First-Hand Tips to the Interviewee

Through recent discussions with interviewers such as HR managers, Project Managers and Technical Hiring Managers, I’ve compiled a list of first-hand tips to job candidates. I hope they are helpful to you.

From Conversations

 

“[A] stumper for more entry level individuals is the ‘where do you see yourself in 5 years’? Many times (most times) it is ‘manager’. Given that they are probably interviewing with the manager, they should think what the manager wants them to say which is more ‘an expanded role in what I am interviewing for’. This stumps many of the interviewees. Remember, the interview is about the company not about the interviewee.”

Pat Tokarcik – HR Director – ShurTech Brands, LLC

 

“There is one piece of advice to the experienced or inexperienced that I’d pay forward – [get] Gallup’s Strengths Finder & set out some realistic development goals as part of self discovery.

I didn’t think about the book when we discussed ratings the other day, and it’s a pretty important piece of advice that was recommended to me & I’ve been successfully deploying in my ‘self discovery’ phases of life. I wish someone would’ve told me that after college. Nevertheless, interview advice for college grads, especially recent college grads, is to focus on strengths and deploy those for confidence. If you gain confidence through preparation or whatever gets you to that ‘I’m ready’ feeling, then you are going to more easily control your behaviors on the ‘stumping’ questions or even the relatively easy ones. It’s also being comfortable that you don’t know everything and don’t have to, giving the interviewer a chance to draw their own conclusions on that.”

Lacey Strete – Special Projects Analyst – Construction Software Technologies

 

“Bring portfolios of your work if you have it and be prepared to discuss what is included. Interviewers are focused on a variety of your attributes. If I find an entry level candidate who exhibits confidence in their abilities (even if they need to be fine tuned from a technical standpoint), but who also has confidence in their communication skills and can speak to what they have created, I see potential for a future mentor/manager. Candidates who can fill those roles in the future are incredibly valuable.”

Natalie Stuller – HR Manager – WS Packaging Group

 

“I’m reminded of an interview I did a few years ago. I asked a guy about a specific version of a program or application, and his response was something along the lines… ‘I did xxx which is similar in the past, and since it should be the same principles, I could adapt to figure it out. Plus if I have specific issues I can always use Google and figure it out.’

I thought it showed his ability to work outside of the box and solve his own issues, and he turned out to be one of the few people on my team who could.”

Jeff Strempel – Consultant – Accenture

 

Already in the Public Domain

Of course, there are some tips already on the Internet that can be very useful for interviewees.

In this YouTube clip, Jason Calacanis, an entrepreneur, speaks for a minute or so about having candidates self-rank themselves.

 

 

Lastly, this YouTube clip was produced by Toastmasters, an international organization helping members to be better public speakers. Here are 5 key tips to interviewing for a job.

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Top 5 Cities to Earn as an IT Employee

Having lived in the Midwest my entire life, the idea of moving to a big city, with its increased cost of living, was overwhelming. Nonetheless, over the past several years I’ve fantasized about living and working in different US cities. There are many good reasons to move across the country (away from family): Moving To New Cities

  • Startup Hubs (e.g. Silicon Valley)
  • Top Notch Universities (e.g. The Research Triangle)
  • Better Weather (e.g. Southern California)
  • Better Geography (e.g. near the Ocean or Mountains)
  • Access to Specific Industries (e.g. Fashion in New York)

However, the cost of living difference between cities (and the decreasing value of my salary) have always been at the forefront of my thoughts.

One way I tried to overcome my hesitation to move was with research. Using Salary.com, I calculated the increase in cost of living compared to my current city. This helped me to analyze just how much more it would cost to live somewhere else. The ratios were drastic, yet I knew I had to be missing something.

As a software developer, I’ve been using Robert Half Technology’s Salary Guides throughout my professional career as a way to compare my own salary against the average developer in my hometown. They’re a great resource. After all, they’ve been creating the guides since 1950.

I soon realized that the cost of living changes are not created equal for all careers. Likewise, a developer that moves to a technology hub will get paid more in that location. The more important ratio to analyze is very simple: %Salary Difference – %Cost of Living Difference. A more positive number is therefore better.

Results

I compared 105 cities that had ratings in the 2 guides above. Using Cincinnati, OH (my current location) as the comparison, I came up with several big cities that actually have a positive impact on salary value.

Best value cities for someone in IT

 

Locale

Salary Vs Cincinnati %

Cost of Living %

Difference

Houston, TX

106.7

95.4

11.3

Salt Lake City, UT

102.6

92.7

9.9

Memphis, TN

97.4

93.3

4.1

Raleigh, NC

106.7

104.2

2.5

Austin, TX

106.2

104.3

1.9

 

The worst values were also highly interesting

 

Locale

Salary Vs Cincinnati %

Cost of Living %

Difference

Honolulu, HI

94.4

189.7

-95.3

New York, NY

144.6

203.7

-59.1

Washington, DC

133.3

176.7

-43.4

San Francisco, CA

139.0

180.3

-41.3

San Diego, CA

117.9

156

-38.1

 

Conclusion

I must admit I am rather surprised by this list in which I also discovered that Cincinnati ranks #9 out of the 105 cities. Perhaps the reason my instinct is to stay put is because I’ve been pretty spoiled.

Fantasy Football Playoffs – A Toastmasters Speech

Enjoy this speech I gave about Fantasy Football Playoff time. In this speech, I focus on using body language and gestures during the presentation.

Watch These Movies if you Want to Work at Google

How Many Characters are in this Blog Post?

Brain HurtsDo you remember being taught math when you were young? If you were anything like me you hated word problems. That was the only time during math class that we could not just use mechanical processes. Instead, we had to think about how to apply those processes to real world problems.

The natural evolution of word problems in the adult world is Brain Teasers, those pesky puzzles that are supposed to be fun but, more often, are frustrating. For most people, the skill of solving riddles and impossible estimation problems has never had much use. That was until clever software companies, such as Microsoft and Google, famously began asking these types of questions during job interviews. The legends of these companies’ interview tactics are so predominant that they have essentially become their own category of technical interview questions.

How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?

Unprepared candidates confront brain teasers with shock and horror. A feeling of futility drapes over them like a giant rain cloud. Fortunately, all the candidate needs to understand is that he or she does not necessarily have to answer the puzzle correctly to “pass” the test.

 

The Interviewer’s Perspective

Brain Teasers are great because when they work, they are a simple way to lighten the tone of an interview. They are also great at unearthing important traits of the interview candidate:

  • How does the candidate handle pressure, such as a seemingly impossible problem?
  • How well can the candidate express his or her thoughts regarding a difficult solution?
  • Is the candidate capable of “thinking outside the box” or are all proposed solutions too straight-forward?
  • Specific types of puzzles test the candidate’s ability to estimate large unknown quantities.

“A hunter sets up camp, walks 10 miles south and 10 miles east. He shoots a bear and drags it 10 miles north back to his camp. What color is the bear?”

 

Wooden Puzzle

My Perspective

Through years of practice, I became comfortable with the word problems in math class. It was a required step in progressing in mathematics. Likewise, Brain Teasers become conquerable with practice.

Personally, I love Brain Teasers now. I enjoy when a friend sends me one I have not before heard. I find it worthwhile to stretch my mind by thinking about different types of problems.

Still, Brain Teasers are rather overused in interviews. As stated above, they can be useful when they work but, when they do not work, they often fluster an otherwise good candidate. Some puzzles require a certain basis of knowledge that can lend itself to bias. Consider the puzzle about the hunter above, the answer is “White.” Why? Because the only place on Earth that someone can walk X distance South, X distance East or West, X distance North and then arrive at the same point again is at the North Pole. Polar bears are the only type of bears that live there. Polar bears are white. The candidate may be able to logically reason through the problem, but sometimes a small piece of “common knowledge” becomes a roadblock.

Lastly, Brain Teasers take too much precious time during an interview to not uncover anything of import. They test the “A-Ha moment” of the candidate, a long period of silence followed by the sudden discovery of the answer in the candidate’s mind. In cases where the candidate solves the problem right away, it usually does not mean that the candidate is brilliant but that he or she has heard it before.

 

Tips for the Interviewee

As I mentioned, it is not required of the candidate to solve the problem. In most cases, the interviewer is trying to gain insight into how the candidate thinks and describes his or her thoughts. Therefore, the #1 suggestion for approaching these problems is to communicate your thoughts while you are reasoning through them. Talk aloud about alternative solutions you are considering. Ask questions of the interviewer about the constraints of the problem. If you cannot come up with a solution, explain some option that would get you close. Going back to the polar bear problem, it would probably be enough to understand that the hunter is at the North Pole.

For more tips and great job interview Brain Teaser examples, I recommend the book How to Ace the Brain Teaser Interview.

 

Brain Teasers in the Movies

Some of the most fun Brain Teasers to discuss with friends are those from movies. It’s interesting when someone has seen the movie and remembers the solution, but when you propose it again after some time, he or she does not remember it. Below are some examples of the best movie Brain Teasers (hopefully YouTube won’t remove them).

 

Metro (Retrieve a cap from a bottle)


 

Labyrinth (Which door to knock on?)

 

Die Hard with a Vengeance (How to get exactly 4 gallons of water)

 

Batman TV Series (Top 10 Riddler riddles)

 

Post your favorite Brain Teasers in the comments and good luck on your interview!

I invite you to connect, but only on your own time

This blog post is the 3rd and final of a series of Anti-Pattern stories

In this last post of the series, I finally take the opportunity to rant a bit. Thinking back to the time when I worked at the aforementioned small company, I realize the reason I became so emotionally affected was because the company seemingly had great growth potential that never materialized. Below is one last story of workplace theatrics accompanied by quotes from my favorite movie of the last 5 years, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

“Do Less… Well no, you gotta to do more than that”

One of my favorite lines from the movie applies to the network monitoring policy at this corporation. For at least some period of time, the paranoia from above was deep, resulting in a robust monitoring software rollout. Whereas some companies track proxy statistics to determine broadband usage and lists of sites visited by employees (a tactic I have no problem with), that was just the beginning in our case. Here, all corporate emails from most employees were published on the network to keep them honest. Additionally, the owner of the company installed software to be able to view keystrokes and screenshots from each employee’s computer usage on the network. Details about this product’s existence as well as the tracking information collected were only supposed to be accessible to the owner. When a Network Admin noticed a peculiar “SpyWare” program on the server, the “cat was let out of the bag”. In retrospect, we all should have had some suspicions based on the broad statement allowing company collection of data in the Employee Handbook.

Knowledge of keystroke logging was held in a fairly close circle, shielded from new employees. Therefore, I did not find out about it right away. Granted, I do not like the idea of anyone being allowed to track keystrokes, as that provides all the information needed to login as me on the network and possibly additional websites, etc. However, the network monitoring policy that frustrated me the most began when “questionable” sites became blocked, inaccessible to users on the network. Some of the obvious sites you would think of were on the list of blocked sites (Gaming, Personal Email, MySpace) but also blocked were those not so obvious sites (Personal Banking, LinkedIn, YouTube, Random Blogs). Many times during the day I would be blocked from information on the Internet I needed to do my job, such as tutorial videos on YouTube or programming help on a blog. The “straw that broke the camel’s back” for me was when I received a LinkedIn Connection request from the owner, but I was not allowed to accept it while on the company network. How can the site be considered valuable and reputable enough for the owner to use it to connect to employees during work hours but not reputable enough to actually allow them to reciprocate while on the job? It was as if we were being asked to “Do Less.”

“So then do something about it”

If working at this place was so dreadful, why did I continue to work there? Well, for one, I didn’t have the option to create a rock opera about Dracula (I kid). But as stated above, I truly believed that the company would grow and along with that would come personal opportunities. The key benefits to working for this company were:

  • Growth Potential
  • I was given tremendous amounts of responsibility early, which was frequently a rewarding challenge
  • I viewed the job as a resume builder, thinking that I could land any job after about 3 years
  • My colleagues were great to work with and are some of my best friends today
  • I got to work on brand new Microsoft technologies

“It’s really good, Peter. I just don’t understand it”

3 posts now have revolved around my time working at this company. It’s time to get to the point by explaining what I learned by constantly having to “walk on egg shells.”

  • It pushed my leadership ability to a new level. I was forced into making technical leadership decisions within a short period of time after beginning the job. Because of the high turnover, I went from being the 3rd most experienced technical person in the company to the 1st. This meant that I had to learn to make decisions without the reliance of someone who had relevant experience.
  • I learned when and how to speak up, to voice my opinion.
  • I learned that it is important to be able to articulate the points for or against a decision.
    • When responding negatively to news about a decision, I learned to be able to describe reasons why a decision made me uncomfortable.
    • When presenting, it is important to start with an “Executive Overview”; don’t assume that the audience knows immediately what you’re talking about.
    • When selling an idea, I learned to prepare for critique and to validate benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, I began to understand how stressful it can be to own/bootstrap your own company. For the owner, his or her entire livelihood is at stake every day. The occasional emotional response to bad news can be expected.


Hire ‘em and Ignore ‘em – Another Anti-Pattern

This blog post is the 2nd in a series of Anti-Pattern stories

As I wrote in my last post, turnover at one of my previous employers was abysmal, a dreadful 50% each year. I don’t know the industry calculation for employee turnover but here’s mine:

Count the number of people at the company on January 1.

If half those people are not there a year later, then that’s 50% turnover.

I also mentioned in the last post that the company was fairly small. I think it’s fair to say the company’s growth was restricted by the continual loss of (mostly) talented employees. Nevertheless, you would think that a company with so much experience filling vacant roles would have become effective at training and onboarding new hires.

On the contrary, this company’s orientation process was inconsistent at best, nonexistent at worst. Instead of a new employee’s excitement being maximized during its peak, it was met with a complete lack of direction. Whatever willingness to learn and sacrifice the employee had was quickly drained with feelings of boredom, irrelevance, and defeat. The culture had become so rotten that some company members actively avoided new hires until they had “established they could cut it.” In other words, it was not considered worth the time to introduce one’s self to a new employee until he or she survived a certain minimum number of weeks on the job. Another common scenario was that new employees were not given any tasks or attention when they started. They were just left at their cubicles to stare at their computer monitors and look busy. They usually did not know who to ask for help or for more work to do so they became frustrated with the lack of mental challenge and began wondering what alternative employment options existed.

Exciting Lunch

Posted by jmerriam7

As I alluded in my previous post, a more dramatic scenario occurred when new hires were introduced to their first “dropped bomb,” when an ambiguous “corporate catastrophe” was explained in a monthly meeting. They were incidentally led to believe their jobs were in jeopardy, leading them to revert to their recent yet unsatisfied job search as a fallback option.

It is my belief that new employees require attentive treatment and care in order to rapidly train them how to do their jobs and more importantly to reduce turnover. In many cases, companies are willing to spend time and money on recruiting talented employees, but next to zero time on them once they have signed an employment agreement. With a thorough employee orientation program, new hires are incorporated into existing teams and they feel confident about their efforts, abilities, and the organization. They begin to produce results earlier begetting momentum and a sense of accomplishment. Doesn’t this sound like a better outcome?

Accordingly, if you remember only one thing from this post, remember this:

Employees in orientation must still be recruited!

 

Below I outline a few recommendations for new hire orientation. They may seem like remedial suggestions but I can assure you they are new concepts to at least one company. Picking and choosing even a few to implement should increase morale and productivity of new employees.

Introduce the new hire to people with whom he or she will interact regularly

One of the goals of employee orientation is rapid integration into the existing team. Introduce a new hire to close (in proximity or function) employees on the first or second day. If the company is small enough, introduce him or her to everyone in the organization.

Take the new hire out to lunch with the team

Ideally this would take place on the first day. When the new hire is eating lunch with peers, he or she can begin to ask less formal questions about the job or company history.

“Pair up” the new hire with someone knowledgeable

Ideally, there will be an experienced member of the new hire’s team in a similar role. The experienced member should teach techniques and best practices to the new hire. Additionally, this semi-formal pairing provides comfort to the new hire that there is always someone that can answer questions.

Formally train the new hire

For smaller organizations this is not as practical, as most knowledge is tribal. However, medium-to-larger organizations with established roles often spend the first few days or weeks training new hires in a classroom. Such focused learning of company-specific knowledge reduces experience needed to perform the job.

Implement a formal mentor/mentee arrangement between different departments

Pair a new hire up with an experienced company member from a separate department. The experienced member should be given knowledge of what is expected of a mentor in such a capacity. The mentor schedules regular (e.g. weekly or monthly) meetings with the mentee. This setup provides new hires the opportunity to ask questions about corporate culture or specific difficult scenarios without concerns of corporate politics.

Develop a central knowledge base

This often takes place in the form of a wiki. New hires should be directed to an internal web application that can be searched for information that has helped employees in the past.

Setup a new hire’s computer and working environment

.NET developers like me encounter this anti-pattern frequently. We show up on our first day and are given a laptop with a fresh installation of Windows on it and administrator privileges. We are expected to spend the day (or however long it takes) installing the software needed to perform our jobs. Visual Studio alone takes about half a day to install, so you can imagine the extremely unproductive time wasted on staring at progress bars. I recommend setting up the computer to a point past all the down time. It should be easy for a current developer to work on his or her own computer while another one is plugged in at its side getting important programs installed. If there are specific development environment configuration settings that a new developer should know, leave those incomplete for a learning experience.

 

Retaining newly-hired employees is essential for organizational progress. Great opportunities are lost when employees leave your company before significantly contributing to its success. The company loses money and time on recruitment, training, salary, and also could lose the opportunity to hire the second-best candidate, who likely has joined another company already. By implementing an orientation program with some of the above strategies, turnover of new hires can be greatly reduced. And if a company-wide “restructuring” must occur, at least show some sensitivity to the employees that are considered valuable so that they feel secure in their positions.

 

 

 

2 Steps Forward, 3 Steps Back – A Leader’s Anti-Pattern

Recently, I have struggled to maintain the blogging pace (1 every 4 weeks) that I set as a goal for myself at the beginning of the year. The difficulty can be easily explained. I have been meaning to share some stories from past experiences. However, I have hesitated, worrying that by publicly displaying my thoughts about sensitive topics I could be burning the bridges I have built with past colleagues. Ultimately, I’ve decided to write about some lessons learned based on advice from a mentor, “sharing how you overcame difficult situations is always a good thing.” I will attempt to be objective in my recollection as opposed to writing a long-winded rant. Names will be withheld to protect the guilty. Nevertheless, I can say with certainty that the chaotic, passive-aggressive environment of the following situations taught me more about dealing with superiors and office culture than anything else.

Since I plan on writing more than one post around the same topic, it is useful to spend a little effort describing the culture at my previous employer. First of all, the company was small. It was big enough and established enough to not be considered a startup anymore. However, it was small enough that any change that ownership decided on could be carried out in a matter of days, and drastic decisions were made… frequently.

Once a month, all employees met over a long lunch to discuss important topics, like current status, growth, and direction of the company. This was not an abnormal concept, but it was at these meetings where we were met, more often than not, with such flummoxing news that we all left in disbelief. We began to walk into the meetings each month expecting a new “bomb to be dropped” on us employees. Despite hearing that company financials were good, we would learn of a completely new corporate direction. Also typical would be revocations of previously approved “perks.” Or, as we looked to our left and right and noticed certain people were not in attendance, we would soon find out that these folks had been fired unexpectedly that day.

At the time, I merely chalked everything up to the passive-aggressive nature of leadership. But now, looking back, I realize what was happening was a lack of trust, and therefore a constant evasion of policies, conversations, and tactics that had previously caused pain. The moment anything went wrong, then in the eyes of those making decisions, it meant that everything on which the company was focusing was wrong, and changes needed to be made in the opposite direction. Put another way, the strategies being implemented may have been near perfect, but they were immediately abandoned at the first setback. It is this anti-pattern on which I will elaborate today, but first, I want to share an excerpt from a journal I wrote while on the job:

No one really ever knows if they’re doing a good job. “Reviews” have been neglected over the last 8 months. And, although we have a “Vision” statement, our environment changes so often and our direction always comes from one source, that it makes everyone feel like whatever they were working on before wasn’t right.

Another source for this is that we have high turnover here. So, if someone learns some method or process from someone else who was terminated, the thing learned gets questioned even though it might be highly valuable.

I think a way to resolve this is to understand that it occurs. When there is turnover, either more could be explained, or there should be a more thorough strategy for picking up the focus that the resource had.

 

The Solicitation of Advice

Recognizing that turnover was high and morale and productivity were low, leadership asked me and another employee to lead 2 workgroups over the course of several weeks to brainstorm areas at which the company needed to improve. The idea was that recommendation documents from each workgroup could be created somewhat anonymously, and would result in an honest, public discussion with the owner. The documents would follow a What, Why, and What’s Next format for each suggestion.

I cannot speak for the other workgroup, but mine was thoroughly engaged in the process of trying to “fix” the issues of the company. We spent hours brainstorming, collaborating, and refining our recommendations, but we ultimately knew that no policy change or employee benefit would take root unless a culture of trust arose first. Our message was clear. We aspired to a culture of trust in which we communicated openly, trusted the intentions of colleagues, and were patient with decisions based on education and experience. In order to fit the requirements of the document, we provided specific examples of ideas for change in addition to an overview wherein our culture of trust concept was explained (if you knew our audience, you would know how important adhering to the proposed document structure really was).

Eventually, our deadline arrived along with the promised “open” discussion. The owner was the solicitor of our recommendations and the authority for taking action. Our workgroup’s mission was to pitch our ideas on paper and await the resulting changes. Going into the meeting, I was excited about making a truthful, heartfelt, objective, and passionate case for change. My hopes were quickly squashed.

The owner had a day to review recommendations before the meeting. However, it apparently was not long enough to enable an objective reaction. The meeting kicked off with defensive remarks rebutting the specifics of nearly every recommendation. Those of us who were more vocal, or who had less to lose, prudently responded calmly, arguing for the case of the documents.

As you may have guessed, the multi-hour clash was all for naught. The owner, citing past misbehaviors by employees (most of whom were no longer employed there), told us we “were not mature enough to handle these changes.” The entire discussion focused on arguing specific points about low priority recommendations and how they would be carried out. It became emotional. The overarching message was not heard, nor internalized.

Maybe it was better to receive an immediate negative response than to follow the company’s normal trend of putting changes into place only to lose faith in those changes soon after. Still, that was the 2nd “bomb” I endured at the company, and it illustrates one of the biggest anti-patterns that was so common. We were given hope in the form of solicited advice, but absolutely zero progress resulted. The owner had effectively reduced morale to nil. There was a fleeting moment of trust (2 steps forward) followed by the regression to a comfortable status quo, except the engagement of several of us was lost in the process (the 3 steps back).

Don’t Be Lured by the Fringe Benefits

It seems common for software developers to question their career direction after several years of experience. I have gathered through my own feelings and conversations with others that there is a point in one’s career, usually after about 4 years, at which one wonders how long he or she can continue to build business application after business application. What once was challenging and exciting has become repetitive and mundane because the pace of learning has greatly decreased. The motivation to create yet another CRUD application (one that is categorized because it only involves the most typical business functions: Create, Read, Update, Delete) has been lost, resulting in many introspective hours staring out the window thinking about greener pastures.

What can be done to renew the sense of excitement and urgency that comes from developing something new? Myself, I thought that working in a “cool” industry that I was already interested in would solve the issue. I figured I already loved sports and casinos. If I got a development job in those industries it would make the dull tasks less dull. I would be able to tell myself, “Well, I hate clicking through smoke tests again but at least everything is sports-related!”

Roulette CasinoBaseball StatueFashion Industry

Posted by Heather Clemons
Posted by wallyg

Having worked at an Information Technology (IT) department for a professional baseball team before, I figured I would be able to leverage my experience and professional network to get an interesting new job. Granted, my work there was more of an internship than anything, but a role in such high demand serves as a recognizable selection process and it has been a great conversation topic during job interviews. It was a wonderful overall experience and I appreciated the opportunity. Therefore, I focused on new jobs with professional sports teams, video game development companies, and casinos.

Casino – For someone going to school in the middle of Ohio, I spent a lot of weekend time in college at casinos. I enjoyed Black Jack and was constantly searching for the perfect system to make money. I even wanted to be a professional poker player for a little while. I also toyed with the idea of taking a winter off to learn to be a Black Jack dealer. There is something about fiddling with those heavy clay chips that is both riveting and relaxing at the same time.

Sabermetrics – Growing up I was obsessed with baseball and individual player statistics. I played on a baseball team and played board games like Strat-o-matic. I made my own scoring sheets and even used to make my own player cards to represent my friends in the board game. During my job search, I joined SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, and immersed myself into baseball statistics again thinking I could become a full-time statistician or statistical application developer.

At this particular time in my life, I knew I was moving out of state, so I figured it was a perfect time to make an industry change. However, at the time I was not comfortable with the prospect of not getting paid so I took one of the first jobs that was offered to me until something else presented itself. A funny thing happened at that company. As it was a small software product company, I learned that the environment there was close to what I had wanted all along. It was an old company by software standards, but it still had a “startup feel.” I learned what I wanted and what would keep me motivated:

  • The transparency of a small company makes it easier to absorb new knowledge about other business functions (e.g. Marketing or Recruiting)
  • There is a shorter feedback loop from working at a small company. This creates more accountability and helps employees to learn what is working faster
  • Being a software developer at a software company is a critical role and treated as such

Although the company had its share of problems, it showed me what I was looking for in a long term position. I wanted the growth potential and commitment to progressive technology that comes from a software product startup.

While working in a “cool industry” does come with perks, fringe benefits, interesting subject matter, and it may turn out to be generally awesome for some, I caution software developers to think about some of the hidden drawbacks to these types of positions.

Positions are in High Demand

Positions in interesting industries are both scarce and in high demand. If you are interested in a professional sport, does the city you live in even have a team at the highest level? If not, that’s scarcity. If you are lucky enough to see a job opening you are interested in, you must realize that there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of other applications. That’s demand.

As a result, salaries tend to be lower and expectations of working hours are much longer, especially during busy seasons or big events. Additionally, people hired into these jobs stay around for a long time. Because of the low turnover, it can be difficult to gain more responsibility by moving into someone’s role that has just left, limiting opportunities for promotion.

Technology comes at a Cost

By definition, the interesting industries mentioned do not focus on technology. They are generating revenue through entertainment. Therefore, it may make the job more entertaining but it changes the perspective of technology throughout the organization. Employees outside of the IT department view technology as cumbersome, productivity-restricting, and expensive. Any time there is a trivial bug in internal software, it will be treated as an urgent support request. Did I mention developers will be doing technical support?

To summarize, the key problem here is that the organization does not exist for the sake of progressing in technology. The IT department is a cost center. Any mistakes that cost money for the company were not budgeted for and get escalated quickly, making for a stressful environment for technologists.

Think it over

There are smaller drawbacks to consider too. Working somewhere that garners the awe of family and friends comes with requests to trade favors (e.g. introductions or getting event tickets). Additionally, sports teams and casinos are highly competitive with one another, so they are protective of advantageous processes and knowledge. I prefer to be able to learn from peers both inside and outside of my company as opposed to being a slave to competitive information silos.

In reviewing the pros and cons of working for a professional sports team for this post, I have almost talked myself back into trying to work for one. The fringe benefits are great (e.g. free game tickets and meeting athletes), it helps build a resume, and colleagues are all intelligent and ambitious. However, it is my intention to bring up these drawbacks to shed light on the entire package that comes with the job and to remind myself that I really want to work for a software company. To marry the two concepts would be the “Genius of the and.” By working for or creating a web retailer like Zappos, who needs technology to thrive, one can work in an interesting industry, like fashion, AND be a crucial cog in building revenue for the company.

“6 Simple Steps to Getting Certified” – a Toastmasters Presentation

Since October I have been attending Toastmasters meetings and occasionally giving speeches to improve my public speaking ability.

Below is my 4th speech:

6 Simple Steps to Getting Certified

  1. Ask your boss & peers which certifications are valuable.
    You don’t want to waste time obtaining a certification that will not ultimately help you to achieve your goals. Ask your boss to find out about certifications that would aide in advancement within your current job. Ask peers to find out which would provide opportunity outside of your current employer. Ideally, you should choose a certification about which you have some relevant knowledge already. Otherwise, the preparation process will be significantly elongated.
  2. Research the governing body’s website or magazine to determine what is required. Find out:
    a. The format of the test (e.g. multiple choice, essay, etc.)
    b. Recommended training materials (e.g. text books, practice tests, etc.)
    c. Additional requirements (e.g. years experience, a verbal presentation, etc.)
  3. Study
    a. Obtain the recommended training materials
    b. Review fundamentals
    c. Spend extra time learning new concepts
  4. Practice Tests
    a. Take practice tests to get familiar with the testing environment
    b. Write down notes about surprising answers and concepts with which you struggled
    c. Schedule the official exam when ready and confident. In many cases, your company will pay for the exam fee.
  5. Cram: study for an hour or two right before the test.
    Focus on those concepts you struggled with as well as facts & formulas that will be beneficial to have memorized. No matter how much you study before-hand, always cram. It’s important to have that information in short-term memory going into the test. Trust me, you don’t want to fail a test because of something trivial that you would have known if you had just done a quick review of the material before the test.
  6. Pass the Test
    a. Many certifications last a lifetime
    b. Update your resume
    c. Now you can add those letters after your name on your business card

I have only been attending for 7 months, so I have plenty of room for continual improvement. However, I have already been helped by the members of my Toastmasters club to use fewer filler words and display fewer nervous ticks. I hope to become more comfortable, so that I can focus on my message while on stage instead of being so nervous my mind goes blank.

Toastmasters is useful because of the feedback given at the end of a meeting. It is helping me develop a sense for how long (in time) someone is speaking (including myself). I get to learn what I did well and what are areas for improvement. In the specific video above, I received the suggestion to not look back at the PowerPoint presentation but instead to create speaker’s notes to keep in front of me. My presentation could also have been helped with a personal, specific example.

I am looking forward to improving my public speaking by giving more speeches, receiving the feedback of others, videotaping, and personally reviewing my speeches. In fact, I look forward to improving the quality of my videos. I apologize for the poor video quality this time (I used a digital camera from 2004). To record my voice, the best option I brainstormed (that was mobile and not very distracting for the audience) was to use a blue tooth headset with my iPhone, call into a Free Conference Call number, and record the call. I later merged the audio and video. If anyone has any cheap, wireless recommendations for microphones that will work with my iPhone I am open to trying them.

Drama Queens versus the Status Quo

I realized leading up to my wedding 2 years ago that I have grown up dreading being the center of attention. Throughout my engagement, I held a heavy fear of the wedding weekend because I was nervous about all the attention. I did not feel comfortable giving a speech (the night of the rehearsal dinner) nor tossing the garter. I’d lived my life until then blending in. I wouldn’t say I am a conformist, but definitely someone who avoids confrontation.

Is it possible to be successful with such tendencies? I say no. Well, not unless you’re a rare exception, one who has a mentor that teaches you all the tricks so that you’re never facing an unknown challenge.

The more stories I hear or books I read, the more I realize that folks get ahead in life and business by being consistently more effective than others. What is the best way to be consistently better? By looking for shortcuts, seizing opportunities, and doing the important things that others hate to do.

Apparently, the normal person is like I was. He or she shrinks away from conflict, hides from uncomfortable situations, and refuses to communicate the whole truth. Exceptional people have bucked the trend of fitting in. They challenge assumptions and find that there are often easier ways to accomplish great things.

A number of authors that I’ve recently read use this as their primary thesis. As Timothy Ferriss says in The 4 Hour Workweek, “What we fear doing most is usually what we MOST NEED TO DO!”

  • Tucker Max – I Hope they Serve Beer in Hell
  • Tim Ferriss – The 4 Hour Work Week
  • David H. Sandler – You Can’t Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar
  • Jim F. Kukral – Attention! This Book Will Make You Money

The advice from these books is completely logical, so why are Computer Programmers so conflicted when trying to apply it?

Most computer programmers chose the profession because it does not require interaction with other people, allowing them to continue to avoid difficult social situations. On the other hand, most programmers are skilled at seeing shortcut solutions to problems, optimizing processes, and reducing unnecessary tasks. They just won’t do anything that could be potentially embarrassing.


Drama Queen Developer

Photo by aka Kath

I think back to my childhood, when I socialized with some children like me and some who were drama queens, those who captured all the attention by whining that nothing ever went their way. Did the drama queens grow up with an advantage? They are used to asking people for things, do not take no for an answer, and shine with the spotlight. I contend that as long as a drama queen is not completely unlikeable, it is a great way to grow up with an advantage in our culture.

To those programmers who fit into the above personality, I say to become dissatisfied with the status quo. Learn to do things differently and opportunities will present themselves. Then seize them.

Carpe Diem