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.
In Part II, I alluded to systemic conditions inherent to contingency recruiting that can incentivize bad behavior. Before proceeding with warnings about recruiters, let’s provide some context as to why some recruiters behave the way they do.
Agency recruiters (AKA “headhunters”) that conduct contingency searches account for most of the recruiting market and are subsequently the favorite target of recruiter criticism. These are recruiters that represent multiple hiring firms that pay the recruiter a fee ranging anywhere from 15-30% of the new employee’s salary. This seems a great deal for the recruiter, but the downside of contingency recruiting is that the recruiter may spend substantial time on a search yet earn no money if they do not make the placement.
Contingency recruiters absorb 100% of the “risk” for their searches by default, unlike retained recruiters who take no risk. Hiring companies can establish relationships with ten or twenty contingency firms to perform a search, with each agency helping expand the company’s name and employer brand, yet only one (and sometimes none) is compensated. When we combine large fees with a highly competitive, time-sensitive demand-driven market, the actors in that market are incentivized to take shortcuts.
Please don’t confuse these revelations as excuses for bad behavior. Recruiters who either do not understand or choose to ignore industry ethics make it much more difficult for those who do follow the rules. I provide these warnings to expose problems in a secretive industry, with hopes that sunlight will serve as disinfectant.
All recruiters won’t act this way. Many will. Keep these things in mind when interacting with your recruiter.
Your recruiter may send your résumé places without your knowledge – To maximize the chances of getting a fee or to utilize your desirable background as bait to sign a prospective client, recruiters may shop you around without your consent. This only tends to cause issues when the recruiter sends your résumé somewhere that you are already interviewing.
REMEDY: Insist that your recruiter only submits you with prior consent (in writing if that makes you feel more comfortable).
Your recruiter may attempt to get you as many interviews as possible, with little consideration for fit – This sounds like a positive until you have burned all your vacation days and realize that over 50% of your interviews were a complete waste of time. This is the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” mentality loathed by both candidates and employers.
REMEDY: Perform due diligence and vet jobs before agreeing to interviews.
If you reject a job offer, the recruiter may take questionable actions to get you to reconsider – No one can fault a recruiter for wanting to promote their client when a candidate is on the fence. That is part of the recruiter’s job. Recruiters cross the line when they knowingly provide false details about a job to allay a candidate’s fears. A recruiter may call a candidate’s home when the recruiter knows the candidate isn’t there in an attempt to speak to and get support from a spouse or significant other. The higher the potential fee, the more likely you are to see these tactics.
REMEDY: If you have questions about an offer that don’t have simple answers, such as inquiries about career path or bonus expectation, get answers directly from the company representatives. When your decision is final, make that fact clear to your recruiter.
If you accept a counteroffer, the recruiter will attempt to scare you – Counteroffers are the bane of the recruiter’s existence. Just as the recruiter starts counting their money, it’s swiped at the last possible moment – and just because the candidate changed their mind. Recruiting is a unique sales job, in that the hire can refuse the deal after all involved parties (employer, new employee, broker) have agreed to terms. Sales jobs in other industries don’t have that issue.
When a counteroffer is accepted, expect some form of “recruiter terrorism“. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most shameful recruiter behavior. Recruiters have been known to tell candidates that their career is over, they will be out of a job in a few months, and that the decision will haunt them for many years to come. All of those things may be true in some isolated instances, but plenty of people have accepted counteroffers without ill effects. I’ve written about this before, as it’s important to understand the difference between the actual dangers of counteroffer acceptance and the recruiter’s biased perspective.
REMEDY: Consider any counteroffer situation carefully and do your own research on the realities of counteroffer, while keeping in mind the source of any content you read.
You will be asked for referrals, perhaps in creative ways – Recruiters are trained to ask everyone for referrals. This was much more important before the advent of LinkedIn and social media, when names were much more difficult to come by. Candidates may expect that recruiters will ask “Who is the best Python developer you know?”, but they may feel less threatened by a recruiter asking “Who is the worst Python developer you know?”. Again, we shouldn’t blame recruiters for trying to expand their network, but if the recruiter continues to ask for names without providing any value it’s clearly not a balanced relationship.
REMEDY: Give referrals (if any) that you are comfortable providing, and tell the recruiter that you’ll keep them in mind if any of your associates are looking for work in the future. Whether you act on that is up to you.
If you list references they will be called (and perhaps recruited) – When a candidate lists references on a résumé, it’s an open invitation to recruit those people as well. If your references discover that you leaked their contact information indiscriminately to a slew of recruiters and that act resulted in their full inbox, don’t expect them to volunteer to serve as references in the future.
REMEDY: Never list references on your résumé. Only provide references when necessary, and ask the references what contact information they would like presented to the recruiter.
You will receive continuous recruiter contact for years to come, usually more often than you’d like – Once your information is out there, you can’t erase it. Don’t provide permanent contact details unless you are willing to field inquiries for the rest of your career.
REMEDY: Use throwaway email addresses and set guidelines on future contact.
Recruiters get paid when you take a job through them, regardless of whether it’s the best job choice for you – This is a simple fact that most candidates probably aren’t conscious of during the job search. There are three potential outcomes – you accept a job through the recruiter, you accept a job without using the recruiter, or you stay put. Only the first outcome results in a fee, so the recruiter has financial incentive first to convince you to leave and then to only consider their jobs.
What type of behavior does this lead to? Recruiters may ask you where you are interviewing, where you have applied, and what other recruiters you are using. Some may refuse to work with you if you fail to provide this information. They may provide some explanation as to why this information is vital for them to know, but the reason is only the desire to know who they are competing against and to have some amount of control. The more detail you provide, the more ammunition the recruiter has to make a case for their client.
REMEDY: Always consider a recruiter’s advice, but also consider their incentives. Provide information to recruiters on a need to know basis and only provide what will help them get you a job. Specifics about any other job search activity are private unless you choose to make it known.
Recruiters have almost no incentive to provide feedback – Many job seekers wonder why agency recruiters often don’t provide feedback after a failed interview. Of my 60+ articles on Job Tips For Geeks the most popular (based on traffic coming from search engines) is “Why The Recruiter Didn’t Call You Back“, so it’s clear to me that this is a bothersome trend. Once it becomes clear that you will not result in a fee, your value to the recruiter is primarily limited to the possibility of a future placement or a source for referrals.
Interview feedback is valuable to candidates, and job seekers that commit to interviews deserve some explanation as to why they were not selected for hire.
REMEDY: Set the expectation with the recruiter that you will be interested in client feedback, and ask for specific feedback after interviews are complete.
This is the second in a three-part series to inform job seekers about working with a recruiter. Part I was “Recruit Your Recruiter” and Part III is “Warnings”
Once you have identified the recruiter(s) you are going to use in your job search, it is ideal to immediately gather information from the recruiter (and provide some instructions to the recruiter) so expectations and boundaries are properly set. All recruiters are not alike, with significant variation in protocol, style, and even the recruiter’s incentives.
The stakes are high for job seekers who entrust someone to assist with their career, but it’s important to keep in mind that a recruiter stands to earn a sizable amount when making a placement. For contingency agency recruiters who make up the majority of the market, the combination of large fees and competition can incentivize bad behavior. More on this in Part III.
As a recruiter, I find that transparency helps gain trust and is necessary to establish an effective professional relationship. Candidates should realize that I have a business and profit motive, but I also want my candidates to understand my specific incentives so they can consider those incentives during our interactions. The negative reputation of agency recruiters makes this transparency necessary, and honest recruiters should have nothing to hide.
Some recruiters will be more open than others, and the recruiter’s willingness to share information can and should be used as potential indicators of the recruiter’s interests. A recruiter must be able to articulate their own incentives, and be willing to justify situations where full transparency is not provided.
To establish boundaries and set expectations, there are several topics that need to be addressed.
What you need to know
The recruiter’s experience – Hopefully you vetted your recruiter before contact, but now is the time to verify anything that you may have read. Confirm any claimed specialties.
How the recruiter is paid for any given client – Whether or not recruiters should reveal their fee percentages is debatable, but job seekers certainly have the right to know how fees are calculated. Why is this important? Some fees may be based on base salary only while other agreements may stipulate that a fee includes bonuses or stock grants. If the recruiter is providing advice in negotiation, it’s helpful to know what parts of the compensation package impact the recruiter’s potential fee.
Keep in mind that recruiters often have customized agreements with their clients. When a recruiter is representing you to multiple opportunities, it’s absolutely necessary for you to be made aware of each client’s fee structure. If you sense that your recruiter is pushing you towards accepting an offer from Company A and discouraging you from a higher offer with Company B, knowing who pays the recruiter more helps temper the advice.
The recruiter’s relationship with any given client – Did the recruiter just sign this client last week or do they have a ten year history of working together? Has the recruiter worked with certain employees of the client in the past? This information is primarily useful when considering a recruiter’s advice on hiring process and negotiation, as the recruiter’s familiarity (or lack thereof) could be a contributing factor to getting an offer and closing the deal.
The recruiter should also be willing to share if the client is a contingency search or retained (some fee paid in advance). This information has little impact on incentives, but clients do have a vested interest in hiring from a recruiter on retainer as they already have some skin in the game.
As much detail as possible on any given job being pitched – Some candidates are satisfied with only knowing a job title while others want to know whether a company has a tendency to hire executives from outside or within. Recruiters will have some specific details, but candidates should expect to perform a bit of due diligence as well. If there are certain deal breakers regarding your job search (maybe tuition reimbursement is a requirement for you), it’s the candidate’s responsibility to convey those conditions and the recruiter’s responsibility to clear those up before starting the process.
What you need to express
How and when to contact – If you share all your contact information with a recruiter without instruction, many recruiters will assume they have full access. Recruiters want to establish a solid relationship and may feel the best way to do that is through extensive live contact. An inordinate number of calls to your mobile phone during office hours could tip off managers to your search, which may even benefit the recruiter’s efforts to place you. Set guidelines on both method and time acceptable for contact.
No changes to the résumé without consent – I hear this complaint often, and the solution for many is a PDF. The most common change made is the addition of the recruiter’s contact info and maybe a logo. This is harmless, and designed to ensure that the recruiter gets their fee if the résumé is found three months later and the candidate is hired.
There are many anecdotes about recruiters adding or subtracting details from a résumé, which is a different story. It’s entirely unethical for a recruiter to insert skills or buzzwords without consent.
No résumés submitted without permission – To prevent a host of potential issues, be explicit about this. A recruiter who is not given this directive may feel they have carte blanche and might submit your résumé to a company you are already interviewing with, a former boss you didn’t like, or any number of places you don’t want your résumé going.
Need to provide client names before submittal – See above. There are somewhat unique scenarios where companies request anonymity before they establish interest in a candidate, but these are extremely rare cases. It is not only important to know that your résumé is being sent out, but also where it is going.
Only want to be pitched jobs that meet your criteria – This is more about saving time than anything else, but contingency recruiters playing the numbers game may try to maximize their chances of making a fee on you by submitting you to every client in their portfolio. The result is wasteful interviews for jobs that you are unqualified for or that you would never have accepted in the first place.
Recruiters aren’t mind readers, so you’ll need to be specific. If you are limiting your search to specific locations and types of jobs, establish those parameters early and ask to be informed only about jobs that fit.
Expectation of feedback, preferably actionable – One of the biggest complaints about recruiters is that they suddenly disappear after telling you about a job or sending you on an interview. There are multiple reasons for this, some understandable and others less so. Asking the recruiter when you should expect to hear feedback and sending prompt emails after interviews should help you gather valuable information about what you are doing well and where you could use some work.
Recruiters don’t want to hurt a candidate’s feelings and may filter their feedback, but the raw information is more useful and often actionable. Ask for a low level of filtering.
Follow this blog (see right margin) or @jobtipsforgeeks on Twitter to receive notifications about new posts, including Part III of this series.
This week I read an unusually high number of articles (and the comments!) about recruiting. Although most of the discussion quickly turns to harsh criticism, there are always a few people wondering the best ways to find a decent recruiter to work with and what to do once they have established contact.
Some recruiter demand stems from candidates looking to relocate into areas where they have no network, while others just want to maximize their options and feel they may benefit from the services provided by an agency recruiter. Regardless of your reasons for seeking out an agency recruiter, first you have to find one.
Finding a Recruiter
There are three reliable methods to getting introduced to a recruiter.
This is the best method for most, as being introduced by a contact can have unexpected benefits. To maximize those benefits, you must consider the source of your referral.
If the recruiter has a great deal of respect for the person introducing you, you are likely to be given some immediate credibility and favorable treatment due to that association. Unfortunately the alternative is true, and if you are referred by someone the recruiter does not respect it may be assumed that you are not a strong talent. When asking for recruiter referrals it is wise to start with the most talented people in your network.
Your network does not have to be the only source of referrals, particularly if you are looking for a recruiter in an area where you have no network. User group and meetup leaders are frequently contacted by recruiters and one should expect group leaders to be knowledgeable of the local market. Even a random email to an engineer in another location could result in a solid lead.
Let the recruiter find you
If I had a nickel for every time I heard technologists complain that they aren’t hearing from enough recruiters, I’d be poor – though some voice frustration that they don’t hear from the ‘right ones‘. Increasing your visibility will attract recruiters who may or may not be the ones you’d want, but it helps establish a pool for evaluation to choose who is worthy of a response.
To maximize your chances of being found and contacted, you need to consider how recruiters will find you. The obvious place is LinkedIn, and spending a few minutes fixing up your profile will help.
Keywords and SEO concepts as well as profile ‘completeness’ should be your focus. (further reading on this) Recruiters are likely to be searching for combinations of keywords from their requirements, usually with some advanced search filters based on location, education, or experience. Completeness matters.
Some recruiters search Twitter and the other standard social sites as well. If you have a profile anywhere, just assume that a recruiter might find it and optimize keywords similarly.
Keep in mind how easy or difficult it is for people to contact you once you’ve been found. Just because I see your LinkedIn profile or Google + account doesn’t mean I can contact you. Many professionals create an email address (maybe currentemail-jobs@domain) strictly for recruiter correspondence and include it in their LinkedIn profile and other social pages.
Another option is to get discovered on job search sites like Indeed, Monster, and Dice. These are frequented by active job seekers, and some recruiters may view your posting there as a somewhat negative signal. Be warned that posting personal information on these sites means that those phone numbers or email addresses will live forever in the databases of recruiters everywhere.
PROTIP: Those that complain about recruiters often cite laziness in the initial contact. This may be evidenced by an obvious cut and paste or clear signs that the recruiter didn’t read the bio. If you want to screen out recruiters that don’t do the work, put up a barrier to weed out the lazy. This page that uses scripts in Python and Haskell to hide an email address is perhaps my favorite, but there are other less clever ways if you want to set the bar lower than the ability to cut/paste code into a compiler.
Recruiters search for you, and you can search for them. Most recruiters are going to be easiest to find on LinkedIn due to the amount of time they spend there.
1 – Click on Advanced at the top of the main LinkedIn screen (just to the right of the search bar)
2 – On the upper left side of your screen you will see several fields. Make sure you are doing a People search (and not a Jobs search).
3 – Type ‘Recruiter’ and other terms specific to you in the Keywords field. Try ‘developer‘ or ‘programmer’ and a term that a recruiter might use to brand you, such as a language. Recruiters often populate their LinkedIn profiles with the technologies they seek, not unlike job seekers trying to catch the automated eye of a résumé scanning system.
4 – Enter the zip code of the area where you wish to find work and consider setting a mile limit. Some recruiters work nationally, but local knowledge goes a long way if you are seeking to work in one area. Once you start entering the code, a menu appears. Depending on where you live, you may want to select 25 or 50 miles (probably good for northeast or mid-Atlantic US), or up to 100 miles (for midwest).
5 – On the right, make sure you have 3rd + Everyone Else checked under Relationship. This will maximize your results, particularly if your LinkedIn network is small.
6 – Click Search. Repeat, and vary the words you used in Step 3. You should see a few different faces as you adjust the keywords, and you’ll also see whether you have connections in common with those in your search results.
Twitter is another decent option. Make sure you are searching People (and not Everything), and pair up the word recruiter with some keywords and/or geographic locations. You’ll get numerous hits in most cases, and should only have to do a bit of legwork to find their bios.
In addition to being able to find recruiters on social sites, you can use job boards as well. If you search for a Ruby job in New York City, you may quickly find that several of the listings are posted by one or two recruiting companies. Look into those firms to see if they have a specialty practice.
Search engines might be a bit less useful and are likely to turn up the same listings found on job boards.
Evaluating a Recruiter
Once you have found a pool of potential recruiters, you need to decide which ones to contact. Most job seekers want a recruiter that can provide quality opportunities, has deep market knowledge, can leverage industry relationships, and will navigate issues in the hiring process.
What criteria should we use in the evaluation?
Just like most disciplines, in recruiting there is no substitute for experience. It takes time to develop contacts and to learn how to uncover potential land mines. Extensive education, recruitment certifications, and training programs don’t get you a network or prepare you for handling unique situations.
Early in my career I know I made many of the mistakes that technologists complain about, and I didn’t have a solid network or steady clients for at least five years. At a certain point in your recruiting career you may not have seen it all, but it’s rare that you are surprised by an outcome.
Focus and Expertise
Experienced recruiters that have spent little time in the industry may be good for general job search advice or negotiation, but can’t provide full value. Look for a consistent track record of years in your field and geography of your search. Talking to a few generalists will make the specialists stand out.
Since recruiters aren’t paid by you and differ from a placement agency, it’s important that the firm has client relationships. Most firms do not advertise their client names which can make it difficult to discover the strength of an agency’s opportunities. The descriptions themselves could be enough to convince you that the agency has attractive clients. Agencies with solid relationships may reach out to past clients and contacts when they don’t have a position that is a clear fit for your background.
Being that an agency recruiter is going to be representing you to companies and even advocating and negotiating on your behalf, it’s important that you get along. You don’t need to be best friends, but someone who dislikes you is unlikely to fight for your best interests.
A ten minute call should give the insight you need to make the decision. Ask questions about their experience and pay attention to the types of questions they ask you. If they don’t dig into your goals and objectives, they probably aren’t concerned with finding a good fit for you.
In early April I received a message from Ben, delivered to my Reddit account.
I’ve been reading /r/resumes for, well, the whole time I’ve been actively looking for another job. I’ve noticed your comments on other posts and respect your opinion. Even though I’m not a “programmer” per se, I do enjoy reading your site and appreciate the time you take to help folks like me who are trying to make the best impression possible.
Ben wanted some advice on his résumé and career prospects in technology, and he wrote a quick bio. He earned a degree in religion and worked in that field for seven years before deciding that his passion was for technology. During his tenure in the church he dabbled in web development and learned to solve basic networking and hardware issues to reduce the church’s technology expenses. He resigned his church position to pursue entry-level roles, and ended up spending a year in retail before eventually being hired as a Junior Computer Technician.
Ben, on paper
After learning about Ben’s work history, I reviewed his résumé. The two sentence profile atop his résumé mentioned troubleshooting, managing hardware and software, vendor selection and training. There was no mention of programming experience.
Below the profile was a listing for certifications. None of his certs were truly relevant to programming.
His experience section was next. The first role listed was Systems Administrator, which had descriptions of his accomplishments in that role.
I was now halfway down the page and I have seen nothing about what he saw as his most valuable professional accomplishment. And then there it was – Web Developer. He had duties in both sys admin and development, and chose to list the sys admin experience first.
His technical skills section led with several operating systems, servers, and virtualization tools. Below that, a mere two lines from the bottom of the résumé (just above his degree), he listed programming languages.
“…not a programmer, per se…”?
After I finished reading the résumé, I thought back to his comment from the original Reddit comment. “Even though I’m not a ‘programmer’ per se…” At this point it was hard to tell if Ben would be more marketable (or happier) as a sys admin or a developer, so more information was required.
Ben then sent me a random email to tell me about his blog, which he had recently converted from WordPress to Octopress and had subsequently picked up some Ruby along the way. I checked it out and saw he had a couple small GitHub repos. This was all news to me. I asked if he had any other programming experience he was hiding.
It turns out he had done some freelance front-end web development work for a bit. He added that he had also contributed to the development of a template that was adopted by WordPress as a stock theme.
Ben might not have considered himself a programmer, but I expected others would disagree.
I sent Ben an email suggesting he focus 100% of job search efforts on finding a development role, and that his experience should qualify him for intermediate level slots. Ben responded that he had been reluctant to seek programming positions because he’d been doing that work for the least amount of time, but acknowledged that he’d probably be happier (and better compensated) as a developer. We worked together over the course of a couple days to rewrite his résumé, which emphasized his coding accomplishments.
Within five days of our first contact, Ben had a couple interviews lined up for web development positions. Fifteen days later Ben accepted a new job offer as a developer, which came with a 60% increase from his prior salary.
Ben now describes himself as a “Full-stack web developer” on his blog.
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.