This is a short story about giving your career a different direction. How doing something totally different compared to what you’ve learned at university might be one of the best ideas.
In the last month of my master thesis at Rolls-Royce Germany, it dawned on me that I should start looking for a job. The last 5 years I studied and worked in the field of aeronautics and jet-engines. After my decision to change my career path from state of the art propulsion systems to data science and coding I had to start writing applications and put my name on the market.
The job hunt and other annoyances
There I stand at the first major step into my professional life as an engineer. Recently I decided to pursue a job as a data scientist or data analyst as these jobs best describe what I did the past years in my student jobs.
I had no clear picture of the company I wanted to work for. That’s why I started with a list of companies which came to my mind and which I imagined working for would be fun and challenging. There where big names like Amazon, Google and Facebook at which I didn’t even bother to apply. Then there were some German companies: Adjust, Urban Sports Club, N26, Flixbus and Babbel for instance and less known companies (at least in Germany) namely Shopify, King, Wooga, HeyJobs and Get Your Guide.
The first obvious step is to go to the company website and apply directly to open positions. Later I realised that there are more jobs of the same companies on platforms like Glassdoor, LinkedIn or StepStone which are not listed on the company website. Some required a cover letter, which is in my opinion completely useless, others just the CV and to some companies, I could apply using my LinkedIn profile which is the most convenient solution for me.
Out of my first 30 applications, I got around 20 rejections and some invitations for onsite interviews. The rest of the companies apparently didn’t even bother to get back to me at all.
Changing the perspective — Talent.io
All that rejection disillusioned me from the in Germany common perception that if you study engineering you’ll have no problems in the job market. People keep telling you that the companies are craving for top talents. All I learned up until now was that some companies don’t know how to answer job applications.
While browsing my LinkedIn feed I scrolled past an ad for Talent.io. This particular ad caught me with the line: “let companies apply to you!”. I didn’t need a second thought to know that I wanted to try this. Why not change seats and be the one who gets the applications and let me decide which company is worthy of my workforce.
There was a lot of curiosity on my side for this new approach. The first step was to register on the website and import my LinkedIn profile. This is the first filter they apply to their platform because they’re only looking for developers. After passing that, there is a phone interview with your personal Talent Advocate. Basically, it is a way of getting into more detail on the CV and what kind of job you're looking for. Once you pass this call your profile goes live on the platform and is visible for employee-seeking companies.
The first application I received came from think-cell looking for a C++ developer offering me 75k to 100k for a start. First I thought they must be mistaken but then I remembered that I did some C++ coding for my bachelor thesis and mentioned that during my interview with my Talent Advocate. I politely declined the offer telling them that coding in C++ is not what I’m currently looking for.
What on earth is a JetLang Master?
The second offer came from Stephan who was at the time working for PayFit in their office in Paris. He offered me the position of a Product Builder for the soon to be built German branch of the company. After reading the job description I still had no idea what I’d be doing but, I got curious.
After the initial contact via talent.io followed a series of skype calls with the rest of the German team, which at the time consisted of 3 members. During the online interviews, I gained more insight into what PayFit does and what would be expected from me as a Product Builder within the company.
Product Builder seems like a reasonable job title when it comes to coding and developing new features of the product. But, during the interviews, I got introduced to a second job title, that of a JetLang Master.
My first association thinking of a JetLang Master is an old man mastering some kind of martial art. I understood quickly what a JetLang Master (JLM) really is after some back and forth during the interviews. Basically it is somebody coding the payroll software using PayFits in-house programming language “JetLang” which is an abbreviation for Jet-Language.
At the time I couldn’t see any advantages of an in-house programming language just for payroll. I had to ask myself: do I really want to learn a new language again after I got comfortable using python, SQL and C++ during my studies and student jobs? After a second thought, my curiosity for PayFit, the German team and JetLang prevailed and Stephan invited me to Paris for an interview day.
First time in Paris — great Italian food and loads of interviews
After landing in Paris I didn’t know what to expect of the day to come. This was the first time for me in Paris and in France in general. My arrival at the office was scheduled for 11:30 am but, due to public transport and me being lost at Gare du Nord I managed to get to the office at 75 Rue de Tocqueville around 12 pm.
Finally, Stephan picked me up in front of the building. We went straight to lunch at an Italian place around the corner. At that time around 10 people already sat down and I just jumped straight in. At first, the situation was a bit strange as I did not know who everybody was and me being really bad with names I was a bit afraid that I had to remember them all.
The lunch was surprisingly easy going and the people were really interested and asked a lot of questions without me feeling interviewed. Only after lunch, I realised that one of the people having lunch with me was Florian who is one of the PayFit founders. I was a bit surprised to met Nicolas who was applying for the same role but Stephan reassured us that PayFit is more than willing to hire two Product Builder.
Back at the office, we went to the 4th floor to meet Niklas and Erik the other two members of the German team. Niklas and Stephan were in charge of the product and coding while Erik was responsible for sales, legal and customer service. Fun fact: his job title at the time was “Onboarding-Wow-Guy” which made me think that JetLang Master is not so bad after all.
The first interview of the day was the Product Exercise or JetLang test. In this exercise, Nicolas and I were sitting next to Stephan and Niklas developing a small feature using JetLang and its IDE. The test took 2 hours and included some coding and logical tasks. What I liked about it was that it gives you an idea on what you will be working with as a Product Builder and the direct feedback from Stephan and Niklas afterwards.
Next, I went straight into an interview with Francois-Xavier (FX) and Marie who are both Product Builder for the French product. The atmosphere was relaxed and we talked about my background as well as theirs, my motivation to join a start-up and they gave me plenty of time to ask any questions I’d have and I had a lot. They really seemed to enjoy what they were doing at PayFit which confirmed my general impression of the company.
After grabbing a glass of water I met with Niklas who is now the Head of Engineering for PayFit Germany. We already had an interview via Skype before my flight to Paris but this was the chance to get to know each other in a more personal way. It did not really feel like a formal interview even though we talked about my previous work experience and how this could add value to the Product Builder position. Again there was some time allocated for my questions and I made good use of it to further understand what would be expected of me and what a Product Builder actually does.
Following these interviews, there was a prolonged break and Stephan told me that I should wait in the kitchen for Florian who I’d meet next. The kitchen in the Parisian office comes with a nice outside terrace so I grabbed a coffee and went outside to get some fresh air. It didn’t take long and some other people from PayFit joined me to have a smoke and a coffee break. I used the chance to get the perspective of people not involved in the interview process. They were working for the sales department and to my surprise, they were really nice and curious even though I just invaded their coffee break.
The end of a long day — more interviews and free beer with a view
The fourth interview of the day was scheduled with Florian the CPO of PayFit. The company has three founders and they want to make sure that at least one founder would talk to each candidate before hiring. They still got that process in place today with more than 400 employees.
To be honest I didn’t know what to expect from the interview with Florian so I went in feeling a bit nervous. This feeling was gone quickly as the conversation turned out to be quite enjoyable. We talked shortly about my background but what Florian was really interested in was my motivation. One question got stuck in my mind. He wanted to know if I’d describe myself as an entrepreneurial person and if I had any examples of building something of value from scratch. For some people, this might not be a big deal but for me, it meant that he was honestly interested in what entrepreneurial value I could bring to the company.
There are not many quotations I remember fully but the question of Florian reminded me of this one:
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to to. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” — Steve Jobs
Even though I’m well aware that it is a bit cheesy to cite Steve Jobs in this context but, this honestly best describes what I’d wish for when starting a new job.
So there I sat in front of one of the PayFit founders and with one question he gave me the feeling I always wanted to get about a job. He didn’t want somebody just simply to write code for the german product. He wanted somebody with an entrepreneurial mindset to create and shape it together with the existing team.
This is particularly important to me as I’ve seen highly trained engineers at my previous jobs who were told what to do and how to do it every day. For me, this comes close to intellectual death and I was afraid that my first job would resemble that. Luckily Florian eliminated that feeling during our conversation.
The last part of the hiring process at PayFit is the BBQ test. At the time I thought this would involve some charcoal grilled dinner but in fact, BBQ seems to be a french abbreviation which to this day I don’t understand.
The test always takes place on the 9th floor of the Parisian office and let me assure you that the view is stunning. Its purpose is to give the rest of the team the chance to meet the candidate. For me, it was a great chance to talk to PayFiters from other departments and get more insights on what it is like to work for the company while having a beer after a long day of interviews.
Stephan told me that July and August are the main months for vacationing in Paris and that this is the reason why the office wasn’t that busy and the BBQ Test wouldn’t involve too many people. This fact made this part of the interview process even more valuable as I had more time to talk to fewer people. I got the chance to meet Firmin who is one of the three founders and CEO of the company as well as Mathieu from Sales and Margaux from Marketing.
Why I decided to join PayFit
The next day I had some time to spare to explore Paris a bit further and recap all the experiences of the previous day. At this point, I didn’t know if PayFit was willing to hire me as a Product Builder. It didn’t really matter at the time as I had to make up my mind if I’m willing to join the company and steer my career in another direction.
Working in another field than the one you’ve studied for years is a counter-intuitive action in Germany. People assert a lot of value to degrees and for the generation of my grandfather, it doesn’t make sense to not apply that knowledge by acquiring a job in that profession.
For me, on the other side, it did not matter at all. I did enjoy the years at university and working for a large renown engine manufacturer. At the same time, it bored the hell out of me after a short while. As I mentioned earlier, doing the same thing all the time in a prescribed fashion is not my idea of being an engineer.
I don’t mean to state here that you should question your very existence before getting your first job but you should make up your mind on what direction you want yourself to be going.
What convinced me, in the end, was the team spirit and how everybody genuinely had a good time working for PayFit. As I mentioned earlier the conversation with Florian and the impression he gave me of what the founders had in mind when it comes to new hires fired my curiosity.
Not to forget one of the biggest factors has been the enthusiasm Stephan conveyed during the whole interview process. You have to keep in mind that he started the German team for a company which was not known in Germany and had an uncertain future.
So my decision was clear on that very day that, if PayFit would have me, I’d be happy to join them.
Et à ce jour, je ne regrette rien. :)