advice for job seekers

Good advice for job seekers, not the obvious stuff.

Boring Intro

It wasn’t long ago that I sought alternate employment. Having built a large professional network and having good employment at the time, my confidence was high. Despite substantial experience on the market, I nonetheless made a mistake that I regret. Time will tell how things work out. But more on this in a moment.

To begin, nothing in this blog post should be construed as finality. There are a myriad of postings on landing your next job; this blog post doesn’t replace that advice.

Most of it is obvious. Have some idea of what the company does, what you’ll be doing, what questions might be asked, and so forth. Have some good questions handy, so when the interviewer asks, “do you have any questions?”, you’ll have more than a blank stare.

That’s the obvious stuff, but it’s worth mentioning. Now for the stuff that I’ve learned that might not be obvious. This comes from the perspective of both the job seeker and the interviewer, having been on both sides of the table.

Before I begin, let me first say that my background is technical. My skills are in demand. I have good social skills and I’ve put a priority on building a sizable network, reading people and between the lines, etc. Hopefully your skills are in demand. If you majored in chemical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, or just about anything else that would cause most people’s heads to explode, then you’re probably going to be okay. This blog post is for you. If you majored in Old English Literature, then you have other problems, but you’re welcome to read on.

Point 1

First and foremost, know as much as possible about the company you’re applying to. I don’t mean you should just study the web site, though that’s fine too. I mean learn as much as you can about the company from someone on the inside, preferably. If you don’t know anyone already employed at the company–or even if you do–do your homework. This step is critical. You might be working at this company for years of your life, so don’t screw this step up. Get the dirt on the company, the department, the specific team, and esp the manager and your peers, if possible. Sites like glassdoor.com are your friend. Get inside info on the company and find out if it will work out long before your first day, else you might just regret your decision.

Point 2

Consider multiple avenues. If you have multiple options, then good for you. You can more easily compare and get the best option for your situation. That decision factors in compensation, benefits, growth potential, personal goals, enjoyment of job, etc.

Point 3

Screen very carefully. This screening might happen long before you apply to a company (insider, site like glassdoor.com, etc). After you apply, I highly suggest coming up with a list of questions and getting answers in writing from the company’s HR representative (rather than the hiring manager). This is a perfectly acceptable and appropriate thing to do.

Let me give an example. I once worked for a company that had a policy of disallowing employees from giving references to current or former employees. Depending on your national or state laws, this is perfectly legal. Think about that for a moment. That means that if you work for that company and you leave for any reason, even on very good terms, you can’t use anyone at the company as a reference–not your manager, not even your peers. This will sound strange to anyone who hasn’t encountered this, but many companies have this policy and enforce it. My advice: do not work for these companies. It’s a pain in the butt. You won’t get a written or even oral recommendation from your manager, despite years of service. You’ll get a reference or two from your peers if you know how to network, but it’s awkward for them. Even “good” companies do this, but it’s not worth it. Avoid these companies. One of your pre-employment questions to HR should be something like, “Do you have any policy regarding employees providing written and/or oral references for current and/or former employees, and if so, what is that policy?” It’s a legitimate question, and you need to know the answer to it.

There are many other questions that you should ask or ascertain in your screening process. Find the answers to whatever those questions are before you join the company, not after.

Point 4

Find out if you really want to work for the company. I took a job at a healthcare company and hated it. It was a contract position that I left after a few months. I learned a good lesson, but in retrospect, I should have done my homework. I took the first job recommended by the contracting agency (more on contracting companies later) and regretted it. Contractors are a dime a dozen. They need you more than you need them.

Assess your own personality and use it as a guide. Are you okay with a higher stress job? Or do you prefer to be coddled? There are pros and cons to both, but you should have a position that allows you to sleep at night. If working in an investment bank (where I also have experience) is too much anxiety for you, then know that about yourself in advance and don’t do it. On the other hand, my own experience in financial services was good in many ways. I got used to the stress, channeled it, and actually preferred the “all business” environment over the fake and misleading “coddled” environment that some companies produce for their employees (that shatters hard during layoffs). But it’s personal preference and you should decide for yourself if “laid back” or “intense” is better for you and your personal situation.

Point 5

Consider using a contracting agency. It’s a tough call and there are pros and cons. The advantage is wider access to a portfolio of companies that you’ve probably never heard of (some companies only employ from contracting agencies). Further, once you’re screened and background checked by a contracting company, there’s a good chance of recurring employment through them. But don’t let them screw you on compensation, because they’ll try. Decide in advance what you want your rate to be and be forthcoming about it. A good recruiter will understand that you’re a serious candidate and will work with you to keep you happy if the rate is reasonable.

Point 6

Become a benefits expert. Here in the US, skilled professional employees get their health care, dental care, retirement savings mechanisms, etc, primarily from their employer. Invest some time in getting familiar with HMOs, PPOs, HDHPs, FSAs, HSAs, traditional vs Roth 401K plans, etc. In one exchange I had with someone in HR, I felt like I had more general knowledge of these concepts than the HR specialist. Know what benefits questions to ask or how to get the information yourself by learning the basics.

Point 7

At your shiny new job, you should have a few goals.

* Make your boss look good

* Learn new things

* Expand your professional network

This stuff isn’t obvious, apparently. At your job, at some point, you’ll forget just how much leverage your boss has. Make her/him happy, but not by being fake or overly appeasing. Learn how to read your boss, what upsets her/him, how you can leverage it to your advantage, etc. Don’t try to be manipulative though; that’ll backfire and it won’t work out well for you. Ultimately, and to a large extent, your #1 job is to make your boss look good. Even if your boss is a bully, a narcissist, a pain in the butt, etc, learn how to make the boss happy and never, ever make her/him look bad.

Learn new things; expand your portfolio of knowledge. In the IT field, this might mean learning new programming languages or APIs. That’s fine. Learn as much as you can and get all the good buzzwords. Find out what strategic route you want to go. Do you want to be a generalist, specialist, or what? Plot a strategic direction and review that strategy from time to time. Play to your strengths and take steps to mitigate your weaknesses.

Importantly, your ancillary job should always, always be to expand your professional network. Sites like linkedin.com are ridiculously helpful in this regard. Get to know a lot of people and stay on their good side. This can be done without being fake or pandering. People will respect you for being candid over being a bullshitter. But word things carefully. Allow others to save face. Always make it about the job, about the goal, and not about your ego or theirs. Learn to keep your cool. A lot of this comes with experience and maturity. If you have neither, then anticipate that you’ll make some mistakes, but consider yourself advised.

Let’s come back to the mistake I made in the Intro section. The job I took involved me saying no to another lead I had at the time, a perfectly good opportunity. Had I to do it all over again, I honestly don’t know if I would have opted for the other company, or perhaps even stayed with my current position. The company I ultimately decided on has a “no references allowed” policy (discussed previously), which means it will be a pain in the butt in a couple years when I move on (and yes, a couple years is what I’m thinking at this point). That’s a surmountable inconvenience, but inconvenient it is. It’s also a bit too laid back for my taste, opting for being cool and trendy over being candid. At the same time, it’s stable, pays well, and has a lot of good people. Time will tell whether the decision was ultimately a good one or not.

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