Lessons from the Job Hunt (part 2 of 2)

In the first part, I wrote about resumes and the seeming randomness of the job search. In reviewing it, Raúl summarized that random element well: “sometimes it’s because the hiring process is obscure and sometimes it’s because there is just a lot of random gateways in the process, like what impression the interviewer got of you as a person, if it was a good week for the office, if they were looking for a person of your expertise at that time, etc.”

This part is about organization, interviewing, and choosing a job. I’m leaving out significant portions here as well, from negotiations and benefits to issues for international students.

Keeping thyself organized

I’m in a hotel in South Carolina, in my socks at one of the computers in the “Business Center.” I have an interview the next day, I have one recruiter asking for references and another asking me to re-send my resume, but I’m miles away from my computer and all my stuff at home.

Luckily, I kept all my job search materials on a private online website.

When I started, I anticipated using a website to make it easier to switch between my own computers, but as I found myself more and more on the road, it was the ability to work at any computer which saved me and kept me on top of things. That night in South Carolina, I printed off a few copies of my page of questions and reviewed my file on the company, reminding myself of the things I had read or talked to them about which really interested me and the people I had talked to there. I copy-pasted my references’ contact info and e-mailed them to the first recruiter, then e-mailed each of my references telling them to expect a call and briefing them on some of the companies which would be calling. I downloaded the latest version of my resume and attached it to an e-mail for the last recruiter, along with some of the times I would be available in the next week to talk. The website helped me when I wanted to print out some copies of cover letters to get feedback, and to keep track of job boards and with companies I had sent something to. And of course, it helped me keep track of my progress: on the sidebar was a counter for days since graduation, resumes sent out, interviews, and offers.

[Comic] INTERVIEWER: As you can see, we have quite a file on you. APPLICANT: Um. Ditto.

Honestly, it is about fit

When you’re in a phone interview answering questions about what inheritance is or how you would write a function to reverse a string, the confusion between job hunt and final exam is more understandable. It feels very adversarial: you want to go on to the next step of the process, and they want to stop you if they can. But thinking of it as a win-lose situation distorts the situation. In truth, it’s collaborative, and you are both looking for a win – they want to hire you if you’re a good candidate, and you want to work for them if they’re a good place to be.

There is no standard way of knowing whether you’re a good candidate – each company has their own requirements. There’s no standard way of knowing what is a good place to be – each person has their own ideal company and priorities. But seeing it this way does two things. First, you don’t feel so bad when you don’t make it past a screen – it’s not a good fit. Second, you start paying attention to things you like and red flags from the company earlier. Let me illustrate:

I got a call back from Company A a week after I sent them my resume. The interview included standard background chatting and then three programming questions. I did fine on two of them, but I struggled with the third, which depended on a part of computer architecture which I had forgotten. I looked it up after the interview and sure enough, I had it dead wrong. I later talked with my classmate, who had referred me to the company after working there for several years, and he told me that was a deal breaker – nobody who got one of the screening questions wrong got to the next stage of their process. Sure enough, the next week I got an e-mail telling me “thanks, but no thanks.” I wasn’t upset that I had “failed” the interview, though. If they had zero tolerance for any mistakes, I wasn’t interested. I had expressed my uncertainty but given it my best shot rather than giving up, which was the right thing to do. I filed the question away in memory and never got it wrong again. (As a postscript to this story, I have been assured by others that this all-or-nothing approach to questions is rare – don’t get worked up about getting the absolute right answer every time. Do your best, explain your thoughts and express your uncertainty if it’s strong)

For technical interviews, my best review was the handouts from “How to Hack a Google Interview” which are a good refresher on the computer science you already know handily presented in the context of technical interview questions. After finding it, I did not go into a technical interview without first reviewing it. Also helpful: for integers, radix (or bucket) sort is linear time.

For other interviews, I was honest and open. I tried to keep my selling points in mind and come back to them if they were relevant. I didn’t study any puzzle questions beforehand, and I don’t know that it helped the friends I had who did study them. I had an indispensable list of questions which I could ask anyone. Developing your own list of questions is a valuable exercise in understanding your priorities, so I am only including five of my questions here:

  • What does your typical day look like?
  • What are the biggest challenges you face? the biggest opportunities?
  • What critical things for this job don’t people learn in school?
  • What makes people successful in this position? In this company?
  • (and, for when I’m feeling ballsy) Is there anything about me that would make you hesitate to hire me?

Sidebar: A list of types of assessments I encountered during my hunt

  • Background phone interview
  • Coding/knowledge phone interview
  • Take-home coding exercise
  • Take-home case study
  • Submission of a code sample
  • Timed 90-minute exam
  • Online personality assessment test
  • Coding interview
  • Algorithms interview
  • Product design interview
  • Interview-with-Manager
  • Code review interview
  • Lunch/dinner social meeting

A note on networking

People tell me that networking is the essential element of job hunting. I had classmates admit that at their former companies, they had a policy of only hiring people referred to them by people they trusted. I didn’t have enough experience with it to draw any significant conclusions.

As a recent graduate, I did not have a strong professional network of my own. None of the alumni I contacted through my schools’ alumni networks responded to me. I had no friends or classmates who were working where I wanted to go, and I had no friends-of-the-family with connections in the companies I wanted to work for. I did have some friends online who went far above and beyond, spending hours on the phone helping me practice interviewing and giving me fantastic advice. I am sure that their help or recommendations were critical in getting some of my interviews.

This whole job search thing is a challenge and an enigma for many of us. There are lots of people who are willing to help if you just ask.

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

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