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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A recent post by Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, Exploding Offers Suck, detailed his distaste for accelerators and venture capitalists who pressure entrepreneurs into critical decisions on investment offers before they have a chance to shop. The article outlines Y Combinator’s policy of allowing offer acceptance up until the beginning of the program.
An exploding offer is as any offer that lists a date for the offer to expire, with the allotted time being minimal. Altman’s article is about venture funding, but most in the industry gain exposure to this situation via job offers. This practice is fairly standard for college internships, where acceptance is required months before start date. Exploding offers may be less common for experienced professionals, but are hardly rare.
Many companies use templates for job offers where deadlines are arbitrary or listed only to encourage quick responses, which gives a false appearance of an exploding offer. Other firms have strict policies on enforcement, although strong candidates in a seller’s market will cause exceptions.
Why exploding offers exist?
The employer’s justification for exploding job offers may focus on planning, multiple candidates, and finite needs.
If a company has three vacancies and three candidates, how likely is it that all three receive offers? What is the likelihood they all accept. Companies develop a pipeline of perhaps twenty candidates for those three jobs. If six are found qualified, the company has a dilemma. The numbers and odds become ominous for firms evaluating thousands of college students for 100 internships.
The exploding offer is one method for companies to mitigate the risk of accepted offers outnumbering vacancies. They are also used to ensure that the second or third best candidate will still be available while the hirer awaits response from the first choice. Fast acceptance of exploding offers may be viewed as a measure of a candidate’s interest in the position and company, particularly at smaller and riskier firms.
Job seekers may feel that exploding offers serve to limit their employment options, with a potential side effect being lower salaries due to reduced competition. These offers may also help level the playing field for non-elite companies, as risk-averse candidates may subscribe to the bird in the hand theory.
Since they are not uncommon, it’s important to consider a strategy for how to handle exploding offers, multiple offer scenarios, and how to prevent these problems altogether.
Avoid the situation entirely
The issue with exploding and multiple offers is time constraint, and job seekers need to be proactive about these scenarios. The best strategy is to maximize the possibility that all offers arrive at the same time. If all offers are received simultaneously there is no problem.
Those applying to several firms should anticipate the possibility that offers may arrive over days or weeks. When researching companies of interest, investigate their standard interview process, the number of steps involved, and how long it takes. Current or former employees and recruiters representing the company will have answers, and when in doubt the general rule is that larger companies tend to move slower. Initiate contact with the slower companies first, and apply to the fastest hirers once interviews start with the first group.
Strategies to control timing of multiple offers
Unfortunately, job searches are unpredictable and candidates feel they have little influence on the speed or duration of a hiring process. Stellar candidates have much more control than they might expect, but even average applicants can affect timelines.
If Company A has scheduled a third face-to-face meeting while Company B is just getting around to setting up a phone screen with HR, the candidate needs to slow the process with A while expediting B. What tactics can hasten or extend hiring processes in order to synchronize offers?
- Ask – Asking about the anticipated duration of the interview process and about any ways it can be expedited. This is a relatively benign request so long as it is made respectfully and tactfully.
- Flexibility and availability – Provide prompt interview availability details regularly even they aren’t requested, and (if possible) offer flexibility to meet off-hours or on weekends.
- Pressure – As somewhat of a last resort, some candidates may choose to disclose the existence of other offers and the need for a decision by the employer. This can backfire and should be approached delicately.
- Delay interviews – This is the easiest and most effective method to employ, with the risk being that the position may be offered to someone else in the interim. When multiple rounds are likely, adding a couple days between rounds can extend the process significantly.
- Ask questions – There are many details about a company that influence decisions to accept or reject offers, and the process of gathering that information takes time. At the offer stage, questions about benefits or policies can usually buy a day or two.
- Negotiate – Negotiating an offer will require the company to get approvals and to incorporate new terms into a letter.
- Request additional interviews or meetings – Once an offer is made, candidates feel pressure to accept or reject. Another option is to request additional dialogue and meetings to address any concerns and finalize decisions.
Specifics for exploding offers
The issue with exploding offers is typically the need to respond before other interviews are completed, so the goal is to buy time. Some candidates choose to accept the exploding offer as a backup in case a better offer isn’t made. This tactic isn’t optimal for either party, as the company may be without a replacement and the candidate has burned a bridge.
In an exploding offer situation, first discover if the offer is truly exploding. As was mentioned earlier, many companies want a timely answer but don’t need one. The offer letter may give the appearance of being an exploding offer without actual intent. One response to test the waters is “The offer letter says I have x days to decide. Is that deadline firm or could it be extended a day or two if I am not prepared to make a decision at that point?”. The company’s answer will be telling.
If it is discovered that it is truly an exploding offer, resorting to the tactics listed above could help. HR reps may be uncomfortable asking for a decision if they feel a candidate’s legitimate questions are unanswered. As the deadline approaches, negotiating terms and asking for more detail will provide time. The request for another meeting will require scheduling, and the parties involved might not be available until after the deadline. As a last resort, simply asking for an extension is always an option.
There are subtle nuances to job searches outside of the local area. Unless a candidate is considered superlative, non-local applicants are not always given the same level of attention as locals when employers have healthy candidate pools with local applicants. Why might remoteness impact interview decisions (even in a tight market), and how can the potential for negative bias be minimized?
We’ll get to that in a minute. Before we can apply for a job, we need to find it.
Job sites – The usual suspects are where some people start, and those jobs will have multiple applicants. Googling to find regional job sites may help find companies that fly under the radar.
LinkedIn – The Jobs tab can create a search for new posts, but everybody may use that strategy. Try an Advanced People Search using one or more of the technologies or skills (in keywords box) that might be used by an attractive employer, and enter a zip code and mileage range using the desired location. Note both the current and past employers for the profiles, then research those firms.
Remote networking – Reaching out directly to some of the profiles found during the LinkedIn search will produce leads. Many fellow technologists will respond to messages stating a desire to move to their area. Finding a local recruiter on LinkedIn or via web search may bring several opportunities.
User groups and meetups – Some user group sites have job ads, and sponsoring firms usually have a local presence. Speakers from past meetings often live locally. User group leaders are often contacted by recruiters and hiring companies that are looking for talent, so contacting group leaders directly and asking “Who is hiring?” should be helpful.
or let the jobs find you… – Change the location field on a LinkedIn profile to the desired location and add language indicating an interest in new opportunities, and companies and agencies from that location may start knocking.
Applying for jobs
Now that the jobs are identified, initial contact must be made. This is where things can get complicated.
Recruiters and HR professionals are tasked with looking at résumés and any accompanying material in order to make a reasonably quick yes/no decision on an initial interview. Screeners know an interview process is time consuming, and the decision to start that process will usually take valuable time from several employees of the organization.
There are several factors that go into this decision, with candidate’s qualifications being the most important and obvious. Another factor is the recruiter’s assessment regarding the likelihood that a candidate would accept the job if offered, which is based on any obvious or assumed barriers. Details such as candidate compensation requirements in relation to company pay ranges or current job title in relation to vacant job title may play a role in the decision.
Is someone making 150K likely to accept our job paying 110K?
Is a Chief Architect likely to accept our Intermediate Developer position?
And generally speaking, is this person likely to accept a job in another location?
For exceptional candidates these questions are irrelevant, as they will be screened. But if a candidate barely meets the minimum requirements, has a couple additional flags, and happens to be non-local, will the employer even bother screening the candidate? Should they?
Without additional context, it may be assumed that a recent graduate in the midwest that applies to a job in New York City is probably shipping résumés to Silicon Valley, Chicago, or Seattle. The HR rep could believe that they are competing with many companies across several markets, each with its own reputation, characteristics, and cost of living. How likely is it that this candidate will not only choose our market, but also choose our company?
How can we lessen the impact of these assumptions and potential biases?
Mention location -When location isn’t mentioned by non-local applicants and no other information is given, the screener is likely to get the impression that this candidate is indiscriminately applying to positions. An applicant’s non-local address is the elephant in the room, so it is vital to reference that immediately in a cover letter.
If a future address is known, it should be listed on the résumé along with the current address. Keep in mind that the screener may open a résumé before reading any accompanying material. When there is a specific reason for relocating to this location, such as a family situation or a spouse’s job relocation, that information will be additional evidence of intent.
Availability for interviews - Listing available dates for on-site interviews demonstrates at least some level of commitment to the new location. Screeners interpret this as a buying sign.
Availability for start – Candidates that relocate for positions may have to sell their home, sublet an apartment, or have children in the middle of a school year. A mention of start date helps to set expectations early.
Cost of living and salary – Some ads request salary history and compensation expectations. Be sure to research salaries and market values in the new city, and state that committing to a future salary figure is difficult until all of the data is collected.
Relocation assistance – Companies may be willing to provide some relocation assistance even for candidates who are planning a move. Requesting a relo package in an application adds a potential reason for rejection, but negotiating relo money during the offer process is common. Since it is a one-time cost, companies may be more willing to provide relo if negotiations on salary or benefits become sticky.
Consider the overall market – Before committing to an opportunity in another city, research employment prospects beyond the target company. How healthy is the job market, and how many other local companies have specific demand for the same skills? A strong local tech market does not always indicate a strong market for certain specialties.
I review many emailed job applications each week that include a salary expectation, usually in the form of “seeking $X,000 per year“. Some continue with a phrase that has become trite, not to mention quite costly to job seekers everywhere.
“but I’m negotiable”
What these candidates are telling us is “I have a target number, but I want you to know in advance that I’m willing to accept less.”
This phrase is also a common response during live conversation with candidates, whether in speaking to me or in interviews with my clients.
INTERVIEWER: What are your salary expectations?
CANDIDATE: I’m seeking 80K, but I’m negotiable.
But usually it goes more like this
INTERVIEWER: What are your salary expectations?
CANDIDATE: I’m seeking 80K…
INTERVIEWER: [Silently takes a note for five seconds]
CANDIDATE: …but I’m negotiable.
Don’t do that.
The mistake here is that the candidate willingly dropped their request before hearing any objection to the number provided. In the first instance, they have altered their negotiating position before even giving the interviewer so much as an opportunity to say no.
IN APPLICATIONS – When providing a salary requirement in writing, there is the option of using a single number or a range. Supplying a range could be potentially useful, as a range may account for variation between what companies offer in time off, benefits, bonus, or perks. When providing a range, expect employers to start negotiations at the bottom.
Providing some brief context along with the number (“assuming competitive benefits and working conditions”) will provide an opening to negotiate above the provided number/range when necessary. Usually there will be some part of the package that can be cited as below market to justify raising an offer.
If the recipient of the application feels the candidate is qualified and at least in the ballpark for the budget, contact will be made and the flexibility topic may come up early.
IN INTERVIEWS – Prepare a number to ask for along with any context before the interview. It’s quite a common question, and having an answer available should provide the best results. Improvisation on this question is usually where things go wrong.
When the question about compensation expectations comes up, reply with the number along with any brief and necessary clarifying context. Then, stop talking. Don’t say a word until the interviewer responds. Even if the stare down lasts a minute, say nothing.
Interviewers realize you are probably a bit on edge and slightly uncomfortable during an interview. Any silence, even for just a few seconds, is commonly interpreted by candidates as a negative sign (“Uh oh, why did she stop asking questions???”). Some hiring managers or HR professionals actually have a pause built into the script in order to determine possible flexibility without having to even ask.
Never start negotiating downward until some objection is provided, and don’t mistake the silence of an interviewer as an objection.