Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Life and Work

This article appears in slightly different form in the September/October 2009 issue of
IEEE Micro © 2009 IEEE.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America declares that every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are precious rights, but exercising them takes work. Pursuing happiness entails overcoming many obstacles. The easiest and hardest of these are often in our own heads.

Recently I attended a workshop called Strategic Planning for Your Life, led by Judy Glick-Smith, a former president and Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). That workshop is not the subject of this review. You can find information about it at Glick-Smith's method asks you to begin by discovering what makes you happy and casting aside the internal obstacles to pursuing that happiness. She then lays out steps whereby you can arrive at a set of life goals and an ongoing process for pursuing and updating them.

By whatever path you arrive at your life goals, they are likely to include some sort of productive work. If that work is a high-tech job, I can recommend a book to help you.

Land the Tech Job You Love by Andy Lester (Pragmatic Bookshelf, Raleigh NC, 2009, 272pp, ISBN 978-1-93435-626-5,, $23.95)

Andy Lester has been writing software since the mid-1980s. He is active in the Perl community, where he maintains more than 20 modules on the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network (CPAN). In the course of his professional life he has seen countless résumés, interviewed many candidates, and done his share of job hunting as well. His frustration at what he has seen led him to write this book.

Many people give job-hunting advice. Most are dogmatic about their recommendations, even though one effective job hunter may give you rules that contradict those of another equally effective job hunter. Lester is no exception. He is sure of his rules, though he recognizes that they may not apply to your situation. Hardly anybody, however, is likely to disagree with the basic principles he starts with:
  • Be honest with yourself.
  • Be honest with others.
  • Think like the boss.
  • Be a problem solver.
  • Sell yourself.
  • Tell stories.
  • Be positive.
Lester begins from the premise that life is too short for a job you don't love. Being honest with yourself is a key to ensuring that you don't wind up in a job that you don't love. Lester urges you to think about what you want in a job before you start looking at job ads or writing a résumé. Following one of his own principles, he tells a story of how he had taken a seemingly perfect job and found it to be unbearable. He hadn't aksed himself what he really wanted in the job. Had he done so and given himself honest answers, he would not have taken the job.

Once you decide what you want in a job, it's time to think about a résumé. Lester identifies what he considers to be the basic sections of a résumé and tells you how to gather and organize the contents of each. There are no surprises here, but his systematic coverage can help you ensure that you haven't overlooked anything.

Lester also identifies material that you should not include. Some of this is uncontroversial -- for example, don't include a photo or any information that you can't legally be asked about in an interview. Cautious hiring managers will discard such résumés without looking further. Some of his other rules, however, may cause raised eyebrows. Some experts suggest beginning a résumé with an objective, but Lester considers objectives to be useless fluff, often filled with meaningless phrases like "challenging position" and "contribute my skills." And if you ever apply for a job for which Andy Lester is the hiring manager, don't waste space on your résumé with the phrase "references available on request."

Once you have the basic building blocks, Lester wants you to put them together in a variety of ways. Of course you need a generic résumé on paper and in electronic form, but that's just the beginning. Ideally, for example, you should create a separate résumé for each position, tailoring and arranging the parts to highlight the ways in which you meet that job's requirements. Furthermore, you need versions in various formats. Some hiring managers ask for résumés in Word format, while others want text, and you should also have a generic HTML version on a publicly accessible website. If someone asks for Word format and you send them PDF, they already know that you can't or won't follow directions. Lester has much more to say about résumés, and it's worth reading, even if you don't agree with all of it.

After all of this groundwork, you have to find a job to apply for. Lester wisely steers you away from "job boards," websites that treat candidates and jobs as fungible commodities to be matched with one another. He also distrusts recruiters, because their clients are the hiring firms. You might think that recruiters find positions for candidates, but their actual job is to find candidates for positions. Instead of using job boards and recruiters, ask the people you know -- including your Aunt Edna, but excluding your current co-workers -- to help. Help can take many forms, but Lester advises keeping it lightweight. Ask for pointers and leads that you can follow up on. Don't ask anyone to do your job hunting for you.

Another piece of good advice that Lester offers is to use traditional sources like newspapers or the local Chamber of Commerce. Newspapers can give you a high level view of what's available in the area they serve. The staff of the Chamber of commerce can probably give you pointers to valuable contacts inside firms that need your services.

Once you find some interesting job possibilities, there is more to do before you send anybody your résumé. Lester tells you how to use publicly available sources like a company's website or its Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings to answer the key questions: how does this company make money, how could I help it make money, and would I enjoy doing so? Remember, life is too short for a job you don't love.

Lester suggests using online resources to help you find information about a company. You might discreetly approach a current or former employee who posts to a technical mailing list that you belong to. Or you might look on the Facebook or LinkedIn social networking sites for people whose profiles mention the company.

Once you've found out everything you can about the company, it's time to apply for the job. Many people will tell you to send your résumé with a cover letter, but Lester points out an aspect of cover letters that you may not have thought of. If you can't come up with two paragraphs that explain why you are a good match for the specific job and company, you probably shouldn't apply.

Jack Molisani, a recruiter who often makes presentations about job hunting, tells the story of a résumé he sent to a client who wanted someone with patent experience. The client called him back and asked why Molisani was wasting his time with a candidate who didn't have patent experience. The résumé mentioned the candidate's patent experience, but not near the top, and the client hadn't read far enough to find it. This illustrates several of Lester's points. One point is that if interviewers ask you questions that your résumé clearly answers, don't say "read the bleeping résumé." Molisani knew better than to call his client's attention to the material the client had overlooked.

A second point that Molisani's story illustrates is that you should look at your résumé through the eyes of the hiring manager. Think about what is important to the hiring manager and make that part of your experience prominent on the résumé. I agree with that point, but I disagree with the method Lester suggests for making parts of your résumé prominent. Lester suggests highlighting words of the résumé that are important to the specific job by making them bold. This is a dangerous technique. A skillful communicator might get away with it, but most job candidates are likely to wind up with résumés that look like a ransom notes. Other techniques that Lester also advocates are more effective. Rearrange the sections of the résumé to highlight the most important information, and mention key points in the cover letter. By all means, tailor the résumé and cover letter to the job, but go easy on the bold.

While Lester rightly encourages you to follow directions and give hiring managers what they ask for, he makes an exception for salary history. Never provide this information. It's nobody's business, and there is no benefit to providing it. Lester suggests finessing this request by politely but firmly noting that the information is confidential and that it's not a subject that you discuss with anyone.

When the company invites you to a job interview, you're almost there. Unfortunately, many candidates perform badly in interviews. The hiring manager is likely to prepare carefully for the interview, and you should do the same. This includes preparing logistically. Arrive on time with whatever materials you need to bring with you. Clear your schedule, so you can stay as long as necessary.

There are many ways to look at interviews. They are conversations in which you can lead as well as follow. They are sales pitches by which you show that you are the right person for the job and make the hiring manager eager for your services. They are a first day on the job in which you seek out the areas where the company needs you most. Unfortunately, they can also be an obstacle course in which the hiring manager seeks to trip you up with questions designed to eliminate candidates and simplify the hiring choice. Lester prepares you for all of these aspects of interviews.

One piece of advice that Lester provides applies to many of life's situations -- not just to interview questions. Listen, and seek to understand not just the question, but the reason for the question. Remember that an interview is a chance for each party to decide whether they would like to work with the other. Sometimes understanding the reasons for questions can help you with your half of that decision. And being sure you understand a question before you answer it can keep you from saying something that makes you look uninformed or ill-prepared.

Lester also provides a lot of advice that you've probably heard before, but it can't hurt to keep it in mind. Arrive a little early. Treat everbody like the CEO -- especially the receptionist. Stand to shake hands. Make eye contact (but don't stare). Be positive. Ask for the job.

I do not completely agree with Lester about how to handle a portfolio. I learned about how to use portfolios from Lance Gelein, another former president of STC. To Gelein a portfolio is a set of impressive props to use while telling stories. If the conversation comes around to a specific kind of job, you open your portfolio to a sample of that sort of work and tell the story of how you approached it, what obstacles you faced, and how you overcame them. The portfolio piece is not the entire job, but a snippet that you can point at while telling the story. Your portfolio does not stand alone without you. You never leave it with the hiring manager or let anyone look at it without your accompanying narration.

To Lester, a portfolio is a collection of representative pieces of work that you are proud of. Each stands alone, and you happily leave a copy behind for the hiring manager to peruse after you've left. There is, of course, a place for this sort of work sample, but it doesn't fully exploit the story-telling potential of a portfolio.

Lester devotes an entire chapter to tough interview questions. Again, the key is to understand the reason behind the question, so you can directly, without equivocation, satisfy the interviewer's concern. Lester identifies a number of red flags that interviewers want to uncover. Some of these are two-edged swords. For example, do you refuse to ask for help? Are you unable to work without constant hand holding? Interviewers ask questions designed to detect where you stand with respect to these extremes. If you recognize what they are getting at, you can give a useful answer. Don't try to duck questions like "What is your greatest weakness?" or "Tell me about a project that didn't go well." Lester shows you how to approach such questions.

Lester's advice doesn't stop with the interview. He covers follow-up, dealing with an offer or with rejection, and even how to stay hirable after you start the new job. He has written a short but comprehensive book -- easy to read and full of good advice. Like every other book about job hunting, this one is not perfect, but if you absorb its advice and adapt it to your situation, it should pay for itself long before your first hour on your new tech job is complete.