Benevolent Stalking: Looking for your first software development job

So out of all the questions I get asked these days as a recent graduate of DevBootcamp, perhaps one of the most frequent concerns exactly how one goes about finding a job; after all, this is one of the well-known things about the tech industry that is driving so many people towards bootcamps in the first place, the fact that there are an unusually large amount of open jobs currently available for programmers, and there’s a lot of curiosity out there about how exactly this conversion takes place between bootcamp graduate and working developer.

And in fact there is a special way to go about this, a way of looking for a job that differs from the traditional way I’ve done it in other industries in the past; and for lack of a better term I call it “benevolent stalking,” although I promise that it’s not actually as sinister as that term implies. See, what the career team at DevBootcamp really emphasize while teaching us job-seeking skills is that it’s way more important for us to find companies we actually like and admire first, long before we find out whether they actually have any open positions at that particular moment, simply because of the nature both of that industry and of the hiring process in America to begin with; I don’t know if you were aware of this already, but the simple fact is that somewhere around 75 percent of all jobs that get filled in the US are never publicly advertised even once, and especially an an industry like programming within a smaller community like Chicago (or, well, “smaller” compared to San Francisco or New York), who gets which positions often boils down to who personally knows whom, who can make a personal recommendation to whom, and who might get quietly invited to come interview for a position long before that position ever becomes known to the general public.

Nepotistic popularity contest, you might bitterly complain? Well, no, in reality not really; because unlike a lot of other industries (say for example “guerrilla marketing,” something I used to actually make real money doing back in the ‘90s, back in those pre-Recession days when you could get away with making money off made-up phrases), development jobs still fundamentally boil down to who can do the work, as objectively proven by things like literal tests you take during the interview process, so recommendations from peers within the industry tend to be the real deal, not just back-scratching but a legitimate suggestion of someone who is legitimately qualified, meaning that there is real and sincere value to be had in making as many friends within the tech industry as you can, apart from the smarmy schmoozing that so traditionally comes with many “networking” opportunities. (Although make no mistake, after a month now of being out in the job market, there are plenty of smarmy schmoozing opportunities to be had in the tech industry as well.)

Plus there’s another big reason to be doing something like this during your job search as a newly minted software developer, which is that building a “personal network” of contacts within your local community is a legitimately important thing to your own well-being; it keeps you connected to all the latest developments going on in your community, keeps your ear closer to the ground when it comes to the hot new languages and JavaScript libraries, helps keep you informed of the latest shakeups at the latest startups and where simply to find the best free booze on a Tuesday night. This is the other big thing that the DevBootcamp career team has been emphasizing to us, something I’m able to confirm more and more with my own eyes — that unlike a place like San Francisco that is so defined by competition, a tech scene like Chicago’s is a legitimate community of peers and friends, and it is literally part of your job to go out there and make that network both as pleasant and as helpful for yourself as you can possibly can, divorced from whether this one person at this one place has a direct line on an open job position at this particular moment of time. You’re playing the long game when you become a software developer in a place like Chicago; and that’s true of most other burgeoning tech communities that aren’t in California or New York, whether that’s the surprisingly robust industry in Cleveland you’re talking about, Austin, Boulder, Madison, or any of another dozen places that are having sudden explosions in their tech communities these days.

So why do I call it “benevolent stalking?” Well, because when you go about job-searching in the way I’m describing, where you seek out great companies first and only then figure out whether you can get a job there, the key to it all is making new friends at these companies you’re interested in; and so that’s part of your new “job” as an opportunity-seeker, is to go out and find these interesting and cool people who happen to work at these companies, then to convince them to meet up with you, to share their knowledge, to get to know you enough that they feel comfortable actually recommending you for a job there, etc. So for a good example, one of the first things you might do after you decide you’re officially interested in a company is simply search for them on LinkedIn, which will most often give you a nearly complete list of every employee who actually works at that company, a brilliant detail of that service that I had never frankly never thought of using LinkedIn for before going through DevBootcamp’s career program.

Once you’re armed with a list like this, then, typically you might want to go about finding three really solid people to contact out of the blue — say, one of the higher-up people there like a CTO or a VP of Technology, then two mid-level developers like yourself, people just in the trenches every day and who can give you good practical advice about the daily travails of actually working for that company. Can you find people like this who are around your age? Who share a particular hobby or interest with you? Who live in the same area as you? Who have yet another excuse for you to write besides even these? Great! Now take that person and look up their information online; check out their own LinkedIn account, their employee page at the company’s website, their Twitter account, their personal blog, their Github account, etc etc. What are they like? What are they into? Do they enjoy boisterous, funny conversations, or quiet, serious ones?

Now, once you’re armed with this information, it’s time to do something that I thought at first would never possibly work when the DevBootcamp career team told us to do it, but which has really turned out to be a legitimately key part of this entire process — you simply write to the person in question and ask if they’d be interested in meeting up for coffee soon, to talk for 15 or 20 minutes about their job, their company, any advice they might have for someone just starting out, etc., which in HR terms is known by the more formal name of “informational interview.” Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like something that in a million years would actually work, but I’ve been amazed by how many people I hear back from during a process like this, enthusiastically agreeing to get together. Don’t forget, unlike a lot of other industries these days, the tech industry needs to find people like you just as much as you need to find companies like them; and also don’t forget that many of these people got their own jobs exactly through this process that you’re now going through, of hunting for great companies and then hunting for great people within those companies. They have just as much to gain by having coffee and feeling you out as you have to gain from them, plus often a karmic debt to pay off because of the person before them who agreed to meet up with them in just this fashion, and it’s these informational interviews that have turned out to be one of the most pleasant parts of the entire job-seeking process for me, certainly a lot more fun (and a lot more fruitful) than just shooting off a bunch of random resumes to a bunch of random positions at a bunch of random job boards online.

Now combine all this with the final step of the process, which is simply getting out there and making yourself of as much use to the local community of developers as possible — attend a bunch of Meetup.com events every week, volunteer for local tech conferences, take lots of photos then share them on Twitter for the sake of the hosts, and especially (ESPECIALLY) get involved with as many “hackathons” and “hacking nights” as you can, one of the best ways possible to show off to potential employers that you really can do the work they need a new hire to do. Remember, the key is that you should be adding value to all these other people’s lives, long before you ever ask anything of them; so instead of running around constantly asking what these people can do for you, start by doing useful things for them, regardless of whether they’re in a specific position that specific moment to do you a favor back. Like I said, you’re playing the long game when it comes to getting involved with the tech industry, and you never know when the intern you’re helping out now is in another three years going to be a mid-level developer who could recommend you for a fellow job at their new place (or God forbid, when that mid-level developer is three years from now the owner of their own startup, and could potentially make you a millionaire by bringing you on as one of the founders).

Next time: Your guide to Chicago’s “startup fertile crescent” of River West and the West Loop

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