Lessons Learned During The Job Search — Part 1
I’ve been in the workforce for 25 years, 20 of them in the US. I’ve changed more than 15 jobs so far, last time just under three months ago (as of end of August 2018). This last job search had given me some new insights that I have not had embraced in any of my previous searches. I am sure many people are in the same or even in the worse position, so I thought it would be interesting to share “news from the field.” The internet is ripe with articles like “10 Biggest Mistakes When Looking For A New Job” or “10 Rules To Find A Job Of Your Dreams”, or some such. They’re a bliss to write, and their usefulness to the reader is at a level of poking your own eye out. They don’t solve a problem of answering two important questions — “What am I doing wrong?” and “How to improve on what I do right?” — Questions you ultimately need to ask yourself daily. More so, when looking for a new job.
Finding a job is not an easy task. Depending on which statistics you’re looking at the unemployment is at all times low: 4.1% or 3.9% is the most recent number I could find (as of Summer 2018). Still, finding a good job may be a problem, especially if you are not a software engineer and somewhere around the middle of your career. Time and time again I hear about people struggling with finding a job, mostly in the IT sector. I don’t think this has anything to do with a shortage of jobs, but more with the way that particular candidate had positioned and presented themselves to potential employers. Or, possibly, failed to position or present themselves at all.
I am coming out of the incredibly intensive 3-month search that ultimately has landed me a job that’s more interesting, better compensated and with way more room to grow professionally compared to the previous one. I thought to document some of the lessons learned. These are by no means absolute truths, but rather observations that I have made into specific actionable items. Following these actionable items had led me to land seven job offers within 3 months of search from amazing companies. Each one was paying more than I had at a previous place, and, unless it was a contract position, had a better benefits package than my previous workplace.
It’s important to understand a few things from the start:
- Your job search will produce an immense amount of negatives and only a few positives: you will be rejected WAY MORE times than accepted;
- The job search is a sales process. You are selling YOU to the highest bidder;
- The demand changes all the time. The company that didn’t need your qualifications yesterday had just lost someone to a competitor, and they will open a matching position tomorrow;
- The job search is a journey that takes time. The dishwasher can get hired on the spot, but it may take more than a month to interview and hire a senior manager role;
- Everything is negotiable. I mean — everything.
To elaborate on the first point, I would break the whole journey into several steps that are very similar to a sales funnel. For those who know what that is — skip the next paragraph. For those who don’t — here’s a simple picture of what your job search “sales funnel” might look like.
At each step down the funnel, the number of your interactions significantly decrease. For example — for every 40 resumes sent out you may be getting ten phone calls from recruiters, five first interviews, and only one second-tier interview. The formation of the funnel is a result of potential employers rejecting you or you rejecting incoming leads.
With this journey in mind, you need to gear up, pack all the useful things and brace yourself for a trip.
Prepare for your job search.
Treat your job search as a business to business sale. You have something you need to sell — YOU! You need to be prepared to be sold. The more effort you put in preparation, the better your chances are.
Prepare your collateral.
Update and polish the most recent version of your resume. Use any of the free resume review services that Monster/Dice/CareerBuilder spam you with. Ask a friend. Ask a recruiter who wants to submit you somewhere. The more people look at your resume, the better. It is where you will start. There will be many revisions, so come up with the system to track these different versions. Make sure to turn off change tracking in your resume.
If your job required a portfolio of any kind — make sure you have that ready to be produced on a moment’s notice. If you are a software developer — which projects have you worked on if you are an accountant — what kind of businesses you’ve worked with; if you’re a salesperson — what kind of accounts did you close. You should also be ready to produce a backstory for each item in your portfolio — what’s the purpose of this particular item, what was your part in creating it, what others did, how you have interacted with them, how did it help the customer solve their problem. The goals here are to show your ability to tackle different issues (so you’re not a one-trick pony), demonstrate your ability to work with clients and peers, ability to resolve complex items and being able to achieve meaningful and measurable success. Additionally, an elaborate story tells your potential employer that you haven’t just lifted that resume from someone else. Yes, it does happen.
Become a storyteller
A lot of people think about the interview as a series of Qs and As. Coincidentally, the same lot of people mostly land jobs that are just short of being good. They’re “good enough.” As the chapter name implies — start thinking about the interview you are doing as story time. The interviewer is stuck with interviewing the candidates and for the sake of fairness, adherence to legal, HR and other company policies, she (or he) asks the same set of questions over and over again. I have interviewed my share of people and many times I’ve been kicked out of the process for “not following the script.” This is why you have to do this: repeat after me — “HR is not your friend.”
Think of the filters you have to set up. Think of the set of roles or positions you are targeting. Now, to prepare for interviews, imagine you have already been in that position for 3 to 5 years and are being promoted. Your task is to hire a replacement, who will be reporting to you and you want to make sure you won’t end up doing all your work for him or her. You want to hire someone smart and capable. What would you ask that person? How would you be able to tell if they are indeed smart and capable? Now, write down all your questions. Most likely they would sound like this: “In your position of project manager at ACME Deliveries, how did you manage your human resources?” or something like that.
Instead of preparing a straight answer — prepare to tell a story. You literally can start with “Let me tell you a story about an amazing team I was managing while working on a time-sensitive project.” Now you have the interviewer all excited to hear about the success of an “amazing team.” You’ve given them the context (team, project, basic requirements) and now everything you’re saying will lay in its place.
Setting a proper context is important. You’re lucky if the interviewer was able to glance over your resume before giving you a call. Usually, they read it for the first time as they speak with a candidate. Company name doesn’t mean anything. Even if you’ve worked for big names, like Cognizant, Deloitte, NTT, IBM — these companies are so large that you could have worked on one of the thousands of projects. No one would know right off the bat unless you put your job stories in some sort of a context.
Each story should be some sort of an achievement. Even if it’s a story about a failure. I personally have been asked “tell me about your failed projects” on three interviews I had in one day. Make sure you prepare something where you can speak about positive sides as well — larger failure averted or at least learning valuable lessons and implementing changes to the organization.
Prepare a couple of stories you are going to tell HR or recruiter — an “HR version” of stories or an elevator pitch. It should be a compressible 1 to 3 to a 5-minute overview of your experience that should highlight your accomplishments with each job you have held in the past. Your goal here is to convince a person who usually has no idea what your role was before and what it may be in the future that you are the right candidate for this specific job. Read the job description and use same or similar constructs. If the recruiter expects to hear words like “CRM” or “Agile” — use those exact words, instead of using “Salesforce” or “Jira.” They may not have the knowledge, time nor desire to connect those for you. Your goal is to convince the gatekeeper to let you in. Watch out for questions they are asking: some recruiters (internal or external) will try to steer you in a right direction, some will go through a script. Your story should be succinct enough for either scenario.
The more elaborate versions of your stories — a “true story” versions are the stories you need to present to a hiring manager or a specialist who will be interviewing you during the second round. The second round is usually a “make it or break it” round, so you need to make sure you understand what the hiring manager is looking for. Don’t be a square plug for a round hole! Instead, look for ways your previous achievements can be related to what the company needs. If they are looking for Project manager working on CRM system implementation and you have successfully implemented a help desk system — show how the process would be the same, how you managed project’s dependencies, budget, expectations, and people.
Ideally, you want to practice these in front of the mirror or with a friend. Your delivery should be clear and concise. Remember — you will be speaking over the phone to an overworked and underpaid human being, with a cheap headset (or worse — on the speakerphone) and a pipeline of people they need to talk to and tasks they need to get done during the day. You need to be able to deliver your initial sales pitch as well as the “true story” over the phone as efficiently as possible, allowing the interviewer to ask questions and place you (in their head) on top of the pile.
Keep tabs on everyone
If you are pedantic enough — set up a free Trello or Asana account to track your job leads. Choose a Kanban view and create buckets as per the funnel image above. It would help you measure the success ratio for your process, track how each of your resume version is doing and so on. It may not be necessary to write up each individual recruiter or email, but it would definitely be fun.
Personally, I was too lazy to do that, but I’ve trained myself to keep a lot of things in my head, so I knew where I was with each response from a potential employer.
Define your ideal buyer — select your filters.
Select the variables that define your ideal company. It could be compensation, location, specific kind of work you’d like to do or even company size or industry. You need to define all these parameters in advance before you start sending out resumes. You also need to determine how hard are you set on these parameters and if any of them are negotiable. Maybe you don’t want to go below a certain amount of money, but you’re open to move or endure longer commute for a more exciting project or a higher pay rate. Once you have these filters firmly in your head (or on paper) — say “no” to anyone who doesn’t fit your criteria. Not only you will save plenty of time by avoiding useless interactions, but you will also remain more focused on what you are looking for.
Side note: in my niche and in some others there are three popular ways to hire someone.
- One is the old-fashioned “FTE” — full-time employment. Comes with salary, automatic tax withholding, benefits, paid time off and employee book.
- Second is a corp 2 corp contract where you are incorporated and your company is signing a contract with their company. Some people don’t have their own corporation, so they end up working as independent consultants “on 1099”. The benefit here is that you get exactly your hourly rate. If it’s $50/hour and you’ve worked 10 hours — you’re getting $500 written on the check. You don’t get benefits, no paid time off and you have to deal with your own taxes. If you’re a contractor or a consultant — this is actually one of the best ways to be paid, as almost everything becomes a deductible. Talk to your accountant if you want to learn more.
- The third is a contract on W2. It’s the cheapest way to scam the workers from their money. Since it’s a contract you still don’t get benefits or paid time off. Additionally, you cannot file any of the deductions that are standard if you’re incorporated (or 1099 consultant). However, the hiring company is withholding taxes, therefore, you end up with a smaller take-home amount. So you get all the disadvantages of a full-time job (smaller paycheck and none of the tax-deductible items) paired with disadvantages of a contract (no benefits and no paid time off). If I understand the reasoning behind it — some companies require their vendors to supply their own staff (not subcontractors). This is the only way for a company to cheat the system by hiring subcontractors without officially subcontracting out the work. Let me know if there’s a better explanation for this.
Get out of the desperation mindset
According to 2017 study by CareerBuilder, 78% of full-time workers in the US are living from paycheck to paycheck. I am hoping you’re in the other 12%, but just in case you aren’t — this paragraph is for you.
One thing you can’t escape is this feeling of a doomsday looming over when you have to pay your next set of bills, the rent, etc. Without a job, you can’t do that. You start feeling desperate each day you don’t land a job. Your thoughts grow darker, you start checking with your friends to see if you can crash with one of them once you’re unable to pay rent. You put stuff from your home up for sale on eBay, Craigslist or Facebook. At some point, even two kidneys may start looking like a luxury. I’ve certainly been there, and more times then I would want to admit. This mentality has to stop.
True, no magic unicorn is going to gallop in and save the day. You alone are responsible for your salvation. That is why it’s extremely important not to descend into depths of dark thoughts, depression, and anxiety. Recruiters and employers can immediately feel it; your sales pitch becomes desperate, your performance fails. I have been there too, and I was completely unable to land any kind of jobs, even below my level, while in this mindset. It’s incredible how detrimental it is to even simple things, like talking about your most recent experience or even a small chit-chat.
On top of this, the desperation mindset forces you to take the first offer on the table. This mindset forces you to accept the lowest hanging fruit in exchange for stopping the pain and suffering. And I would agree, in some cases, it’s an acceptable course of action — if you have a family to feed, then you take what you can. However, this may prevent you from accepting that interview with a better company or missing a call that could change your career, or not being focused enough on getting the job you want.
Pace yourself for your journey. Set the correct expectations. Depending on which role you’re looking for and where in your career you are — the hiring process itself may take up to a month. I have asked a few people in my network about this. Most of them (being in the middle of their careers) confirmed that they have to go through at least 3 to 4 interviews, sometimes even more. The overall process may take up to 8 weeks, especially if the company is bad at a scheduling or making decisions. On top of that add the time you need to negotiate the offer and get it approved — this may take an additional 2 weeks.
All Aboard The Job Search Train
Once you have your sales tools ready and your buyer defined — you can take your job search journey to the next level.