Teching Up

I’ve been interviewing lately at Netlify for new Support Engineers. It’s been a very rewarding process — and the part that has been the most satisfying (besides growing my team with awesome people) has been an unexpected one.

Let me set the stage:

  1. I try very hard to bring compassion to all of my actions — work, play, interactions with strangers, interactions with myself.
  2. We use a somewhat inflexible recruiting software tool, which has some interesting quirks.
  3. One of those quirks is that after rejecting a candidate, they can no longer email the hiring manager. In fact — that email bounces and makes you second guess yourself. “Did I typo something? I swear I just hit Reply! How is this generic email address suddenly not working when it just emailed me something 5 minutes ago?”

So, if you haven’t guessed, the antihero of this story is technology — it depersonalizes the interview process and makes you feel like a pointless cog in a machine. “I got SO rejected that I can’t even say thanks for the opportunity. Fuck those guys and FML!”

This triggered me. Impostor Syndrome? You can has! Adding insult to injury? Check! Projecting the attitudes and beliefs of myself and my company? Not in the least.

After confirming there was no setting I could change and giving extensive feedback to the product team for the software in question about my strong feelings, I went to my team and this paraphrased conversation occurred:

“Did you know our hiring software does this?”

“No, but that seems fine.”

“Not to me. People who apply to my job do a take home exercise that is non-trivial. It takes an hour if you are a whiz kid and up to 8 if you aren’t and you follow the instructions. If you don’t follow the instructions — you could spend even more time on it. That is an investment I would like to reward with AT LEAST a pat on the back, rather than a big ol F U.”

“OK, how do you want to do that?”

“I want to give them my personal email address to follow up if they want feedback. They put in the effort — I will put in a tiny fraction of that effort in explaining how they could have done better and encouraging them to keep trying with that new information in hand.”

“The lawyers won’t like that.”

“I don’t like that lawyers get to tell me to be non-compassionate, and I don’t know how invested I can remain in a company that doesn’t embrace this core value of mine. Could we ask them for advice?”

“OK.”

So — the lawyers said “Sure, you are allowed to talk with people after rejection, but you could get in trouble with comments like X, Y, or Z” (mostly, use common sense and remember that the U.S. is extremely lawsuit-happy).

Sweet success!

But that isn’t the end of the story. Spoiler: I/we didn’t get sued.

However, I have participated in some really uplifting conversations post-rejection with candidates who want what I want — to make the experience a valuable use of both of our time and a growth experience. I learn a lot when interviewing and grading and talking with folks. I hope folks learn a lot from our take home exercise and interviewing. But as I learned in school — tests aren’t great at teaching — they’re great at showing what you couldn’t reproduce on demand. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them.

This, then, is one of the more generally applicable pieces of advice I gave a candidate upon their follow-up days after rejection as they attempted to learn more from the experience. And technology is no longer the antihero…

“I think I need more technical skills. How do you recommend I come by them, since my current job isn’t particularly technical?”

Here is my advice. I hope it can help or inspire someone else.

As far as “teching up” I think there are a variety of options depending on your skills. I think that product-specific forums are a bit limiting to be honest — though I know participation inWordPress forums is almost required to get a job at Automattic, for instance.

So, I’ll suggest 3 ways to “level up.” But before you do any of these — I think I’d give some real thought to what you want to do. “Tech” is great — but it’s like saying I want to do “art” — sure, great! But if you’re starting from 0 you probably want to do “painting” or “sculpture” rather than “all the things” — or anyway, you’ll probably get further, faster, with a bit of focus. Or maybe that was just me in my “survey of art” in high school. But whatever — I’m speaking from my own knowledge and my supposition that it is at least somewhat generally applicable.

If you don’t have a specific interest besides “become more techy” (which is totally legit! It just bears examination IMNSHO) — I’d experiment before embarking on any of the 3 routes I’m gonna mention. Spend a day each playing with techs that interest you — e.g. linux, networking, programming, debugging /troubleshooting— and maybe it’ll become clear what you like/dislike and then you can leverage that more specifically on one of these paths.

1. Meetups! These are almost always pretty narrow in focus — so there are probably dozens near you — but the Node.js programmers guild is way different than the Designers powwow is completely unrelated to the Database Administrators Neckbeard Grumpfest. They should be free, though — so not a bad path to do some of that experimenting — very low cost of “tasting.”

2. Doing The Thing. If you’re a structured learner, online classes may be worth the $$ (udemy for instance isn’t a bank-breaker). If you’re less structured, many of the tutorials out there assume 0 knowledge and build from there and those are nearly all free. Here’s an example that was my first google hit for “getting started with Node.js”, and it is way better than any list I would come up with even after researching for hours and having moderate expertise in that area: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/2353818/how-do-i-get-started-with-node-js

3. Forums are still good/great — you just have to find ones that are either broad enough to give you general skills or specifically about something you’re already fascinated about. I personally believe in the power of being a generalist — but I also think that is a dying breed, and can be quite hard to sell yourself as without a lot of experience and some clues about how to spin it as relevant for people who aren’t believers themselves. However — if I were trying to train a new generalist in tech — I’d say “hang out on stackoverflow.com and serverfault.com”. You’ll probably end up “doing” some things to answer questions — but you can see a LOT and learn a LOT by just reading answers and the beauty of those sites is — you are ENCOURAGED to improve questions and answers by editing. No particular skill needed except communcation skills— but you’ll absolutely pick some stuff up in the process. And then — hey — you also have a resume builder! “Look at my profile on Stackoverflow to see some examples of my work.” Since the StackExchange network’s gamification is guided and super useful and obvious, you’ll get good guidance when starting from 0 at “things to try” and figure out where the sweet spot is for your skills now — and discover new spots to pitch in as those skills evolve.

There are a lot of other ways to “get into tech”. But as a mentor/advisor, those are my top 3 picks. All free, all letting you explore your tastes, and all drawing on the vast stores of knowledge on the internet — and on communities already existing in the world.