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.
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 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.
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.
Many new entrants to today’s technology job market are obsessed with the handful of high-profile companies that set the trends in the industry, and the next generation of software engineers seem to think that the only companies worth working for are Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and Amazon. Software development has become both a celebrity culture (where companies and their CEOs are the stars) and an oligarchy in the eyes of recent graduates and teens, who set their sights on employment with this small number of firms. Young developers in foreign countries appear to be particularly susceptible to this hyperfocus on a tiny segment of the hiring market. If you don’t know how widespread this is, I’d suggest a visit to Reddit’s CS Career Questions section to see what people are asking.
When Yahoo changed their remote work policy the web exploded in debate around the value of remote employees, and the more recent news around Google dismissing GPAs, test scores and answers to Fermi questions made many tech companies reconsider their hiring procedures. Not a day passes where a piece on one of these companies doesn’t hit the front page of most major news sites. A cottage industry has erupted with authors and speakers providing guides for aspiring engineers to create résumés, land interviews and answer technical questions to get jobs specifically at these companies. The focus seems to be less about becoming skilled and more about being attractive to a specific subset of employers.
These companies are glamorized amongst budding engineers much like Ivy League and top-tier schools are with high school students, and the reason you probably won’t work for Google is the same reason you probably didn’t go to MIT. Because they are highly selective, and they simply can’t hire everyone.
Of course some of you can and perhaps will work for Google and the other companies listed here, just as some of you may have attended top universities. But the majority of
you us won’t – and that’s OK. Follow your dreams, but be realistic about the outcome.
So here comes the good news! Beyond Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Amazon, there are hundreds of awesome places to work that are highly regarded by engineers the world over, and most people outside the industry (and many inside) haven’t heard of most of them. Experience with these shops, much like the above list, will get you noticed. Companies like Netflix, LinkedIn, Salesforce, eBay and GitHub are well-known but not typically mentioned in the same breath as the top celebrity firms, though they certainly could be. I’d venture that most college CS majors haven’t even heard of 37signals or Typesafe, where smaller teams are doing work that is regularly recognized by the engineering community.
And again the bad news. You probably won’t work for these companies either. For most of the world, these are still reach schools that employ relatively few. Although they may not be held by the general public in the same esteem as that list up top, they are incredibly selective, and most in the industry will view the difference between this group and the Googles as incredibly slim.
And now for some more good news. Beyond the lists of companies above are thousands of great places to work that I guarantee you have never heard of. These may consist of startups that fly under the radar or smaller specialized technology companies that serve a niche market. They could be the development groups for major banks or 25 year old mom and pop shops that have an established customer base and solid revenues. Game developers, ecommerce sites, consulting firms, robotics – the list goes on.
In almost every city, this group is the one that employs the overwhelming majority of engineers. This is where most of us will likely end up – a company that you will surely need to describe and explain to your parents and significant other.
In the city where I focus my business (Philadelphia) and run our Java Users’ Group, we have some Googlers and I’ve known engineers who have worked for Amazon, Yahoo, and Apple. And I know many many others who either turned down offers or likely could have joined those companies, but chose instead to work somewhere else. Just as some students may reject the offer from the top-rated school to stay closer to home or to accept a more attractive scholarship package, many of the world’s top engineers simply don’t work for Google or Facebook, or anywhere else in the Valley for that matter.
Philadelphia is by no means Silicon Valley, yet there is a fairly robust startup scene and a large number of software shops that are doing valuable work. Over the past 15 years I’ve worked with hundreds of Philly companies to hire engineering talent, and 99% of these places would be unknown to the typical developer. I almost always have to describe my clients to potential candidates, as most of these shops have not built a reputation yet, and these are firms ranging from 20 to perhaps 20,000 employees. And the vast majority of them are great environments for technologists where developers work alongside at least a few top engineers that could (and some that did) pass the entrance requirements for the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
All the great engineers in the world aren’t in the Valley, and they don’t all work for Google. This fact is obvious to most, but fewer than I’d expected and hoped. If that is the goal, go after it. The rest of us will be here if it doesn’t work out.
Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search DRM-free ebook is available for just $2.99 – more info here.
In August 2012 I published a blog post Why You Didn’t Get The Interview, which received a good bit of attention from readers and was republished a few times (most notably by Lifehacker). Of course one article could not list every possible explanation that an employer or recruiter might use to discard a résumé, so I decided to revisit the topic once again. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather an addendum to the previous post that may help explain a lack of response to your job search.
No submittal content – Online applications often consist of several fields and check boxes that don’t always give job seekers an opportunity to express interest or differentiate themselves. However, when you send a résumé via email or are provided some space within an online application to craft a custom message, you are foolish not to take advantage. Simply sending a résumé without any supporting information about your experience or interest in the job comes across as lazy or aloof, and can give the appearance that a job seeker is simply blasting résumés indiscriminately (perhaps even in an automated fashion). SOLUTION: Tell the employer at least one or two things that drew your attention to the job and company.
Multiple applications to the same employer for vastly different roles – Sometimes I will open my inbox and find an email from a job seeker about one job that could possibly be a fit, and then find another four or five emails from the same applicant for other jobs that are not remotely connected to the candidate’s experience. This applicant may have received some attention if he/she only sent the one semi-targeted application, but the additional blind stabs have too many negative implications. It typically signifies either a lack of self-awareness regarding qualifications, immaturity, or desperation. SOLUTION: Before submitting your résumé, check several of the company’s listings to make sure that you are applying for the one or two jobs that best fit your experience and goals. If you have a strong desire to work for a specific employer, sending a targeted application to one or two listings is much more effective than spamming your résumé to all of their vacant slots.
Many small red flags – My original article last year referenced 14 fairly obvious reasons that job seekers are not interviewed, but often it’s not that simple. Many times a résumé/application package will contain a handful of items that would not be a problem when considered individually, but when combined add up to a rejection. The recruiter or hiring manager will feel that too many special circumstances would have to occur that make the candidate’s hire unlikely. Perhaps a candidate has a slightly elevated salary expectation, requires relocation assistance, is minimally qualified, and lacks any easily identifiable positive indicators of talent or ability that stand out from others. An applicant with only one of those characteristics would likely be considered, but the aggregate picture makes it too much of a longshot. SOLUTION: There is no real fix to this. You could always try to explain what could be perceived as a red flag. For example, if you are relocating to a specific area, make it clear why you are looking in that specific market to avoid being viewed as someone open to jobs worldwide. Displaying some level of interest or passion for the employer could also help overcome objections and get you a shot.
Personal reputation and your employer’s reputation – It shouldn’t surprise anyone that if you apply to firms where people either know you or are connected to those that do, a decision to interview will typically be based on how these contacts feel and talk about you. However, your employer’s reputation may also come into play here as well. If a particular company has interviewed multiple former employees of your firm without much success, chances are they will not waste time interviewing another. As a recruiter, it is fairly common for companies to tell me “Unless they are outstanding I’m not overly interested in candidates from COMPANY, as we see many and have not had any luck.” Your company’s reputation is more likely to work in your favor if you are employed by a firm known for having talent, but it seems the trend to discriminate against employees of certain shops continues. I wrote about this a bit in a past post regarding discrimination by startups against workers from large enterprises. SOLUTION: Keep your personal reputation in mind when dealing with co-workers and particularly when leaving jobs. Minimize stints at employers that have a negative reputation in your market.
Inconsistency – This can be the result of discrepancies between a résumé and cover letter/application, between a résumé and LinkedIn profile, or just something fishy in the résumé itself. If you changed professions more often than Barbie (impressive list) or have travailed up the corporate ladder and come back down multiple times, your application will raise suspicions. Candidates that list titles progressing from CTO to CEO and then down to Junior Developer will be scrutinized. SOLUTION: There isn’t anything you can do to change the past, but explanations could go a long way if you left an industry to pursue a passion. Make sure all of your online profiles match your résumé details before sending applications. Try to use job titles that reflected your actual duties if you worked for a small firm and had an inflated title. Even if you were CEO or CTO of your dorm room software company, it may not be helpful to list the job that way.
“Meh“ – Your qualifications and history are virtually identical to the others in the stack of résumés received. You may have met what was listed on the job spec, but so did everybody else. This is of particular importance for jobs where it is expected that most applicants will have similar qualifications, such as entry-level positions for new graduates or jobs that list highly generic specifications. SOLUTION: There has to be something different about you that you can add to give some positive spin to your candidacy. Review the requirement again and try to find an area where your background exceeds the expectation, or a specific experience you have that others probably don’t.
My ebook Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search was recently released and is available for
$9.99 (reduced to $6.99 in December 2013) on iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, and Kobo. I can provide a PDF version for sale by request.
I am often approached by programmers that are thinking about leaving their job but want to discuss to see if they are making a wise move. These conversations are quite sensitive in nature and I do not take them lightly, as the decision is rarely easy to make and will have a lasting impact on the programmer’s career and livelihood.
The thought of potentially leaving a job is often accompanied by the fear of being labeled a job hopper. In my experience, far more programmers tend to overstay their welcome and later experience difficulty with limited career prospects than those that move jobs too often. As I’ve written before, some positive flow in career moves is expected and even desired by hiring companies.
Technologists often rely on the more common and obvious signs to leave their employer (company product failures, layoffs, or reductions in pay/benefits) as primary motivators for making an exit. One could argue that experience at a failing company can be infinitely more valuable than time spent at a highly successful shop. Waiting for those alarms to sound, which could be false alarms, is a mistake for your career.
When should you think about leaving your job?
You are clearly the ‘best’ programmer at the company and/or have no teacher or mentor available – Many people may get this wrong due to overconfidence, so you need to assess your skills honestly. Even if you acknowledge you are not the best, do you have access to others that you can learn from that are both able and willing to share their knowledge with you? Your company may have hired loads of great talent, but if these individuals are too busy to help or not interested in dialogue you are no better off than working alone.
The technologies employed are static and make your skills unmarketable – The extended use of dated, proprietary, or very specific technologies can kill your marketability. If the firm is still using very early releases of popular languages or frameworks this could be a good indicator. Multiple years in a stagnant tech environment is much worse than the same tenure in a shop that consistently improves their tools.
You have accomplished nothing – This is often not your fault. Perhaps your company is consistently delaying releases and never seems to deliver on time, where the problem could lie in the development process or management decisions and not on tech talent. If you look back on your stay with the company and can not point to any significant accomplishments (given a reasonable amount of time), consider the reasons why.
You are underpaid with no upside – There are at least a handful of justifications to accepting compensation below market rate. The ability to work with great people is probably the #1 reason, with learning a valuable skill a close (and related) second. If you took less money with the expectation of a future positive that just hasn’t panned out, it’s time to look at your options.
You are consistently passed over for interesting projects or promotion, and your ideas are not considered – If you are rarely given the plum assignments and not even a candidate for higher responsibility roles, the company simply doesn’t value your service. The firm feels you are doing enough to keep your job, but they do not see you as a true long-term asset. Keep track of how often you volunteer for a new venture and the company response.
You are no better off today than you were when you joined the company – The phrase ‘better off’ can take on a few meanings. Traditionally one might use better off to refer to improved financial standing (raises), but you should add more qualified as well. If your skills, marketability, and compensation have not improved after a reasonable amount of time, you need to question why you are still there.
You see little change in what you do – A consistent and small set of responsibilities for long durations tends to be a career killer. Working on one small part of a very large project/product is usually the culprit.
You have no inspiration – Many domains in software development might not be all that interesting to you personally. In those situations, the technical challenge at hand or the opportunity to do something truly innovative may trump the lack of industry interest. Building a website for an insurance company might not be a dream, but scaling for millions of users could make it fulfilling. If you are finding no value in the work you do and lack any inspiration, there is probably something out there that will get you excited.
Job Tips For GEEKS: The Job Search ebook is now available in most ebook formats. Find out more here.