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Thoughts on Job Hunting

by David Linsin

I recently changed jobs after a long and sometimes tedious journey to find the right place for me to work at. Applying for over a dozen jobs, sometimes via recruiters, sometimes online and a couple of times via personal recommendation, I wanted to write down my experiences and give some advice in hopes they'd be useful to others looking for a job.

It's important to note, that I was looking for a job as a software developer to a non-entry position in Germany. I've got a couple of years of experience in various fields and it was important to me, that the position the company offers reflects that. My experiences and advices might not apply to other jobs in the software industry or other countries.

Application

I won't spend my time on how to actually apply. I always used a personalised email, which was individually crafted to reflect the companies properties and added my CV and university degree as PDF attachments. You shouldn't trust web forms, where you can upload your files. You don't really know what the person on the other end receives. If there is no way to send an email, don't bother to apply - at least I didn't.

I didn't use any fancy CV template, instead my stackoverflow careers profile was up to date and I used a PDF export as my CV. There aren't any individual projects on there, if companies are interested in that, you might want to add a couple. I was never asked for any reference projects up-front, instead we always talked about past projects in a phone or one-on-one interview.

As an interesting fact: I never attached any past employer's reference to my application and was only asked to give them later once.

First Response / Feedback

When submitting your application most companies will send you an automated reply, notifying you, that they received your email and that they will get back to you within a certain time frame. Some companies don't do the robotic-automated reply, but rather answer your email personally. No matter which kind of reply, if you don't get any within 24 hours on a business day: walk away and never look back. There was only one company that I applied at, which didn't reply within the first 48 hours and I politely declined a request for a phone interview after 3 days. There is no reason to not send a short reply with "We got your email and get back to you as soon as possible."! If applicants are not important to the company, they might also not be important when they are employees. That's not the right fit, at least for me.

Phone Interview

I had probably over a dozen phone interviews, with almost a dozen companies or recruiters. Only two of those were technical, the rest were merely a way for the company that you applied at to get a first impression of you. However, it's also a chance for you to get to know the company better and you should definitely take the opportunity to ask some questions. In the first couple of interviews, I didn't have any questions prepared. I found out later, that the companies found it odd, that I have no questions for them. The funny thing was: I did have questions. However, I saved them for the one-on-one interview. So you might consider asking them early, in order to get a better feeling of what the company is all about.

As for conducting the actual interview on the phone, you should have a quiet place with good cell phone reception and your personalised email at hand in order to follow-up on what you wrote. Remember the name of the person that is calling you and the people you have been in contact with so far. Be engaged in the conversion and emphasise your interest with questions and facts you gathered about the company. I found that to be very helpful, especially to loosen up the conversion.

One-on-One Interview

The dozen or so applications and phone interviews lead to four one-on-one interviews (not counting the technical follow-ups). There's no special strategy or tactics I could recommend other than 'be yourself'. For me that starts with wearing the same casual cloths I wear every day. In my opinion there's little value in dressing up in a costume, which doesn't really reflect who you are. The same goes for the interview itself. Try to avoid studying canned phrases or answer questions with generic replies, that don't match your personality.

Most one-on-one interviews kept it on a professional level, talking about my past experiences in terms of projects, my expectations and requirements for the new position. When you are changing jobs, there's always the question of why you want to leave your current company. I usually gave a detailed professional and objective yet still honest answer to the question. I went into quite some detail, in order to avoid working under similar conditions in my next job. It was a great way to see how my potential future employer responded to some uncomfortable topics and what I could expect in case of working there.

Be prepared to talk to more than one person. At one company, I had a four on one interview, which was fun, but it might be intimidating to some people. The other interviews were all one-on-ones, which is a more relaxed setting to have a conversation. That brings me to one of the most important points: have a conversation, which means you should talk as well. If a company doesn't give you enough room to state your case or tell your story, they are not really interested in you! In all four interviews, the talking time was quite even and that's how it should be. If you sit in a one-on-one as an applicant and don't get any talking time: walk away and never look back!

In all but one interview, there were no personal questions asked, which I really liked. It's not that I have a problem with it, I just think, that's something that can be handled at a later time in the interview process. The need for a personality fit might be more important for smaller teams, so it's understandable that some companies might try to avoid misfits early in the process. Besides the fact that most of my personal details can be googled anyways, I almost didn't give away any in the interviews and I appreciated the interviewers doing the same.

My advice is similar to the one of the phone interview: be yourself, be engaged and strike up a professional conversation.

Technical Interview / Assessment

I'll save you some reading: if you get a job offer without any technical assessment or interview: walk away and never look back! For me, one of my phone interviews with a recruiter lead to a technical call with an engineer and two one-on-ones lead to an assessment, where I was working with the team for almost a full day.

Even if you don't think so: there are advantages for you, if a company wants to vet you before giving you a job offer.

Spending a good amount of time with your future colleagues, the office-environment and the technology or project you'll be working on, gives you an exclusive inside look into what might be a big part of your future daily life. Companies that don't offer this insight seem fishy to me. Proclaiming a good working environment doesn't mean there is one. The same goes for the technology employed and their projects. You can get a glimpse of the technical setup your potential future employer is using before you actually commit to working there - that's priceless! It's easy for an interviewer to proclaim top-notch tools, processes or co-workers - experiencing it for yourself is way better.

Some companies might pair you with one of their developers, others might give you an assignment, which you need to solve and present later during the day. Both situations impose some kind of pressure on you and my advice is the same as before: be yourself and take it easy! Putting on some act while pairing with your potential future co-worker doesn't help anybody, least of all yourself. Be engaged and do your best, it'll pay off in the end. Solving an assignment seems easier at first, but it might put you on the spot later on, since you most likely need to present your work at the end of the day. Again, take it easy - it's okay not to know everything as long as you are upfront and honest about it.

My assessment experiences were awesome! I had the chance to spend a full day with the team and I still don't understand why not all companies give applicants the same opportunity.

The follow-up

After all the previous steps in the process, you are most likely in a position where you need to wait for feedback. My experiences in how long that takes varies greatly. Some companies took more than a week to get back to me, other were quite timely and only took a day or two. Overall, I think it's important that you get the first feedback within a week in order to get all the necessary information to make a final decision. At this point you might already be hunting for a couple of weeks and if you are in need of finding a new position, you should raise that concern in the one-on-one in order to motivate the company to give you feedback as fast as possible.

In the spirit of being honest and transparent with your future employer, you also should consider to disclose that there are other options for you (in case there are any). When you make a final decision, let the other companies know as fast as possible in order for them to be able to look for other candidates. It's not easy to decline a really great offer and tempting to keep your options open as long as possible, but it's rather unfair. Signalling early, that you might decide for another company, alleviates uncomfortable situations on both sides.

I'm very confident, that I played it as fair as possible for everyone involved. I informed every company very timely about every step and didn't keep anybody in the dark about other options available. There was a great offer on the table from a cool company and it was pretty tough turning it down. However, you should take initiative, when you are ready to make a decision.

Talking Money

This is obviously the most delicate topic of all, but ultimately one of the most important ones. I'm not gonna give you any advice on how to get the best offer or squeeze out the most of your future employer, but I rather wanna let you know how this topic was handled in almost all of my interviews.

Most of the time I was asked in the one-on-one interview what my salary expectations were. Sometimes I had to disclose it in my application, recruiters usually asked for a minimum figure in the phone interview. The reaction in the one-on-one interviews was the same every time: silent nodding, which already indicates, that salary doesn't seems to be a question that has a binary yes or no answer. Don't confuse silent nodding with agreement, it can mean disagreement or agreement under certain conditions. You usually get to know more about what it really means in the follow-up, which might mean you need to go for another round of discussion or bargaining.

I honestly found it very annoying in some cases, that the topic was handled in a tip-toeing manner instead of putting it on a table and discussing it. This might be due to the German "you don't talk about money” culture or simply an industry standard, that I don't agree with.

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