most seek those with previous startup experience. It’s usually right there in the job descriptions. Remember Candidates A and B from earlier? Candidate A hopefully has a shot at a startup job, but B already has an interview.

Due to the transient nature of startup employment and the trend of startup employees to stay within the startup ecosystem, the ability for those in the startup community to get introduced to new jobs via one’s network increases dramatically. When Startup X fails, the 50 employees migrate to perhaps 3o other startups. That gives Startup X alumni a host of employment possibilities, which should grow exponentially as additional startups rise and fall over time. In smaller cities one can become a known entity within the startup community, virtually guaranteeing employment for as long as startups exist and their reputation remains positive.

Conclusion

The concept of career stability has changed significantly as increased job movement has become an accepted industry characteristic. When one expects a higher number of job searches over the course of a career, proactive professionals will consider employability and marketability more carefully. Job security ≠ career security. If your main concern is being continuously employed at rising compensation levels, employability will often trump job security.

 

Career Stagnation – Early Detection and Treatment

Have you ever been on LinkedIn and stumbled on one of their work anniversary announcements? In case you haven’t, they look something like this:

linkedinanniversary copy

The announcements are generated by LinkedIn and typically followed by a predictable handful of likes, congratulatory words, and positive sentiments. I’m yet to see a comment that generally reflects my knee-jerk reaction to at least some of these posts.

anniversary2 copy

Longevity and career stability obviously don’t have to be a bad thing, but I’ve seen far too many programmers become so comfortable in a job that they don’t bother to take a look outside to see what changes are going on outside of their bubble. When these professionals eventually decide to seek new employment, usually by way of some triggering event such as a layoff,they are usually stunned by how much the hiring landscape has changed since their last job search. This is a conversation I’ve had hundreds of times, where my role begins as educator (“JavaScript is actually pretty popular these days.”), morphs into advisor (“You might want to brush up your web skills.”), and eventually lands on crisis counselor (“It’s going to be OK.”).

Stagnation: How it happens

The formula for career stagnation is pretty simple. When one’s basic needs are met or even exceeded, they stay put. When provided with fair compensation, a tolerable work environment, and a comfortable chair, many technologists go about their work without finding the need to pay much attention to trends in the industry that don’t affect them. In an industry that changes rapidly, the result is marketability problems.

For some in our field, new challenges, learning, and change are basic needs. Even if these types are paid well and given other perks, they will be likely to investigate trends and possibly seek new employers. Their natural curiosity protects them from stagnation.

Managers hire technologists who possess the skills needed to perform jobs at their company, even if those skills are not in high demand on the overall job market. Those working for companies staying current with new tools and offering multiple challenging projects have no reason to fear the negative impact stagnation has on marketability. For those working in static environments with little change and a dependence on less popular or proprietary technologies, the burden of maintaining marketability is their own.

Avoidance, Detection, and Treatment

The biggest problem with stagnation is that technologists don’t realize it’s even an issue until it’s too late to remedy. Thankfully, there are ways to identify and treat this common problem.

  • Diagnose - Set a reminder on your calendar to update your résumé and/or LinkedIn profile every six months. Are you able to add any projects or skills to your résumé? Are there any skills on your résumé that you no longer feel comfortable including for fear of being exposed as a fraud? How many six month periods have passed since you have been able to mark a significant accomplishment?
  • Test – Send your résumé to a past co-worker – ideally someone who has been on the job market a bit – or a recruiter you trust, and ask if your current skills would get you interviewed. Make it clear that you aren’t actively seeking employment, but now are just interested in an assessment.
  • Read and get out – Much of stagnation is related to technologists being insulated professionally and not paying attention to trends outside their offices. Reading technology blogs or article aggregators for as little as an hour per week will give you an idea if you are building marketable skills. Having any involvement with others in the industry that are not co-workers is perhaps the most valuable method of prevention. Some office environments may fall prey to groupthink and hive mind tendencies, so communication of any kind with the outside world is useful.
  • If you aren’t getting it at work, get it at home – If your employer doesn’t provide you with the ability to work on challenging projects and relevant technologies, side projects are one solution if you have the time. Employers today tend to appreciate self-taught skills and impressive independent development efforts as much as on-the-job experience.
  • Leave – Leaving your job doesn’t need to be the first solution to career stagnation, but for many it’s the most effective. When evaluating new employers, consider whether stagnation and marketability issues may arise again in the near future.

Marketability is a complex concept that depends upon several independent factors that are difficult to predict. Stagnation is easier to diagnose than it is to treat. Early detection is the key.

Why Technical Résumés Need a Profile (because we’re dumb)

There is significant variation in résumé format across candidates. Name and contact information is always on top, but on any given day a recruiter might see the next section as Education, Skills, Experience, or even (gasp) an Objective.

Career length influences which section comes first. Entry-level candidates usually choose Education, while veteran candidates gravitate towards experience and accomplishments. Unfortunately, going from a glance at contact information to dissecting intimate project details doesn’t make for a smooth transition. It’s jarring. A section that serves as a buffer to introduce résumé content that also subliminally instructs the reader on what content to pay attention to will help.

And remember the résumé’s audience. Most recruiters and HR personnel don’t have the background of the candidates they assess, so reviewers benefit from any guidance (even subliminal) provided to understand content. Since few grow up aspiring to the glamorous world of tech recruitment, the industry is typically stocked with C students.

Since a résumé “states your case” to employers, let’s look at lawyers…

The Purpose of Opening Statements

When trial attorneys present cases to juries, they don’t immediately start questioning witnesses. They start with opening statements. Why?

The opening statement informs the jury as to what evidence they will hear during the trial, and why that evidence is significant to the case. The statement is a roadmap on what the attorney wants jurors to listen for (or ignore) during the trial and which elements are critical to the case. It provides background information and announces what is forthcoming.

Before trial, jurors know nothing about the case. Without opening statements, jurors may get lost in trivial details while missing out on the important elements the attorney wants them to hear. Attorneys can’t trust a jury’s ability to make those decisions independently, so opening statements influence thought process.

It is paramount that attorneys present their case in a manner consistent with their opening statements. Diversions from that roadmap will cause the jury to distrust the attorney and detract from the attorney’s credibility.

Back to résumés… Just as jurors know nothing before trial, recruiters know nothing about applicants until they open the résumé. Job seekers today are less likely to provide a cover letter (with recruiters less likely to read them), and résumés are often given brief initial screening by untrained eyes. This creates a problem for qualified applicants who may be wrongfully passed over. What is the optimal strategy for expressing experience and ensuring that even novice reviewers will properly identify qualified candidates?  An opening statement.

The Purpose of the Profile

Profiles are the opening statement in a case for an interview, with the résumé content that follows the evidence. The Profile introduces experience to be detailed later in the document, which tacitly baits reviewers into seeking out evidence to specifically support (or refute) those claims. A résumé without a Profile makes no claims to be proven or disproven, and doesn’t give the reader any additional instruction on what to seek.

When Profile claims are corroborated by details of experience, it results in a “buy” from the reader. The Profile was a promise of sorts, later fulfilled by the supporting evidence.

When a Profile doesn’t reflect experience, it exposes the candidate as a potential fraud and detracts from any relevant experience the candidate does possess. Qualified candidates with overreaching Profiles put themselves in a precarious situation. Even well-written Profiles are a negative mark on applicants when the claims are inaccurate or unsupported. Just as attorneys must lay out cases in accordance with their opening statements, experience must match Profiles.

Typical Profiles Are Noise, Not Signal

The overwhelming majority of Profile statements are virtually identical. Words and phrases like hard-working, intelligent, dedicated, career-minded, innovative, etc. are, in this context, mere self-assessments impossible to qualify. It’s fluff, and contributes résumé noise that distracts readers’ attention from signal.

Writing Profiles

Useful Profiles clearly say what you have done and can do, and are ideally quantified for the reader to prevent any misunderstanding. If a temp at a startup is tasked to find résumés of software engineers with Python and Django experience, he is unlikely to ignore résumés with Profiles stating “Software engineer with six years of experience building solutions with Python and Django“.

For candidates attempting to transition into new roles that might be less obvious to a reader, a Profile must double as a disguised Objective. These Profiles will first state the candidate’s current experience and end with what type of work the applicant seeks. “Systems Administrator with three years of Python and Bash scripting experience seeks transition into dedicated junior DevOps role” provides background as well as future intent, but the last seven words are needed to get the average recruiter’s attention.

Just as Objectives are altered to match requirements, consider tweaking a Profile to highlight required skills. A candidate that identifies herself as a Mobile Developer in the Profile might not get selected for interview for a Web Developer position, even when the résumé demonstrates all necessary qualifications. How a candidate self-identifies suggests their career interests, unless stated otherwise (see paragraph above).

Based on the importance of having Profile/experience agreement, it’s suggested that the Profile is written last. Lawyers can’t write an opening statement before knowing their case, and candidates should have all of their corroborating evidence in place before attempting to summarize it for clear interpretation.

Conclusion

Assume your résumé reviewer knows little about what you do, and that they need to be explicitly told what you do without having to interpret it through your listed experience. Identify yourself in the Profile as closely to the job description (and perhaps even title) as possible. Make sure that all claims made in the Profile are supported by evidence somewhere else in the résumé, ideally early on.

Using the “Do You Have Any Questions?” Question

During most interviews, an interviewer provides the candidate the opportunity to ask questions. In most cases the highly-anticipated “Do you have any questions?” question falls towards the end of the session, though some companies today throw candidates a curveball and start the interview this way (consider yourself warned).

Many candidates use this invitation to gather information that will be helpful in making a decision on any offer that may be extended. This reaction is instinctual. The interviewer used the allotted time to ask the candidate questions to determine whether or not an offer should be made, so when the tables are turned the candidate asks questions to determine whether or not an offer should be accepted. At best it’s a chance to “interview the company”, and at worst learn if they have direct deposit.questions

Others may go into a reflective mode and ask about their own performance. This puts an interviewer on the spot and isn’t likely to produce a positive outcome. A candidate that performed well might now be considered insecure.

What if interviewees viewed the opportunity to ask questions in an entirely different way?

The interview is a finite amount of time where the candidate’s ultimate goal should be to make a positive impression on the interviewer and ideally gain an employment offer.¹ Any minute of interview time not used towards those ends is wasted.

The minutes provided to ask questions are the only time during an interview where interviewees have total control of the conversation. This window provides candidates a one-time opportunity to steer dialogue to areas advantageous to their candidacy.

This is not to suggest that candidates should never ask about perks, benefits, responsibilities, and all the things that will help with evaluating an offer. Candidates should fully utilize interview time to convince employers of their positive qualities. There will be ample time post-interview for candidates to get the information needed about the company’s offerings.

How can interviewees maximize the opportunity?

The key is to anticipate the question and not to blow it. Unprepared candidates may react with “How did I do?”, but most will gravitate towards asking questions best described as “What’s in it for me?”. Any questions about salary, benefits, perks, vacation, and training fall into this category in most situations, which are best to ask at the offer stage. Interviewees who lead with questions about the company’s tuition reimbursement policy give the appearance that they are looking for a scholarship more than a job.

What strategies can prepared candidates use to utilize the time wisely?

Create positive thoughts – Creating any positive thoughts in the interviewer’s mind gives the best chance for offer. Most interviewers (even engineers, with some exceptions) will enjoy talking about themselves for a bit. “What is your background?” and “What was it about this company that interested you?” are ways to make that happen, while the latter also should generate a positive answer. Too many questions like this will start to resemble an interrogation.

Redirect to a highlight – If an interviewer failed to address a particular strength or highlight of the candidate’s career, that can be corrected. “Do you feel my experience in PROJECT/SKILL would be valuable to me when working for COMPANY?” may bring the interviewer’s attention to an accomplishment or skill that the interviewer overlooked.

Demonstrate interest and insight – A question that required research, such as one relating to a company current event, can demonstrate that an interviewee keeps tabs on the company and industry. “How do you believe COMPANY’S recent acquisition of COMPANY2 will impact future projects?” and “Do you feel COMPANY’S recent new product is indicative of the direction the company is headed?” will show that the interviewee did homework.

Show long-term thinking – Questions about long-term topics could show the interviewer that the candidate isn’t a mercenary just thinking about the next paycheck. Most questions about future projects, career path, and the goals of internal departments and groups can serve to differentiate an interviewee from the herd.

Conclusion

Interview time is limited, so use every bit wisely. Almost all questions that candidates use in their decision to accept/reject offers can be asked after an interview, and those candidates that fear they may waste time interviewing for jobs they won’t accept should be asking ‘deal breaker’ questions before interviews. Prepare questions in advance.


¹ For anyone thinking “But I’m interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing me”, I don’t disagree with that overall philosophy. However, I’d suggest that most candidates will probably gather most of the required information without needing to ask a multitude of questions, and those questions can be answered after interviews are complete. Let them interview first.

Independent Contracting: How to Get There

The concept of self-employment is appealing for many technologists, but the path to getting there isn’t always clear. Independent contractors may cite several attributes of their work that they find preferable to traditional employer/employee relationships. The allure of money is obvious, but independents may also be drawn to project variety, an emphasis on new development over maintaining existing projects, and additional control over work/life balance.

Independent contracting has historically been a trend primarily among the more senior and advanced in the profession, but today it’s not uncommon to hear intermediate or even junior level developers in pursuit of independent work. Often the decision to become an independent isn’t premeditated so much as it is circumstantial. A lucrative contract offer is hard to refuse, and once a new level of compensation and freedom is reached it is difficult to accept a return to lower salaries. These ‘accidental contractors’ sometimes find themselves wholly unprepared for what skills and knowledge are required to build and operate a sustainable business.

Many seem to think that technical strength is the difference. Technical skills are clearly part of the equation and in unique situations superior skills can trump everything else, but many strong developers have failed as independents. Those that are thinking about exploring the independent contractor lifestyle in the future should start considering the topics below well before signing any contracts.

Communication skills – Independents need the ability to acquire clients, either through direct interaction with the client or through a broker/recruiter. Once a client is made, maintaining their business will depend upon clear communications regarding expectations, schedules, delivery, etc. Using brokers can help those with communication or social skills issues.

Varied skill set / independent learning / research – A skills inventory with some variety (languages, tools, frameworks) is fairly common with successful contractors, although advertising an unrealistic variety will hurt credibility. Independents have more incentive to invest off-hours learning new skills and keeping an eye on trends in the industry.

Comfort with interview process – For those in the salaried employment world, one great interview can result in years of work. Depending on contract durations, independents can find themselves in some form of interview several times a year. Anyone hoping to be successful in contracting must overcome discomfort or anxiety in interview settings.

Relationships – Successful independents usually know (and are known to) a number of people spread across various employers. Senior level contractors may have developed hundreds of relationships over time without any targeted networking efforts, while younger entrants will likely need to reach out to strangers. A lack of professional contacts is a barrier to entry for junior technologists and will negatively impact sustainability for senior contractors.

Basic sales - Advanced sales skills are unnecessary, but an understanding of what a close is and learning a few different ways to close will be helpful.

Basic marketing, brand management – Contractors have a brand, though many don’t think of it that way. Independents should pay attention to making their brand more attractive. Speaking engagements, tech community leadership, and publication/blogging are a few ways to increase visibility and potentially become a recognized authority.

Focus on billing – Independents become frustrated when they realize that running their small business is more than just writing code. Taxes, insurance, contract review, time sheets, invoices, and expense reporting eat into time that would be better spent as billable hours. Successful contractors try to maximize billable time and often outsource (or automate) tasks when possible.

Negotiation – When using a broker it is customary that they handle negotiation with the hiring entity, but an independent will still need to negotiate rates with the broker. A sum as small as a few dollars per hour quickly adds up over long client engagements. Negotiations for salaried positions can be easier due to the number of components that a company may be willing to adjust (salary, bonus, stock, etc.), but for contractors the negotiation is almost always a single figure.