Archive for May, 2009

How does a contractor make his resume appealing to a hiring manager?

May 12, 2009

A reader of Land The Tech Job You Love wrote to ask:

I have been searching for this type of book for years now. One question, as I’m only on page 75: How does a contractor make his resume appealing to a hiring manager?

I do NOT want to contract, but in DC, it seems to be the only way to either get a job or get a foot-hold into a long-term opportunity. But I hear from so many hiring types that they hate “job hoppers”. But I’m not. I want and crave a long-term full-time position.

How do I address that?

Exactly how you just did it.

Put it in your cover letter. “I’ve been a contractor out of necessity
for the last two years, but I want a long-term full-time position
where I can set down some roots with the company. I think that
WangoTech can benefit in the long-term from my skills as a …”

You can also try to turn this potential negative into a positive.
“I’ve worked on a wide variety of database systems, including Oracle,
PostgreSQL and DB2, for companies from a 10-person accounting firm
to a Fortune 100 textile manufacturer.” You’ll show the breadth
of knowledge you bring to the position.

If you’re concerned about the resume not being seen along with the
cover letter, I’d suggest adding a final bullet point to the
professional summary at the top of the resume, such as:

* Experienced contractor looking to start a long-term full-time position in DC area

In some ways, it’s the dreaded Objective, which should never appear in your resume
but I think that if you
put it as the last bullet in the summary, you’ll put the reader’s
mind at ease, before she gets to the work history that shows you’re
a contractor.

I saw a comedian once explain that if there’s anything out of the
ordinary with you (very tall or short, a speech impediment, etc),
you call attention to it at the beginning of your routine. If you
don’t, your audience will fixate on that aspect of you and not
listen to what you’re saying. Just do half a minute to acknowledge
the attention-grabber, and move on. That’s the approach I suggest
you take in this case.

Sometimes when we write resumes, we’re so concerned with short
sentences and bullets, we forget about the power of a cover letter.
In this case, the cover letter shows that you’re interested in that
specific company, because your cover letter discusses the very
specific relationship with the company you’d like to have, and heads
off a potential problem. That shows foresight and it shows that
you’re thinking like the hiring manager.

On breadth vs. depth of technical knowledge

May 10, 2009

Friday’s posting about balancing the value of learning specific technologies and following technologies you enjoy got Jeffrey Thalhammer thinking about depth vs. breadth of knowledge.

Whenever my colleagues and I discuss our career plans and the job
market, someone always asks me whether to learn programming language
X, or operating system Y, or framework Z. But I like to point out
that time spent learning some new skill is also time not spent
honing the skills you already have. And in my opinion, it is both
more lucrative and more enjoyable to be a master of one craft, than
to be mediocre at several of them.

This is because I’ve noticed that those who are the best in their
chosen fields are always fully employed and highly compensated.
Especially during an economic downturn, employers become more
selective about who they hire. So when they go looking for a
candidate with a particular set of skills, they want to choose the
person who is strongest with those skills — not the person who has
the most different skills. And employers are usually willing to
pay a premium for top-notch talent, if they can find it.

I’ve been on the hiring side of the interview table enough times
to know this. When a job candidate shows me they have mastered one
technology, it also demonstrates to me that they have the potential
to master others. But having partial expertise in many technologies
may only prove that they own a lot of O’Reilly books.
Truly mastering any technology requires a great deal of patience
and dedication, and those traits are far more valuable to the team
than being able to write code in 16 different languages.

Having said all that, I do acknowledge there is a real tradeoff
between the depth and breadth of one’s technical skills. Not all
job candidates are created equal, and it just isn’t possible for
everyone to be the “best” in something. I’m sure there is a
sweet spot where you can optimize your employability, and this
doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore other technologies.
The industry is constantly evolving so you must stay up-to-date,
and learning a little bit about other technologies can give you a
fantastic new perspective on the those you already know well. And
of course, this all assumes that you actually enjoy the technologies
you’re working with. If you don’t enjoy them, then by all means,
go learn some new skills.

But if you do enjoy the technologies you work with, then I urge you
to consider mastering those technologies before going off to learn
some new bag-of-tricks. To be sure, the road to mastery is long
and difficult. It is fraught with frustration and can be boring
at times. But it is also challenging, exciting, and deeply rewarding.
In the end, I believe it will lead you to a much happier and more
prosperous career.

I’d rather be the first-pick candidate for just one position than
the second-pick for several.

Jeff Thalhammer has been specializing in Perl software
development for over 10 years. He is the senior engineer and chief
janitor at Imaginative Software Systems, a small software consultancy
based in San Francisco. Jeff is also the creator of Perl-Critic,
the leading static analysis tool for Perl.

Do I need to learn Microsoft technologies?

May 8, 2009

In a thread on Stack Overflow, a reader named Andrew finishing his undergrad degree asked:

I notice that the vast majority of companies I’m looking at are strictly Microsoft users, from windows to visual studio. Am I going to be at a disadvantage as most of my experience is unix/linux
development based?

My response included:

Whether or not “most jobs” are using MS technologies, would you WANT to work with MS technologies? If you went and boned up on your .NET and Visual C++ and had to use Windows all day, would that be the kind of job you wanted? If not, then it doesn’t matter if that’s what “most jobs” call for, because those aren’t the jobs for you.

I was taken to task by a reader named Ben Collins (not Ben Collins-Sussman of Google) who said:

I think this is stupendously bad advice. Of course you should bone up on Microsoft technologies. The chances of you making it through a 40-year career in technology without having to work with MS stuff is slim to none.

Ben’s right, you’re likely to have to use Microsoft technologies, if that’s how you want your career to take you. What I think we’re seeing here is the difference in viewpoints between someone like Ben who seems to think primarily in terms of maximum salary and maximum employability, and someone who thinks about the importance of loving what it is that you do for a job.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be employable. Nobody who knows Visual Studio or Java is going to have too much of a hard time finding jobs that need those skills. Then again, I flipped burgers at McDonald’s for three years, and McDonald’s is always looking for people, so I’m pretty employable there, too.

To those of us who look at our jobs as more than just a way to make money, it makes little sense to ask about what “most companies” do. We’re more concerned with the joy of working in our chosen part of the tech industry. I’d learn Visual C++ and try to find some joy in working in Windows if it was the only way to support my family, but that’s not the case.

To the fresh college graduates out there, I ask you to not put yourself in the situation where you’re concerned with what is going to give you the maximum salary, or the maximum number of potential job openings. Instead, look at what you want to do, what sparks the excitement in your heart. Optimize for the maximum amount of love for your job, especially as you’re just starting out.

For those grizzled veterans out there who slog through the trenches, working on projects that don’t bring them joy, I ask you to reconsider your career choices. Imagine you’re fresh out of school. What would you love to be doing? Figure out what that is, and work toward it, if only in small steps.

You spend more waking hours on your job than with your spouse. Optimize your career to bring you as much happiness as possible. Life is too short to work in a job you don’t love.