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?
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
The decision to join a new employer and the process leading up to the move can be fraught with emotional attachments, irrational fears, and incomplete information. Since job searches in technology often include self-interested third parties of varying influence (e.g. recruiters, founders, hiring managers) acting within a highly competitive hiring environment, the job seeker can be pushed and pulled in several directions, sometimes based on half-truths and distortions. The result of the job change (or the decision to refuse an offer and stay put) in many circumstances is buyer’s remorse, where regret can be felt rather quickly.
First let’s look at the more common reasons that candidates regret taking a new job, and then explore one rather simple solution to avoid the mistake.
You would need to be blind not to notice that tech recruiting firms are now tending to hire young and attractive female rookie recruiters, which is an obvious strategy (similar to the so-called “booth babes” at trade shows) to get the attention of the predominantly male tech audience. Some of the LinkedIn recruiter profile photos border on racy, and perhaps sad. I should confess here that I too use a LinkedIn profile photo, which is probably best described as smug (included below, for science).
Since I started blogging I have been regularly approached by readers living hundreds of miles away asking if I know a recruiter in their geography that might be able to help them find new work. For every ten people that hate on recruiters, there are at least a couple that see value. Many tech pros complain that they are only being approached by the aforementioned 22 year old crowd with an average six months of recruiting experience, sending canned messages with a pretty LinkedIn profile photo. How much solid career advice can you get from a new liberal arts or PE grad who was waiting tables until a couple months ago? Very little, and I should know – because that was me 15 years ago (except Economics and bartender).
I deal with internal recruiters that work at my client companies, but readers want intros to people who do what I do. These internal recruiters only represent their company, whereas agency recruiters like me can provide several job opportunities. Instead of just replying with “Sorry, I don’t really know anyone in your area”, I thought I’d provide some thoughts on methods to find someone you will want to work with in your job search.
I first wrote about the topic of job hopping back in 2007 and I feel the advice I gave then is still relevant in 2013, although the perceptions and attitudes of most hiring managers have evolved significantly. The post in 2007 was partly inspired by a past client (financial trading firm) that would only accept résumés of software engineers that were employed at their current company for a minimum of seven years. Today, it seems more likely that my clients would discourage me from submitting candidates that have had too long a tenure. Times have changed.
As a refresher, the term job hopping is used to describe a history of somewhat frequent moves from one employer to another after spending little time working for a company. Some use the one year mark as the measure of a hop, but multiple moves before a second or third anniversary should also earn you the label with most traditionally-minded recruiters and managers. However, being tagged a job hopper in the tech industry is not nearly as troublesome as many would want you to believe.
A survey of 1500 recruiters and hiring managers last year had the following results:
“According to 39% of recruiters, the single biggest obstacle for an unemployed candidate in regaining employment is having a history of ‘hopping jobs’, or leaving a company before one year of tenure. 31% consider being out of work for more than a year as the greatest challenge in regaining employment, followed by having gaps in your employment history (28%).” – Bullhorn survey
Unfortunately, this result was misinterpreted by an article on job hopping that appeared in Forbes earlier this year. Let’s see if you can spot the subtle difference.
“Nearly 40% of recruiters and hiring managers say that a history of hopping is the single biggest obstacle for job-seekers, according to a recent survey conducted by recruiting software company Bullhorn.” – Forbes.com
Did you catch the difference? The Forbes article calls job hopping the biggest obstacle for job seekers, while the Bullhorn survey clarifies that job hopping is the biggest obstacle for unemployed candidates. One could agree that having a job hopper reputation while being unemployed is a tough combination, but anecdotally I’ve found that employed job hoppers have a much easier time. After all, job hoppers are clearly skilled at getting hired.
Why is it necessary to make this distinction between job seekers and unemployed job seekers? Because unemployment acts as a sort of multiplier or catalyst towards the “unemployability” of the job hopper, which explains why almost 40% of managers and recruiters would essentially call unemployed job hoppers the least attractive group. It is also useful to point out that in high-demand labor markets with relatively low unemployment rates such as the market for software engineering, the job hoppers almost always have a job.
The data also seems flawed for another reason. 39% cite job hopping as the biggest issue, while 31% point to lengthy unemployment. One would think that the gap between these two numbers should be much greater. In my experience, a candidate that has been unable to get a job for over a year probably has more serious marketability issues than someone who was able to get hired twice in a year. There could be countless extenuating circumstances to either situation, of course.
A few thoughts on job hopping and the alternative.
Extreme longevity at one company can be viewed as a detriment in a job search (worse than job hopping)
20th century hiring managers viewed your 15 years at COMPANY as a sign of employee loyalty, while 21st century managers feel that if you were any good another company would have hired you away by now. I typically consider extended stays (>10 years perhaps) with one employer as a potential challenge to overcome for a job seeker in today’s tech market. Making a series of moves that allowed you to progress your career and skills will often be viewed more positively than stagnating in one role for an extended period.
Don’t get fired
Job hoppers that lost jobs due to a documented and significant reduction in force or company closing shouldn’t have too many problems, as they aren’t viewed as true job hoppers (rather victims of circumstance). Those that made multiple moves to pursue better opportunities will only be negatively impacted if they are not staying in jobs long enough to improve their skills and to accomplish something valuable. Having a pattern of being fired, even only twice, is where the major employability problem lies for job hoppers.
If your performance is a known issue and you resemble a job hopper, find a new job before they have a chance to fire you.
Have at least one or two stints worthy of highlighting
One of the problems with making quick moves is that you often don’t have enough time to do anything worth putting on a résumé. As an exercise for writing this post, I looked back at the résumés of the candidates I’ve placed in the past two years. The results were telling.
Only about 5% of the candidates I placed had been in their current job for more than three years at the time of placement, and most had been in their past two jobs for less than two years each. Almost all of them, however, had an impressive stint of three to six years at a company within the last decade with obvious accomplishments. The sample size isn’t significant enough to call this a study, and my client base tends to be small companies that are probably less likely to exclude candidates solely based on some jobs per year metric.
It appears that candidates who have had two or three jobs over a short period of time will be forgiven for job hopping if they had at least one stable stretch in the recent past. Just as a former league MVP should be able to find a spot on a team’s roster even after a couple sub-par seasons, candidates that have somewhat recent success stories will overcome the stigma of job hopping.
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Many new entrants to today’s technology job market are obsessed with the handful of high-profile companies that set the trends in the industry, and the next generation of software engineers seem to think that the only companies worth working for are Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and Amazon. Software development has become both a celebrity culture (where companies and their CEOs are the stars) and an oligarchy in the eyes of recent graduates and teens, who set their sights on employment with this small number of firms. Young developers in foreign countries appear to be particularly susceptible to this hyperfocus on a tiny segment of the hiring market. If you don’t know how widespread this is, I’d suggest a visit to Reddit’s CS Career Questions section to see what people are asking.
When Yahoo changed their remote work policy the web exploded in debate around the value of remote employees, and the more recent news around Google dismissing GPAs, test scores and answers to Fermi questions made many tech companies reconsider their hiring procedures. Not a day passes where a piece on one of these companies doesn’t hit the front page of most major news sites. A cottage industry has erupted with authors and speakers providing guides for aspiring engineers to create résumés, land interviews and answer technical questions to get jobs specifically at these companies. The focus seems to be less about becoming skilled and more about being attractive to a specific subset of employers.
These companies are glamorized amongst budding engineers much like Ivy League and top-tier schools are with high school students, and the reason you probably won’t work for Google is the same reason you probably didn’t go to MIT. Because they are highly selective, and they simply can’t hire everyone.
Of course some of you can and perhaps will work for Google and the other companies listed here, just as some of you may have attended top universities. But the majority of
you us won’t – and that’s OK. Follow your dreams, but be realistic about the outcome.
So here comes the good news! Beyond Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Amazon, there are hundreds of awesome places to work that are highly regarded by engineers the world over, and most people outside the industry (and many inside) haven’t heard of most of them. Experience with these shops, much like the above list, will get you noticed. Companies like Netflix, LinkedIn, Salesforce, eBay and GitHub are well-known but not typically mentioned in the same breath as the top celebrity firms, though they certainly could be. I’d venture that most college CS majors haven’t even heard of 37signals or Typesafe, where smaller teams are doing work that is regularly recognized by the engineering community.
And again the bad news. You probably won’t work for these companies either. For most of the world, these are still reach schools that employ relatively few. Although they may not be held by the general public in the same esteem as that list up top, they are incredibly selective, and most in the industry will view the difference between this group and the Googles as incredibly slim.
And now for some more good news. Beyond the lists of companies above are thousands of great places to work that I guarantee you have never heard of. These may consist of startups that fly under the radar or smaller specialized technology companies that serve a niche market. They could be the development groups for major banks or 25 year old mom and pop shops that have an established customer base and solid revenues. Game developers, ecommerce sites, consulting firms, robotics – the list goes on.
In almost every city, this group is the one that employs the overwhelming majority of engineers. This is where most of us will likely end up – a company that you will surely need to describe and explain to your parents and significant other.
In the city where I focus my business (Philadelphia) and run our Java Users’ Group, we have some Googlers and I’ve known engineers who have worked for Amazon, Yahoo, and Apple. And I know many many others who either turned down offers or likely could have joined those companies, but chose instead to work somewhere else. Just as some students may reject the offer from the top-rated school to stay closer to home or to accept a more attractive scholarship package, many of the world’s top engineers simply don’t work for Google or Facebook, or anywhere else in the Valley for that matter.
Philadelphia is by no means Silicon Valley, yet there is a fairly robust startup scene and a large number of software shops that are doing valuable work. Over the past 15 years I’ve worked with hundreds of Philly companies to hire engineering talent, and 99% of these places would be unknown to the typical developer. I almost always have to describe my clients to potential candidates, as most of these shops have not built a reputation yet, and these are firms ranging from 20 to perhaps 20,000 employees. And the vast majority of them are great environments for technologists where developers work alongside at least a few top engineers that could (and some that did) pass the entrance requirements for the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
All the great engineers in the world aren’t in the Valley, and they don’t all work for Google. This fact is obvious to most, but fewer than I’d expected and hoped. If that is the goal, go after it. The rest of us will be here if it doesn’t work out.
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