What I Learned About Getting Employed
The search for a job to start your career is daunting, so with it’s memory fresh in my mind and a good run at it, I thought I’d share what made me successful.
I returned to the East Coast after an incredible summer on the road between Montreal, the West Coast, and California. I flew right to New York to avoid losing momentum with a stop at home on Cape Cod. I was motivated by my financial situation to find a job, and nothing got me going more than being in the fastest moving city in the world. It also helped that I have a concentration of close friends there, which meant places to stay and opportunities for socializing.
Based on my experience and understanding of the hiring process, I knew with decent certainty I would not get a job by simply searching job boards and applying online through a standardized form. These applications are incredibly frustrating and not worthwhile for a few reasons:
- My resume is done in LaTeX [see my article on this topic] which means I’ve put a lot of effort into presenting my experience in a beautiful format, and this is all lost when it is put into a form. I personally value how people represent themselves and think it’s an important look into their personality, so when a company ignores this they lose some of my respect.
- Filling out the same information in electronic forms over and over is inefficient and not worth my time. If a company uses a form rather than a resume document to improve their efficiency in the filtering of candidates, they should have some respect for the candidate’s time. There are standardized ways of acquiring this information, such as connecting a LinkedIn profile, that would speed up a process that they’ve made efficient only for them.
- These electronic forms are designed to filter out candidates by searching for buzzwords, because these companies often get hundreds of applications [about six times the number of employees they have]. This makes it incredibly difficult to stand out among the others, unless your resume contains these desired criteria. If you are one of those résumés, then you now have a fair shot at making it through the process, managed by humans who will actually see your information.
- As much as I value efficiency and my time, I believe that in order to gain the respect and time of a potential employer, you do need to work for it. This may seem contradictory to point 2, but what I mean is your time should be spent wisely, in proving your potential and motivation to work for the particular company. Filling out a form does not prove your personal skills or your desire for a certain position, while calling, emailing, networking, participating, and showing up absolutely does.
This brings me to my overall strategy; in order to succeed, do not go through the normal means of applying for a posted job.
“Always avoid official channels” – Jaan Altosaar
I tried my best to follow this strategy, and it suited me well, as each of my offers were for unposted jobs and through unofficial means.
First of all, a statistic shows that around 80% of all available positions are not publicly posted, which means that by spending your time searching job boards, you are only accessing a fifth of what’s out there.
So why are that many jobs not posted and where are they? They might not be posted because the company wants to hire internally or through references, they find someone for the job before ever having to post something, they use their own recruiter, or the money and need for a position exists but the company is managing with what they have, so nothing is ever created. The last option is my favorite, but all are opportunities for a job seeker to find an industry and company that interests them, and inquire about the need for someone with their skills.
Second, when contacting companies to inquire, or when a job is discovered, going through the standard communication protocols is not necessarily the best option. For example, say you find a company that excites you, where you’d love to work. Regardless of whether or not they have a job opening for you, it’s an opportunity to make a connection, so you should reach out. This could lead to finding out about available positions or even selling them on your skills enough that they create something for you. This is where you often have to use some unofficial tactics to get a response.
- Find them on LinkedIn: Search the company, find employees in your field, and connect with them. If they accept, message them. [This is assuming you have a solid LinkedIn profile, which you should if you’re looking for a job]
- Guess their email address: A great way to get a response is by emailing someone outside of HR, where they might be willing to chat about the work, without the expectation of you looking for a job. This can be done by finding the company’s email domain and guessing logical combinations of the employee’s name. Use an email verification site to see if it’s correct.
- Find them on Meetup.com: This is a great place to connect with like-minded people. It’s great for actually meeting up with people if you live in a city where there are meetings, but more than that it is an incredible resource for making contacts online. By joining groups of people with similar interests or in fields you would like to be employed, you get their bios, contact information, and the opportunity to message them directly.
In order to network properly with these strangers, it’s important not to lead with the fact that you are looking for work. Like a good salesman, you want to gain their attention without exposing your motives. You want to seem motivated and curious, not annoying and pushy. Your interest and enthusiasm will be valued in addition to your skill and experience, so by reaching out based on your interest, rather than in a job posting, you are already a step ahead of other candidates.
Additionally, keep it brief. You have to realize that you’re contacting someone who doesn’t know you and probably doesn’t have time for you. Never write a cover letter in an email. A couple sentences expressing your interest and intent to make a connection in some way [grab a coffee, answer some questions, help with a problem, explain the work environment, get advice, etc] is all you should write. Regardless of what you say, they will only respond if they think it’s worth it and have the time. Value the fact that they are busy and make it easy for them to write you a reasonable response. If they respond warmly, then you now have the opportunity to be more expressive. [If you’re not confident with your email, consult Matt Might's email writing rules.]
*This is a very small amount of empirical data, so take it with a grain of salt.
I was successful because I was prepared, I networked my ass off, and I went primarily through unofficial channels. My three stories show exactly how:
One offer came through someone I met in San Diego, who turned out to be a big shot in DC who runs a lot of unmanned vehicle programs for the Navy. I mentioned that I was looking for work on the East Coast and he said he might have a job for me. Not knowing who he was, and assuming he wasn’t serious, I played along. He asked me if I had a card, which luckily I did, and he ended up passing my info along with no further request from me. Because of his reputation, I was pushed to the top of the pile and contacted by one of his contractors. I consider this to be an extreme stroke of luck, but the underlying message is to be prepared and network regardless because you never know who a person is or who they know.
Another offer came without my direct effort, but because I was active on Meetup.com. Being in New York, I joined the site to find and attend meetups in fields I was interested in working in. I joined “makerspaces,” 3D printing groups, tech entrepreneur groups, hacker groups, and anything that seemed interesting to me. I attended one 3D printing meetup and found it rather dry [except for the free food and beer], but I did speak with one guy my age who worked in the industry. Failing to get his contact info in person, I was able to find him on the group’s Meetup page and get in touch. He must have passed my info along, because shortly after I received a message from his boss requesting an interview.
The third one came through my detective work and perseverance. I found a job posting for a position I wasn’t quite qualified for, but with a company that seemed perfect. Determined official channels would get me filtered out, I looked for employees on LinkedIn who I could contact. After finding the name of a mechanical engineer, I figured out the right email address and asked him to grab coffee. I got a reply that he “doesn’t get coffee with strangers,” but we kept the exchange going and he got me a conversation with the CEO. The conversation turned out to be an hour long interview, with an offer shortly after to start as an intern—rather than the posted full time position.
The key concepts I took away from my experience are the importance of networking and the successfulness of unofficial channels. By being prepared to network, seeking out networking opportunities, and getting creative with my communication tactics I got some great responses. Three led to offers and one led to landing a job I love. The secret is combining the widely-known approach of networking, with the lesser-known strategy of backend communication, to leverage your way into a job you really desire.