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Six non-technical lessons I learnt during my COVID-19 job search

darrenvong profile image Darren Vong ・10 min read

Cover photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com at Unsplash

While polishing our technical skills is important for landing a job, it is equally as important to not neglect the non-technical aspects during your job search. In this post, I am going to reflect on the non-technical lessons I learnt quickly throughout my recent job search during COVID-19.

Table of Content

Learnings

The short version

This is a long post, so if you want a short and condensed version of my learning, here they are:

  • Empower yourself by vetting and researching a company's financial status before committing to taking a job at a startup;
  • Make yourself discoverable on social media like Twitter and LinkedIn, so the jobs find you rather than you looking for them;
  • Stay organised with your job applications using a calendar and spreadsheet to help you prioritise your interview preparation;
  • Follow up promptly after your interviews to help stand out from the crowd and serve as a reminder to the company if they forgot to respond;
  • Communicate the business value you can bring to a company and position yourself positively;
  • Start the salary conversation rather than sticking with the first (likely) low-ball offer to get the money you deserve!

(Making this also for my lazy future self πŸ’β€β™‚οΈ before delving into the details)


If you are interested in the more in-depth version, then read on!

Some back story...

TL;DR: If you are only after my findings, you can skip ahead to the first finding, but I want to leave this in to motivate why I am writing this post.

For those of you who have read my last blog post...

... you might be surprised to see this blog post's title before reading further, considering I started in a new job not too long ago.

The caveat is, I was working in an early-stage startup, and COVID-19 has unfortunately turned their fortune upside down. Being a recent hire, I was an obvious target to be let go.

So here I was again, back in the job search mode much earlier than I've prepared for. Determined to get back on my feet again, I opened myself to any suitable opportunities that come my way. Everything else after that happened so quickly that it's become a blur.

This has affected my plan on learning more in the open β€” inspired by Max Stoiber and other open-source developers I follow β€” after I have settled in my "current" work so I can harness brain capacity to do that and write about it.

But, rather than letting these past few months stay as a blur, I want to crystallise the experience, note the things I learnt and the mistakes I made in the last two job search efforts for future references.


Now that I've taken you around enough of a detour... let's dig into my learning!

1. Vet a company's financials

This is probably less applicable for larger companies (500+ employees), but if you are looking to work for a startup, considering 90% of them fail, not vetting the company's financials was the number one mistake I made.

When I said vet, I didn't mean anything more comprehensive than asking some key questions. For example, "what is the company's runway?" can give you a rough idea on how financially stable a startup is should things go sour. I didn't ask that when I was interviewing and I've certainly learnt the hard way.

"What is the company's runway?" can give you a rough idea on how financially stable a startup is should things go sour.

Another useful thing to find out is "when did the company raise the last round of funding?". You should ask them or find that out by looking up the company's name on Crunchbase. AngelList is also another good resource to do your research on a startup.

The big takeaway here is that by empowering yourself with information on a company's financials, you can make a more informed decision on if you want to work for a startup based on how risk-averse you are.

2. Make yourself discoverable

The title itself sums it up. The success rate of landing an initial interview with companies are much higher if you were referred by an internal employee, or found by a recruiter, rather than trying to pass the minefield, aka a company's application form.

On top of that, you save a lot of time as you won't have to fill out lengthy application forms (in some cases) and cover letters to catch the company's attention. They are already interested in you by reaching out in the first place!

Helena Milosevic did a great talk in React.js Conf on the importance of making yourself discoverable online, especially if you want to work for a big company!


So, how would you go about making yourself discoverable?

Post on social media - share your skills and the fact you are available and looking!

Twitter

I recommend starting with Twitter, as it boasts a strong tech and professional community.

Once you've tweeted, share it with everyone! Good starting points include your friends and family, your old coursemates and former co-workers. Even if they don't directly work in the tech industry, you never know who else they are connected to that does!

Also, there are several people with a large following who are willing to share tweets of job searchers after being laid off thanks to COVID-19.

This means that even if you don't have a large following, or you don't know many friends on Twitter, you can tweet your availability and still have the potential to reach contacts you wouldn't have known otherwise!

Share [your post] with everyone! You never know who else they are connected to that does [work in the tech industry]!

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is another good place to post and share your availability. Despite the disproportionate ratio of recruiters to direct tech company contacts on there (from experience), some high-quality contacts do exist and ironically, it is how I landed my current role.

In particular, if you have some experience already, you will likely get a large influx of recruiter messages. My recommendation is to prioritise direct contacts over recruiters, as it's mutually beneficial to discover that you are a good fit for each other. In comparison, most recruiters (and there are a lot of bad ones) are just after that commission from landing you the first job they can find.

Having said that, a good recruiter can be incredibly valuable to your job search as they can offer guidance throughout the interview process and handle the salary negotiation process.

Although, given the sheer number of bad recruiters out there, if you were to use one, I suggest using them selectively by choosing those with lots of strong references. A clear red flag is those who don't read your profile and reach out with jobs requiring skills you don't have.

3. Focus on quality over quantity of applications

My determination to get back on my feet quickly was both a strength and a big second mistake I made. I overloaded myself by applying to every job that looked suitable to my existing skillset.

In particular, if you are applying for developer roles, one thing that caught me out from applying to too many things was not factoring in how time-consuming certain part of an interview process is, namely take-home coding exercises. At one point, I was juggling three exercises simultaneously πŸ₯΄. It's fair to say the quality of my submissions suffered.

(The job offer I ended up with was when I had their take-home as the only exercise to do, so I was able to focus and show off the breadth of technical skills I had more effectively to increase my chance of passing it. A good reason to take it easy with the number of applications!)

As a result, it has taken a toll on my mental health rapidly. I feel I am still gradually recovering from it right now as of writing this, so I definitely don't recommend repeating what I did!

One thing I do recommend is to keep track of interviews using an online calendar tool like Google Calendar. Based on the volume of applications I was shifting through, the ability to see when my interviews were helped me prioritise and focus on my preparation so I don't show up without doing my homework.

An illustration showing the use of a calendar for scheduling interviews

Sketch from unDraw

(I did end up taking one or two calls without realising I told people I was free to do so as I was so overwhelmed and forgot to add to my calendar πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ. Luckily they were only initial chats so the stake was quite low. Reason #3 to not apply to all the things!)

Another thing that's helped my preparation was keeping track of the status of job applications in a spreadsheet. For each application, depending on how far I've progressed through its interview process, I've also colour-coded them accordingly.

This helped immensely for prioritising my preparation, as I can see from a glimpse which applications were more likely to become job offers, which allowed me to vary my preparation effort accordingly.

4. Follow up

Rather than waiting until the company replied with the next step, follow up with them after an interview, especially if it's a company you are interested in.

This includes a brief thank you email within 24 hours after the interview, and potentially another follow-up email if you don't hear a response after the date they said they will get back to you - or I'd say, after a week - whichever is sooner.

The general format I follow when writing up a thank-you email:

  • Thank the interviewers for their time (first sentence);
  • One or two sentences that were memorable about the interview;
  • One or two sentences to highlight how your skills align with what they're looking for (especially if you feel you didn't do that well enough during the interview) and/or close with your excitement about the role.

Considering more people are being let go thanks to COVID-19, the job market was (and still is, at the time of writing!) more competitive than usual. Therefore, sending follow-up emails serve two main purposes:

  • People are busy, so your email may help to remind them that they forgot to let you know you've progressed to the next stage of the interview process;
  • It shows that you care about the role and are interested in working with them. When they are done well, it helps you stand out from the crowd.

This ties back well to learning #3 about focusing on the quality over too many applications, as following up with everyone will quickly become infeasible otherwise.

5. Position yourself positively

Companies hire you because you possess certain skills that will help them convert into business value, hence understanding how you can bring them that value is a super useful skill to have. I wish I knew this earlier and I'm certain I'd have gotten more good offers.

I may be generalising a little here, but often I find developers are not very good at pitching why our skills are valuable and more importantly, why your unique skillset makes you especially valuable to a company over somebody else.

For a more in-depth discussion on this topic, I highly recommend checking out Heidi Waterhouse's talk on Tautology and Business Value (transcript available here).

For example, as a developer, the breadth of your technical knowledge will help the company build and maintain their product. That, in turn, will give them a product to sell that generate business directly.

As for skills that may bring them business value indirectly, this could be your technical knowledge on how to scale applications which will save them money as they won't mistakes you've experienced in the past.

Or it could be your mentoring skills which help onboard new and/or junior hires more effectively, increasing the team's overall productivity which maps to increased value by virtues of more things being built.

So, the next time you go into an interview, think about what you possess that the company needs and how that generate business value, either directly or indirectly, and embed those in your answers to their questions!

Doing it this way, I find it strikes a good balance of being confident yet not coming across as too arrogant. After all, the tech industry is increasingly swerving away from working with brilliant jerks, so you certainly don't want to come across as one!

6. Negotiate

As this is a skill I'd still need to improve on, I'll keep this brief.

Nine times out of ten, companies tend to low-ball you to start with, so negotiate! Even if you are not the best negotiator, just by asking and having a conversation about the topic can often boost your next offer by magnitudes of thousands of pounds/dollars.

Think about it from the company's perspective, it makes perfect business sense to low-ball you to start with (sadly). Why would they pay you more if they can get away with not doing so? Don't let them off the hook so easily and start the money conversation!

The worst they can say is no and at that point, you got to make a decision based on your circumstances. If it gets worse than that (for example, they rescind the offer because you negotiate), then it's probably a red flag and you got to ask, "do I really want to work for somewhere that undervalues my work?"


What have you learnt from your recent job search? I'd love to hear from you from the comments below! Let's learn together and help each other out. 😎

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