Finding A Job You’ll Love: Locating Opportunities

I’ve changed jobs a bunch of times over the last few years, and now I’ve found one I’m going to stick with for quite a while. So I thought I’d write up the tricks and tips I’ve learned for anyone in a similar situation.

The first thing to do is figure out what you want. You might think this is easy, or that you already know. But as I took job after job that seemed good then turned out bad, I realized that the stuff I thought was important wasn’t really important, and other things I wasn’t even considering were essential. I’ve noticed that, as people progress through their careers, they often start by focusing only on the technologies (“I want to work on cool stuff!”) and, over time, realize that compatibility with their boss and co-workers as more important.

So for every job you’ve had, write down a detailed list of everything you liked and didn’t like about it. Think back to every project you worked on, and every person you’ve worked with. What did you like about them? What did you dislike? Did you learn something new? When things didn’t work out, did your boss help or just put pressure on you? When you made suggestions, did your boss give you good reasons for not following them? Think about each of your co-workers. When did you enjoy interacting with them, and when was there friction?

I’ve come to realize that “process” is the only “must have” aspect of a job for me. I can’t be happy in a “get a lot of good people and set aggressive deadlines” place. I feel ownership of the project, not just my part but the whole thing. When I’m forced to create spaghetti code that is then full of bugs and takes forever to extend, when I’m forced to work crazy hours but can only produce shippable code very slowly because of the spaghetti, it bugs me. I take the failure personally.

Another thing I’ve learned is that job ads are almost useless. They tell you what technologies you’ll be working on, and they always say the company is great, but nothing about what your day to day work will be like. How much politics and bureaucracy? How much overtime? If you come up with a clever solution to a problem, will people be happy & let you implement it? Or will they give you blank looks and consider you weird?

Whether you prosper under a sane process, cutting edge work, or perks (massages and free snacks!), the job ad won’t tell you. Recruiters might help if you find a really good one that takes the time to understand what you’re looking for. They’re rare, but they’re out there.

So you might be tempted to do a shotgun approach: send your resume to every job that isn’t completely out of the question. But that’s a bad idea. The people reading your resume are sifting through hundreds of them for every open position. The way to stand out is to tailor your resume to them, and that takes time.

So in the end, the way I find positions is:

  • Talk to friends, see if they know of anything. If you don’t need to keep your search a secret, you can post on Linked In/Facebook/Twitter that you’re looking for a job and would like suggestions.
  • Look at lists of “best places to work,” such as the Boston Globe’s or the Boston Business Journal’s. Of course, they may have a different definition of “good place” than you do, but that’s ok, we’re just getting a list of candidates. We’ll look at all of them more closely soon.
  • Search and for jobs that look interesting. This won’t tell you about their culture, but you’ll filter for that later.
  • Work with a really good recruiter.

Before you send out any resumes, try to narrow down the list. Find the company on Linked In and see if you’re connected to anyone who works there. If so, chat with them on the phone. Ask:

What’s the best and worst thing about working at X? How many hours do people actually work per week? How much time is spent bug fixing? Does your boss have a technical background? How do you come up with schedules and release dates? How do you decide what to promise to customers and when?

and anything else that’s important to you. Also look for people who have left the company in the last few years and talk to them.

When sending out the resume, make sure you tailor it to the type of company. I usually have two resumes, one that emphasizes my machine learning/AI background, and another emphasizing my general programming skills. I also tailor each cover letter to the company. You’d be amazed how many cover letters are so generic that they don’t even mention the company’s name. If you mention the requirements from the job ad, you’ll set yourself apart. And you should also “connect the dots,” describing how things from your background relate to the requirements. Hiring managers have to sort through hundreds of resumes, so they’re really skimming each one, and may not see the connections you’ve seen. Your cover letter should be a “cheat sheet.”

When you send out your first resume, a clock starts ticking. If they like you, they’ll want a phone screen, then an in-person interview, then make you an offer, and want you to accept. If you try to delay it while you search for other opportunities, they’ll take that as lack of excitement and it may hurt your chances. So make sure you’ve found your list and narrowed it down as much as possible before you send out resumes or contact a recruiter. Then, send them to all companies on your list at the same time and contact recruiters that day.

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