Advice for Job Seeking Students

I’ve had a few requests from former students for help finding work. Sometimes I can point a person to a job, and sometimes I can’t. It’s great when it does work out, but there is no guarantee.

This is not to say that no one will get a job. People will get jobs, and it’s up to you to be the best prepared you can be, and to ensure that when a job does come along, that you are well-placed to take it up. What follows are some general guidelines on imporving the odds that you’lll get that interview, and to help you prepare for the interview. This is based on what I’ve done, and what others have done. For example, go look at Matt Raible’s bio, and notice his degree. He got in the profession through self-learning, and working on open source. You can also look at what Joel Spolsky says about resumes (cv). I’m sure that there are others too, and of course, you can always go along to the careers service at the Uni too and check their jobs listings. This is open to you at any time as a graduate, so come back whenever you need help. You should also read over some of the ideas from Ted Neward on ‘10 things to improve your development career‘.

The preparation

First, you need to prepare yourself and your cv for the job. Write a general, all-purpose cv that has everything you need. Which schools you went to, what jobs you had, and all of that stuff, plus other interests and hobbies, and publications you may have done. This cv becomes the basis for all of the other ones that you’ll produce, so put everything into it, and don’t worry if it’s long.

While you do your cv also set up your LinkedIn profile if you haven’t already. People expect to find you online, so you should put something here and use this to curate your online profile. This can offer links to your Twitter account, your blog, your GitHub repos and everything else too including that project work you did one summer. If you can have people offer recommendations for your work, then do that too.

Second, create more tailored versions of your cv so that you have, for example a ‘programming’ one, and another that is an ‘analyst’ one. Each of them then puts your past experience in these areas to the fore. You should aim to make these no longer than two pages so that the person reading them knows the general outline of what you’ve done, and has a reason to call you in for an interview. You don’t put everything into these ‘templates’ so that you can tailor each of them per the job you’re applying for, but still keep it short. The goal is to get an interview, so you want to excite the company’s interest with your cv.

Third, you should have a generic ‘template’ cover letter that you use to send with each job application. Each cover letter you build from this template should then be tailored appopriately to highlight the key points of your cv, which match up with the points they raise in their job advert. If you’re applying on spec, then be hightlight how your skills will tie in with their current products, or services. Do NOT just change the name, etc for each of these, but take the time to ensure that it is keyed to their needs and services. You don’t want them to bin it when they notice that it looks like you just used mail-merge to generate the letter. You want them to give it due care and consideration, so you should do the same.

Fourth, assuming that your hard work so far has paid off, and you got an interview date, then the next hard part starts as you prepare for the questions. I dont’ remember, which interview book I found these in, but I have found its list and philosophy useful. This list of questions  and this more recent article on how to avoid bad answers to interview questions, boils down to ‘why should we’ and ‘why shouldn’t we’ hire you. Take the time to write out full answers to each of the questions. Tailor each question to the specific job interview you’re going to attend. Yes, this takes a long time, and yes, they do ask these questions. I know that I’ve had them all asked in one interview or another, and I happy that I’d prepared for them. If you  prepare for them, then you can reply with your answer right away instead of hmm, hwww, mull, mull, answer. It shows you care about the job they have to offer, and did your homework.

The key point about answering these questions, and any others, is that you remove any reason why they might not want to hire you. Therefore, have answers, as suggested, which put context into your answers, and help them to say ‘yes, when can you start’.

The first time you go through this it will take you hours. Don’t worry, it’s all good work, and you should write them down as that forces you to think about them, and process them more, than if if you just ‘think’ about them, or say them out loud. As with the cv and cover letter, you then tailor them again each time you go for an interview. Thus only the first time takes a long time, while subsequent ones will be able to reuse the generic answers.

Lastly, it’s your call about taking up offers of coffee and biscuits during the interview. On the one hand, they do relax you perhaps. On the other, however, you run the risk of spillage, and having your mouth full of food when they ask a question. Just be awake to the possibilities, and dangers. Also go read Morna Simpson’s ‘Top 5 Questions to Ask at an Interview‘ so that YOU know what to ask employers when you get to the interview.

So with this in hand, where do you look for jobs?

Where to hunt

If you’re after temporary or other academic jobs, then you need to subscribe to for your region, or interests. There are also no end of Scottish specific job sites such as S1JobsScotjobs and other national ones too. Look at as many as you can.

You should also check out the recruitment agencies too, but don’t hold out your hopes there. I know lots of people end up with interviews through them, but it’s hard to actually land a job through them. Some people just avoid them, and similarly, you should also be aware that a number of firms don’t use them on principle too, so they won’t have all of the jobs you may want to apply for.

The other place to look for jobs is to find the sites for companies you want to work for, and apply to them. If you’re staying local, then get the yellow pages (or use, and go through the appropriate categories to find the companies and send them emails with your tailored cv and cover letter. Yes, this takes time, and yes, it is a slow process, but it should yield some results.

If you identify a place where you’d like to work, and they’re not offering any posts, then you should still send them an email. Include a tailored cover letter and cv. Tell them why you’d like to work with the company, and how you might contribute to their work. This works better for small to medium sized companies. Conversations with smaller business owner and managers suggest, by their own admission, that they don’t always know who they need, or which skills might help them. So, help them out, by suggesting how you might help them.

Jobs also appear in mail lists. If you’re looking for a ruby job, then find the Ruby user mail list for your region, and join it. Where I’m at it would be the ScotRug mail list. If there’s a techy mail list for your area, then join that too so that you find out about the different jobs going. Again the local example here is Techmeetup. At the very least, find where the mail archives are and check them regularly, or see if there’s a Twitter feed that notifies people of these jobs. Obviously, also go to appropriate meetings like this to network and meet people and let them know you’re looking for work. There are reports of this working in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and suspect it might have led to things in Aberdeen too.

Jobs also appear for specific types of careers. For example, you might want to look at Work in Startups for jobs in small firms. The e-Placement Scotland website should also help you find small roles to get experience too.

Keep your skills fresh

While looking for work, you need to show that you have relevant skills. This is especially true if it’s been a while since you graduated, and if you find that all the firms are saying ‘experience required’. So, if no one’s hiring you because of this, then you need to make your own experience. You can do this a number of ways.

One option is to volunteer work for people. Sure, it’s not glamorous, but it might be. Either volunteer to develop web sites, or other projects for people you know, or go find a community group that needs some help, and which you’re interested in, and then do something for them. Then add it to your cv, and mention it in your cover letters where appropriate.

Another option that will get you more relevant experience is to find an open source project, which you like and contribute to that. Yes, you will need to start at the bottom doing patches, and then moving up the way. This option means you will get a view of the full sweep of software development as you’ll need to work your way through the use of all of the tools of modern development using source control, tests, and other aspects depending upon the programming language. This will also stand out on your cv.

You should also be using GitHub to show your public projects too, and using this to contribute patches to code too. This can become your ‘other cv’ where people can see what your code looks like.

Yes, both of these options mean that you might be working a ‘normal’ job as well as doing these ‘non-paying’ jobs. It does mean that you do pay the bills, as well as also keep your skills fresh, and relevant. It will also mean that you’re paying a small price for what you ‘want’ to do, instead of resigning yourself to not doing what you want to do.

You can also participate in various hackathons, jams and other events where you work with people. This means you can show your skills in a social setting, and also network with people too. This should be started before you start looking for work so that you can include this on your cv and LinkedIn page. We regularly organise CodeTheCity in Aberdeen, but you’ll find others in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow too such as the Global Game JamEdinburghApps and other events such as Major League Hacking, which has many events. Look at OpenTechCalendar to see when these occur.

As you can see all of this will take time to take effect. However, I’m also sure that it will pay off for you. So go tidy up your cv, write out the answers to the interview questions, and start picking the companies you want to apply for. And, also think about which open source projects you really like and want to contribute to.

Good luck, and let me know how you get on.