I regularly hear from and read about technologists in a career rut. Unless one is both lucky and adept at predicting the future, experiencing some temporary stall can happen to professionals at any career stage. It may be the feeling of being stuck in an unchallenging role, feeling burdened by an undesirable skill set, or trapped in a company that seems difficult to escape.
Career stagnation in technology could be defined as a prolonged period characterized by limited project variety, no advancement or even lateral movement, few tangible accomplishments, and little exposure to any emerging trends. Some managers are aware that workers in these situations generally leave, so the managers may proactively try to satisfy staff by shuffling teams and providing more interesting tasks. Many managers have to focus on deliverables and may give little thought to the career development of their charges, perhaps throwing money at retention problems instead of providing challenges.
To “level up” could mean a promotion into management or technical leadership, a new start at a firm with increased opportunity, a role with autonomy and decision-making responsibility, or the ability to make significant improvements to skills and marketability. People that think about the leveling up concept often know what they want (or sometimes what they don’t want), but don’t necessarily see the best paths to get there.
Leverage the skills you have to get the skills you want
Most professionals view their current skills as a means to getting new jobs, but it’s useful to also think about skills as the key to acquiring other new skills. This tactic is most relevant when a skill set is dated and a previously strong marketability level is now questionable. Some will attempt to make a clean and immediate break from their old technologies or responsibilities into the new, usually with mixed results.
As an example, many COBOL programmers tried to enter the stronger Java job market following Y2K. Some applied to jobs with no Java experience hoping their COBOL years would be deemed transferrable, while others pursued certifications and self-study to ideally be viewed as a somewhat “experienced” hire. One overlooked strategy was to approach companies that were using both COBOL and Java in some capacity, with the understanding that the candidate was willing to write COBOL if provided the ability to also work with Java.
Most job seeking technologists have at least one ability that will help them contribute immediately to any other team or organization. It could be an obscure technical skill, leadership experience, or domain knowledge. Even if the skill is not something the person wants to use forever, it could be a key component to getting hired. Try to identify companies that may be looking for some specific expertise you can provide, even if it isn’t the most attractive tool in your bag, and be transparent about your willingness to do that less desirable work in exchange for exposure to skills that are in demand.
For those in the most stagnant of technical environments, taking on independent projects or open source may be the best way to gain experience and increase marketability. It’s usually preferable to learn new things on the job (because money), but being proactive about your career and keeping abreast of current marketable technologies will also show initiative to potential employers. The level up from personal projects almost always comes from an employment change.
Sometimes to level up you need to take a step back – or sideways
Careers aren’t always linear, and the expectation that trajectory needs to follow a strict continuous and incremental level of responsibilities is perhaps naive and potentially dangerous. Job seekers are often prone to placing too much weight on a position’s salary or (gasp) title without fully considering the position’s potential opportunity as it relates to future marketability and career development. Somewhat frequent movement between jobs is accepted in our industry, so positions can be viewed as stepping stones to future opportunities.
When evaluating new roles, whether with a current employer or another firm, imagine what a three or four year tenure in that role at that company will look like on future résumés. Will the skills likely to be acquired or improved in that role be marketable and transferrable to other firms? Accepting positions that come with lateral responsibility and compensation is usually a wise long-term decision when provided a more favorable learning and growth environment.
This week I was approached by two individuals seeking advice on finding employment in a programming capacity, yet both lacked the traditional standard requirement for entry-level positions – the BS in CS (‘BSCS’). I get asked about entering the industry often, and each scenario has a unique wrinkle.
The most recent candidates were a fresh Ivy League liberal arts grad and a Physics Ph.D. The former had brief hobbyist programming experience and the latter gained light exposure during school. Both are immediately employable in other industries, but perhaps not in the field they now target.
Of course, both may still be able to earn a BSCS (or MS) and take the traditional route. For our purposes here, let’s take that option off the table. For a Ph.D., the thought of additional classes might be hard to swallow, while costs might serve as a barrier for many others.
Non-BSCS candidates are often at a distinct disadvantage when competing with BSCS grads for entry-level positions. It’s becoming more common for CS grads to enter the workforce with multiple internships and code samples to bolster their candidacy. It’s reasonable to assume that typical non-BSCS grads have nothing comparable, in addition to what may be considered a less attractive degree.
One important point to remember is once you’re in you’re in, meaning that the most difficult job search for non-BSCS grads should be the first one. After gaining a bit of experience, your risk factor subsides (assuming you didn’t perform horribly in your first job). After three years no one cares about your major, and after five no one cares about your degree.
What are the common approaches for a non-BSCS grad to break in?
DIY and self-study (AKA GitHub, apps, certifications, blogs, and sites) – This method is based on the philosophy that you get a shot if you have a body of work. The wealth of freely available resources makes this method attractive to both the confident and the frugal. There can be a fine line between rigorous code immersion and post-graduation idling, so it’s helpful to set tangible goals, a schedule, and practice self-discipline.
When given no direction on what to build, people usually struggle to find projects ideas. Look for suggestions like those on Martyr2′s Project list, and improvise. As for reading material, there are extensive lists of free programming books that may be helpful. All the material you need is out there and easy to find.
Bootcamps – Any conversation today about breaking in for the non-BSCS will include bootcamps, and I have mentioned thoughts on them before. Bootcamps may be regarded as a compromise, where the investment of both time and money rests between DIY and degree programs. Some view bootcamps as an accelerated BSCS, or a hybrid internship and apprenticeship with classwork included. Most bootcamps appear as preparatory schools for startups based on the skill focus and instructors. Do your homework, and use caution when discussing the value of bootcamp experience versus degrees to avoid insulting employers.
Internships, or cheap/free labor – Some organizations (think small businesses and non-profits) will let a non-BSCS perform development tasks as an intern or volunteer. This can be a clear ‘win-win’, as the organization gets productivity while you get somewhat valuable real-world experience. A combination of volunteer or internship and personal projects starts to level the playing field for a non-BSCS.
Training in – There are companies that hire non-BSCS for entry-level programming jobs, and the first months include corporate training programs designed for non-CS grads. The positions may pay less than entry-level programming jobs, with curriculum intended to produce effective employees instead of versatile engineers. For example, instruction could focus on proprietary technologies and frameworks instead of popular industry offerings.
What are some key items to consider?
Get out of the basement! – Some DIY’ers bury their head in code and books with no human interaction. Make community learning events and outside communication a part of your diet. This will help you measure your knowledge in a live setting while also providing the opportunity to make some industry contacts.
Don’t enter the job market too soon – For CS grads, the natural time to start the search is around graduation. No mystery there. For the non-BSCS, there is an instinctive rush to start applying to jobs early in order to take the temperature of the job market. Fight the urge. If you apply to a desirable company today and are subsequently deemed unready, don’t expect to be reconsidered in three months (when you are ready). Make sure you know enough to succeed in technical interviews, have your GitHub code clean and optimized, have any apps or sites tested and fully functional, and are prepared to make a strong impression.
Leverage the skills you have to acquire the ones you want – Bringing useful abilities and experience that can pay immediate dividends (no matter how small) to an employer mitigates their hiring risk. If you are able to contribute to an organization beyond just code, providing both a learning opportunity and a decent wage is easier for firms to justify.
Be realistic – Your three months of self-study or bootcamp are not likely to get you the dream job at Google. Be willing to start towards the bottom and pay your dues to move up.
Beware certifications – When faced with a choice of proving abilities with either code or certifications, always pick code. Many industry pros attach a stigma to those who focus on getting certified instead of just doing.
Make learning opportunity your #1 job search criteria for first jobs – The money will come. Trust me. If provided multiple job opportunities simultaneously, opting for a job due to an extra $2K or a commuting difference of five miles will be regretted. Find a place where you can learn and grow.
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?
Even though there are hundreds of articles professing the beauty and efficiency of the one page résumé, not a day passes where I don’t see a five pager. The issue of length has even surfaced amongst college undergrads applying for internships, who seem to have increasing difficulty trimming their list of accomplishments and experiences into a single page (really). This is a troubling sign for future HR and recruiting professionals tasked with selecting applicants, as job seekers who are unable to shorten their credentials will continue to have difficulty in their search.
The amount of time a recruiter or hiring manager spends reviewing any single résumé varies by the individual. When offered a single page résumé, the reader is much more inclined to give that page a proper scan to make a fair assessment. A two page offering should get a proper review as well.
Anyone involved with hiring entry-level technology professionals (or reads posts on Reddit’s cscareerquestions forum) is aware that students are being prepared by schools for how to do work in the industry, but are often ill-prepared on how to find work in the industry. There is a major difference between the two, and many grads are being edged out on jobs by equally or even less-qualified peers who were just a bit more proactive about their career. If you think finding a job is only about internships and GPAs, please keep reading.
Some students feel that if they aren’t working 10 hours a day building the next Twitter from their dorm room, or if they didn’t intern at Google or Amazon, that they will struggle to find work. This is hardly the case, and I assure you that if you do a few things during your college years (that require a minimal time investment and no money), you will be several steps ahead when it is time to apply for your first job.
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.
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.