Job interviews can suck.
That’s true in many industries, but I know it’s true in tech.
- Every company has their own bespoke thing.
- Bias creeps in left, right, and center.
- Interviewers frequently fail to share information, which makes the process feel like a crap shoot at best and an afterthought at worst.
Technologists even stay in jobs they don’t like because they dread the grueling friction of the interview process.
I don’t dread interviewing nearly as much as I used to.
Part of that is experience: I have years under my belt now. Part of it is my platform: people have heard of me, and sometimes reach out, because of this blog. And part of it is privilege: I’m a white, ivy-educated technologist, and those identities predispose people to listen to me more than they listen to people who aren’t those things.
But part of it is also that I have learned to manage the interview process in ways that work for me. And maybe some of my ways will work for you, too.
Today we’ll talk about the first of those ways: increasing touch points.
I do my best not to depend on the outcome of any one interview day.
When I associate a lower opportunity cost with any individual interview experience, I feel less stress about how each one goes. I try to avoid the scenario where I feel like my future depends on the impression I make on one handful of strangers on one day of my life. This means increasing my impressions in two ways:
- Increasing the number of impressions I have with this handful of people.
- Increasing the number of people with whom I have made impressions.
How do I increase my touch point surface area?
Again, I am a programmer and I have been a programmer for a minute, which means I have scarcity on my side in a way that many job candidates don’t. Here are the other things that have helped me.
1. I built a portfolio of projects, most notably this blog.
The blog, to date, has taken five years. I’m not calling this a quick solution. But here’s the thing: the time will pass anyway, whether or not you start. So, if this is the kind of thing you’d like to do anyway and you have the freedom in your schedule to do it, it’s acceptable to take a while.
First of all, when people share blog posts that they like, more people hear of me, and they sometimes reach out about positions. Second of all, by writing about tech, I demonstrate my expertise to strangers. This means that potential employers who contact me from my blog already have some idea of what I can do.
Some people build personal projects that become popular or contribute to open-source teams to achieve these same benefits.
2. I tell my network that I am looking.
First of all, tech is a cesspool. It’s easy to end up at a crappy company by accident. I apply to places where I know people so that they can vouch for the team and the leadership (or, at least, warn me about them). The absolute best interview experiences always happen when I have worked with the hiring manager before. That’s not to say I’m always selected in these processes: I’m not. Nevertheless, when the person in charge of the process is invested in continuing a relationship with me, a lot fewer things slip through the cracks.
That brings me to the second thing: companies tend to treat referred candidates a little better. This is indefensible, and it’s also true. My interview processes trend less annoying and careless when I come referred. Furthermore, if recruiters or hiring managers do get annoying or careless, I can tell my friend who referred me that this is happening. On several occasions I have done this, and interview processes gets “unstuck,” or I suddenly detect that the people in charge are giving my application a lot more attention.
Third of all, and perhaps most importantly, when I come referred, my interview date is not the company’s only impression of me. This takes a lot of pressure off me on the day of the interview, because to some degree I have already proven myself to these people.
Finally, if I go to a company where I was referred, my friend usually gets a referral bonus. Not a life-changing bonus, but enough for me to bug them to take me to a nice dinner ;).
3. I’m sort of interviewing almost all the time.
It almost never hurts to chat with people at a prospective employer, regardless of how happy I am in my current gig or how long I have been there. One month in? I’ll still chat. Super happy? I’ll still chat.
More often, people don’t interview until they do a big round of interviews all at once, and then they pick one of those places and stay there for years.
It seems “disloyal” to interview somewhere else right after joining a company, or if the current company is generally pretty good. There’s also fear about how it will look on a resume to have short stints at various employers since prospective employees are rumored to look down on “job hoppers.”
First, on loyalty: employment is not like familial solidarity. It’s not my responsibility to give a company a chance or see it through hard times: the company wouldn’t do that for me, after all. And I’m not personally betraying people by leaving a company: those people can also leave, and we work together again somewhere else.
Second, on job hopping: it’s possible to interview frequently and still not job-hop. Just because I’m willing to interview somewhere doesn’t mean I’m obligated to go there, or to change jobs at all. I respond to companies that reach out especially thoughtfully and interview with just them, the alternative being that I stay where I am. Those are the companies, in my experience, that are most likely to present the perfect position for which it’s worth a move. If the position is OK but not perfect, I stick with the devil I know.
There are two additional factors worth mentioning here.
- It’s not unheard of for a company to welcome in a new hire who turned down their offer at some point in the past, but then changed their mind or got desperate. I have seen this work up to a year later, and I have seen it work a lot in a 6 month window.
- It’s also common for employees of one company to move to a different company, then call promising candidates that they interviewed at their old employer to come to their new employer. I see interviews as an opportunity to meet people more than a mandate to court a company.
You’ll notice a theme here: I’m focused on people, not on companies. Speaking of people…
4. I try not to burn bridges.
I do as much as possible to maintain goodwill, even with people I don’t like. Sometimes this is hard in the moment. Sometimes it’s also not possible or not safe to do that. There’s still the next best thing:
5. I fix bridges.
What if I had a falling out with someone right before leaving the company? Usually I first leave a lot of time for healing, because my side of the bridge is just as busted up as theirs is. I process my experience with a few different processing buddies, to help me separate my contributions to the acrimony from the other person’s.
It’s possible, after all this reflection, that I decide “no, based on the facts of what happened, I do not think I want to rekindle a connection to this person.” I get to do that. But that’s not every case.
Sometimes the problem isn’t that the other person is toxic, but that my relationship to them was not the type of relationship I should have with this particular person. I’ve had coworkers who would have made fine colleagues, but who were not prepared to be my manager (or anyone’s manager). I have had coworkers who I don’t want as colleagues, but who I’d meet for coffee once in a while or refer to a certain kind of opportunity.
If I decide that I’d still like to have a relationship of some kind with this person, I figure out a way to reestablish one. A sincere compliment and a cup of coffee goes a long way. It works on me even if I know that that’s exactly what the other person is trying to do. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a latte.
Job interviews can suck, and tech is no exception. Tech interview processes are often bespoke and biased, with recruiters and hiring managers regularly dropping the ball or providing insufficient information. It’s enough to make people avoid interviewing until their situation is dire.
I have found a few techniques that help reduce the stress of interviewing for me.
Chiefly, I try not to depend on the outcome of any one interview day.
I do this by working to increase my options for where to interview. I also do this by increasing the amount that my interviewers know about me before the interview happens.
Some ways I accomplish those two things:
- I built a portfolio that raises my profile and, more importantly, demonstrates my expertise.
- I tell my network I’m looking, since interviewers tend to know more about me before the interview when I come referred.
- I stay open to interviewing most of the time, so I can meet folks at lots of companies and either switch jobs if it’s perfect, or reach back out later if I really need to switch.
- I try to maintain relationships where I can, both my attempting not to burn bridges, and by considering the possibility of fixing bridges later.
In the next post, we talk about another class of tactics that I use to reduce the stress of interviews: establishing my own success metrics for interviews and taking action to succeed on those metrics.
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What outstanding practical career advice. Thank you for sharing it.
You helped me feel not so bad today, my last day as an engineering manager at a company where I’ve worked just five months. I, too, am always sort of interviewing. I love to talk about engineering leadership and see how it’s being done at various places, and so I try to keep meeting people in the industry I don’t know. Doing that recently I ended up being poached away to a better situation. My old one wasn’t bad, but the new one looks to be much better.
Congratulations on your new role :). I look forward to hearing how it goes!