Category: Job search tips
Undersell and Overdeliver
This week I received a multi-paragraph email from a job applicant who was applying for a developer position I had advertised with one of my clients. There was no resume attached or even referenced, which is highly unusual (sometimes there is nothing attached but a reference to an attachment). Maybe he forgot.
The email was almost exactly what I might have coached an experienced candidate to write in applying for this position. He demonstrated quickly that he had read the requirement and done at least a minimal amount of research on the company. His professional interests seemed to align nicely with the job responsibilities, he mentioned experience with the languages and frameworks we sought, and even linked to a couple project sites and GitHub repos so we could look at his code. The words he used were encouraging – “significant experience with…“, “I thrive in a…“, “worked extensively with…” – while indicating that he met the requirements of an ideal candidate. As you can imagine, I was quite interested.
I replied to express my interest and asked if he had a resume, which I use as a framework for an initial screening conversation and eventually is sent to the client if we agree to move forward.
The response noted that he’d forgotten to attach the resume, and he took the opportunity to reinforce his candidacy with a reference to a number of recent “larger projects” and further encouragement for me to view his code. When I finally opened the resume, I learned this candidate had no professional experience at all, and the projects referenced were all part of a recently completed 12-week boot camp.
It’s important to note here that the position I had listed was for an experienced programmer, and my hiring client would not consider anyone entry-level regardless of academic credentials. My client would not deem this candidate qualified for this particular role, but let’s pretend for the sake of this article that I did have an entry-level position available.
A Credibility Problem or Honest Misunderstanding?
When I learned that this candidate had never worked in a professional environment and had only been programming for a few months, his description of his experience now became a bit confusing. Larger projects? Significant and extensive experience? Thriving in and accustomed to certain environments?
Most professionals that have been in the industry would not consider a few months to be significant or extensive experience, and large projects in the industry aren’t typically completed in a few weeks. How would someone know what type of environment they thrive in if they’ve never been in a professional environment?
This disconnect could be the result of a couple possibilities.
If we’re giving the full benefit of the doubt, a boot camp graduate might consider these projects large just based on having no real project history to use as a baseline, and words like significantand extensive can be relative. A few weeks of experience could be classified as extensive when compared to someone that has never programmed.
At worst, the candidate is trying to represent a level of ability that he is rather unlikely to possess. Even the most intensive programs, whether they be boot camps or degreed, aren’t promising their graduates the ability to claim significant experience with large projects upon completion… are they?
Now this candidate would potentially be perceived as having a credibility issue, and, unfortunately, that label would stick even while under consideration for an entry-level job that he is likely qualified to do. What’s even worse is that an entry-level candidate has very little leverage in the hiring process without the credibility issue. So now we have what might be considered a somewhat homogenous entry-level candidate that starts off on the wrong foot.
Could he recover? Of course, it’s possible, but it shouldn’t be necessary. A more transparent approach which details the strengths and weaknesses is always a better option.
How NOT to Appear Desperate in a Job Search
Whether you are happy employed, “between jobs,” or suffering from habitual unemployment, it’s helpful to be conscious of the image you are projecting during a job search. There is real potential damage to job seekers who appear desperate, with two rather simple explanations.
1 – Employers may be more likely to take advantage. Applicants that appear the most desperate for work may be offered a lower salary and fewer responsibilities than their experience warrants. This can have short and long-term impacts on a career.
2 – Desperate candidates may appear to be selling damaged goods. Even stellar qualifications can be tainted by desperate acts. Overly-aggressive tactics may give the employer the impression that something is wrong with you, and that makes your candidacy seem inherently flawed without even considering further information.
Consider salespeople. Better yet, consider recruiters!
What if a recruiter called you about a job and rambled on for an hour without taking a breath, saying the hiring company is the hottest around and are a much better employer than Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.? Then they emailed you when the call ended to reiterate the same information. You might feel this recruiter is pushing pretty hard, and it might make you a bit skeptical about the job. Suppose the job at this company isn’t a great fit for your background, yet the recruiter insists that you should interview anyway. Suspicious?
Try to picture this from the other side. Applicants should state their qualifications, but should also use some discretion to prevent the appearance of overselling.
What NOT to Do
- Overly-aggressive follow-up – Recently I received a phone call from a job seeker who wanted to discuss a position he had recently applied for through my website. I didn’t recognize the name, and when I looked in my inbox I found his application timestamped five minutes earlier. Immediate follow-up will almost always give the impression of desperation at worst and a lack of social skills at best.
The video above is from the comedy “Swingers” where the main character Mikey calls a woman he had met at a bar earlier in the evening and ends up leaving several awkward voicemails. Later in the movie Mikey and his friends debate the optimum wait time between meeting someone new and contacting them to ask them on a date.
- Pandering – While it’s often recommended to tweak or customize a resume to address specifics of a job requirement, there are limits to how customized a resume should be. As an example, listing the hiring company name and job title in a resume’s objective is a clear example of overdoing it. (Don’t write OBJECTIVE: Seeking job as ‘JOBTITLE’ working for ‘COMPANY’.) Cutting and pasting elements of the job description into your resume is also frowned upon. Cover letters can (and should) include the hiring company name. Putting it on the resume is a mistake.
- Underconfidence – Even highly skilled, qualified candidates can sometimes underestimate or understate their own skills and marketability. This is a common stereotype of technical candidates and there is a clear sector of the industry that is deeply uncomfortable talking about accomplishments.
- Open to any job – Applicants who apply for positions that are either not a match for their skills or well below their career level will be looked upon as potentially flawed. Unemployed job seekers are often too quick to abandon their quest for the ideal role, and many voice their willingness to accept virtually any job offered.
- Pleading for response/action – A polite request for a response to a job application or for an interview will be appreciated, but anything resembling begging will bring the applicant’s qualifications into question. Competitive candidates under the current favorable market conditions (it’s a seller’s market) don’t need to ask for a response.
Even if confidence doesn’t come naturally to you, you need to recognize during job searches where genuine interest by a qualified candidate may be mistaken for desperation, and to balance a general interest in finding work with maintaining your dignity. There are clearly times when a job seeker is at a competitive disadvantage, but displaying confidence in your marketable skills (and honesty about weaknesses) is helpful to both get better results from applications and improve your position in any negotiations.
Job Searching On Mobile? You’ve Been Warned
A recent article on DZone “Report Finds Job Seeking Going Mobile” reported on a recent survey that showed a moderate number of job seekers were using mobile devices to research and even apply for new positions. Although there is a place for mobile in the job search process, I would advise anyone who relies extensively on mobile for job search to use caution. The obvious shortcomings of mobile technology and the “apply now” mentality of the mobile apps combine to do potential harm to job seekers.
As I’ve written before, I receive many more generic applications today than I did years ago. Sometimes I see a resume with no context, or more often a resume accompanied by a small amount of canned content. I expect this generic approach may be explained by both the popularity of mobile job search apps as well as the way all job search technology seems designed for “shotgunning” resumes out and not for crafting customized applications (quantity over quality).
Let’s look at the pros and cons of mobile job search and use a scenario to illustrate some alternatives.
The benefits of mobile for job search are convenience and ease of real-time notification. Those who respond early to job ads are thought to have some advantage, as a company might close off new applicants once a certain number of potential candidates have been identified. The ability to receive/respond in real-time to new open job notifications is a clear asset to any job seeker.
With added convenience and availability comes risk. Job seekers vying to be an early applicant often sacrifice the ability to customize both their resume and approach. The difficulty of writing content and performing research/reading on mobile is perhaps the biggest relative limitation, and the temptation to be first will lead some to act quickly instead of taking the time to make the best impression.
Your mobile job search app sends a push notification at 3:00 PM.
ALERT: $COMPANY is hiring $POSITION – $CITY – Job posted three minutes ago
You know that this is a popular employer and the competition for this job will be fierce, so you open the app, answer a couple questions (salary, work authorization, etc.) and click ‘apply now’. The resume/profile the app has on file is sent to “jobs@company” or some other general repository for applicants. You get a notification at 3:02 PM.
ALERT: Congratulations! You are now ‘in consideration’ for $COMPANY’s $POSITION vacancy
Clicking ‘apply now’ should be easy on any device, but probably makes for a lazy application. How many job seekers are going to spend time tweaking a resume and writing a well-researched cover letter/email on a mobile device?
Your competition for the job also received the 3:00 PM alert, but that person chose not to click ‘apply now’ but instead to wait and do a bit of research first. Maybe this person found three LinkedIn connections who work for $COMPANY including a hiring manager and an internal recruiter. Perhaps they noticed that their resume didn’t include some recent experience with $SKILL (mentioned in the fine print of the job spec), so they added a bullet point before sending the resume and a few targeted sentences on their candidacy to their connection.
Now that you know what your competition did, would you like a do-over?
Our fascination with one-click technologies will help to save time for users, but that also comes with a cost. Job search apps are primarily designed so companies can receive a high volume of applicants, and that high volume is directly related to the ease of “apply now” features.
Is it most important to be the first guest at the party, or would it be better to arrive a few minutes later as the best dressed?
Exploding Job Offers and Multiple Offer Synchronization
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.
“…but I’m negotiable”
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.
How to Level Up
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.
How To Succeed in Software Without a CS Degree
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.
For more tips on job search for software professionals, see Job Tips For Geeks archives or my book.