The way points of the job search climb

LinkedIn lit up with a post by Jasmine Pak on her frustration at getting repeated rejections from many companies as she pursued her job search. Her inbox exploded with supportive messages and a few job interviews. Her story served as a motivation to write this follow up to my last story on understanding the hiring manager’s decision framework. In this post, I’ll speak to applicants who have had challenges in getting to an offer, and I’ll speak to the old adage “to try the same thing over and over again and expect something to change is the definition of insanity.” Instead this post recommends you understand each phase of the job process, why it’s there and determine what you if anything you should change by looking at how you are doing over repeated tries.

The first thing to consider is your resume or LinkedIn profile. The resume in my opinion is the most over emphasized part of the job search process. People spend so much time laboring over this single document for no appreciable gain. Your resume serves on purpose and only one purpose — to get you a screening call. If you are getting a reasonable number of follow ups to your applications, your resume is fine and don’t spend any more time on making it perfect. It’s done it’s job, to get you a screen, it doesn’t get you a job.

Now, if you are not getting any screening calls from your applications you need to determine why. There are three major areas to consider. The first is are you applying to the wrong positions? Is your background appropriate to the position you are applying for. Do you have enough seniority, or do you have too much? Do your skills align with the role you are applying for? Do you look competitive in comparison to other applicants? The most important thing when you send your resume in is that it should match the qualifications and role you are applying for. A common mistake applicants make with the resume is to make it too general, since they are afraid of leaving something off of their resume in the fear that they will miss an opportnity. Remember, a hiring manager is looking for the best applicant to do the job, not an applicant who can do the job. So if your resume says you can do too many things, leave anything off that is not directly relevant. Focus.

The second possible reason is you are not applying to the right companies. Here in Silicon Valley, everyone wants to work at the hot companies and your resume will be one of a very large pile. If you are only applying to the “shiny” and “hot” companies only, your odds are stacked against you. Again, a common theme is “Don’t be proud” every interview you will learn something. Look for positions that are not your dream job and apply to those as well.

If you are applying to the right positions and you have broadened your search to the non-hot companies and you are not getting any callbacks. This is the time to look at your resume in earnest. Does it tell a story in your skills and progression? Are there red flags that come up that you need to provide context? Is your email on the resume correct? Worry more about content and less on formatting. If you are uncertain at this point, run an experiment by creating a second resume and sending both to some jobs and see which converts with a call back. It’s easy to do this, by creating a secondary email on Gmail with the ‘+’ option. So when you apply, use the email name+PM@gmail.com or name+PMM@gmail.com depending on which resume you submit and see if there is a difference. The goal is to figure out how to get callbacks.

The next step in the job search process is the recruiter phone screen. This is the dance where the recruiter is trying to identify what you are looking for, what’s your background against a checklist and can they afford you. The only goal for this step is to get to the hiring manager or the screening manager. You are not getting the job at this step. This step should be a no brainer and unless there is a complete mismatch you should move to a hiring phone screen. If you are not moving past this phase, it’s key that you focus on two things.

The first consideration is are you validating what the job skills the job requires? During this stage your requirement is to be confirmatory and not explanatory. Be as clear as possible without lying. It the recruiter has done his/her job, you should be a reasonable fit.If there is something clearly you are not able to do, say so. Most recruiters will not ding you on a single skill. Remember the recruiter is generally evaluated on how many people get to offer, not on yield.

The second factor to consider is your delivery. Do you sound crisp and clear in your answers. Are you articulate? Is what you say consistent with your background? If you have not been advancing past the recruiter phone screen, a good thing to do is record yourself during the call. Note I said, record yourself not the call. This can be with a digital recorder or even your laptop using a program like Sound Recorder or Audacity. Then listen to yourself, and having the absence of the other side of the recording is an advantage in this self assessment. If there are lots of “ums” or “ehms” etc, develop a script for this stage.

If the previous two stages of the interview process were about “not getting no” the next two stages are “getting to yes” These two stages are the hiring manager phone screen and the on site. In this case, the team is looking at two main criteria: “can the candidate do the job?”and “will the candidate fit into our workplace?”. The manager phone screen (and sometimes this will not be done by the manager, but someone else on the team) is the first time to show off what you know (or get caught with what you don’t know). For brevity I will call this the MPS.

The MPS will be the most academic part of the hiring process. There will be basic questions and case study questions to determine the answer “do you know what you say you know?” These will most likely be correct answer questions of the form “what is EBITDA?”, “describe what an MVP is and why is it important?” to something semi esoteric as “what are the HTTP codes 3xx, 4xx, 5xx indicate?” The other type of questions you encounter will be the case study question, where you are provided a scenario that you have to analyze or explain what you will do. This will often be of the form, “if you could change any one thing about our product, what would it be?”

The main point of the MPS by the screener is “will I waste my team’s time if they meet with this candidate?” Your job is to show that you know the basics and that you are articulate about them. If you consistently fail to move beyond the MPS, there two things you need to assess. First, do you actually know the discipline you are in? Secondly, can you explain it clearly? While this seems daunting to correct, there are some concrete things you can do.

The first is practice, this can be actual interviews or it can be with former colleagues and friends in your discipline. If it is with actual interviews, be aware of what types of questions you have had problems with and look up the answers to them so you know next time (“what are HTTP response codes again?”). If they are mock interview, the focus is to develop the “muscle memory” of the MPS. The MPS should have the consistency of a political candidate stump speech. If it’s not there, as they say getting to Carnegie Hall, “Practice, practice, practice” If you looking to get into a hot company, make sure you apply to other companies before you do and treat that as your pre-season. If you get past this, you are half way to yes.

The last phase typically is the On Site Interview or the OSI. At this point, you are at base camp and the summit is in sight. However, most climbers perish on the final leg. In this phase, this is a specialized version of the MPS. The OSI usually includes people from different stakeholders to the role as well as the hiring manager. In some cases you will even talk to the CEO. The goal of the OSI is to ensure the candidate is solid in the job role and will they work well with the team.

The “technical” details of the job will be explored in the form of case studies and behavioral questions. The case studies are often used to normalize between candidates, so be ready for puzzle type questions. Usually in the can you do the job, there will be an interview with your counterpart to see if you can work with the other team sufficiently. So expect a technical interview with an engineer if you are interviewing for a PM role. There are books on acing the technical interview that you can study and practice. In the end, it’s like Sudoku, the more you do the better you get. Lastly, you’ll be vetted for cultural compatability or the dreaded fit. This can only be prepped for by talking to others in the company or doing research. But it is probably the area you should prep for the least. If you shape yourself to be a fit for the interview, you are probably not going to like it there. In this case, the best prep is to be polite and be yourself. (Note if you are “aggro” or have other clear personality quirks, you may want to self reflect. This is not to excuse unacceptable behavior.)

If you are repeatedly not getting to offer at the OSI, do a self assessment and figure out if it is domain knowledge you need to brush up on. If you are solid there, consider hiring a career coach to see if there are aspects to how you interact that may be raising flags.

But if all things are solid and you are doing the right things, remember that hiring is an imperfect art. Both of the co-founders of WhatsApp were rejected by Facebook only to join the company in a more glorious fashion when they were acquired.

I hope this tour of the hiring journey clarified what is happening in each stage and that it will help you present yourself better on your next job search.

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