About a year ago, I wrote a post about the basics of getting a job in Information Technology. Unfortunately, that post (linked here) did not cover much relevant material when it comes to putting your resume in and getting an interview. This blog post has been in the making for a long time, however the major impetus came when a serverfault regular tossed me a message over the weekend asking for suggestions on how to answer “The Salary Question.” I address this below, but first I will cover what I think is the single most important thing to remember in IT when it comes to getting hired.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!”
I have heard many people bemoan the fact that it is near-impossible to get an interview for tech jobs in this market. Their stories are generally the same, listed below:
- See there is a position at Awesome Company, LLC.
- See that the resume is asking for every technology buzzword imaginable
- Asks for 10 years experience with Windows 8
- Decide to send in your resume for it, even though you only know 3 or 4 of the 15 buzzwords they’ve specified.
- Become depressed when you don’t get a callback.
This is not an unusual turn of events. The reason behind this oftentimes is that HR is putting together a job description and they’re (optionally!) asking the team that’s hiring for “some technologies they should look for.” Oftentimes that hiring team says “Well, if they know ABC, XYZ, TLA, ETLA, or Java, it’d be a plus.” This turns into “applicant must have X years experience in ABC, XYZ, TLA, ETLA and Java.” HR just screwed not only your chances of getting hired, but the hiring team’s chance at getting a potentially good candidate.
The thing that is tough for most people to understand is that all of the above is what I like to call an “HR Trap.” It’s there to trap your resume and never get it to the hiring team for consideration. So, as problem solving IT thinkers, we need to think around this problem.
Do you have any friends that work at Awesome Company, LLC? Are they friends with the IT guys, per chance? Ask your friends if they’d be willing to hand your resume to the team that’s doing the hiring along with a recommendation. (NOTE: Don’t sound needy! It’s a good way to sour friendships.) Some people advocate saying “Hi James, I noticed your company is hiring for a position that I’d be great at, and I’d really love to get an interview. Would you put my resume on Tim The IT Director’s desk for me and possibly put in a good word or two on my behalf?” This can really work.
Network, Network, Network!
There’s another thing we can do to increase our chances of getting hired in the IT community: go meet people! This is called “Networking” to the sales world and is critical in getting their job done. I do know that a lot of us consider ourselves antisocial, but realistically, if all of us “antisocial” types get together, we generally find things to talk about. Don’t be afraid to approach people, please! This process only works when you are the one taking initiative. Here are some options for networking:
- Conferences (LISA, LOPSA-East (nee PICC), Cascadia, Velocity, many others) are great places to network with other people and rub shoulders with the giants of our industry. For instance, Vint Cerf will be delivering the keynote at LISA this year. If you ever wanted to meet him, if you were at LISA you could just go up and say hi.
- Local user groups (Like LOPSA presentations, Linux User Groups, Windows User Groups, Tech Meetups) help a great deal as well, and for most of us without a big pocketbook, they’re much cheaper to attend than a conference. You still get an opportunity to meet a gaggle of new people, and that’s helpful when you’re looking for a job. I know that LOPSA especially, at least the chapter that I belong to, asks if anyone has job openings they’d like to talk about. If someone’s asking for something you can do, go talk to them! You’ve just instantly gotten ahead of the game by meeting the possible stakeholder(s) before HR has had the chance to accidentally delete your e-mailed resume.
Show the world how awesome you are.
An oft overlooked part of the hiring process is the inevitable google search that your potential employer is going to do. What kind of stuff are they going to find? Are your Facebook photos from your buddy’s beer pong tournament open to the public? This is what could be called a “negative public artifact.” Some tech companies would find it funny, but stuffier business types would consider that an immediate turn off. On the other hand, if you have a blog full of insightful comments on the industry and diary entries of your (mis)adventures in technology, you show that you’re not simply a piece of paper with a lot of certifications, but someone who actually produces good things. This is where being a member on a Stack Exchange site is very helpful. If you mention you’re a serverfault user on your resume and provide the link to your profile, your potential employer has one place to look for all of your questions and answers to judge how well you know your stuff.
Fun With Resumes
I know a lot of us are holding onto the same resume format we had when we started, and are just adding fields as necessary; it’s not always a smart idea. The job market and what people are looking for on resumes has changed since some of us started looking for jobs. The emphasis is shifting from “show your experience” to “show how you’re awesome;” if you want your resume to get a second glance, it has to clearly and concisely illustrate why you’re a slam dunk.
1972-1977 Sanford and Son, Salvage
- Drove a salvage truck
- Excellent problem solver
If your resume has sections like the above, you are boring the heck out of the person reading your resume. Sure, it shows what you literally did in that job, but it doesn’t convey what you’re proud of. Did you make the salvage equivilent of the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs? How is the potential employer going to know about this if you didn’t say so? Lets try this again:
Sanford and Son, Salvage (1972-1977)
- Frequently noted as having the best one-liners in the company
- Kept a 1952 Ford Pickup in running order much longer than previously considered humanly possible
- Voted the fastest salvager on the east side after completing the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs! (City record!)
This is not unusual advice. I’m sure many of us learned it in school when they talked about writing resumes. At the very least, we’ve spiced up an otherwise dull list of abilities/accomplishments. Why stop there, we can still do better:
Sanford and Son, Salvage (1972-1977)
- Ran the Los Angeles Kessel Run in under 12 blocks, beating the standing record of 16 blocks. (1972)
- In Trash We Trust Award – 1973
- Salvage Monthly’s “Top of the Heap” – 1975
- Advanced engine mechanics and collision repair
- Navigation of South-Central Los Angeles by automobile and commercial trucks
- Lifting heavy loads
If we look at the above, two things are important to note. First, it has easy to read sections. Second, it has superfluous space taken up by sections. If you were to put the whole body of your experience down in this format, you’d have a 4-5 page resume. Some places might like this, but the common knowledge is 2-3 pages, max. Without some massaging, your long-winded resume will be too troublesome to read. Why? Oftentimes we’re handed a stack of resumes and after a while, it all gets so repetitive that you confuse which applicant had which experience. The key to resolving this is massaging your work experience to be relevant to the job that you’re applying for.
Tailor that resume, chief
I know that it’s hard work to tailor resumes for every position, but at the very least you should have a few tailored resumes in the areas that you are most proficient. For example, I have three separate resumes that I give out if I’m applying for a developer, IT, or management position. I’ve done all three jobs, so I have three tailored sets of job experience that subtly (or perhaps not-so-subtly) emphasize those roles in the full body of my experience. Sometimes I leave a job out that isn’t relevant to the position, but I’ve found some interviewers are taken aback when you mention you left out some job experience. Why would you care if I slung lattes at a coffee bar while in high school, I ask?
Cover letters are mandatory
You might have heard people say that cover letters are dying out in this age of digital resumes. They’re lying so they can take your jobs. Every single resume you sent out needs a cover letter, and it needs to be customized to the company you want to work for. I know that this is a tall order for some, but if you’re a prudent applicant you’ve already studied the company you’re applying for and know what they do or provide. Why not explain to the person who’s going to hire you why they should waste their day interviewing you? The cover letter is your “First Impression” on paper. It helps to show how eloquently you convey yourself on paper, and it’s pretty important in tehnology jobs because a lot of our jobs involve some level of technical writing. Ignore this advice at your peril.
Please provide your starting salary…
Yeah, if you want to get priced out of the market. The answer to that question should always be “we can negotiate that after the interview when you’re sure I’ll be a great fit!” If they press, try to dodge as much as possible. The salary question allows them to automatically throw out resumes. If you come in low, they think you’re not in touch with the job requirements or the job market. If you come in high, they’ll think you’re either presumptuous or literally are too experienced and therefore too expensive to hire.
Your resume will give them an accurate idea of how much they should be paying you just by the virtue of how much experience you’re showing. If you’d like more details on this, check out this year’s Robert Half Salary Guide. This gives an accurate starting point to figure out how much money you should be asking for or how much they should be paying you. However, don’t tell them this number (or your imaginary What-Am-I-Worth-A-Year number) until after they’ve decided they want to hire you.
I don’t want to end this on a somber note, but please keep in mind that if you’re trying to get interviews at companies where you have no inroads or networking contacts, please be ready to get a callback from 1 out of every 20 or more resumes you send. It is a cut-throat job market and there are hundreds if not thousands of people applying for the same positions you are, but they’re better at bullshitting on resumes than you are. It’s tough to get a job without having friends in the industry already. Don’t get discouraged! Do what I advise above, especially on the socializing front, and you’ll be much better off.
Appendix 1: What a well-formed Systems Administrator job reference might look like
I was asked to provide an actual SysAdmin-focused job description to help some people along. Below is a completely fictitious entry that I’ve generated off the top of my head.
Senior Systems Administrator, ImaginedCompany, LLC (2008-Present)
- Advanced Active Directory provisioning and maintenance for a 100,000 user company
- Deployment automation via Windows Deployment Services in Windows and KickStart in Linux
- vSphere setup, troubleshooting and administration with multiple Datacenters and Hosts
- Deep Telephony – PRI, TDM, FXO/FXS setup and maintenance
- Configuration Automation via Puppet and Systems Center
- Revision control with Mercurial, Git and Subversion
- Independently developed the Windows Deployment Services installation for ImaginedCompany, decreasing provisioning time from hours to minutes.
- Converted legacy servers from bare-metal hardware to vmware, saving the company thousands of dollars a year in electricity
- Quickly reimplemented a PBX solution when the legacy telephone system hardware failed, enabling the company to continue to make money until a permanent solution was in place.
- Led-by-example with new project to use source and configuration management by way of Mercurial and Puppet/Systems Center
- 2008 – LOPSA Most Active Mentor
- 2009 – Golden Baseball Bat recipient for best client-facing customer service.
- 2011 – Employee of the Year