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Employment, Interviewing, Job Hunt

Honest Advice Series: Do Your Homework

I know it’s been a while since I touched on my much vaunted and read (but not commented on, you sneaky boots) series imparting advice for people wanting to attract the attention of and then start working for a large software development company.  It’s been a while, but it hasn’t left my thoughts except when something more important takes it place.  Something like ice cream, ponies, parties, or parties with ice cream and pony rides.  I know.  I’ve been going to my happy place a lot.

In case you missed the earlier posts, I debunked the myth employment at  a large corporation is any more stable than at a small startup company.  I next talked about bureaucracy and politics and their ubiquitous presence in all businesses,  but to a greater and more personally frustrating level at large corporations.

So you’ve read those two posts and still think life in a large corporate machine sounds pretty good.  Let’s not kid ourselves, it can be a blast.  Small companies can’t usually afford to spend years on a research project that may or may not result in a directly profitable line.  Small companies don’t usually have the budget for sending employees off to the far corners of the world to interact with leaders in the industry.  Heck, small companies can’t usually afford to help relocate a rock star employee who would be perfect in every other way.  So you’ve decided you want to get a job with MegaWidget and see where the path takes you.

Great and good for you.  The very next question you should ask yourself is how much do you really know about MegaWidget as a company?  Chances are very good you don’t know as much as you think unless you just happen to live near the primary corporate headquarters and are golfing buddies with all the senior management who are liable to start spilling company secrets over Manhattans in the lounge.  Of course if you are one of those people, please contact me immediately as I would like to add you to my contacts list on LinkedIn.  I should be asking YOU for advice on landing a job there.

For the rest of us, we need to answer the following three questions about a company when looking at applying.

  1. How is the company structured and what are the different groups like culturally?
  2. Who are the company’s biggest or most dangerous competitors and how are they positioned against them?
  3. Who or what is likely to make them obsolete or a historical footnote in the coming decade?

Corporations are not perfectly aligned bodies sharing a single vision and culture, no matter what the press releases and corporate recruiters may claim.  Different groups will be made up of very different people with different processes, values, and culture in spite of the best efforts expended by corporate human resources and process control.  For instance, the culture of a group tasked with developing three dimensional mapping software for military guidance systems will be about as radically different as you can imagine to another division developing online casual games.  And yet if you were to cruise the “careers” section of the corporate webpage, I would venture to guess both teams would be advertising for test engineers with experience in three dimensional mapping technologies.  Depending on who actually wrote the position opening, they may even use the exact same phrases and words.  It’s up to you to dig deeper into company publications, interviews, and online chatter in order to peel back the layers of the groups.  One of he worst things you can do is simply send off your resume willy-nilly for everything because large corporations keep track of that sort of thing.

Once you’ve figured out which group you’d want to be working with, you’ll need to ask yourself how they’re actually doing in the marketplace.  Are they doing well, or are they being kept alive by artificial means?  Being stuck on a project that’s sucking funding from other groups due to profitability issues is actually less fun than working on a small startup in danger of going under.  At least on a small startup, there’s market pressure to either put up or shut up by knuckling down to fix the problem or just closing up shop once and for all.  Once the “all in” decision has been made, it can be one of the most exciting jobs you’ll ever have as I’ve been told its like taking a ship through a storm.  Everyone pulls together and either comes home safely or goes down together.  On a product simply held together by corporate life support, you often find only inertia and the feeling your co-workers are all there with you because no one else wants them and no one can be bothered to fire them.  Asking yourself how a product is performing will help you figure out what you’re walking into.

Finally you’ll need to take a good hard look at the group’s performance over time.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a “new team.”  In a large corporation there is no such thing as a new vice president, director, or manager.  They all came from somewhere else, which means they have a history you can research.  Does the team itself have a good track record of responding to new challenges and disruptive innovations?  If not the team, does the management?  Has the team consistently “knocked it out of the park” with their offerings or did they just get lucky once and coast on that win ever since?  How likely is this team to not only survive, but evolve and grow as the markets change?  These are all vitally important questions as you’ll need to be working with this team for a while, even if your plan is to request a transfer to the Rio division just in time for Canrivale.  New employees don’t get plum assignments or transfers.  Those plums are reserved for the people who’ve built up good capital with management over time, which is another reason to question performance over time.  It’s impossible to build up that goodwill and capital if management is constantly being replaced in order to “respond to the new challenges.”  A team that’s flexible enough to respond or deeply entrenched in an industry adverse to change or challenges is the best way to quickly build a good name for yourself.

Now I know what you’re thinking to yourself.  You’re thinking, “I don’t live in Metropolis and have friends working at MegaWidget I can ask about the real workings of a company.  How can I possibly find this stuff out?”  Easy.  Don’t read the press releases or the corporate website literature.  Hit the books, armed with your questions.  Start trolling the trade blogs and messageboards.  Follow the company on sites such as LinkedIn and BusinessWeek.  Start reading the actual trade journals and leave off ones like PC Mag and CNet.  Dig into the biographies of the upper management and start asking around about them.  Before you know it, you’ll soon know more than 80% of the “journalists” out there who seem nothing more than tools for editing down press releases from 800 to 250 words or less.  You’ll soon have an idea if you really want to go work for MegaWidget or one of its competitors you identified.  You’ll also know to which groups you’d stand the best chance of appealing both technically and socially.  You’ll also have started work on your indispensable list of names you can either contact or reach out to indirectly with references.

All this information will become vitally important as you move through the next phases of this process, taking honest stock of yourself and knowing who to contact and how to contact them when starting the process.


About cowboytesting

Hi. My name is Curtis S, and I'm a tester.


One thought on “Honest Advice Series: Do Your Homework

  1. Will structured piece.

    Good use of some of the places to look (linkedin, cnet, pcmag).

    It would be interesting to have an actual example of what you look for and then how you contacted a person at MegaWidget, using the information you found.


    Posted by Glenn Holt | August 20, 2010, 8:21 am

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