Job hunting

What you say vs. what others hear

July 29, 2008 Communication, Job hunting, People 1 comment

As you work through life, and especially the job hunt, never forget that what you say may not be what others hear. Your message often has unintended side messages.

This article from the Wall Street Journal discusses how job candidates trash their chances of landing jobs by using overly informal communications.

After interviewing a college student in June, Tory Johnson thought she had found the qualified and enthusiastic intern she craved for her small recruiting firm. Then she received the candidate’s thank-you note, laced with words like “hiya” and “thanx,” along with three exclamation points and a smiley-face emoticon…. Workers in their 20s and younger are accustomed to online and cellphone messaging, and the abbreviated lingua franca that makes for quick exchanges, [David Holtzman] says. “It’s just natural for them. They don’t realize that it’s perceived to be disrespectful.”

Sometimes it’s not even the medium or the message, but when you send the message.

Executive recruiter Hal Reiter recently received … a thank you from a chief financial officer candidate sent by BlackBerry just minutes after the interview. “You don’t even have time to digest the meeting and you’re getting a thank-you note,” says Mr. Reiter, chairman and chief executive of Herbert Mines Associates, a New York-based search firm.

In this case, the very method of sending the communication told the recipient that it wasn’t worth much of the candidate’s time. The candidate was on his way somewhere else and dashed off a reply, as if he was getting an odious task off his checklist, rather than giving a respectful letter that matched the gravity of the communication.

It’s all about respect, and the ways that we can easily show our lack of respect or interest in others. Unintentional messages are messages none the less.

How not to get a job: A continuing series

July 11, 2008 Job hunting 2 comments ,

Penelope Trunk posted this in her Twitter timeline:

I set an interview for Monday. Candidate says he has kid stuff. I suggest Saturday night. He says Why don’t you have a date? No job for him.

Organized lowballing

July 7, 2008 Job hunting No comments

Nick Corcodilos has an article about a new site called Dayak that “lets employers bid to see how cheaply they can hire talent.”:http://corcodilos.com/blog/54/on-the-edge-of-the-curve As he points out in the article, you get what you pay for.

I think “this page from the Dayak website”:http://www.dayak.com/index?type=howItWorks is all you need to know about them. That much cheesy stock photography is never a good sign.

Seriously, this is just bad news for everyone. When you’re treating people like eBay items, like interchangeable commodities, you’re going to hire the absolute most average people, or worse.

Prepare to close the deal

May 19, 2008 Job hunting No comments

I’ve enjoyed Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist blog for months now, and I finally picked up a copy of her book
Brazen Careerist the other day. It should be no surprise that I love a lot of it, and disagree vehemently with plenty as well. It’s more a collection of related columns than a cohesive whole, but I’m enjoying it.


Since I’m working on my Soon-To-Be-Officially-Titled book on job hunting, I turned immediately to the chapter on job interviewing. This phrasing caught my eye: “Prepare to close the deal.” It’s common advice to specifically work to get a job offer in the interview, and it’s one I hammer on in my book. From the current draft:

You must ask for the job, explicitly. It may feel awkward, or seem like it’s pushy or egotistical to come
out and say “I want this job,” but not doing so leaves things vague in the mind of the interviewer.
You can blow an otherwise fantastic interview by
seeming uninterested in the prospect of working for the company.
Don’t delude yourself into
thinking “Of course he knows I want the job, or else I wouldn’t be here.” What you see as obvious may look like
indifference to the interviewer. Don’t worry about being too enthusiastic by asking to move
forward. Part of what you’re being interviewed for is your enthusiasm and
interest in the company, the department, the team.

Trunk puts it in more sales-oriented terms in her book: “Prepare to close the deal. Leave nothing open-ended at the end of the interview.” I can’t disagree, but I know that for many of my technically-oriented brethren that that’s a level of assertiveness, and salesmanship, that may be tough.
Maybe the way for geeks less accustomed to closing a sale to think about it is like nailing down requirements on a project. Programmers hate to work on a project milestone without knowing what the milestone is, and so it is with an unknown interview outcome.

It’s worth practicing, out loud before the interview, how you’ll ask for the job. Train yourself to get over any discomfort of asking to close the deal. Write out a few sentences that you can practice saying. Try something like this:

I wanted to thank you for the time today, and I’m very excited
about working here at Football Town. My expertise in scrum and XP methodologies fit
where you’ve told me the IT department is going, and working in the sporting goods industry would be a dream for me. What are the next steps?

Does that feel weird to say? Practice until it doesn’t. You’re not memorizing the exact words, but getting used to expressing something that direct. When you’re in the interview, if you follow that structure, the words should come out naturally. If it’s true, and it comes from your heart, that’s gold.

On the other hand, if your practice deal closing isn’t true, that will come out in the interview. It won’t just be in your closing, but throughout the entire encounter. Lack of enthusiasm stinks, and interviewers can smell it a mile away.

How to say “I don’t know” effectively

February 27, 2008 Job hunting 1 comment

In a job interview, it’s crucial you don’t pretend to know things that you don’t, but you
don’t have to just say “no, I don’t know about that.” Here are three
responses that are better than “no”, in order of preference.

  1. Discuss something you’ve done similar. “I haven’t used LDAP, but
    back in 2006, when I was at Yoyodyne, I set up and administered
    Active Directory for a 2,500-person company.
  2. Show that you’re at least familiar with the name. “No, I haven’t.
    Are you doing some sort of enterprise-wide directory integration?”
    You’re showing that you have some understanding of how it’s used,
    and getting more information and it may turn out that you have a
    different, similar experience, and can turn this into Answer #1
    above.
  3. Ask what it is, and how it’s used. “I’m sorry, no, I haven’t even
    heard the term. What is LDAP, and how are you using it?” You’ll
    show interest in learning more, and may find out that it’s similar
    to something you’ve done before, and can upgrade your answer to
    Answer #2 above.

Please don’t use the clichéd answer “No, I don’t, but I’m a
quick learner!” It’s good to try to turn a negative into a positive, but
“I’m a quick learner” is meaningless because anyone can say it. Use one of
the three above.

Finally, don’t think of it as a pass/fail quiz and worry that you’re
doomed for not knowing. I once asked a candidate, out of the blue, if he
knew anything about LDAP, because I had been thinking about it as
something my department might use. I thought he was going to have a heart
attack as he stammered out his “Uh, uh, no, but, uh, I can learn pretty
quick!” I reassured him it wasn’t something we were using, but I was just
curious. Chances are if you’ve been called in for an interview, you’ve
already the core basic knowledge that truly is pass/fail.

The Career Manifesto

February 27, 2008 Job hunting, Work life No comments

This brilliant list comes from http://www.execupundit.com/2006/12/career-manifesto.html.

  1. Unless you’re working in a coal mine, an emergency ward, or their equivalent, spare us the sad stories about your tough job. The biggest risk most of us face in the course of a day is a paper cut.
  2. Yes, your boss is an idiot at times. So what? (Do you think your associates sit around and marvel at your deep thoughts?) If you cannot give your boss basic loyalty, either report the weasel to the proper authorities or be gone.
  3. You are paid to take meaningful actions, not superficial ones. Don’t brag about that memo you sent out or how hard you work. Tell us what you achieved.
  4. Although your title may be the same, the job that you were hired to do three years ago is probably not the job you have now. When you are just coasting and not thinking several steps ahead of your responsibilities, you are in dinosaur territory and a meteor is coming.
  5. If you suspect that you’re working in a madhouse, you probably are. Even sociopaths have jobs. Don’t delude yourself by thinking you’ll change what the organization regards as a “turkey farm.” Flee.
  6. Your technical skills may impress the other geeks, but if you can’t get along with your co-workers, you’re a litigation breeder. Don’t be surprised if management regards you as an expensive risk.
  7. If you have a problem with co-workers, have the guts to tell them, preferably in words of one syllable.
  8. Don’t believe what the organization says it does. Its practices are its real policies. Study what is rewarded and what is punished and you’ll have a better clue as to what’s going on.
  9. Don’t expect to be perfect. Focus on doing right instead of being right. It will simplify the world enormously.
  10. If you plan on showing them what you’re capable of only after you get promoted, you need to reverse your thinking.

My favorites are #6 and #9. I’m devoting a chapter in my upcoming book to the ideas hidden within #6, which technical people are notoriously bad with.

Give just the facts when job hunting

February 27, 2008 Job hunting 1 comment ,

When faced with the daunting task of summarizing themselves, whether on paper in a resume or face-to-face in an interview, job hunters often fall into the trap of trying to encapsulate everything into a few simple, pithy phrases. I’ve seen these chestnuts far too often:

  • I’m a hard worker
  • I have a strong work ethic
  • I’m reliable
  • I’m a good listener
  • I work well with others
  • I take pride in my work

The hiring manager’s mental response, assuming his eyes haven’t glazed over, is likely to be “You and everyone else, pal.” Is there anyone out there who would not feel justified in using all of the assessments above to describe themselves? (I certainly hope that you wouldn’t be foolish enough to vocalize it if not.)

The next response to such vague summations is “According to whom?” A “hard worker” at a big faceless corporation or a government 9-5 job may be very different from a “hard worker” at a startup, or at a video game company. (And whatever you do, don’t put down that you “try to work smarter, not harder”, which is as trite as they come.)

What to do instead? Provide facts and stories, not judgments, when telling someone about yourself and your work history.

Back on the old radio and TV show Dragnet, Sergeant Joe Friday would question witnesses about a crime that had been committed. If she strayed into personal opinion about a suspect, he’d steer her back with “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Imagine you’ve got Joe Friday reading your resume.

Instead of “I’m a hard worker,” give details of projects you’ve completed. Include points that make clear you were a hard worker, without you having to say “I worked hard.” For example, you might say:

I recently completed a five month, 50,000-line conversion project. Even though we we lost one of the four team members with only three weeks left, we pulled together to make the deadline.

You’ve described a big project, hard work, and made no self-assessments.

Got a strong work ethic? Explain it: “A few weeks ago, my team rolled out an upgrade to Office in our 300-seat location. We did it over the weekend to minimize work disruption. Sunday night we had to order in some pizzas, but Monday morning everyone was able to come in and get work at 8am sharp.”

Every manager wants reliable employees: “My projects are consistently done on time, never more than 10% over budget. Here are the planned vs. actual charts for the last three projects I worked on.” Then you can show the actual work products from your portfolio. “Plus, I’ve only had unscheduled absences twice in the past four years.”

Good listening is great, too: “I find that I’m able to help my team with listening carefully. The other day, we had a meeting and one of our developers and the guy from accounting were having quite a disagreement. As I listened to their arguing, I saw that they were agreeing, but didn’t even realize it. I gently interjected some restatements of what each of them was saying, and they came to see that their differences were very minor.”

Working well with others is a cliché, but critical in all but a few jobs: “As a web page designer, I usually work with three or four different teams throughout the week. They’re all very different in their makeup, but I work hard at fitting in with each as necessary. Ted in Marketing even sent me this gracious thank-you note for my work, which I was very proud of.” You can then open your portfolio to the printed copy of the email to show the interviewer.

When it comes to the pride you take in your work, you need not explain at all. Your resume and interview should be enough. The pride you take in yourself and your accomplishments must shine through without additional words being necessary.

Note that all these examples use recent examples, and not stories from years past. They emphasize teamwork and other people, which every manager should have high on her list. And they document facts that let the interviewer draw her own conclusion about you and your value to her company.

The examples above are taken from an interview setting, but they apply to any printed work as well. You’ll have less room to stretch out verbally, but you can certainly replace your “Reliable worker” bullet point with “Projects mostly completed on time, never more than 10% over estimates.”

Right now, I challenge you to take a look at your basic resume and scrutinize every sentence. If a claim is vague, replace it with a concrete example, or remove it entirely. If something applies to everyone, then it means nothing.

Twelve items to leave off your resume and cover letter

November 4, 2006 Job hunting No comments , ,

You’re working on your resume, trying to give the recipient an idea of what a determined, hard worker you are, and you drop in this sentence.

After my wife and I arrived from Germany at age 35, I trained my son to play piano at our church.

You’re showing that you’re a committed family man with strong roots in your heritage, that you have the skills to raise a child, and you’re active in your church community, right? Wrong. You’re making the person reading the resume very nervous, and probably excluded yourself from a job. That one little sentence covered five bits of information it’s illegal for an interviewer to ask you.

  • Are you married?
  • What country are you from?
  • How old are you?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Do you go to church? Which one?

Providing information that is not relevant to the job, or would get me, as a hiring manager, in trouble if I asked for it, makes me very nervous.

The rule to follow is: If the employer can’t ask you, then don’t volunteer it.

I once got a cover letter that started “As a proud black woman, I am…” It immediately went into the discard pile. Not only was it foolish for her to put her gender and race on her resume, because I was not legally allowed to ask it, it made me wonder why would she tell me those things. Could I expect someone with a big chip on her shoulder? If I didn’t hire her, would I get accusations of racism and sexism?

The following items should never be mentioned on your resume or cover letter, or discussed in an interview, even indirectly:

  • Age
  • Sex/gender
  • Disability
  • Race/color
  • National origin, birthplace, ethnic background
  • Religion
  • Marital status
  • Children/pregnancy

These are the big eight that are just absolute no-nos, and that most people know are illegal. Nobody reading this article is being cast in a movie that needs a 65-year-old wheelchair-bound Jewish man, so none of those are bona fide occupational qualifications, or BFOQs.

Sometimes unscrupulous employers can ask questions that get at this information. For instance, if you answer the question “when did you graduate high school?” with “1984”, he’s found that you’re roughly 39. By extension, you should leave dates of high school off your resume.

Other items that may not be illegal, but may cause problems, include:

  • Appearance, including photo
  • Sexual preference
  • Political affiliations
  • Clubs or groups you belong to, unless professionally related

There may be exceptions in certain cases. For example, my friend Tom Limoncelli is socially and politically active. In 2003-2004, he worked as a sysadmin for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. In this case, working for Dean is valuable work experience that should be noted on his resume, and it directly relates to the work that he’s known for.

Clubs and groups may not be obvious red flags, but are best left alone. To you, it might be cool that you race motorcycles on the weekend, but someone reading your resume might judge you as having a hobby that’s detrimental to the environment, or overly risky. Your weekend volunteer work at Planned Parenthood could be a black mark in the eyes of someone strongly pro-life.

The type of outside work is relevant, too. Handing out literature for an activist group has no place on a resume, but that might not be the case if you overhauled their web site using PHP. It partly depends on what job you’re applying for. You might exclude your Planned Parenthood website work if applying to a Catholic school, but include it when applying to Ben & Jerry’s. This is another example of why there’s no such thing as having “a resume”, a single static document you send around.

In general, follow the rule that if something does not directly relate to your skills, and how you would perform the job in question, leave it out.

You might think “I wouldn’t want to work for someone who would discriminate against me because I fit into group X,” but that’s not the point. The issue isn’t overt discrimination as much as the perception of the possibility of discrimination. I wouldn’t discriminate against a black woman, but I did immediately exclude someone naive or foolish enough to mention being one.

Finally, even if all this verboten information is available on the web with minimal web searching, it’s not OK to put on your resume. The issue is what you present as yourself, not what people can find.

And don’t think employers won’t search Google about you extensively before interviewing. But that’s a topic for another article…

For more information about hiring discrimination, see the EEOC website.

Your digital dirt can come back to haunt you

October 30, 2006 Job hunting No comments

Articles like this one seem to surprise folks, but they shouldn’t.

As we’re often being reminded, the Internet has irrevocably changed the way that we look for and apply for jobs. But the web works both ways. So you may want to think twice about what you say in your blog or avoid posting photos from your last toga party online just in case a potential employer takes a look and changes their mind about you.

Your second most important relationship

September 3, 2006 Job hunting, People, Work life No comments

As I sit here on this Labor Day weekend, I ponder who it is we labor for. I want you to as well.

Most of us in the computer industries are lucky enough to be doing what we love. Programming, system administration and the like are in our blood. We’ve done it as a hobby, and now we’re getting paid relatively large amounts to do it. Plenty of other people don’t have it nearly as good as we do.

And yet, so many of us are unhappy with where we’re at. We work with jerks, or the companies we work for have Mickey Mouse rules that treat us like children, or even worse, hourly workers. Maybe you’re in a company with motivational posters on the wall where you can’t miss ’em when you have to take a leak. It’s a sort of ongoing battle for your soul, where the day-to-day grinds down at you and makes you miserable over time.

Seems to me, however, that the most common source of bad jobs is having the bad boss.

I had lunch with my friend I’ll call Bob who had just been let go from his job after a short, confusing month. His boss was vague in expectations, yet also a micromanager. He’d demanded on Wednesday that Bob have a project done by Monday morning at 9am, because it was Crucial To The Company. On Friday night, after Bob returned home from a long-planned dinner with his wife and some friends, he found in his inbox on his return a note: “I see you logged off at 6pm, this project is crucial to the company.” The boss badgered him all weekend until Bob finally declared that his work was done on Sunday.

Add to this that even though Bob had the work done, there were other unspoken, unmet expectations. The boss rattled them off to Bob at his summary firing, but Bob didn’t understand them after the fact.

I offered “It doesn’t sound like much of a loss. Your boss was crazy, or stupid, or just a bad boss. He wasn’t like that when he interviewed you, was he?” Bob replied “I’m glad you think he was a bad boss, because I kind of picked that up in the interview.”

Now here’s what astonishes me. Here’s a guy who’s a good programmer, who works hard, and yet he’s willing to take a job with someone who he strongly suspected of being dumb and/or crazy.

Bob’s not the only one, of course, or I wouldn’t be writing this. I’ve got other friends who jump into a job relationship hoping for the best, and coming out miserable. Some people may be desperate and have no choice, but it happens so often, that can’t be the case most of the time.

I suspect that most people miss that word “relationship”, because it is exactly that.

Your job is a relationship.

It’s a relationship with your boss, yes, but it’s also a relationship with the company, with your co-workers, with the commute, with everything that goes into your job.

It’s a relationship that you spend 40+ hours a week on. How many hours a week do you actually spend awake with your spouse? Probably a little bit more than that, but it’s roughly the same in size.

The relationship with your employer is as important to look at as the relationship with your spouse. That means both before and after you commit.

I’ll write more about this in weeks to come, as I work on my upcoming book, Pragmatic Job Hunting.