A blog that needs work

Getting a Job the Hard Way

The hard way? Yes, you're reading that right. Why not the easy way? When it comes to the job search, there is no easy way: There is only the hard way, and the very hard way. I'm just trying to set your expectations correctly, if you dare read on (which, I assume you will).

I deliberately didn't go into too much depth in my previous post because really, I'm just trying to raise awareness that there are some things you don't know, and you don't know know because you have no way of knowing. Also, you don't really learn how to be good at something by learning what not to do.

One thing before I get started: I'm a software developer. I'm not an HR professional, or a recruiting professional, or a lawyer. My experiences with the job search are ultimately going to be filtered by my background. I do try to keep up on this sort of stuff, have done quite a bit of job searching myself, and have been on both sides of the hiring table. Alright, finally, let's get this going.


Background: Who are you?

Alright, the most important part of the job search is doing your homework. By homework, I mean that there are a few things you need to figure out about yourself before you even get going. You need to figure out...

  • What skills do you really enjoy using? Write those down.
  • Where do you want to work? What work environment works well for you? Write those down too.
  • How are you going to get where you want to go? Where are you going to find companies, and people that work at those companies?

There's a bit more to it than that, but it's a good start. Still, it's surprisingly effective. Don't believe me? 86% of job seekers find success with this method alone. I'm not making this up; I'm reading it out of "What Colour Is Your Parachute?" right now. Heck, my copy of the book is almost four years old now, but it's updated every year and has been for the past... 40 years, so I would hope that there's some truth to that. Worth noting, I'm paraphrasing this part from the very same book. I'm a pretty bad example though, as I never tried that method seriously (so, consider me a lucky example who found work through one of many other methods).

There's certainly more to your story, but what's important, as part of your review, is that you think about your goals. I'll try to cover some resources for this later.

Personal Branding: Show me what you've got

Right, more homework. Assuming you put some thought into what you like doing, another important step is setting up your personal brand. What? I said this was the hard way. Follow along.

Put succinctly, your personal brand is... you. Put less succinctly, your personal brand is how you present yourself, your persona, to the world. It's the collection of artifacts that showcase you, your work, your talents, your interests to the world. In my case, that includes...

...and a bunch of other things. In your case, it might include some sort of online portfolio, a personal website, a flickr account (if you're a photographer), a forrst account (not sure what it is, but I'm told designers use it), or any other number of things; it really depends what your background is.

You'll also notice that I use the same alias on all sites (present site excluded, but there's a story behind that). That's another part of my personal branding.

At a minimum, you should definitely have at least these three things for your personal brand:

  • A personal website.
    • You don't need a lot of skill to do this. A lot of services exist like About.me that make it really easy to get a quick personal page up and running. If you're, say, a designer or a web developer or have the time, you probably want something a bit more involved, maybe with a blog (that you keep regularly updated. I am guilty of not doing this), and some way to showcase your work. If you're having trouble, Lifehacker posted the five best personal landing pages, and also this article on making and hosting a personal langing page
    • Ideally, you would buy a domain name too. Yes, it's a bit of a cost, but domain names are relatively inexpensive, and it looks way more professional to visit, say nt3r.com than to visit *.blogspot.com. It wouldn't hurt to buy a domain name for your personal name, assuming you aren't planning on using it for your site already (and assuming it hasn't already been taken). Bonus: you can probably use your new domain as a new email address, even if its just a forwarding address.
  • A portfolio of some sort.
    • If you have a website, this is an ideal spot to put up some of your portfolio. Still, it's nice to have a physical duotang or folder that you can bring to an interview or meeting to show folks what you've done. Again, how you create your portfolio is highly dependent on your profession.
  • A LinkedIn account
    • Think of this as your online resume. It also has the benefit that you can get recommendations from past employers, and join groups that can keep you up to date on industry goings-on (and connect with people from other businesses).

You may have noticed that I didn't mention my resume in the above. That's partly because I'm an idiot (self-deprecating humour, classic), but mostly because I don't want to emphasize it as the most important part of your personal brand. I'll talk a bit more about your resume in a minute.

Resume: The key marketing document

See, told you I'd get to it! Your resume is, unfairly, your key marketing document. If you have an amazing portfolio, or great examples that show off how awesome you are, they should matter way more than your resume. Heck, if you have a glowing recommendation from your past employer and can can show it off, that should matter way more than your resume. However, the resume is king, for now. It sums up your experiences, and it's the piece that you'll pass around to people. I'll bring up the resume again a bit later on; it'll all make sense.

That being said, it's still important that you present yourself well, and as I said, your resume is your key marketing document. If a potential employer knew nothing else about you, your resume would have to do. Your resume should accomplish the following goals:

  • Provide enough information to get in touch with you
  • Get the person interested in you, as a person and potential employee
  • Provide concrete examples of the value you provide

Since this isn't about resume writing (and since I am definitely not an expert on the matter), I'm going to provide some quick tips. Don't worry, I'll try to present some resources at the end of this post that can point you in the right direction for more advice.

For now, here are a few tips:

  • It's 2012. Resumes are digital. Link to your work, please
  • I am not a robot, make your resume compelling and interesting
  • In a sea of generic resumes, the creative resume is king. Your resume can take different forms depending on the field (see Ilya's resume later on). Needless to say, programmers and designers, you have a huge untapped advantage here

Cover Letter: Really?

Yes really. You have probably avoided writing a cover letter in the past. This is probably because you didn't want to write some template, form-letter garbage. In this case, you were probably better off not writing a cover letter. Congratulate yourself, then begin the flogging.

If the resume is your 'you' summary, then a cover letter is an introduction to 'you'. Put another way, if your application is a report, then your resume is the introduction, and your cover letter is the executive summary. Put yet another way, if your resume is a movie trailer, then your cover letter is a movie poster. To put it lightly, I'm bad at metaphors, but you get the idea.

Since your cover letter is an introduction to 'you', it has many of the same goals as a resume or an introduction, just in a shorter space. Assuming you were printing your cover letter (hard-copies? so 1990's...), it shouldn't be any longer than a page. Generally, you want to convey the following information in your cover letter (usually in the order I've presented them).

  • How you managed to get in touch with the person or found the position
  • Talk a bit about the company and how you could be valuable to the company, maybe by an example of something awesome you've done that is relevant: try not to re-iterate too much from your resume
  • Talk about what the best way to get in touch with you is, and when (and how) you'll follow up with them. This last part is important because its a little reminder you've just written yourself that you need to follow up with them, and it lets them know when you're going to try to reach them, provided that they actually read your cover letter.

That's pretty much all your cover letter is: an introduction. Try to write it naturally (professionally, of course), and don't grovel too much, if you were planning on it; it generally doesn't reflect well. Exact format varies from industry to industry, but 'standing out' somehow is generally a good idea. Some of the more awesome ideas I've heard included:

  • Taking out Google AdWords on an employee's name, so that when the employee googled themself, they got a personal message from the job candidate (I believe this was for a marketing position)
  • Unusual business cards (USB keys, QR codes)
  • Tweeting the employer with an awesome interactive demo
  • More of a resume example, but this awesome ruby class written by Ilya Grigorik of PostRank (now part of Google)

I've managed to write several cover letter 'snippets' that I tailor depending on whom I am applying. What your cover letter looks like depends highly on who you're contacting and the industry. Some people may just think you're being showy, and you'd rather they think you are awesome.

This is, of course prep work. With any luck, you won't need a cover letter, because you're doing your job search the hard way: you'll do something better. One more bit of preparation before we dig into the job search.

Elevator Pitch: Going Up

Your 'elevator pitch' is a short piece describing who you are and what you want if, say, you ran into a potential employer in an elevator. You have precious few seconds to get them interested as the elevator rapidly makes its way to their floor. That's an elevator pitch.

Ideally, this is consistent with all the parts that I mentioned prior: what you want, your personal branding, what you say on your resume, and the story that your cover letter tells.

It's hard to come up with this as a sort of formula. It should just sort of flow from the other bits that you have. In my case, if I were put on the spot, I'd probably say something like what I have on my website.

Who am I? I'm Nick. I graduated from UW a few years ago and I've been working as a code archaologist: exploring different companies and trying to better understand their customers, their problems, and, of course, their code. I've worked on different projects, from helping people find local food, to making it easier for educators to measure their effectiveness and improve teaching techniques. I really enjoy writing quality software in dynamic languages, especially javascript, and doing front-end development.

Admitedly, it's not great, but, that's what practice is for, and I am most definitely out of practice. You can always practice with a friend to get a good feel for what works, and to make sure that they 'get it'. Just be natural.

Alright, I had thought I had it in me, but this article is getting to be a lot larger than I had anticipated. If there's one thing I can drill in, it's that preparation is the most important part of the job search. If you prepared half-assed, it'll show. Or, more importantly, you'll be lost in a sea of other mediocre candidates (and you want to be awesome).

Tomorrow, I'll dig into the actual job search. Apologies. I'll include a complete list of resources in that article as well.

Nicholas Terwoord

A self-titled software developer, "code archaeologist" (whatever that means), and professional geek. Spends too much of his time coming up with new projects, and not enough time working on them. Likes video games, board games, anime, manga, and Pathfinder / Dungeons and Dragons (GOTO: Line #1 - Geek).