Every year, thousands of professionals in various lines of work look to the programming world as a promising new employment option. Just in the past few months, I have spoken to attorneys, accountants, salespeople, and even a former professional athlete trying to land their first paying gigs in the industry. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this.
A brief history lesson and cautionary tale
During the initial dot com boom of the late 90′s, millions scrambled to enter the technology industry. Naturally, some entrepreneurs looking to cash in on the movement developed accelerated training programs and boot camps designed to quickly convert blue collar workers into earning members of the IT industry. These classes and certifications were not cheap, but they usually cited high placement rates (and in some cases guarantees) and salary data for graduates.
Early on, the training programs typically had barriers to entry. Entrance exams and interviews left the least qualified applicants on the outside looking in. Time commitments made juggling a full-time job and a training program challenging for many, while cost made these programs inaccessible for others.
As you might expect, training programs with lowered admission standards and reduced prices arrived on the scene. Financial aid was made available, lecture times were adjusted to accommodate almost any schedule, and marketers flooded TV/radio/newspapers with anecdotes of auto mechanics and dental hygienists now earning double in the IT field. When qualified instructors were not available, classes were led by recent graduates who did not find employment.
Much of this training was geared towards obtaining a certification known as the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer), which was primarily a qualification towards Windows admin roles or desktop support. Even today, Microsoft has marketing material live on their site touting the value of these certifications.
The early graduates of the first programs probably did have high employment rates. However, the rise of the MCSE factories created a new class of applicant dubbed the Paper MCSE, defined as someone with no experience that was just able to pass the test. The MCSE certification quickly became associated with a type of get rich quick mentality, and having the letters next to your name was less indicative of knowledge and more likely someone trying to game the system.
If this story doesn’t sound at least a bit familiar, it should. Back then the message was ‘learn computers’, but now everyone from the President to Shakira (not to mention Ashton Kutcher and NFL legend Warren Sapp?) is telling us we now need to learn how to code. Today’s career changer isn’t trying to simply fill what are generally considered less glamorous jobs like help desk, but rather they want to be like those (pardon the silliness) rock stars and ninjas that they read about who are higher up the food chain.
Programming boot camps and the availability of MOOC’s has again taken learning of in-demand skills to the masses, and (regardless of your opinion on their value) the emergence of these programs impacts the hiring landscape for everyone. For now, most of these programs have some admissions criteria and may be affiliated as feeders to recruiting or consulting firms. Unlike their predecessors, the programs often boast that graduates will network with industry veterans and leave with real-world contacts to leverage in their job search.
Although it’s far too early to see how these graduates will do over time, history and basic economics indicate that new programs of reduced quality will emerge.
The difference between then and now
The major difference between the MCSE gold rush and the recent development-focused trend is that today’s career changer is often expected (and hopefully able) to demonstrate proof of their credentials. Graduates of boot camps are often very quick to point out that the classes were rigorous, had low program acceptance levels, required hours beyond typical full-time jobs, and that they built professional-grade applications before graduation. In almost every case where I’ve encountered a boot camp grad, these topics were brought up immediately by the job seeker. If the reputations of these programs become overwhelmingly positive (I’d now say they are no worse than lukewarm now), grads should become much less defensive as to the value of their education.
Being accepted into a help desk job today without experience or a relevant degree is one thing, but how willing will the programming community be to view these graduates as one of their own? This is more daunting when you consider that the community is considered to be protective of their craft’s reputation, and are sometimes known for being less-than-welcoming to their own. Will employers value the more hands-on approach of a three month boot camp over traditional lecture-based four year CS degree programs?
Keys to success
Whether you graduated from a boot camp or a four year program, I think the expectations for most new hires are similar. Employers probably won’t be expecting boot camp grads to be committing code any sooner or later than a BS in CS, and it is expected that there is inherent risk for any hire (particularly any hire without experience). There is some leap of faith for managers trying to evaluate someone for their first industry position.
For boot camp grads specifically,
You’re not being hired because of your boot camp app. Although your code portfolio may help you some, in a few years you’ll realize your app looks like it was coded by someone who learned Ruby in three months. Don’t overstate the importance or relevance of whatever app you built – it’s incredibly impressive to you because you don’t know better (yet). You are being hired almost exclusively on your perceived potential, not weeks of work.
You’re being groomed to work at startups and smaller firms. At this point HR representatives at most large firms will be less open-minded to you than to CS grads. Don’t take that personally because it’s really not about you, and big shops probably aren’t who you are trying to attract anyway. Your instructors likely came from startups, are teaching development as is done in typical startup environments, and the technologies taught are of a common startup stack. Your job search time is best spent focusing first on the firms that have a relationship with your program, and then other startups.
Your non-programming intangibles are just as relevant as the boot camp. Employers know that you can’t become highly productive in programming with a few hundred hours of learning. Conveying the smart and gets things done attribute is still the most important factor. You are still considered a risky hire, and if you are perceived as potentially damaging to the team dynamic you will be passed over for someone less risky.
Use caution if comparing boot camps to CS degrees. The two are vastly different, both with advantages and disadvantages. The quality and quantity of time for each are difficult to compare, and those that invested four years are more likely to be swayed by your knowledge than by diminishing the value of their degree.
To both CS and boot camp grads,
You’re not an expert. In my experience, the word expert gets bandied about more often among the inexperienced with something to prove than it does by industry vets with project history. Expertise takes time. Once you’ve been in the business a few years, you will meet people who know twice as much as you do yet still consider themselves novices. Whether in interviews or on résumés, choose your words very carefully to prevent the appearance of overconfidence (and to prevent what seems an open invitation for technical grilling).
You’ll do best if you show respect to the industry veterans. The people you are interviewing with have likely paid their dues during times when learning and information wasn’t as readily available. It’s probably difficult to envision being a programmer in 2001, where those in the field had far fewer tools or resources. They probably think you’ve had it easier in a lot of ways (and harder in others), so temper confidence with some humility.
Job Tips For Geeks: The Job Search DRM-free ebook reduced to $6.99 for the holidays. A great gift for the tech pro in your life, or for the annoying co-worker that you wish would find a new job.
When I read anecdotes from frustrated job seekers in the tech industry, they usually start out the same way.
“I applied to dozens of jobs
but I am not getting any response.”
Sometimes the low response is warranted due to lack of qualifications or less obvious factors, but often the problem is simply that the job seeker never got access to the person/people who matter most in the hiring of technical professionals. Hiring bottlenecks start with the traditional application process (submit résumé blindly) and can be further complicated by HR reps that are hiring for disparate skills and business units. At a smaller company with no recruiters, the task of screening résumés may go to junior employees and administrative personnel with no background or training in hiring.
When you like a company and want to get an interview, the ideal entrance is very rarely the front door. The front door is the advertised entrance that HR wants you to take, crowded with active job seekers with varying qualifications that will be culled or herded through the process by the people manning the door.
After many years in the business I’ve learned that if you ask privately (meaning not within earshot of HR), most technical managers don’t want candidates to come through the front door either. They would rather you came through a back door, and if necessary to hiring protocol they will later introduce you to the front door guardians to ensure passage. HR mans the front door, but the geeks own the back doors. This is how it works at many employers.
What are the more common back doors?
As someone who writes about tech hiring and who has also encouraged many to participate in open source and establish a GitHub presence, a recent article caught my eye. Why GitHub is Not Your CV ¹ by James Coglan was partly inspired by another article, The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community by Ashe Dryden. Both articles are well-written and if you evaluate programmers for hire please read them.
Dryden’s tl;dr for me was meritocracy in OSS, explanation the lack of diversity, and ways to hire that are ‘less biased‘ than relying on OSS contribution or public code availability. Coglan references her piece and adds his own thoughts around similar topics, but his readers might disregard the value a GitHub presence provides. Neither article tried to discourage a presence, but the Coglan piece dismissed the value quite a bit.
Advice on salary negotiation is abundant, but material written for the general public may not always be applicable to a technology sector where demand is high and the most sought after talent is scarce. There is quite a bit of misinformation and the glorified mythology of negotiation is often mistaken for the much less interesting reality where little negotiation actually takes place.
Let’s start by going over a few “rules” that are often thrown around in these discussions.
Using absolutes is never a good idea (see what I did there?), and there are definite situations when you should not negotiate an offer. For example, entry-level candidates who are considered replaceable with other entry-level candidates often do more harm than good by negotiating, particularly when the job being offered is among the most desirable. We will cover when you should and should not negotiate a bit later, but there are clearly some conditions when it’s not a great idea.
There’s no harm in asking for more/Doesn’t hurt to ask
Actually, sometimes it does. When you propose a counteroffer, there are only a few realistic outcomes.
A recent blog post Technical Interviews Make Me Cry by Pamela Fox tells the personal tale of a technologist and conference speaker who gets a Skype/Stypi interview for her dream job, becomes stumped on a technical question, breaks down in tears, almost abandons the interview, fights through it, and eventually gets the job. Everyone loves a happy ending, and it was courageous for the author to tell her story so publicly as a service to others. However, I think some of her takeaways and the advice she provides can be improved upon.
So how can we prevent crying or freezing up during a technical interview?
Let’s start with the author’s advice. She offers that interviewees should prepare for the format and not just the material, and writes
In August 2012 I published a blog post Why You Didn’t Get The Interview, which received a good bit of attention from readers and was republished a few times (most notably by Lifehacker). Of course one article could not list every possible explanation that an employer or recruiter might use to discard a résumé, so I decided to revisit the topic once again. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather an addendum to the previous post that may help explain a lack of response to your job search.
No submittal content - Online applications often consist of several fields and check boxes that don’t always give job seekers an opportunity to express interest or differentiate themselves. However, when you send a résumé via email or are provided some space within an online application to craft a custom message, you are foolish not to take advantage. Simply sending a résumé without any supporting information about your experience or interest in the job comes across as lazy or aloof, and can give the appearance that a job seeker is simply blasting résumés indiscriminately (perhaps even in an automated fashion). SOLUTION: Tell the employer at least one or two things that drew your attention to the job and company.
Multiple applications to the same employer for vastly different roles – Sometimes I will open my inbox and find an email from a job seeker about one job that could possibly be a fit, and then find another four or five emails from the same applicant for other jobs that are not remotely connected to the candidate’s experience. This applicant may have received some attention if he/she only sent the one semi-targeted application, but the additional blind stabs have too many negative implications. It typically signifies either a lack of self-awareness regarding qualifications, immaturity, or desperation. SOLUTION: Before submitting your résumé, check several of the company’s listings to make sure that you are applying for the one or two jobs that best fit your experience and goals. If you have a strong desire to work for a specific employer, sending a targeted application to one or two listings is much more effective than spamming your résumé to all of their vacant slots.
Many small red flags – My original article last year referenced 14 fairly obvious reasons that job seekers are not interviewed, but often it’s not that simple. Many times a résumé/application package will contain a handful of items that would not be a problem when considered individually, but when combined add up to a rejection. The recruiter or hiring manager will feel that too many special circumstances would have to occur that make the candidate’s hire unlikely. Perhaps a candidate has a slightly elevated salary expectation, requires relocation assistance, is minimally qualified, and lacks any easily identifiable positive indicators of talent or ability that stand out from others. An applicant with only one of those characteristics would likely be considered, but the aggregate picture makes it too much of a longshot. SOLUTION: There is no real fix to this. You could always try to explain what could be perceived as a red flag. For example, if you are relocating to a specific area, make it clear why you are looking in that specific market to avoid being viewed as someone open to jobs worldwide. Displaying some level of interest or passion for the employer could also help overcome objections and get you a shot.
Personal reputation and your employer’s reputation – It shouldn’t surprise anyone that if you apply to firms where people either know you or are connected to those that do, a decision to interview will typically be based on how these contacts feel and talk about you. However, your employer’s reputation may also come into play here as well. If a particular company has interviewed multiple former employees of your firm without much success, chances are they will not waste time interviewing another. As a recruiter, it is fairly common for companies to tell me “Unless they are outstanding I’m not overly interested in candidates from COMPANY, as we see many and have not had any luck.” Your company’s reputation is more likely to work in your favor if you are employed by a firm known for having talent, but it seems the trend to discriminate against employees of certain shops continues. I wrote about this a bit in a past post regarding discrimination by startups against workers from large enterprises. SOLUTION: Keep your personal reputation in mind when dealing with co-workers and particularly when leaving jobs. Minimize stints at employers that have a negative reputation in your market.
Inconsistency - This can be the result of discrepancies between a résumé and cover letter/application, between a résumé and LinkedIn profile, or just something fishy in the résumé itself. If you changed professions more often than Barbie (impressive list) or have travailed up the corporate ladder and come back down multiple times, your application will raise suspicions. Candidates that list titles progressing from CTO to CEO and then down to Junior Developer will be scrutinized. SOLUTION: There isn’t anything you can do to change the past, but explanations could go a long way if you left an industry to pursue a passion. Make sure all of your online profiles match your résumé details before sending applications. Try to use job titles that reflected your actual duties if you worked for a small firm and had an inflated title. Even if you were CEO or CTO of your dorm room software company, it may not be helpful to list the job that way.
“Meh“ – Your qualifications and history are virtually identical to the others in the stack of résumés received. You may have met what was listed on the job spec, but so did everybody else. This is of particular importance for jobs where it is expected that most applicants will have similar qualifications, such as entry-level positions for new graduates or jobs that list highly generic specifications. SOLUTION: There has to be something different about you that you can add to give some positive spin to your candidacy. Review the requirement again and try to find an area where your background exceeds the expectation, or a specific experience you have that others probably don’t.
My ebook Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search was recently released and is available for
$9.99 (reduced to $6.99 in December 2013) on iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, and Kobo. I can provide a PDF version for sale by request.
Generally speaking, when you walk into an interview you are at the mercy of the interviewers. Although you may be given some general information regarding the interview format and probably have an idea about the questions or exercises you may encounter, there are endless possibilities on the topics you may be asked about over a two or three hour session.
As was stated before, any item on your résumé is fair game, so one way to potentially avoid queries on unfamiliar topics is to keep those words off your résumé. Regardless of what is or isn’t on your résumé, it is quite likely that you will be asked questions pertaining to subjects that are not within your areas of expertise. Trying to fully eliminate the exposure of certain vulnerabilities is an exercise in futility, but there is one rather effective method to at least attempt to mitigate the risks.
There is an increasing trend in the technical hiring world for employers to request firm evidence of a candidate’s abilities that go beyond what a traditional résumé includes. For programmers, this typically can be achieved through a code sample. Front-end designers and developers may be expected to show off some UI or website that they built, and architects may be asked to share documents. Mobile developers may hear this more than any other group, and are routinely asked “Do you have any apps available?” as part of the vetting process.
One way to partially control the content and direction of your interview is to provide interviewers a work sample that will presumably become a point of discussion. This will turn what could be a technical interrogation into a version of show and tell. Even if the exchange about your sample only takes fifteen minutes, that is fifteen minutes of the interview where you hopefully will shine, and it is fifteen minutes less time for the interviewers to delve into other topics that are probably less familiar.
To employ this tactic, be sure to make it known at some point early in the process that you have samples of your work for review by request. A GitHub link at the top of your résumé, a URL to download your mobile app, or a link to sites that you developed are much more graceful than large file attachments. You can choose to extend an invitation to view these projects as early as your résumé submission, and when scheduling the interview you can express your willingness to discuss the projects in more detail and offer to bring a laptop with samples.
Independently volunteering to show representations of what you have produced will give an employer the impression that you are both willing and able to demonstrate the quality of your work. That act makes the applicant appear more open and trustworthy than someone who hesitates when asked for some samples. Recruiters and hiring managers alike will welcome résumé submissions that are accompanied by additional supporting evidence of a candidate’s abilities.
When you enter the interview, you can mention that you brought samples to show if the team is interested in seeing your work. This will typically be received quite positively and could lead to a deep dive into familiar territory.
This post is an excerpt from the recently released ebook Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search, available to purchase from iTunes iBookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and (soon?) Kobobooks. A sample from the iBook in PDF format can be found here.