What I learned from my job hunt

Dressed up for my interview
Dressed up for my interview

So as has become abundantly obvious, I just finished a successful job hunt. This represented the first time I’d actively looked for work in over 9 years. (I was poached for the position I had last. Ah, 2003!) I was intrigued by some of the things that were different now than I remember, I learned a few things, and I got some feedback. I figured that maybe what I learned would be a little helpful.

I should mention that my experience was highly influenced by my location and skill set. I live in Boston, which is a pretty darn good job market. I have a highly technical background with 10 years experience divided between pure programming and project management. For this market, that seemed to be a selectively in-demand skill set. I’m not sure if my advice applies if you’re coming out of finance or manufacturing, however. So your mileage may vary.

1) The jobs available are not online to be found. YOU have to be online to be found. I would say that 80% of the jobs for which I was well-qualified were NOT on any of the job boards. Right now, hiring departments are getting ground down under the weight of all the people who say they’re sending out hundreds of resumes and not getting any responses. In order to counter this, tons of companies who have jobs are not willing to post them on their website or on Monster.com. They simply don’t have the resources to wade through the flood of resumes, 95% of which will not be suitable, that they’ll get if they post anything.

So instead, they are calling recruiters. The recruiters aren’t posting any but the hardest to fill positions. They’re trolling Monster and Dice for resumes. The jobs they’re calling about, you cannot find by yourself. So if you are looking for a job, your first step is to make sure your resumes are on the job boards and are up to date. Change them regularly to look “active”. Be extremely polite to recruiters, and if they call for a job that doesn’t work, let them know what you ARE looking for and ask if they have anything else that might suit you.

Early on, there was a posted job I was extremely excited about. It sounded right up my alley. I applied through proper means. I did research and figured out the email address of the would-be-boss of that position. I used my network to find a back door to get my resume in. I got absolutely NO feedback from any of these three methods. I’m guessing they had either filled it or were just swamped. But the recruiters have consistently called with interesting positions that weren’t anywhere else, and they could only find me because my online information was relevant and up to date.

2) Think hard about your acronym set. I’m a programmer, and my resume is pretty much a laundry list of acronyms. How it works when they’re deciding to interview is that there’s a set of acronyms they need, a set of acronyms it would be cool to have, and the set of acronyms you offer. You almost always have to match the one or two they NEED, and then the rest are a bonus. Initially I was all over my main ones: Coldfusion, SQL, FLEX, Javascript, CSS, HTML, AJAX. I was taken by surprise about which one actually made a big difference in how my resume was approached: SAAS. That stands for Software as a Service. It’s not a technology. It’s not a methodology. It’s really how technology is delivered. But for recruiters, it was an important acronym to match up. For some hirers, they were excited that I had a background in that, since it apparently said something about my background and experience I hadn’t realized. So look around at what you do. There may be some descriptors you haven’t considered that are assets.

3) The interviews you bomb are your chance to get better. I like people. I like learning new things. Interviewing (you’re going to hate me now) was actually a lot of fun for me. Even if you don’t get the job. Even if you totally and completely blow the interview, it is a fantastic opportunity for you.

The first interview I went on, I blew a bunch of highly technical questions, and it turned out that I wasn’t a great fit for their open position. But I consider that interview a total win. Here’s what I did to make it a win.

  • Make friends with the interviewers. You may not match that position, but what about the next one? Or maybe the next company they’re at? Or if you’re ever in a position to hire? Interviews are really a fabulous opportunity to grow your professional network, and shouldn’t be passed up. Plus, it’s a joy to meet new people and get to know other people who do similar things. Look at it that way, instead of being adversarial.
  • Never make the same mistake twice. In that interview, they asked me what I knew about the HTTP protocol’s various methods and to discuss the HXTML specifications and how they were different. I had No. Clue. I got as far as “get” and “post” for HTTP (after having to think for a minute to remember what it stood for!). Then I was asked about security (like SQL Injection attacks), and it became obvious I wasn’t as well versed in that as I could have been. I clearly failed that portion with a big ol’ “F”.

    Now I could’ve argued that those questions were completely irrelevant to what I was going to be asked to do, and that 15 minutes with Google would clear it all up. That would’ve been true. I could’ve been angry to be asked such off topic questions. But what I DID do was decide that while I’d gotten tripped up on those once, I wouldn’t be tripped up twice. I went home and read a book on HTTP. I went online and read about XHTML. And my husband also had a book on Deadly Security Sins in Programming, which I read appropriate section of.

    (If you’re curious:
    -HTTP has eight methods: get, post, put, head, delete, trace, options and connect.
    -XHTML has additional constraints over HTML including: Case sensitivity, requirement for closing all tags, quotes are ALWAYS required around attributes, boolean values must be made explicit, and you cannot have implicitly created tags like head or body.
    -Security is a bear. Obviously you have to be careful not to permit unescaped values into your database which can be executed, but my conclusion is “gosh, it’s hard”. I’d never considered how to make sure that the data doesn’t execute when you read it back OUT of the database!)

    That company actually ended up not hiring me for that position, but tried to make a different one just for me that would play more to my strengths. That didn’t work out, but now I have friends there. It’s a small world. It never hurts to have friends.

    4) Print your resume on nice paper and bring 3 copies. Chances are excellent your interviewer will have a crappily formatted, web-printed copy of your resume done on bad printer paper, which will look like all 500 other resumes currently piling on top of their desk. Printing a copy of your resume ahead of time shows you’re prepared. There’s a tactile sensation that’s a pleasure with better quality paper. I recommend an ivory paper so there’s not mistaking you went out of your way to make an impression. (Also, don’t worry too much about length. My resume took 3 pages because I have 3 pages of experience to talk about. That didn’t seem like a problem. If I’d tried to get it to 2, I don’t think it would’ve been as strong. After about 5 pages, though, consider eliminating some of your less relevant experience and having different resumes for different skill sets.)

    5) Get to know the person at the front desk, if you can. Best case scenario, they’ll give you information about what’s happening, help you avoid stupid mistakes, and cheer for you. Some particularly smart interviewers ask receptionists afterwards what THEY thought. Worst case, you didn’t spike yourself. The receptionist at the second place I interviewed helped me with some minor issues, and offered moral support by cheering for me and saying he hopes he’ll see me soon. Now, when I show up for my first day of work, I’ll at least start out with a friendly face!

    6) Send. A. Thank. You. Note. Yes, it’s the 21st century. Yes, people have email, Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and text messages. Do it anyway. Step 1, before you even interview, should be to go to a NICE stationery store and buy NICE thank you notes and make sure you have stamps that are not Simpson themed. When you get home from the interview, sit down immediately and write a thank you note to every person whose business card you got during the process. Talk about how grateful you were for their time. Explain how excited you are (if you were) about the position. Close by saying how you hope to be working with them soon. Mention something the two of you talked about.

    It seems super obvious, but especially in technology that sort of formality and politeness can really set you apart. Everyone mentioned that they were very grateful for the notes. I think it showed that I’m the kind of person who knows what the proper protocol is and can execute it quickly and graciously. How I treat my interviewers is a sign about how I’ll treat my clients if I work for them.

    7) Do your research!!! I’m not being innovative on this one. Pretty much every job hunting advice column says this. But it makes a huge difference. I’m pretty sure that the tipping point for the job I got was that I’d not only done research, I’d practically google-stalked them. I had read their employee handbook, was up on their financials and latest products, could talk about their corporate history, had a question about a previous big technology decision, knew my interviewer’s last two huge projects, knew what she looked like, and had done a sample application in the new language they would be asking me to program in. This was particularly great, since I didn’t have a lot of time to review the offer. By the time it came, I felt like I was already part of the team, I knew so much about them.

    The very first question my second interviewer asked was “Why THISCOMPANY?” and I was able to give an essay for an answer. I suspect that was all she was really looking for.

    So that’s what I did. I’m not sure how big a difference the finer points made, but it gave me confidence to know that I was doing the very best I knew how. Good luck to you, in your job hunt!

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    Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.

    3 thoughts on “What I learned from my job hunt”

    1. i’m quite impressed with myself that i understood the xhtml constraints. i won’t remember them, but they made sense to me–and all because i’m a librarian! it’s very interesting how different job searching is in your professional world than mine.


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