Monday, March 6, 2017

OTR: Thoughts on Searching for a Job

Last Summer I began an involuntary sabbatical that ended up lasting about five months. I'm happy to say that I landed a new opportunity with a great company and I'm quite happy. I only wish I'd known that the "sabbatical" would end as it did and when it did. I would have enjoyed it more. I'd like to reflect on the time I had away from work and offer some things that I've learned along the way.

Whatever the reason for your separation from your prior employer, let it go.  That's hard. If the event was a surprise, you're likely replaying what happened like a traffic accident, wondering what you could have done to avoid it. Sure, there are some lessons to be learned, but it's important not to wallow in self-pity or anger. Move on as best you can.

Take some time for yourself. Regardless of the circumstances, take some time to relax. Take a vacation if you can; a staycation if you can't. Go somewhere -- even to a park or the local zoo. Do something that you wouldn't otherwise do during the workweek. Sleep in. Stay up late. Work out. Play video games. Binge watch that program you've been meaning to see. In all likelihood, your final days, weeks, months (or even years) with your former employer have been stressful. You need and deserve a break.

Once you've caught your breath, decide what your next role will be. You may want to step up a notch; you may want to step down a notch. Maybe you want to do something entirely different. Write down the skillsets that you have and what you want to emphasize to a potential employer. Think about location. Do you want to stay where you are or are you interested in relocating? What areas are out of the question? If you think you want to relocate, do some research. What is the cost of living in that area? Will you need a higher salary? Could you take a pay cut without losing ground? You're going to need to do this no matter what. What is the minimum that you'll work for? What about bonuses, profit-sharing, stock? What industries interest you? Where are your strengths? Do you want to try something new?

Dust off the resume. 

The resume that has always worked for you in the past may not work today. If you're like me, you've used essentially the same format for your entire working life. It is likely time to start over with a blank piece of paper. If you have outplacement services as part of your separation package, run, don't walk, your resume to them for a refresh. The most important lesson that I learned from this process (and I stubbornly waited a couple months) is that you need a list of results, not a list of activities. I know that I got wrapped up in laundry lists of all the things I was doing on my prior roles. The coaching that I got said that I should have a list of skills separate from the particular roles, because odds are, you pretty much do many of the same things at every job in your field. So when you describe each particular role, focus on what is unique and what you delivered. If you are well-experienced in your field, you need not list every job you've had back to the beginning of time. First, that will date you and that could be a negative to some employers. Second, most of those early jobs may not be relevant to where you are today. The exception to that might be (and the emphasis is on "might") when you're returning to a career field from early in your working life or you want to emphasize an industry where you have experience. But be very judicious about that. You can always address those things in a cover letter.

A tip that I learned from the resume writer was to leave off your graduation dates, unless you recently received a degree. It is quite easy to calculate someone's age from when they graduated college, so limit the temptation of a prospective employer to discriminate by taking away that bit of math.

You also want to update your LinkedIn profile. Again, watch our for age giveaways, don't list every job you've ever had, and put in a professional photograph. LinkedIn is social media, but it's not Facebook. A remarkable number of recruiters use LinkedIn to find candidates and you want to present yourself well there. At the same time, be judicious in who you connect with. LinkedIn isn't a game to see how many connections you can get. Watch your privacy settings as well. LinkedIn is a great source of information for social engineering and phishing attacks.

Where are the jobs? 

The first place to start is with professional associations in your field. If they have job boards, sign up and do some mining. If they allow you to post your resume as a job-seeker, do so. If you know of some headhunters in your profession (think about people who may have reached out to you with a request to let them know if you know anyone interested in a particular job), let them know that you're in the market. Next, work your network of friends and colleagues. Let people know that you're looking. Then broaden the search. Here are the sites that have borne the most fruit for me: Indeed is an aggregator. While they do source some of their own jobs, they do a really good job of combing various job boards and employer career sites. The search engine can be a little goofy sometimes, but you can get a pretty good set of results sent to you every day in email. Be careful with geographic restrictions, particularly in large areas, because the results may omit positions just outside of the area. I also noticed that Indeed would periodically send me some stale results (jobs several weeks old). I'm not certain if that is because the employer reposted a role or if the search engine just missed it when it was first posted. Glassdoor is very interesting. I had always thought of it as a place for people to go and complain about their current employer, but it has clearly evolved. It has a decent search capability and you can limit the search to jobs in particular geographies, but again, be very careful in limiting the geography because you will miss some opportunities. Once you identify an opportunity, you can take a look at what people think about the company and also get an idea of the salary range for a particular role. Keep in mind a couple things, however. First, people who are unhappy tend to post to these sites more than people who are happy. Second, pay is also self-reported and a small sample size may not be accurate. But it may give you an idea of what to expect. But I found the jobs that I found on Glassdoor were generally high quality and relevant. LinkedIn is the most valuable site you'll use. You want a good profile and you want to aim for a "Profile Strength" of "All Star". Like your resume, use results-oriented language and be cautious in announcing your age. Have a professional photo and connect to people judiciously. LinkedIn is not a contest. Your goal is to have connections that you know, not simply a lot of connections. LinkedIn also has job postings and these are also quite good. You can also limit searches by "Experience Level", but I recommend that you play with that a bit to understand how LinkedIn rates job postings. The nice thing about LinkedIn is that it will highlight people in your network who work for a company that you're considering. That's a good way to get an inside track to, and view of, an opportunity.

Beyond those sources, I had very mixed results. Careerbuilder generated a ton of spammy offers from recruiters from franchise companies and insurance companies looking for agents. Ladders doesn't seem to offer much unless you pay them. Experteer is similar to Ladders -- they like to show you some potential jobs, but then want you to pay them to see the details.

In my case, I had either missed the ad for the job I ended up getting or skipped it because of the location when it first came up. I saw it pop up later in a more broad search, then used my network to reach out to someone I knew who let people know that I was interested. So the search tools helped me know there was an opportunity, but someone I knew opened the door. Having someone on the inside is not a guarantee that you'll get a look, but it doesn't hurt.

Set goals. Do your homework.

I set a goal that I would get two or three applications out per week. That doesn't sound like much, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. You don't want to shotgun out 50 applications a week unless you're willing to take just about any job that comes along. Set a focus and look for opportunities that are right for you. I can't say this enough. When you see a match in your job search results, look beyond the job description. Do some research. What are the key products or services? How are their finances? What news is in the media? Is this an organization that I really want to work for? Is the business something that will cause me personal conflict? (As an aside, years and years ago, I interviewed with a tobacco company. I'm not a smoker and my mother died of lung cancer. I had justified the application because the company also owned a food company and I hoped to end up there. As I sat in a conference room waiting for the next interviewer, I had to push aside an overflowing ash tray. The next interviewer asked if I minded if he lit up. At that point, I decided that perhaps I should have never applied.) If you can't align yourself with an organization's mission, it will be an unhappy experience, so make sure you understand what the organization is about.

Pay attention to the companies that pop up regularly in your search. Are they simply on a hiring binge or is there a lot of churn in positions in your field? Seeing the same jobs for the same companies could be a red flag.

When you apply for a position, print off the job description. Once you have ten or so applications out there, you're going to forget what you applied for. It's also important to review the job description when you're interviewing.

Open a file for each application that you make. Have the job description in there, along with any other research you've done. When you speak to someone at the company, keep track of who you talked to and when that happened.

Echo the Requirements.

Many companies use automation to weed through applicants. Take a close look at what the job requires and make sure that your resume and cover letter are echoing the terms and themes that you find. You may find that you have to adjust your resume a few times to create the right "match". That doesn't mean that you should lie or exaggerate -- but you should make sure that you can bring focus to why you are a fit.

Proofread and then Proofread Again.

Ugh. There's nothing like punching the Submit button and realizing that your cover letter contains the name of a different potential employer. If you plan to cut and paste cover letters, make sure you take the time to make them perfect. Get someone to look at your resume for errors. Read a cover letter backwards to look for spelling mistakes. Take a deep breath and do it again.

They said there would be no math.

One company was quite unique in the application / interview process. I did all the usual form filling out in the online application. After I submitted that, at the point where you normally get the Veterans' status / disability / EEOC questions, it popped up what amounted to a curious combination of behavioral multiple choice test and algebra exam. So after a set of, "When it comes to conflict in the workplace, I describe myself as a person who: a) embraces conflict b) runs away from conflict c) tries to find some way to diffuse conflict..." questions, they would throw in one that involved trains, speed, departure times, mileage and what time Bob gets home for dinner. A couple of those hurt my head. I'm still not sure what that was all about. It did get me a couple phone interviews, so I guess I did ok.

Don't Get Discouraged.

Again, this is a marathon. When you look for a job when you have a job, you likely aren't keeping a clock. You don't realize that you've been poking at position postings for a year or 18 months when the new opportunity finally lands. Sometimes that perfect job just happens to land in your lap and you feel like you got hired with little or no effort. When you can hear the clock ticking, the wait for a reply can be excruciating. Keep your network alive. Check in with people that you think might be able to help.


I had a fairly senior title for my last role. When I interviewed for positions with what seemed to be a lesser title, I was invariably asked if I was ok "only being a XXX". Have a good answer for that question. My answer was that I was interested in what the job was going to do, not what the business card said. My ego wasn't tied into the title. Another interviewer asked me if I would feel constrained by not being part of the leadership team -- I answered that being a leader is not about your title, but how you lead and that leaders can be found at all levels of the organization. (That might not work with every organization, but it got a good head nod for me.)

The Interview(s).

It seems that the typical approach for most organizations is that you get a screening call with the recruiter, then the hiring manager calls you, then you come in for interviews with three to five people, and maybe you go another round with more senior people if they can't make up their mind.

Again, do your homework. Go to the organization's website. Learn about what they do, what the products or services are, and who the key leaders are. Used LinkedIn to take a look at the people who will interview you -- see who they know that you know, where they went to school, who else they have worked for. Read the Annual Report of a public company. Search for news articles. Know who the competition is. See if you can understand their culture and strategy. Learn their history if that's available. See what current employees have to say about the company in GlassDoor. Take a balanced approach. You want to show that you've made an investment in knowing about the company, what it does, and the people that you're meeting with. It also allows you to ask some smart questions.

Interviews were all over the place. I tended to find that most hiring managers had some very specific topics to cover -- they were looking for certain skillsets. One wanted to know if I had worked with zero-base budgeting. Another wanted a detailed accounting of document management system implementation. The other folks doing interviewing tended to ask softer, more culture-fit questions. Then there were the companies that did "behavioral interviewing". Those questions always start, "Tell me about a time when..." Generally, they have to get to how you handle certain kinds of events, so what sort of behaviors do you own.

I had one company have me do a video interview. That was interesting. After a short talk with the recruiter, she sent me a link to a website. I needed to have a webcam and microphone on my computer. The technology took control of those devices and I watched a video of the recruiter. The recruiter would then ask a question and a timer would start. You had a minute (unless you wanted to respond sooner) to consider an answer, then the app would start recording you. You had two minutes to answer the question. This went back and forth for about ten or so questions. The app then closed and fired off your recording. It was a bit awkward because, even though I speak in public a lot, I hate being filmed. I forget my own name when I see the red light. I also have my webcam set up for videoconferencing and it sits on top of my screen, so I have to look up to look into the camera. It wasn't an outstanding performance.

Follow Up.

I wasn't very good at this and in retrospect, it was a mistake. I didn't want to seem over-eager or desperate, and I suspect that I may have come across less interested in some opportunities than I really was. Try to get a business card from everyone you talk to. Thank then in writing afterwards. Highlight takeaways from your conversation. Ask the recruiter or the hiring manager when they will make a decision and when (or if) you should follow up with them (as well as who your contact should be).

The Offer.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, you're probably going to talk about money sooner than you think you should. In some respects, that's good. You do want to screen out the roles that aren't going to pay and honestly, those employers don't want to insult you or waste their time with a recruitment process that will disappoint everyone. It can be a bit of a two-edged sword, however, because you might be excluded from an opportunity that would have more value in professional growth and / or you might walk away from an opportunity that could allow you fairly rapid advancement.

Hopefully, you've taken the time to decide how you want to speak about compensation and what the bottom line is for your requirements. They will flat out want to know what your pay is now. Depending on where you are in your career, the answer to this varies. As I was working my way up the ladder, I was advised to put a number on the table that I aspired to be paid, then expect an offer somewhat above that. As your pay increases, that is not an optimal strategy if you think you might be above the market for the role. I had one recruiter advise me not to settle on pay or sell myself short. The challenge is trying to figure out what the role will pay. At the end of the day, you need to put a number on the table that you're comfortable with. If you lowball things, you may end up frustrated that you're not being paid what you think you should be. My emphasis was always on base pay. Bonuses and stock and so forth are variable pay. If you rely on bonuses and stock to get by every day, then you really should add those numbers in to your base and put that down as your line in the sand.

Be prepared to speak to bonuses, variable pay, and stock (options and/or restricted stock). When the offer comes, look at it closely. Understand all the elements. If there is a relocation package, what is covered and how long is there an obligation to stay with the company? (Some companies require that you pay back a pro-rated portion of the relo package if you leave their employment within a fixed period of time.) Is vacation / PTO negotiable? (Generally, no, in most large companies.) What are the actual costs for benefits? This is an interesting factor to consider because it does have a direct bearing on what you take home. I saw a significant difference in costs per paycheck between my prior and current employers for effectively the same coverages. If the organization offers deferred compensation (usually a 401(k) plan), is there a company match? How much is that match? Does the company put funds into Health Savings Plans? Is there a pension? (Yes, there are organizations that still offer pensions.) That overall benefit package may have a significant bearing on the weight you put on take home pay. Even something simple like a subsidized cafeteria could be worth better than $1000 a year against fast food or an unsubsidized cafeteria.

And for your final bit of calculation, think about commuting costs. How far will you drive? Are you taking public transportation? What about tolls? What about parking? These costs might be quite a bit different than your prior job, so you need to account for them, better or worse. Adding $300 a month of commuter parking and train tickets to your life when you had a short drive and free parking could add up in a hurry -- but what if you walk to the train and get rid of your car (car payment, insurance, and maintenance)?

When that first offer comes to you, you also have to take a step back. If you are in a situation like I was, you have the sound of a clock ticking echoing in your head. You probably are in different stages of interviews with other organizations. Perhaps you've gotten yet another, "We've chosen a candidate more in alignment with our requirements" letter. Perhaps you just applied to a position that feels like a perfect match with a great company. Now you have the "bird in the hand" dilemma. Are you going to jump at the opportunity that will get you back on payroll in a couple weeks, in a role that you're interested in, but not thrilled about, working for an organization that's just ok? The answer to that will depend a lot on your personal situation and your personal risk tolerance. I suppose that, in this day and age, there is no shame in walking away from a company that you just joined, but honestly, that doesn't feel right to me. Certainly, if you find yourself in a truly horrible situation, you may want to run away quickly, but if you signed up with an organization in good faith, I think you have to have some commitment. It's not an easy decision, but I think the guiding principle is not just to grab on to the first job that makes you an offer, just because it is an offer -- and honestly, as you go about your search, you shouldn't be shotgunning applications to every organization that has an opportunity that you could have an interest in. If the company is not that interesting to you, the job is very likely going to be a problem for you as well.

Consider Alternatives.

One hiring manager asked me if I would be interested in a 90 day "try it before you buy it" contract. I was caught flat-footed by the question and, frankly, felt insulted. I declined that opportunity. I didn't want to lose 90 days of a job search and I didn't have a clear plan or set of expectations around such an offer. Interestingly, I recently heard from a colleague who is also in the market for an opportunity and she received a similar offer. The commonality was that both she and I got these offers from companies that were in industries outside of our core strength, so it seems logical that the hiring manager might want to assess the candidate's learning agility and pace of learning uptake. If you think about a short term contract, think about what you need in compensation, but also think about how you define "success". You want some very clear measurables in the contract so you don't find yourself giving away discounted knowledge to an employer that wasn't really interested in committing to you.

In a similar vein, I see a lot of contract employees at my new job. In speaking to some folks in these roles, many find the contract work path very refreshing. They actually get paid fairly well and in IT at least, find themselves getting new assignments regularly, particularly if they perform well. It is sort of like being a consultant, but without the sales overhead. Some convert to regular employees over time and many stay on the contract employee track because they like it, not because it is necessary. The downside is that you don't get benefits in most cases and you aren't eligible for bonuses, stock, and other employee perks. Still, it might be an opportunity for some folks. I'll probably write more on that as I learn about it.

No matter what your situation, I wish you good hunting in finding that next opportunity. They are out there and you'll find it.