Letter to ’12 Grads – How to Pick a Job and a Mentor

Cue ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ – hit play below to enhance the reading experience (or don’t, it’s just a song)

Dear Graduating Senior and Future Technologist,

First, congratulations on earning your degree!  A degree is generally considered as a ‘nice to have’ and not a firm requirement for most programmer slots these days, and hopefully you learned quite a bit about software development in your classes.  Having that parchment could be an advantage over other candidates entering the competition for technology sector jobs.

Based on conversations I’ve had with other recent graduates, it seems you have probably received some bad advice and misinformation recently from professors, career placement advisers, your peers, and even your parents regarding your new search for employment.  I certainly mean no disrespect to those trying to help guide you, but it is important that you also get some input from people ‘on the front lines‘ in the field.  Some academics tend to be insulated from what is really happening in the software industry, and your parents may think that a good pension plan is what you should really be after.

First I will outline how your job search (as an entry level technologist) is unique and much of the generic material that you have read re: job searches will not be applicable.  Then we will analyze how to best choose your job, and what to do when you start.

GETTING YOUR FIRST JOB OFFERS

There are quite a few things to keep in mind when trying to get your first job offer(s).  I assume by now you’ve read a considerable amount of information on interview techniques and resume tips.  Most interview prep info is applicable across the board for all experience levels.  Regarding resumes, the first thing to keep in mind is that in most cases the value of your education > job experience, so details on your school projects and classwork should be highlighted and placed prominently on your resume.  I don’t recommend an ‘objective’ section for experienced candidates, but for recent grads it is a good tool for conveying your drive and desire.

Companies are going to view many resumes and conduct several interviews with entry-level candidates.  Hiring managers are well aware that a significant majority of new engineers will not be immediately productive upon hire.  The decision to hire an entry level candidate is essentially an investment for the firm, where said investment has little current value (low productivity) but should hopefully reap dividends in the long-term.  A company’s interview process becomes due diligence to weigh the risk and reward for any individual.

Why should someone hire you?
What makes you a better investment than your classmate?

The most important attributes for entry-level engineering hires are:

  1. Willingness to do whatever is asked, and some things that are not explicitly asked – The tasks given to an entry level engineer will generally be the least interesting, so you will need to pay some dues.  Remember Ralph Macchio waxing cars and painting fences in The Karate Kid?  (Oh, class of 2012, almost forgot – did Will Smith’s kid wax cars in the remake?)  For the first few months of the job, you will be Ralph Macchio – go buy a headband.  Sure, Ralph got a bit lippy with Miyagi from time to time, but he finished the jobs and learned his craft.  Convey in your resume and during interviews that you are a team player and willing to do what is necessary to further the goals of the company.  Bonus points if you can show initiative (I recently had a candidate that was given the task of writing a small application at home as part of the interview process, and she decided to write a test suite and readme file that were not part of the assignment – brilliant!).
  2. Desire and ability to learn – The desire to learn will be an intangible that may be best demonstrated by any extracurricular engineering-related activities that you do.  School tech clubs, user groups, hobbies, and conferences all apply to your curiosity.  Ability to learn might be shown via an anecdote about a school project where you had to pick up a new tool or language with little guidance to complete the task.
  3. Youthful exuberance and enthusiasm – Injecting young talent into an organization can give a spark to any disillusioned engineers who may be losing passion.  Someone with great positive energy (even combined with limited skills) has great value as a catalyst.  In sports, these are players that may be referred to as ‘good locker room guys’.  Don’t do cartwheels in your interview, but showing managers a contagious energy that people can feed off is a real benefit that you could provide immediately while learning the trade.
  4. Malleability – One good thing about not having any job experience is that you should be somewhat free of any bad habits.  When given a choice between entry level and someone with just a bit more experience that has some potential baggage, companies will most often take the blank slate.  The team will help mold you into being productive specifically within their environment and development methodology.  It’s difficult to demonstrate malleability in interviews, but be willing to let it happen.

CHOOSING YOUR FIRST JOB AND WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU START

It seems that many of you were recently told how vitally important your first job is and to be extremely selective in making a choice, and I agree that your first job in the industry can be significant.  However, it is probably not quite as important as you think, and based on many conversations it is not nearly as significant as you are being told.  You are entering a field that is known for a high turnover rate with available statistics tending to fluctuate in the 10-25% range (often higher for first jobs), so odds are you won’t still be at this first job in a few years anyway.  So let’s consider how to get the most out of the experience.

When I speak to entry-level and junior engineers and ask them about their job search criteria, I generally get similar answers to the ones I get from more experienced pros.  “Interesting technologies and problem domains, challenging responsibilities, good people/culture, competitive compensation and benefits, stability…”  Does knowing that the software engineering field has historically had a high turnover rate change any of your criteria?

“But my professor said I shouldn’t take a job using certain languages, my adviser said I should be paid at least $63,200 per year, and my parents told me I need to be looking for job stability.”

No, no, and no!  The language is just a tool to use while learning the trade (noting that some tools/skills are more marketable than others), the money will come to you if you take the right steps in your career, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no such thing as stability anymore.  The first job search should not be about trying to get rich quick, nor should it necessarily be about finding an employer that you will be with forever.  Did you plan on marrying the first guy/girl you dated?  If it happens, great, but let’s not go into this first search with unrealistic expectations.  What is really important about your first job?

The single most important thing you should be looking for at the start of your career is to work in an environment where people are both able and willing to teach you how to become a better engineer.

Other factors will obviously come into play, but be sure to weigh those with the above in mind.  Just because a software shop pays the highest salary, uses the newest technology, has plenty of customers, offers you the most job responsibility and passes the Joel Test doesn’t make it the best place for a freshly minted engineer (but it does sound pretty tempting).

Being ‘taught‘ doesn’t mean that you should seek out companies that provide formal training sessions in air-conditioned lecture halls, as that was what college should have been.  It also doesn’t mean that you will be coddled and have your hand held every step of the way.  Swimming lessons are taught in the pool for a reason, and the deep end can be more useful than the shallow end for certain training purposes.

Able to teach would be characterized as a team with strong developers (preferred size is debatable but somewhat irrelevant) and communicators that have good habits and a track-record of writing quality code.  Ideally the team is busy and productive enough where new engineers can learn to function in a fast-paced environment with deadlines, but not so chaotic that the company doesn’t have the luxury of letting you make the occasional mistake.  Aside – You are going to make mistakes, so be prepared to accept some blame for a problem you created, learn from the mistake, and don’t compound the problem by passing the buck.

Willing to teach can be a little complicated with both personalities and time constraints being potential inhibitors. You want need to find a mentor, and strong technologists will need to have their egos stroked a bit (protip – you will find a few egos in the tech world).  The search for a mentor is not a race and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Some may argue that finding the ‘right’ mentor could be as important as finding the ‘right employer.

Take a few weeks to try and figure out who the best engineers are in your team/department, and who you could learn the most from (note that the best engineer often does not equal the best mentor).  Which developers are tasked to explain things to other team members and which ones conduct internal training activities?  Once you have some ideas as to who the best engineers are, maybe try asking them a few test questions to see how responsive they are to helping out the newbie.  Finally, choose the best fit based on all these factors and tell her/him that you are interested in being mentored.  If this person likes you she/he will most often be flattered, and hopefully you now have your first guide through your early career.  If this person refuses or seems hesitant, go ask your second choice.  Repeat as necessary.

Once you’ve found your mentor, pay careful attention and try to figure out what makes this person such a good engineer.  Note their work habits, interactions with both technical and business teams, reading materials/bookmarks, how they handle working under duress, etc.  How does he/she respond to unrealistic deadlines, his/her own bugs, dissension within the ranks?  Continue to ask questions and be conscious of any social cues your mentor might be sending out (i.e. learn to differentiate the ‘Not now, kid’ leer from the ‘You could just Google that question’ stare).

Now that you have a mentor, show your mentor your appreciation by both being grateful and working hard.  Don’t be the last one in or the first one out, as people notice those things for new hires.  Your performance will now reflect somewhat on your mentor, so even if your actual contribution is somewhat low your effort should never be in question.

Remember that as an entry-level developer you are an investment for the company, and the harder and smarter you work the more apt you are to begin paying dividends.  Don’t make them regret their decision to invest in you.  Chances are you won’t be at this first job for more than a few years, so absorb as much information as you can from your the opportunity and your mentor.

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