Lessons from the Job Hunt (part 1 of 2)

MYTH: If you’re smart, you can get a job anywhere.

This is how I envisioned the hiring process. As a student soon to graduate from college, the job hunt was like the ultimate final. The majority-of-my-grade, comprehensive test of what I’d learned in school. If I did well, I got a good job. If I didn’t, I could always rent a room in my parent’s basement and be someone’s code monkey.

I finished my first job search a few months ago, and I learned that this vision of job hunt as exam was completely wrong.

This is what I learned instead: In the beginning, it’s a numbers game. Then it’s about finding a fit together. Know your selling points and reinforce them. Keep organized, and keep at it. This is an opportunity to learn.

I spent several months focused on little but the job search, so forgive me if the post is long; I’m breaking it into two parts. The first is about mindset and about preparation. The second is about talking to people, going on the road, and interviewing. I’m leaving out big portions here despite its length; I’ve barely mentioned cover letters or finding possible companies.

In the Beginning, A Game Of Numbers

I applied to 30 companies in two months. I had 16 total interviews with 8 of them. I had 3 on-sites, and 4 offers. I accepted 1.

The job search is a big filter. You start by sending out lots of resumes, feeding lots into the top, and each step through the process filters some out. They get filtered out – even if you’re basically awesome. This is just how it goes.

There’s some essential degree of randomness here. I sometimes like to think of the job search as a big Plinko board. You put the resume in at the top, it plinks around and maybe lands in the winning category: get a response! There are things you can do to communicate more clearly, but sometimes the chip falls the wrong way and it’s beyond your control.

Know Thyself

Before I could apply, I needed a resume. And because I wanted a single page resume so awesome it would blow down any doors in my way, before I could have a resume, I needed to be overwhelmed with anxiety. This is the point where my Dad sat me down and said, “Son, what makes you different? Why would someone want to hire you?”

Three or four key selling points acted as the underlying message behind my interactions with employers. I made sure I had points on my resume I could refer to when talking about them. I had reusable portions for my cover letter depending on which combinations of these selling points a particular employer seemed interested in. They were the structure behind my pitch as I handed my resume to recruiters at career fairs, and as I introduced myself to interviewers on the phone. These points gave me a starting point when I thought about how I was approaching an employer, and they helped keep me coherent (except in one interview, where I literally answered a question like this: “I think something that, uh, you know, makes me…um, different from others is that, uh….I have a background in writing and so I’m…oh, what’s the word? I’m more…uh, you know, articulate.”)

The resume is way more than these points, but it’s a great first place to start reinforcing them. For most people you meet in the job search, your resume is your introduction. It’s like an ice breaker where the prompt is, “Tell us your name, where you went to school, and a page1 of interesting things about you.”
This is really useful, but it can be tricky. What’s interesting, and how do you make it more so?

INTERVIEWER: it says on your resume that you're the "James Bond of programming" APPLICANT: Yes. I get the job done when others can't. I use the latest - the greatest - technology to do it. And I leave behind a multi-million dollar mess everywhere I go.

I got a lot of advice about resumes, but one of the bits that stuck with me the most was from a friend who’s been doing interviews at Google for several years: “I go into every interview wanting to hire the candidate; help me by giving me the chance to ask questions you can answer WELL.”

I also liked this guide on “How to Write a Killer Resume (for Software Engineers),” written by Niniane Wang

  • Include technical details of your work: programming language, your individual contribution, metrics.
  • Don’t dilute the impressive details with unimpressive ones.
  • Showcase your work using facts, not adjectives.
  • Include all relevant impressive details (awards, pet projects)
  • Don’t lie.

Microsoft’s Jobs blog has a post similar to Niniane’s point on using facts, about describing what you’ve “Made, Saved, and Achieved (MSA)”

Looking back, I probably spent way too much time obsessing over my resume. It’s still not perfect, and I doubt it will ever be. I spent a long time considering each section: I threw out the “Objectives” because I wanted to describe it better and tailor it more in each cover letter. I ended up describing my school curriculums because not everyone knows what you learn in a “Software Engineering” program (as an Apple rep. once asked, “So…uh, why didn’t you get a Masters in Computer Science?”). Instead of just listing languages and skills, I took the advice of another friend and described my level of competency and interest. Just listing languages is very vague. Does having JavaScript on your resume mean that you’ve written an application in it, or that you’ve popped up alert boxes? If you put COBOL on your resume because you did some hacking in it for a class, do you want people to hire you for that?

Thanks to Varokas Panusuwan and Raúl Alejandro Véjar Llugany for reviewing the post and for their feedback.

  1. I had two versions of my resume. One was two pages, with more details and which was fine to e-mail because most people scrolled through it anyway, and the other was one page, carefully condensed, for handing out, because that better suits the situation of giving them something quick and glance-able to introduce yourself 

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