Toot your own horn at work

February 21, 2011 Career No comments

Do you think it’s bad to talk about what you’ve done? Do you have an aversion to self-promotion? Learn to get over that for the sake of your career. Remember the first rule of career management: Your awesomeness is not self-evident.

Your performance at work is judged on your achievements. You need to let your boss know what it is you’ve done if he’s to judge your skills fairly.

When the boss comes and asks how things have been going, instead of

I’ve just been working on that customer record data conversion.

you say

I’ve been working on that data conversion, which has been pretty interesting. I was only getting throughput of 500 records per minute, which would have taken far too long. Turns out that the profiler showed that 60% of the time was spent in doing the vendor lookup. So I hacked together a little Ruby program to build an intermediate Berkeley DB and bypass the Oracle connection. Now it’s cranking through about 6400 records a minute. Much nicer.

This little explanation has threefold benefits. First, your boss knows what you did, and has a better idea of your skills and achievements. This can only help when it comes time for performance reviews.

Second, your success can infect the rest of the department. Maybe the boss will bring it up at a team meeting, and others can learn from you. Maybe he’ll mention it to another team member in a similar situation. (When people ask things like “We’re a Java shop, how can I get the boss to use Ruby?”, it’s examples like this that are steps in the right direction.)

Third, if your boss has any micromanagerial tendencies, this will help fend those off. Bosses micromanage because they’re afraid you’re going to screw something up. When you make it explicitly clear that you know what’s going, you help soothe those fears and may well minimize the micromanagement.

Learn to effectively and tactfully talk about your achievements. Your reputation and paycheck will thank you.

Job ads to avoid

February 18, 2011 Career, Job hunting, Social No comments

I came across an ad for programmers the other day, and one of the requirements was that you be able to:

Get along well with other sometimes mal-adjusted geeks

The way I read this is “some of the other people are anti-social assholes, and we, as a company, are OK with that,” probably because they are able to turn out code and they’d rather not deal with the long-term effects of such people on a team.

Having worked for such a company before, I suggest that life is too short to work at them, regardless of how cool the job may be otherwise.

Quit whining and send a thank you note after an interview

February 6, 2011 Interviews, Job hunting 5 comments ,

Over on reddit, the old chestnut of a question “Do I really have to send a thank you note after an interview?” has come up again.  It’s always sad to see the excuses that people try to come up with to forgive themselves for skipping this basic step in the job hunting process.

The cost of that thank you note is ten minutes of your time and a 44-cent stamp.  The payoff could well be landing the job.  It cannot hurt you in your job search, and can only be a positive in the mind of the interviewer.  You also take the opportunity to reiterate your good points and show the interviewer that you were paying attention during the interview, and you show that you actually are interested in the job, which is sometimes hard to tell.

It’s ten minutes and 44 cents to give you an edge over other candidates, to help you land the job you want, so that you can be gainfully employed and get out of the job hunt.  The cost/benefit ratio is huge.

Quit whining and do it.

You can’t take the easy way to writing a résumé

January 10, 2011 Job hunting 6 comments ,

I came across a horrifying thread at Hacker News: Can I use a LinkedIn profile instead of resume for my job applications? It’s a reasonable question, and the answer is “No, you cannot use a LinkedIn profile instead of a résumé.”  If the job ad asks for a résumé, then you give them a résumé.  If they want the résumé in Word format, you give them the résumé in Word format.  What the hiring company asks for, you give them.

What makes me shake my head in dismay is the number of people who replied to say “Oh, yeah, just give ’em a LinkedIn URL instead, they can forward that around.”  The people who act this way are likely to not get interviews. These people who want to modify the process, let’s call them the IKBs, for “I Know Better.” Here are some things they need to learn.

First, if the company has gone through the trouble of writing an ad, they probably have a pretty good idea of what they want as a hiring process.  If the people doing the hiring didn’t think it was important what got sent in, then they wouldn’t have specified. But they did, so it does.  The IKBs don’t just get to decide from their easy chairs that they know a better way, at least not if they want a job.

Second, the IKBs aren’t somehow smarter than the people doing the hiring. Comments in the Hacker News thread include self-delusional drivel like “people cling to tradition for irrational reasons.”  This is the way the IKBs say “I know better than others how they should run their business.”  They are fooling themselves.  It sounds good when you tell yourself that, but the hiring company will simply ignore you.

Third, LinkedIn is not a substitute for a résumé, because LinkedIn’s format might not be the best way to present the story of you.  There is precious little space for the details and stories that make your résumé compelling to the reader.  Further, every résumé you send out must be tailored to the job for which you’re applying.  You cannot customize your LinkedIn profile for each company.  Maybe when applying to one company, you emphasize the work you’ve done in Oracle, and to another it’s all about the Linux sysadmin, depending on what the company wants.

Some posters on the thread mentioned that LinkedIn has a “résumé builder.”  All that does is reformat the fields already in your LinkedIn profile into various different résumé formats.  However, it doesn’t take into account the hard thinking and preparation that it takes to create a compelling résumé. Don’t get suckered into it. These résumé building websites are worse than worthless because they pretend that a good résumé is about the formatting.  It’s not.

Most of all, what makes me weep for the IKBs is that they think they’ve found an easy way to get a job.  Just fill in a few blanks, send off an email, and the hiring managers will fall over themselves to snap up the candidate.   It doesn’t work that way.  Finding a job, especially one that you’re going to want to go to every day, takes hard work.  If you think that you’ve got an easy time firing off résumés to companies, then you’re not trying hard enough.

Go ahead and be an IKB.  Take the easy way to writing a résumé.  Just don’t expect any interviews.  Those interviews will go to the candidates who have applied themselves and done the hard work necessary to present themselves in the best possible light to the company.

Résumé-building websites are worse than worthless

January 1, 2011 Job hunting 2 comments

We all want an easy way to get things done, and resume-building websites promise an easy way to put together a résumé for your job hunt. Unfortunately, using them does you a disservice by making you think that formatting is what matters, and helping you create bland, uninteresting résumés that won’t grab any reader’s attention.  You cannot create a good résumé by filling in a few blanks off the top of your head.

I read a job-related message board where a new job seeker was pointed to a website called cvmaker that claims to let you “create beautiful, professional résumés in minutes, FREE.” It isn’t possible. Sure, you can create a document in minutes, but a résumé that a hiring manager will find compelling takes hours at the minimum.

cvmaker would have you believe that what matters most is formatting and visual presentation. I assure you it is not. Visual presentation is important, but without having something to say, it’s all just pretty fluff.  You must put real time and energy into creating your first resume, considering what value you bring to an employer. It is about how you tell your story, not whether it is beautifully formatted.

cvmaker is comically bad.  It suggests that you fill in a section on “Interests”. Your interests do NOT belong on a resume unless they specifically relate to the job for which you’re applying. For instance, you can mention your love of running in marathons if you’re applying to work at a sporting goods company, for example.  If it doesn’t relate, leave it out.

cvmaker gives you a section to put references, but references do not belong on a resume. It suggests a default of “References available upon request”, but putting that on your resume is a space-filler and makes you look stupid.

The capper of cvmaker’s awfulness is where it lets you fill out your work history.  All the emphasis is on dates and company names.  A text area for each position has the ludicrous caption “Optional details such as job responsibilities, achievements etc.” Those details are not optional. Those details are where you explain to the reader what you have done in the past that makes you worth bringing in for an interview. They aren’t noise. They are the very reason you write the damn resume!

If you’re a job seeker and you’re struggling with how to create your basic resume, stop looking at resume websites, right now. Instead, go to your local public library, or your college library, and check out some books on job hunting. Martin Yates’ Knock ‘Em Dead books are a fine place to start.  If you’re a techie, I’ll point out that my book Land the Tech Job You Love is aimed specifically at you.  Chapters 3 and 4 cover the details of résumé creation.  You can ask the librarian or your career counselor for suggestions as well.  There are many books out there that provide far more and better examples from which to draw inspiration, and you will not be surfing random web pages of questionable value.

You want a good book on job hunting to give you the concentrated learning about how to think about what you want to put in the résumé, and why you want it there.  I guarantee that if you throw together a résumé in an hour, you will create a résumé that no one will be interested in.

(And don’t think that you can create a good résumé just by filling in a few fields in the Microsoft Word résumé templates.  When we hiring managers see those come in, we groan and figure you can’t think for yourself.)

Please, don’t sell yourself short by taking a cookie-cutter approach to your résumé.  It takes hard work to do it right. Don’t let any résumé-building websites or templates lead you astray.

Crappy job? Tough it out until the new year

November 23, 2010 Job hunting, Work life No comments

December’s the worst time to look for a job. The job market stinks, of course, but in November and December, it’s even tougher to get hired.

As the holidays approach, people go on vacation. Managers who drive the hiring process scramble to cover missing people. Schedules turn into Swiss cheese. When the day-to-day operations of a company turn patchy, hiring falls by the wayside.

I learned this one the hard way. I’d quit my job early November, without another job lined up (dumb idea #1). I had a big lead on my next job, and the manager wanted to hire me, but he couldn’t round up people for the interviews. You just can’t get a full roster of people for a group interview the week of Thanksgiving.

When we finally got my interviewing process done, my boss-to-be couldn’t get the executive sign-off for my hiring. No one with sign-off authority was around. When that finally happened around the 20th of December, I had to wait another two weeks until the start of January to actually start.

If you’re thinking of starting the job hunt now, grit your teeth and bear it until the new year. Work on new tech skills over any holiday you have, and add items to your resume that you’ve worked on lately. When the new year rolls around, you’ll have the jump on everyone else.

Does your résumé have to fit on a single page? Roger Ebert has the answer.

November 1, 2010 Job hunting 3 comments , ,

Every time I speak to a group of people, and people talk to me afterwards, the topic of résumés always comes up. And every time people ask about résumés, someone always asks “Does my résumé have to only be one page?”

Your résumé does not have to be limited to only one page. It just needs to have nothing irrelevant and uninteresting in it.

I refer to film critic Roger Ebert‘s rule about how long a movie should be:

“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”

You should apply the same rule to your résumé.

As long as what’s in your résumé is relevant to the reader, and the reader finds it interesting and it helps show how you’ll be a valuable addition to the hiring manager’s team, you can put in whatever you want, and your resume can be as long as you need it to be.

This means that when you apply for a job as a network engineer, you don’t bother mentioning your job at a pet store back in college, unless it somehow relates to the job for which you’re applying. If the job for which you’re applying is at PetSmart corporate headquarters, then by all means, include it.

Is anyone reading your résumé going to care about your “hobbies and interests”? Probably not. I guarantee they won’t if your hobbies and interests are “music and reading.” On the other hand, if you’re looking to do web development for Guitar Center and you play an instrument, then definitely put that in your résumé, perhaps even in your professional summary.

This also means that you have to tailor every résumé you send out. You have to go through every line and think “Will someone reading this résumé care about this?” You have to figure out if some bullets in your work experience should be expanded.

From today forward, don’t ask “Is my résumé too long”. Instead, inspect every word to see if it is of interest to the reader.

The worst way to start a résumé

October 26, 2010 Job hunting 5 comments , ,

As I go through dozens of resumes, I’m amazed by how many people still waste the crucial top two inches of their resumes with drivel like this:

Objective: A fast-paced, challenging programming position or other technical position that will utilize and expand my technical skills and business experience in order to positively contribute to an organization.

You and everybody else, buddy. Why should I give it to you?

That top of the resume is prime visual real estate. It’s the first thing I see when I open your email or Word document. I want to see a summary of who you are, and how you can help me by joining my organization.

Here’s an imaginary summary from a programmer applying for a Linux-based web development position:

7 years professional software development, most recently specializing in Perl and PHP, including

  • Developing object-oriented Perl and PHP, including interfacing with Oracle and MySQL on Linux (3 years)
  • Creating intranet database applications with ColdFusion and Access (2 years)
  • Creating shareware audio analysis programs for Windows in C/C++ (5 years)

In just a few lines, she’s summarized the real meat of who she is and what she’s going to bring to the position. The key words for the job to hit are bolded, to make them easier to find for the reader. Note that in this case, she has not bolded “Windows”, “Access” and “ColdFusion” because that’s not something she chooses to pursue further. It’s part of her background, but not worth emphasizing.

The skeptical reader may ask “But what if she’s applying for something that’s not a Linux web position?” Then she’ll modify her resume for that job when she applies for it. Takes only a few minutes, but it’s more likely to draw the interest of the reader. You’ve got a computer, you’re flexible! Tailor the resume to the position.

The still-skeptical reader may say “But what if I’m applying for 100 different jobs?” Don’t apply for 100 jobs. There aren’t 100 jobs out there that match you and your skills. Why waste your time? Spend the time working on the ones’ that match.

Bonus mini-rant: “References available upon request” is also fluff. Nobody has ever said “Hmm, this guy LOOKS qualified, but doesn’t have references available. I better not bother with an interview.” Kill it.

(Originally posted at oreillynet.com)

Don’t send two résumés

October 12, 2010 Job hunting No comments ,

I’ve never received two differing resumes in response to a job ad, but Allison Green has seen a growing trend. Don’t do it. Create one resume that puts you in the best light, and include a cover letter that addresses the needs of the employer and shows that you’re interested in that specific job.

The job interview is not about collecting factual information.

October 10, 2010 Interviews, Job hunting 2 comments

There’s a common misconception in the techie community that you should make sure you don’t fall prey to. Here’s what it sounds like.

So I went on the interview, and the interviewer was totally unprepared. First thing he asks me, he says “So, Dave, tell me about yourself.” He’s got my resume right there on the desk in front of him. It’s like he didn’t even read it! What could I say? I said “Well, what do you want to know?”

Poor Dave is laboring under the impression that his interviewer was trying to find out facts about him. Dave’s attitude is basically “RTFM, dude.” Dave’s written down everything on the resume, so why should he have to bother explaining it to the hiring manager?

For the sake of his job search, Dave would do well to learn that Job interviews are not about obtaining factual information about you. They are about assessing the candidate as a person, as potential team member.

If the hiring process was as simple as gathering printed requirements from resumes, there would be no need for interviews. Hiring managers could sit back and shuffle through stacks of paper until the right combination of skills showed up. It’s not that simple. When the hiring manager hires someone, he’s hiring a human being, not a bunch of programming languages and network skill sets off a checklist. Hiring is fundamentally a human process, no matter how computer-oriented we may be.

The question “Tell me about yourself” serves at least three purposes.

  • It gives the candidate a chance to give her elevator speech, to tell about herself and what value she’ll bring to the organization, and set the interview off in a given direction.
  • It lets the manager see how well prepared the candidate is for the interview.
  • It lets the candidate show how well-spoken she is.
  • It lets the manager get an idea of the candidate’s attitude and personality. In Dave’s case, his attitude is terrible and that will come out. Dave won’t get the job.
  • It lets the manager compare what you tell him with what’s on the resume, to see if there are any discrepancies.

The worst response to “Tell me about yourself” is to ask “Well, what do you want to know?” What the hiring manager wants to know is what you’ll do to help him make money for the company, or do things faster, because business speaks in terms of money and time. To be able to answer that, you’ll have to be prepared, and probably do some research about the company and the position itself. It should not be a canned answer you use at every company.

None of this is to say that there aren’t incompetent, unprepared interviewers who fall back on “Tell me about yourself”. Chances are, however, that when you’re asked this in an interview, you’re being given a chance to make a good impression and to start the interview right. Don’t blow it by misunderstanding its purpose.