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Hard Lessons Learned as a Senior Manager – The Monsanto Challenge

The following is a series of personal thoughts and reflections on eight or so years of learning my way around what it means to be a senior quality assurance  or engineering manager. As some of you know I have recently found myself once again looking at the future of my professional career and wondering what it holds. The man who made the decision to change the entire organization of my department this week gave me some great advice. In our long and unofficial exit interview he challenged me to write down my thoughts on things I can personally take away from my successes and failures over a decade of different management roles.

Since I over share (according to everyone who loves me) this is the medium I’ve chosen to use. No names will be changed since I have no desire to name names or otherwise talk about specific instances, people, or companies.

Entry the First: The Monsanto Challenge

In which our hero finds himself experiencing blowback for not recognizing his full customer chain

A while back I worked for a company that was purchased by Monsanto. Monsanto meant business when they purchased our admittedly small little outfit in downtown San Francisco. They wanted everyone to feel like they were special and to know they purchased us because they had no idea how to do what we did and thus had no interest in telling us how to do what we do or interfere in any other manner. They purchased us because they wanted us and our data and our data models all to themselves. They spared no expense instilling the impression that both we were still going to be us but that we were also now in the “big boy pants” leagues. They chartered a jet and flew all of us out to three different facilities throughout the middle parts of the United States. We were given access to top research scientists, laboratories, executives, and even had an intimate dinner with the C-level executives and several board members. I got to meet men and women in one day who did everything from build Maker Faire sort of wild machines designed to strip genetic information from seeds without destroying them to people who advised Presidents and Prime Ministers on issues of national importance. Everyone I met on this magical mystery tour was very nice. They were to a person cheerful and helpful but most of all every single person from the assistants to the front desk personnel to the geneticists were all passionately committed to the idea of solving the world’s current and looming hunger crises. These were not Jurassic Park scientists playing with expensive toys. These were dedicated botanists, geneticists, engineers, and explorers who sought out, cataloged, studied, and genomed every single variety of crops like corn and wheat in existence looking for answers to complicated problems. When they couldn’t find answers in the species they realized they had to look outside the species. That’s when GMOs came on the scene.

Since I had what was essentially a captive audience who claimed to be willing to talk about anything, I asked the President of Monsanto directly why he thought his company’s public image was so wildly divergent with what I personally experienced just chatting with everyone. He told me it was one thing they completely screwed up a long time ago and didn’t even try to correct until lately. They didn’t look into anyone except the farmer’s buying their seeds and herbicides. The stopped at the primary connection in their value chain.

You see as much as a lot of people hate Monsanto, farmers around the world love love love them. Monsanto has done an amazing job of working with farmers, listening to their problems, and rapidly (in terms of seed) changed course several times to address their pain points. In most ways their movement into GMOs was a direct request from farmer’s who’s crops were being destroyed by climate change, water contamination, rapidly evolving pests & diseases, and the regulation of most herbicides out of existence. For decades Monsanto thought that was enough. When the suddenly felt the pain of people reacting emotionally to the idea of consuming what to them felt like “Franken-food” Monsanto reacted like the scientists and engineers they are by simply telling people to look at the science and research. To which what seemed like an entire planet replied with the phrase “Nuts.” Monsanto got hammered and is still being hammered. They’ve become the symbol of everything people don’t like about our current society and a repository for all the fears we have for what seems to be looking more and more like a bleak future. They ended up trying to enter a very pernicious and embedded opinion based on a decade or more of rumor armed only with facts.

Looking back at his now I wish I’d learned it years ago and had remembered it recently.

When you’re a manager (and especially a senior manager) you are responsible for a lot of things. Your team can feel like the most important thing that need concern you. You have reports and meetings with your direct manager who may be a director, vice president, or even chief officer of some sort. You have customers you need to keep happy be they external to your organization or internal to it. You can fall into the trap of making sure you do the best job possible, your team is chugging along fantastically, and your customers think you’re amazing. You want to believe that is more than enough to secure your reputation. Every company says it’s a “no drama zone” or something like it. Technology companies in particular like to say they’re data driven and that the rely on things they can measure. The reality is while you’re intensely focused on your primary relationships you are neglecting your secondary and tertiary relationships. These relationships are vitally important for the long term health and opinion of you and your team.

There is a tool consultants use called an influencer map. They use it to rapidly assess everyone on a project who has some sort of influence over the success or failure of that project and how they perceive it. People with direct influence are given priority but importantly people with indirect or even outlier influence are also mapped. The different people are mapped around who they can influence rather than where they occur in an org chart. Your job as a consultant is to be aware of people with influence who can have an effect on your outcome. You then turn around the ones you can to be supporters or even interested in your work. If you can’t change their stance you try and isolate them so they can’t scuttle your work through their attitude. As a manager you need to be aware of everyone in your organization in the same manner. it’s not something you need to address all the time but you don’t do it at the risk of how people perceive your work.

You see perception is often completely at odds with facts. People don’t trust facts or they selectively pick the ones that will support their perception. If a manager or director or a vice president forms a negative or even questionable perception/opinion of you or your team they will start to notice things supporting that viewpoint. You can present them with lots of Key Process Indicators (KPIs) showing you are doing great but they’ll come away remembering the one thing that may not have been awesome. At that point you are fighting a losing battle since you are actively working against an opinion formed from nothing. If you have enough time you can mitigate this issue with personal intervention and salesmanship but it’s a holding action until the opinion changes. If something like a re-organization or change in management happens before you’re turned that around you will find yourself on the list to be changed.

The best way to avoid The Monsanto Challenge is to never find yourself in it. Your first month as a manager should be spent personally meeting every other manager in your organization and every upper level manager in the company. You need to meet with them regularly and let them form their own impression of you, an impression you can hopefully control. Take the time to talk about the great things your team is doing and showcase their success. Ask them for advice or go to them with intelligent questions they can answer. Controlling your image in this manner provides some inoculation against other influencers who may be spreading a message you don’t want spread. It won’t prevent you from having your budget cut or being laid off or having your project shut down. These things happen all the time even in large companies.

It will remove one of the ways things like lay offs can happen in spite of success.

It’s a lesson I’ve paid the price for not following now at least twice and perhaps three times. I did not get on a plane and go meet with people face to face (the value of which I will talk about in another blog post). I didn’t control the message about myself and my team. In all of these occasions there was a price to pay; sometimes it was a very dear price indeed.

Simple Questions to Ask when being Interviewed

My fiend Johonna (aka Josie) Nutter turned me on to the following blog post written by Katie Thomas at the Hackbright Academy. The titular focus of the article is suggesting questions to ask of people interviewing you in order to determine if the overall culture is more or less female-friendly. It’s a great post and you should read it now.

I’ll wait.

I hope you actually read it as I’m not going to summarize Katie’s excellent advice.  Instead I’m going to comment on it since these questions struck me as some of the exact questions I should have asked at my last startup, the one that ended up being a sick cliché of almost everything wrong with SF startup culture.  My concern over the initiate or inexperienced candidate asking these questions, and the reason for this post, is to explain why I think these are excellent for ANY person and how people interviewing you can lie to themselves about what’s really going on around them.

“How often do people ask questions? How do people ask questions?”

I love these questions.  As a new employee your job is to ask questions.  All the questions.  As a manager if I found a new hire asking only a few questions within at least the first 90 days I would be concerned about their long term success.  As you move upward either technically or management wise this rule becomes more and more important and the time period should be extended further and further.  Software testers are especially good at this since one of our primary duties is asking the questions no one else wants to ask or didn’t think to ask.  We’re a curious and insatiable bunch that way.

Most interviewers if asked this question will reply with some sort of pat answer about it being a collaborative environment where new ideas and opinions are welcomed.  That’s generally a fib in most companies.  It’s a well-intentioned fib but it’s still a fib.  What you’re looking for here is a reaction to people raising basic questions or asking about things that “aren’t their job” or even things that are tribal knowledge.  As an example, within my first 90 days at my last position as a manager I was called into the VP of Engineering’s office and taken to task for asking who should be on an interview panel and which team was supporting which product.  None of that was written down on a central repository, if it was written down at all.  The issue was most management had been with the company for several years and so knew all those questions before they were moved into team management.  My asking questions about this sort of thing was taken as a sign of possible (sure) incompetence as a manager since everyone else knew it.

As a new employee you run the same risk.  Unless the company, department, and team are open and accepting of what seem like basic or redundant or even “semantic” questions then you will be facing a wall of expected omniscience you will more than likely fail to overcome.

“What practices do you have in place to ensure high quality code and continued learning?”

Code reviews are awesome.  Everyone does code reviews in this day and age, mostly because they’ve been told how awesome code reviews are by a blog entry or expert on some sort of topic.  When done correctly code reviews are great as one method for defect prevention while also sparking debate that can raise the level of code quality for all participants.  The same is true for style enforcement tools, unit tests, or [insert thing here].  My only complaint with this question is you need to dig deeper.  How are these practices and tools used?  How are they enforced?  Are there different rules for some people?  If I check in some code for review how long do I usually have to wait for comments or approval?  What is the general nature of those comments?  Who can block my checkin and for what reasons?  The same questions should be asked of all tools, especially style guides.  Who set up the guide?  Why did  they choose one pattern over another?  How often is the guide updated?

As another personal example, I once had a high priority fix delayed by a week as I sorted through several days worth of blocking comments.  30% of the feedback dealt with style issues such as how to format comments or spacing of wrap arounds.  60% of the remaining comments were attempts by various senior codes to make my code conform to their patterns, even if two or more of the patterns directly conflicted with each other.  10% of the comments were issues I missed and helpful feedback around how to do it better next time.  All of these comments were marked as blockers to submitting my changes.  All of these comments were entered in different days as each person found time to look at my checkin and tell me what to do.

A situation like the one I mention above is a giant red flag for a lack of discipline and coordination between people and teams in your organization.  As testers we often span groups when we move beyond the mind-numbing verification & validation activities best done by developers in any event.  If two or three interviewers cannot agree on how code is ensured then you can expect a lot of tension when attempting to test across functionality to where 75% of all bugs live.

“Are there any women on the team? If so, what positions do they hold?”

I’ve been to and spoken at a lot of conferences and smaller events.  I may have a unique perspective since I don’t just go to testing events.  Based on that perspective I can be reasonable sure the software testing and software quality assurance profession is one of the most diverse professions in the larger tech industry.  We can do a lot better, but we are by no means atrocious.  Development engineering events, on the other hand, are still giant sausage festivals.  Most of the diversity numbers you see coming out of the large tech companies this days are completely crap for that reason.  All the ones I’ve seen lump development engineers in with testers, marketing, project management, and design.  Unfortunately for them even when they play fast and loose with statistics they STILL end up with only 20% females and even worse in the numbers of ethnic and racial minorities or self-identified members of the LGBT community.

The sad truth is this question will help you determine the likelihood of your promotion and salary parity should you join the company as a software tester.  If women there are a lot of women in development engineering positions it’s a good sign the company is willing to treat difference with respect.  Software testers are different.  We think different and we focus on different things than a development engineer.  At some companies difference is assigned a value judgement and it’s usually more negative.  Managers hire people like them because managing these people is the video game tutorial of people management.  Since a startlingly high number of companies don’t care much about people management they promote awesome technicians to positions of authority.  As a tester this means there is a ceiling you will hit at some point even if you are a rock star.  Unless you change careers you will never move above that level at said company since you are different.

I feel I should also clarify something here.  I don’t believe women software engineers are inherently and inevitably all that different from male software engineers.  The paradigms and skills making a male an awesome developer are the same one making a female an awesome developer.  The same holds true for members of the First Nations, African Americans, Latinos, trans-gendered, or anyone else.  I did a talk at Electronic Arts on this very subject and did a thought experiment.  It was pretty cool.  You should ask me for it since I can’t post it anywhere.  Freaking Ted Talks agreement.  Anyway … what I’m talking about here is perceived difference which is actually worse since there is little you can do when trying to combat it.  The people deciding on your career perceive you as being inherently different (ie: inferior) so that’s what happens.  Unless you want to battle that it’s best not to join the playing field in the first place.

Vivre la difference.

“What kinds of things do team members do together besides work? How central is drinking to social events?”

WARNING!!!  WARNING!!!  HIP STARTUP AHEAD!!!

Katie mentions this question as catching “brogrammer” culture but my experience is something different.  A distressing number of software companies have fetishized youth culture as the secret to creating a great company.  The culture then reflects this fascination.  The perfect employee at these places will be under thirty, moderately attractive, and residing within a small radius of the company.  Company social events will revolve around evenings spent drinking or hanging out in bars/nightclubs.  Even company offsite team building events in the woods will include an open bar and events that do things like rock climbing or wake boarding.

This is an issue because a lot of companies these days put great weight on “cultural fit.”  Not attending these events because you have a family or will need to drive 40 minutes home afterwards will be noticed.  Eventually you’ll be pegged as a “poor fit” or even a dreaded “nine-t0-fiver.”  Companies that truly care about their employees’ happiness and productivity and commitment will have a great mix of events.  One company I worked at had evening keggers where the young could congregate and pretend not to be flirting.  They also had family-focused barbecues and outings to sporting events such as baseball and soccer.  My oldest daughter got to pet a real zebra at one of these events.

Finding a company that caters to people in multiple points and times in their lives is generally a sign that same company is looking at the long term viability of both their business and their employees.

Warning Signs for a New Hire, Candidate, or Prospective Consultant

Over the years I’ve had more than a few chances to chat with organizations in circumstances that can best be described as “exploratory.”  We’ve all been there.  You’ve been invited down to the offices and are spending a few hours (or days) with the team and key members of the management staff.  You’re being walked around the office.  Everyone has made great pains to point out the free chai/coffee/jelly beans/whatever in the break room.  If you’re particularly “hot” you might even be talking to a hip company that has things like free parkur classes over the lunch hour or a selection of single malt scotches lined up for the Thursday evening tasting mixer.  My personal favorite was the time I spent an afternoon chatting with people at a (now defunct) company who shall remain nameless where everyone I met made sure I knew there was an onsite gymnasium with an on-call masseuse and physical trainer.

Ignore all of these things.  The perks and benefits of the workplace are not a good indicator of how much or little the company values their employees as people, much less how well the team works together as a cohesive unit.  Things like stock grants, vacation time, and commuter packages are nice but they are pretty close to the least effort a company can expend when proving itself it cares about its employees.  I’m hoping to impart a few lessons I’ve learned over the years so everyone involved can have a more fulfilling and enjoyable experience.  Before reading forward, please remember this list of five things should be in no way considered either exact or comprehensive.  For every point I make I’m sure there is at least one awesome company out there who would fall into this category if you caught them on the wrong day or met with the wrong people.  Unfortunately that can’t he helped.  This is an inexact process when you boil it down.  Going on a Meet-and-Greet is an exercise in awkwardness topped only by first dates or possibly any meeting resulting from an online personal ad or profile posting.  The following points are to be taken illiterally and with a very large grain of salt.

Does everyone seem to agree on the major issues?

A lot of times these meetings will consist of a series of people you meet at various times over the day.  You’ll hear a lot of the same questions being repeated which can be an indicator of a lack of coordination of communication, but it might also be nothing.  Of greater concern to you should be the sense that people are operating under completely different concepts about the whole process and what the successful end game will look like.  Nothing spells quick failure for someone coming into a new situation than disagreement on the core reason they’re being asked to join in the first place.  Being asked the same question multiple times is annoying but having four people think you’re there to help them with five unrelated issues can be an indicator of much larger problems with communication and cohesiveness.

Where are the mid career folk?

Really good companies are ones where people have a path to grow and build themselves a future.  These are the companies who first look to themselves for the senior staff and leads before putting out the general call for help.  Sometimes a company wants to start a new effort or the staff they have available to them is not the correct fit for whatever reason.  Being asked to interview for a leadership position is not an indicator of a lack of career growth opportunities.  Not seeing anyone you’d consider the equivalent of a non-commissioned officer in the military, however, is a giant red light that should be spinning in your face.  Companies without a clear channel for moving along in a person’s career have one thing in common, all the mid-level people quit.  At some point in time an entry level person gains experience and wants to advance to new challenges and … let’s be honest … more pay.  Companies that see their employees as more than a specific role or series of tasks to be performed will usually take full advantage of that by offering them a way to move upward and keep their tribal knowledge in house.  Companies that don’t won’t make a move until they’re threatened by the employee putting in their notice.  Really bad companies won’t care since they only see the employee as a series of tasks so replacing them shouldn’t be a problem.

Do people seem to bring up amusing anecdotes about problems or other departments a lot?

We all like to think we’re witty and personable.  Many people use humor to defuse tense or awkward situations.  Humor is a wonderful coping mechanism but “funny” can only occur if the other party has some frame of reference for your jokes.  The other side of this coin is humor used to obscure actual unresolved tensions.  During the turn of the century many people in the United States were feeling the pinch of an economic downturn.  People were losing their jobs and farms were in trouble as commodity prices dropped.  Into this mix came a large wave of Asian, European, and Baltic immigrants.  The newly arrived immigrants were willing to do pretty much anything to find a toe hold in their new country.  This caused some tension between the “native born” people and the immigrants from places like Italy, Poland, and Ireland.  It was at this time the popularity of things like “pollack jokes” gained traction.  Otherwise tolerant and normal people would give in to their tensions through (what they hoped was) a useful artifice contained in a joke.  Rather than simply say “I hate the Jews” a person could tell a joke about a Jewish merchant and feel somewhat safe because it’s just a joke, right?  The same mechanism applies to the people you’re talking to in these meetings.  Do they seem to have a lot of “funny stories” about situations that would otherwise be considered massive failures?  Do they talk a lot about friendly rivalries between departments?  Does it seem like they spend a lot of time talking about “others” rather than talking about everyone as if they were all on the same mission and team?

Does everyone seem happy?

This is a hard one to precisely define but I bet most people by the time they reach a certain age will have more than likely developed enough intuition or empathy to be able to take a wild guess at this one for themselves.  The trick to this one is to not try and parse out the “Why” of your instincts.  Rather than deconstructing your impressions you should rather focus on the things people seemed happy about.  Did it have anything to do with their jobs?  Did people seem to suddenly light up when they talked about the generous flex time benefits or the employee discount?  Did everything seem sort of flat until you began chatting about their band and the show coming up in two weeks?  The company where you want to land is probably the one where people seemed at least excited about what they’re being paid to do all day.

Does it seem like a diverse group?

Full disclosure … I am a middle-aged, white, English-speaking male who had full access to a modern (and free) public education system that did an excellent job of preparing me for a career in pretty much whatever it is I decided I wanted to do later in life.  With that out of the way, let’s talk about diversity.

It’s important.  It’s important to you as a prospective worker bee even if you are some one like me.  I will give the caveat that, again, you should go with your instincts and not talk yourself into seeing diversity where none actually exists.  Hiring people from all over the world can be seen as diversity, but if they are all males in their mid-twenties from engineering schools who binge drink after work and wear khaki pants with popped collar shirts is that really a diverse group?  Diversity means “differences” to my mind.  Does it look like the people you’re meeting are actually different from each other?  Are you getting different feelings from each of them or does it all sort of feel rather generic?  This is important because a management team that cultivates a culture of conformity is not one that will be open to differences of opinion or things which are truly innovative for the organization.  A homogeneous culture will reward adherence to the norm even if that norm is not serving the better interests.  It’s best if you don’t get involved unless you are comfortable in that sort of environment.

Are people using a lot of industry buzz words when talking to you?

Language is a funny thing.  The English language is particularly funny since it’s a mashup of several languages from different linguistic groups all together.  As a result the English language can be used to wonderful effect both for explaining and for obfuscating.  A particularly telling habit of some people and organizations is the use of what are called “buzz words.”  These are terms used commonly throughout certain sectors that have varying levels of popularity at different times.  Sometimes these terms are actually descriptive of actual concepts for which there is value, but more often they are actually a wall of noise thrown up by people in the absence of actual knowledge or ideas.  The problem has become so rampant the British Civil Service has actually banned some phrases in their official Whitehall Style Guide.  It’s a subject for a larger post of its own but for the purposes of this entry suffice it to say that an organization that uses such terms as “promote” (if you’re not a marketing company) or “advance” (if you’re not an education company) or “synergy” (if you’re any company) is practicing obfuscation through verbosity.  People use terms like “disruptive innovation” because they don’t actually know what it is they do or how they will make enough money to keep the lights on.

As a last piece of advice, I’d ask you to come up with your own list.  What are some of the warning signs you’ve come to trust when meeting a team or company for the first time?

The Primary Aspects of a “Startup Culture”

Those of you who know me or who simply follow my various ramblings and musings through this blog will probably know I’ve been out there in the trenches for a while now.  I first started back in 1998 as a “temporary” contractor with a new product division of Microsoft.  The product was a giant beast of a creature we’d now call an “ecosystem” in today’s project speak parlance.  It was aimed at small to medium sized businesses and incorporated elements of a new product called “Exchange” as well as elements of a soon to be deeply integrated MS Office suite.  The product ended up shipping as Windows Small Business Server, but I bring it up because now because that was the first time I began hearing the phrase, “we’re really more like a startup.  Of course it was all poppycock, and you can bet it will be poppycock as well when you hear some one else make the statement about any other company or group.  The reason I can make this claim is companies or groups operating in a startup mode or state do not have to self-identify as a startup.  The fact they have no money, customers, equipment, or support sort of does the talking for them.  Working with a fixed budget on a project with no guarantee of success does not immediately equate your work to a startup.  It simply means you’re working on an interesting project that could blow up in your face, but probably not.  So why do so many companies, departments, and people self-identify with the “startup” some of us have actually done time with?

Unfortunately the startup company has a particular place of honor in the mythology of the software development and information technology industries.  The startup ranks up there with the coder who’s arcane understanding of mathematical systems and processes departs a special knowledge rendering them superior to other humans.  It’s actually only slightly below the conceit of computers (and software) running or controlling the world (see “brothers, Wachowski” for more on this).  The myth of the startup is something along the lines of a small group of dedicated enthusiasts joining together in a quest to create something innovative and world changing.  The enthusiasts are generally credited with enough foresight and altruism to justify little to no immediate financial security while pursuing their dreams.  Certain versions of this myth have the enthusiasts eventually becoming rich(ish) but treating the monetary rewards as trivial, even losing them all with a smile on other companies and products.

So the primary aspects of a startup according to the myth are frugality, innovation, enthusiasm, egalitarianism, and camaraderie.

These are all laudable traits,  but unfortunately they are nowhere near the ones truly defining a startup and its culture.  The really unfortunate part of this problem is rooted in the general positive value assignments of all the traits.  Because they’re essentially positive, a lot of groups,  companies, departments, or teams like to call themselves “basically a startup” or “following a startup model.”  I’ve actually talked to groups with multi-million dollar budgets, hundreds of active customer accounts, and offices in three continents who referred to themselves with all seriousness as “still essentially a startup company.”  Of course no one who was actually at the company when it was in startup mode was still around to laugh in these people’s faces, so there was no one to correct them.  That’s why I don’t really blame them for their mistaken belief in an archaic system.  All I can do is educate and see if it sticks.  I have to admit to a certain amount off self-interest in spreading this message.  I’m getting tired of meeting with clients who think they’re a hare but are really a tortoise.  It’s not a value judgement but it does make working them a tad easier if I don’t have to rub their tortoise feet for luck and continually admire their “fluffy” tortoise tails and “long” tortoise ears.

So what are the actual traits of a startup, or rather what are the traits of a startup that eventually succeeds?  I’ve actually done a lot of research into this topic and I have some definite opinions … of course.  I mean why else would I be writing a blog entry?

The actual traits of a startup are as follows:

  • You have no customer base for your product(s)
  • You have no defined process or workflow to improve
  • You are always strapped for cash and equipment
  • You may not have a company in six months

Out of these traits come a lot of the things normally lauded by the industry.  Since startups have no real customer base, they must be flexible and agile enough to chase down markets as they evolve.  This means today’s dominant technology or tool is tomorrow’s unused site license.  This requirement for being able to quickly become an expert on technologies and frameworks is why startups are usually staffed with talented generalists rather than world renowned specialists.   Successful startups won’t usually refuse to interview a candidate because they don’t have experience with “X” tool or “Y” platform.  Instead they look for a pattern of rapid competence coupled with an intense desire for learning.

In order to survive past the next six months, a startup has to either take business away from an established company, create new opportunities, or attack opportunities the established companies are ignoring.  This means they need to innovate beyond subtle improvements to what’s already being done.  For a startup to be successful, they need to become dominant in their market which is why most of them attach small markets being ignored by “the big guys.”  Because a startup will have little to no advance knowledge of their market, customers, or their needs the successful startup has to keep their processes and workflows as light as possible.  Once the market starts to coalesce, the measurement and improvement can start as there will be an oracle against which you can measure success.  Until then the startup runs the risk of entrenching behaviors counter to their actual market needs.

While startups always have seed money and angel investors and venture capital, the successful ones are invariably lean and hungry.  Every minute spent working is another minute where money was siphoned out of the company funds, to greater or lesser degrees.  Until the company achieves profitability (ie: customers paying you more money than you spend on a regular basis) the only thing a startup can do to keep running is attract more capital or stop spending money.  There is no money for large development and test environments that must be maintained.  The company cannot afford expensive tools and third party systems that already solved a few of the problems.  Debts in quality and design cannot be paid by off-shoring work to someone else.  Designs and solutions have to be determined, developed, and deployed as rapidly as possible to get money coming in as soon as possible.  The constant drip of the money faucet naturally results in lean solutions with the bare minimum of design and coding that work on laughably under-powered systems.  Because they cannot afford to spend months working out the “correct” solution, the startup comes up with “a” solution and lets the customer tell them if its correct or not.

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, there is the constant fear everyone at your company won’t be around in a few months if you can’t get the money flow turned around from outward to inward.  This fear of failure brings out a desire for daily excellence in a lot of people while bringing them together in a sense of common struggle.  Since everyone is effected, the test analyst will usually be on a first name basis with the CFO after leading them through a bug bash session with beer and pizza.  Every small victory is celebrated and every small setback is shared.  No one can be suffered to simply come in, do their job, and leave because there are simply too few people around and too little time and money to allow luxuries otherwise.

It’s my assertion that if you’re missing any of those four items, you aren’t really “just like a startup.”  You can be a small company where the CEO sits in an open cube like everyone else; but unless you’re scared spitless about next quarter’s earnings, chances are good the “open cube” policy is more of a PR exercise than a reality.  You can talk about being “agile” and “innovative” but take a look at your hiring and interview process.  Chances are very good its currently geared to attract world class specialists as your ideal candidates.   These people are usually writing papers and speaking at conferences about their subjects, but are also usually about as agile in changing direction radically as an aircraft carrier.

But hey, its okay.  It’s great to be a successful company with a dominant market position.  I can guarantee you every startup out there wants to either become you or be noticed and acquired by you some day.  The original staff may leave when that happens, but that’s okay too.  They’ll usually have a larger bank account and bragging rights about what they built.  You then have the hard task of building on success and creating innovation one small step at a time in a market now populated by a sea of wannabe imitators and conservative purchasing agents.  You have hour own unique challenges and triumphs that should be celebrated.

So stop attempting to be something you ain’t and just be happy with yourself as who you are.

Honest Advice Series: Location … location … location ….

It’s been a while since I updated this thing, I know.  Fortunately all you hungry little prospective cogs out there keep the page views up and running.  You know that’s a great way to keep me motivated, you sly boots.  I’ve been neglectful, again I know.  There’ve been other writing projects and an actual paying client (GASP) who seems to think my time is actually worth a few ducets; as opposed to you freeloading lot.  Oh who am I kidding?  I love you guys and (I hope) gals.  Even if you just breeze through my little corner of the blogosphere, leaving behind nothing but the lingering memory of an increased counter tic.  In the immortal words if Mr Glen Campbell, “It’s knowin’ that your door is always open and your path is free to walk that makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch.”

Or something like that.  Anyway … you’re probably wondering what’s wrong with your job hunt now that you’ve done the things I suggested.  Specifically you’ve done your homework on the company you want to woo.  You’ve tunneled down deep into their departmental culture and identified the general archetype by which they tend to judge each other.  You’ve taken an honest appraisal of yourself and realized either those people are just like you or that you want to be them.  Finally you’ve started ringing up old classmates and distant relatives just to say “hi” and chat about their wonderful careers.   At this stage you’ve probably started getting a few half-hearted letters from the corporate human resources department, which is better than before by a long mile.

Unfortunately few if any of these contacts ever amount to anything.  So what are you doing wrong?

Chances are good if this is happening to you that you are not physically located within the primary geographic area of your target.  Yes, it’s just that simple.  The sad truth of modern job hunting is due to increased political, economic, and educational pressures often external to most companies, budgets for relocation have been slashed or outright terminated.  It didn’t used to be this way for talented knowledge workers.  A short decade ago, many companies were willing to offer relocation funds, language training, private schools, and company owned or subsidized housing in order to attract talented people with specialized skill sets.  These days are over.  The promise of telecommuting is also not bearing out as more and more companies adopt agile development processes relying on tightly integrated teams sitting in close proximity.  In other words, most companies will require you to be physically present during the business day and are not willing to move you and your family in order to get it.  This means the candidate who will need to relocate in order to start work will always be ranked lower than the local candidate who already understands the cost of living differences and commute times.

But don’t get me wrong and think there’s only one reason to relocate.  Location also brings other benefits; benefits that are actually more useful to the potential job hunter.  Being located in the same region as the department you wish to join means you will probably get to meet people already working for said department when you start attending special interest group meetings and seminars.  Large companies slough off special interest groups, startup companies, societies, and other ancillary groups like humans slough off dead skin cells.  Large companies attract talented people who usually want to socialize with other talented people interested in the same things.  Since chances are good their home life is not filled with discussions of packet security or encryption algorithms, they will usually start or find some sort of group where they can find such company.  If you join said group as well, you’ve now found another possible source for entry since said person will already know of your interests and talent.  But most of all, they’ll know you’re “just like them” and would be a good fit.

Finally being conveniently located gives you a chronological advantage over other candidates.  Oftentimes if you are doing your job correctly, you will have a good relationship built up with at least one corporate recruiter.  These are the best relationships to covet as they see all the jobs in which you are interested.  Many times in my career, I have found out about a position before it was published simply because I knew the recruiter who was notified it might be posted soon.  If you are conveniently located, the recruiter knows they can call you up and set up an interview the next day with no cost to the company.  You can then drop everything, take the meeting, and probably get the job if you really are a good fit.  No one wants to extend the interviewing process longer than it has to unless there are perks such as free food or drinks.  If the hiring manager can find a great candidate even before the job is posted, they will count themselves lucky and hire you if they’ve done this before.

So to wrap up today’s lesson in corporate schlepping … you need to be where the action is.  Most companies are not importing foreign talent at the same rates, which usually means they aren’t at all.  Candidates who will need to relocate their families, may not understand the local cost of living, and may not  understand the local culture will not be as attractive as other candidates requiring latitude for those reasons.  But on the positive side,  being local to your dream job means you can network with actual employees at special interest groups or other industry social events.  It also means your relationship with the corporate recruiter will be meaningful as they will be motivated to get you into their offices on short notice.

Of course, there are several alternatives to actually moving yourself.  But that’s for next  time ….

Honest Advice Series: Pride is reserved for the employed

Good afternoon, evening, and morning to you, my faithful readers.  Or as Warren Ellis is fond of saying, “Good morning, Sinners.”

When last we left my tawdry little walk through the ins and outs of seeking out employment with a giant behemoth of a company where you can rest safe in deep pockets filled with money and advancement opportunities, I’d advised you not to directly apply for a position through the corporate career website.  This time around I think it would be beneficial to my readers (and my view counts) to start imparting some actually usable advice on how to attract the attention of a independent headhunter (good) a hiring manager (better) or an internal corporate recruiter (best).

Let’s start by reminding everyone of the realities of seeking a job as a cog one of the great machines of commerce.  You will have a lot of competition.  A lot of people out there like being a cog, it would seem.    Plus there’s a certain attraction to inserting yourself into a team doing really large things your family and relations will have heard about.  The most positive feedback I ever heard from relations about my career was when I did a brief stint with the XBox team over at Microsoft.  My job was to basically push buttons on a controller and venture out of my hole every couple of days for my turn at a trough full of Thai food or pizza, but I got a lot of good reactions doing it.  A lot of people associate a known brand with quality or importance; so having the name “Microsoft” associated with my job made me instantly more important (and memorable, which we’ll return to later) in a lot of people’s estimation.  The painful reality of this situation is a lot of people will be attempting to elbow you out of the way when attempting to attract the attention of the people they see as having the ability to let them into the club.  If you don’t find some way to positively attract the attention of people who can help you, well you’re going to spend a lot of Saturday nights standing at the door watching others have fun.

So how do you positively attract the attention of those what can help you?  It’s not as simple as it sounds.  Continuing the metaphor of attempting to enter an exclusive club, there are basically two ways once a club has become amazingly popular.  Backing up, a common method for gaining entrance is to start attending said club before it becomes popular.  In this manner you will be welcome as a “regular” once it gains in popularity and hopefully allowed entry.  There are three problems with this strategy as far as we are concerned.  First you won’t know which club is going to become world-famous popular at the start unless the promoters and owners have a history of popular clubs, but then they won’t let you in anyway.  Second there is always the very likely chance you will be suddenly denied entry once the club becomes popular and you no longer fit the desired clientèle persona.  Third this strategy is really only applicable to people looking at joining startups.  We’re talking about attempting entry with an established and currently popular enterprise.

So to gain access you have three actual strategies.  First, you may be lucky enough to be just the sort of person they look to patronize their club.  Second, you may know some one who can vouch for you or put you “on the list.”  Finally you can bribe the doorman.

We needn’t worry about the first strategy since it obviously doesn’t apply to us.  If you’re the software version of David LaChapelle you won’t need my advice because the companies will come looking for you.  My only advice for you all is if they aren’t, then either you need to start self-promoting your talent through articles, books, and conference engagements or perhaps I might suggest you aren’t as talented as you think you are.  Alternately I suppose it might be possible to fake the sort of talent and personality that may appeal to your corporation (see my previous posts about the mythical self-image of specific corporate employees) but in the best case scenario you will eventually be expected to produce at the level of talent everyone thinks you possess, then the jig will be up.  You can also say hello to the land of being black balled, but more on that state in a different post.

So strategy number two, knowing some one who can put you on the list, is where we’ll start.

This is probably the most effective strategy available to a potential cog.  Personal references are still crucial to entry even in the age of digital media and social networking.   But not all references are created equal.  Having the receptionist pass your resume onto the VP of Product Development may not be incredibly effective (unless said receptionist is actually romantically involved with said VP, but that’s against corporate policy and the VP might wonder how you know the receptionist which opens up a whole … but I digress) but its still better than cold calling the recruiter.  The best reference is some one said VP knows, respects, and trusts has some idea of the actual job and who would be a good fit.  To accomplish having a person like that available to you means you’ll need a fat Rolodex of contacts and people you know already in place.  To build such a Rolodex you’ll need to start right now … after you leave a comment of course.

The way you build such a network of contacts is referenced in my blog title.  You’ll need to take your pride and feelings of shame, box them up in a neat little storage bin, and tuck them safely away for future use when you have your job and can afford such luxuries.  Feeling positively amoral and shameless yet?  Good.  Now start reaching out to everyone you know and start chatting them up about your life and how they’re doing.  Occasionally and inadvertently drop how you’d heard good things about your corporation.  What you’re attempting to do is take advantage of the memorable nature of the branding efforts I mentioned earlier.  You’re making a connection between you and said corporation hoping it will either spark the memory of a mutual acquaintance or relative who’s safely sitting at the bar already.  Talk to everyone, including ex boyfriends or girlfriends.  Remember that we’re no longer at home for Mister Shame.  Social networking sites are excellent for this endeavor.  I heartily recommend a blitz campaign using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Naymz, and any other heavily trafficked site you can find.  But a word of caution, you may want to set up accounts specific for this activity unless you want some one to refer the VP to your Facebook page where they can review those pictures of you your friend posted from that time in Seattle where you partied for two days with Layne Staley and ended up … I’m digressing again, right?

Your ultimate goal is to find a friend, a friend of a friend, a relative, or a former colleague who’s working at your corporation to whom you can attach yourself like a lamprey eel.  Once the connection’s been established, keep it current but casual.  The point is to keep yourself in their mind when some one mentions a new opening in a department for which you’d be a great fit.  The scene should play out where your contact approaches the person after and talks to them a little more about their needs.  You’re casually floated as a possibility, and a promise of an introduction is made.  You then either meet to chat with the “hiring manager” and you’re in if you really are a good fit.  That’s it.  It’s really that simple.

But how do you get the person to want to put you forward as a candidate, especially if they only know you from boarding school?  The answer is you won’t have to because you’re already bribing the doorman.

All large companies have what are called “referral bonuses.”  This is essentially free money of varying amounts that a company promises to pay a current employee if they find them another cog to join the machinery.  Policies and amounts vary from a percentage of the eventual salary paid after six months to a year of employment all the way down to a flat fee paid immediately on your first day of employment.  So by referring you to the “hiring manager” they are satisfying their own sense of greed, and in this case greed is definitely good.  It costs a lot of money to advertise, recruit, screen, and interview qualified candidates.  By referring a candidate directly, the internal employee is saving the company a lot of time and money.  You get a great job.  The company gets a great employee or a really good liar, which may be the same thing depending on the company.  Your contact gets a nice chunk of money to spend on video games, vacations, or possibly the book I’m helping write <shameless plug> that’s scheduled to be released this Fall </shameless plug>.  And to top it all off, the recruiter can go back to working their screenplay/novel/play/web comic taking a satirical look at life in a corporation.

So what’s the first thing you’re now going to do, Sinners?  That’s right … comment.  Then you should poke that fellow in Burnsby you used to work with and just check to see what he’s been up to.  I know.  It’s been ages.  You?  Oh just more of the same.  Actually you were just reading about that new product over at [fill in company name] and was thinking they’re really doing interesting things over there.  Oh really?  He is?  And he’s on that team?  Ha ha.  Didn’t he nearly get fired for chatting up the receptionist all the time?  VP of Product Development now, is he?  Small world ….

Test Management: The job description should already be written

Recently a curious soul put out an open question to the general LinkedIn test manager community at large about whether they, as test managers, or some one else writes job descriptions for openings about to be posted publicly or internally.  As with most internet questions posted under the false guise of anonymity, there was more than likely an ulterior motive.  Since we can assume there is one, let’s just move on as its probably something as banal as they’re miffed about a job they accepted having little to nothing to do with the posted description to which they applied.  I can answer that concern with a simple statement, no one does the job listed on the description for which they applied.  Even the person hired as a ditch digger will more than likely be someday soon asked to dig a trench, a drain, or a trough.  The medieval poetry master’s candidate then has three choices: they can shrug their shoulders and think about rondelles while they dig; they can walk off the job because they’re a union certified ditch digger and if the company wanted a trench they should have hired some one from the local 147 branch of International Trench Excavators; or they can dig the hole and complain loudly to anyone with no actual authority to fire them about the injustice of it all.

Guess which one the people complaining about job descriptions usually fall into?

Of course there could be an actual issue here, which is a failure to match up stated expectations with the actual work some one performs on a daily basis.  The issue of work mismatch is a lot more common than you would think.  You can easily check on whether you suffer from it by doing a simple test.  Do you know if you’re doing a good job or meeting the expectations of your boss without needing to go ask them?  If you didn’t need to think about the answer to this question, you’re either a cocky bastard or you are working in a position with clearly defined expectations and success criteria relevant to your daily work.  In either case you’re lucky because either you can spend your time focusing on actually doing work with a clear idea of how to advance (if you should want) or you’ll probably do well in life anyway if you can back it up because cocky bastards usually do if they can.

For the rest of us, a lack of understanding usually indicates we’re working at a position where our expectations and success criteria are either ill defined, subjective, conflicting, or completely at odds with our actual work.  There are several reasons for this but the most common I’ve seen is revulsion at the thought of doing “busy work.”  Most people at most companies consider things like role definitions and such to be odious tasks best left to others with no actual work to perform.  Real workers are seen as too valuable to waste their time on bureaucratic nonsense that will soon be outdated soon in any matter.  The trouble is this hurts companies in two ways.  First it hurts morale because workers don’t have a clear idea of what they are expected to be doing, how to judge their own performance, and what steps they need to take in order to get that raise, promotion, or bonus.  Second it hurts recruitment because each job opening is then treated as a special snowflake to be treated as an individual miracle or they’re treated as identical cookies cut from the same form with a few differences in toppings for decoration.

As an example, without a clearly defined set of expectations for a role the hiring manager, recruiter, and agent are all forced to guess what is now the difference between a senior development engineer and just a regular development engineer.  Taking it even further, perhaps there are no senior development positions even though your needs cover a wide range of experiences and skill sets.

I know your company is different.  You’re showing the world what a ragtag group of misfits can accomplish without all those titles and rules, man.  Our founders call themselves “Head Necromonger” and “Chief Gelfling” respectively.  I would then submit that come time to hand out bonuses or stock options or whatever you want to call it, there are going to be people who wonder why one gelfling received a larger share of stock than the gelfling working across the cubicle wall.  The recruiter you hire will also undoubtedly wonder what the hell a “necromonger” is and which Monster group should they post the opening into.  Is it computer software or hardware or is it a religious thing and should therefore go into nonprofits?

If you spend the time to accurately document the roles and their expectations within your organization, you will find your workload as a manager eased more than you can now comprehend.  Performance reviews then become a fun activity where you can work positively with some one to advance their careers or shore up weaknesses preventing them from getting the recognition.  Conflict management within the team becomes so much easier since most of these issues fall into the “not my problem” category.  But most of all, when you finally get the okay to hire that new team member you’ve been following the director into the bathroom to lobby for … you’ll actually have most of  a really good job description completed.  Just grab the role description and add the fun bits about specific skills or needs and run it through HR to make sure nothing you don’t want public will get out.

And then its done and you can then turn your attention to sorting through the 500 resumes on your desk because it turns out there really is a job called “necromonger” in Utah and the primary employer for that industry just announced a staff reduction of 30%.

Good luck, my little gelflings.

Honest Advice Series: Avoiding the white hole when applying

Within the theory of general relativity there is a theoretical entity called a “white hole.”  A white hole is differentiated from a black hole in that nothing can enter from the outside but particles of light and matter can escape.  In this respect it is the opposite of  a black hole where particles of light and matter may enter from the outside, but nothing can ever escape.  A white hole is a useful reference when discussing seemingly insurmountable problems simply because people often forget about them, preferring instead to simply reference black holes for everything.

As a case in point, I recently(ish) heard some one advise a hopeful candidate to not bother with throwing their resume “into the black hole” that is the primary corporate recruiting website of  a large software corporation.  Granted they may have been actually referring to a hole in the ground of indeterminate depth, but that doesn’t bear at all on my point so I will simply ignore that and other possible interpretations.  See how it works when you’re a blogger?  In this world I’m all sorts of witty, mainly because I get to ignore that which makes me seem loutish.

In my witty world where I also have a flying pony named Sir Muffintoes which I use for commuting to and from work, it occurred to me the corporate career website was not a black hole out of which everything enters the corporation and nothing exits.  Rather it is the reverse.  A wealth of information about a company is regularly spewed out of the corporate career website on a regular basis.  You can find all sorts of fun information if you know where and how to look.  For instance, if you see a particular team has a lot of open requests for new hires you can safely assume either this team is expanding their charter scope/vision or they recently laid off a lot of people and are looking to replace them quickly.  You now have some “insider information” to use when scanning industry trade publications, discussion groups, and other online information sources.  If you target that group, at worst you will discover what’s called a “disgruntled ex employee” who will probably be more than happy to trade all the bad information they’ve been storing up for a few kind words and possibly a latte.  At best you will find out the group has been experiencing rapid growth or a sudden injection of capital and exposure from the corporation, meaning it will more than likely be a little chaotic with new spaces you can stake out as your domain without fear of getting into a turf war with an already entrenched five year veteran.  In short, any information you can pull from sources other than press releases, corporate communications, and paid for reviews is endlessly useful … and corporate career websites are chock full of information.

The one thing they are not good at (in well known and/or large companies) is getting you noticed by anyone in human resources or recruiting.  I’ve never seen it personally, but I have it on good authority from a person I’ll call “Rose O’Sharon” the company she (or he, because there’s nothing wrong with that … really) works for receives an average of 1,000 resumes a day submitted through their corporate career website.  Granted that’s for several hundred open positions but that’s still an awfully large herd in which to have your horns gleam in the sun.  Rose also informed me because of this bull load, almost every resume submitted is sent straight to an automated parsing engine which sucks all information it things is pertinent out of your resume and stores it in a massive database.  The recruiters and HR folk all subscribe to a feed which sends them little love notes if the system detects a bull with Java coding skills, SOAP experience, or possibly black spots.  Rose then calls up the entry in their system and checks to make sure it really is Java coding experience and not work history at the Java Bean during college.  Rose then scans the entry and if s/he likes what s/he sees, then s/he will pull a copy of the actual resume to review.  If the system can get the number down to 10 a day, Rose is happy.

Now I notice from my vantage on the back of Sir Muffintoes you are holding up a finger and proclaiming, “A ha!  Rose said ‘almost all’ the resumes were sent to the system.  What happens to the ones that aren’t?”

Good catch, my little rapscallions.  Some of the resumes are refused out of hand for reasons ranging from language usage to something called “black balling” where a person is barred from applying to a company for a period of several months to forever.  But there are a magical few, rare in nature, who are submitted directly to a human.  The problem you face is you will not know which of these positions do that when you apply, so its like purchasing a lottery ticket in the hopes of paying off the loan shark.  Sure, it may happen.  Just don’t be on my couch later when there’s a loud knock on the door.

There is a proper way to submit yourself through the corporate website, however.  The correct manner is after you’ve been requested to do so  by the recruiter or hiring manager directly.  Oftentimes they’ll even go so far as to ask you for the confirmation number so they can pull your account up.  Why do they do this?  Because the system has more of a tendency to miss sending them good candidates than it does sending them bad ones.  They’re designed to weed out resumes and not find good candidates, so in this respect they succeed admirably these days.  Of course even if you are a perfect candidate, you have about a 98 in 100 chance of being ignored by the system.  So the recruiter/HR representative asks you to apply and send them the confirmation number.

So how do you get to the recruiter or HR rep in the first place if you don’t go through the website?

That’s the next entry in this series.  The next one’s all about how there is no shame in asking everyone you know if they can help you, even if you haven’t talked to them in years or may have possibly given them a rash the last time you met.

I’m thinking of calling it, “Employee referral bonuses can erase a lot of resentment.”  It’s a working title.

Honest Advice Series: Brutally honest personal assessments

I’m going to continue on with my advice series on pursuing a career within the warm and nurturing bosom of a large (5,000+ employee) company.  In the spirit of complete and brutal honesty (to be elaborated on later) I am forced to admit this series is becoming something of  a chore for me.  This particular subject is more of a chore than all the others combined.  Why is it?  It’s probably the most useful advice in the entire series yet I suspect it will also be the most often ignored, intentionally misinterpreted, or outright dismissed.  It will likely be dismissed because people will just assume the advice does not apply to them or to their situation.

Why do I bring this up?  Because it’s part of the next stage in your career search, and its one you should never stop practicing as my experience recently proved to me.  The next step is to take the corporate information you’ve gathered about your company, division, department, and personnel and honestly weigh yourself against what you’ve found.  Coldly efficient honesty is the key to this exercise.  You cannot, and I repeat this emphatically, you cannot rationalize or deal your way into a job with a large company.  The process is simply too long and has too many layers designed to weed out just such behavior.  Sooner or later some one will hear you typing their question into a Google search or will ask you to walk up to a blank white board with a dry erase marker in your hand.  Tricks like repeating the question just asked as you stall for time or throwing the question back at the interviewer will not work as sooner or later you will face some one who knows what your’e doing.

So if you’re going to be coldly efficient in your honesty and self-reflection, on what areas should you focus that attention like a laser.  That’s easy.  You need to be realistic about the following things:

  • What are the actual expectations and areas of technical competency?
  • What are the actual expectations and areas of non-technical competency?
  • What type of personality appeals to this company?
  • How inclusive or committed to diversity are they really in practice?
  • What exactly is it that I can offer this company the 1k other applicants cannot?

The first two questions are complementary so I’ll address them together.  The first thing you should know is job descriptions always lie by omission if not outright false statements.  It cannot be helped.  The job descriptions in large companies are usually generic documents that if anything are simply edited by the hiring manager should they have the time, inclination, and perceived need to take on the HR department.  You should have already peeled back the onion to find out more about the people actually hired by your dream team.  Now is the time to assess them for common technical and non-technical traits.  A common issue is whether or not some one seeking a product team position (ie: tester, system engineer, product manager, director, etc) will be expected to code.  The answer is almost always “yes” by the way, even for management or product research positions.  But you should be able to answer that question definitively for the specific company.  You should also be able to answer questions about their preferred technologies, tools, languages, and methodologies.  Non-technical competencies could include financial markets information, drug trial protocols, regulatory compliance standards, or literally anything not related to software but which you will be expected to know as part of your job.  And before you ask yes, I’m sure some of these companies will happily spend the money and time training you on these non-technical subjects.  However if we assume a company like Google will receive an estimated 500 resumes in a single day, why should they?  Sooner or later some one with that knowledge will present themselves and you’re expenses won’t  be necessary.

Non-technical requirements leads us nicely into a fuzzy area, personality.  While its true large companies tend to have a certain homogeneous feeling about them, they all have an iconic personality to whom they still associate even if the reality is far from that.  Apple employees still like to think of themselves as creative revolutionaries seeking to bring down entrenched megalithic corporations with their visionary ideas and products.  The reality is they are one of the largest megalithic corporations in the world and will sue some one and their family into debt slavery if they feel their intellectual property has been sniffed around, much less breached.  But who do you think they want to hire, the vindictive little climber who will scratch and claw their way through the dirt to get ahead or the idealistic dreamer willing to sacrifice everything from their health to their family for that dream?  I apologize if it looks like I’m picking on Apple (please don’t sue or make my wife switch to a PC, she just finally stopped asking me support questions); they’re all like this.  The iconic Google employee is a counter-cultural individualist who supports open source software and the free exchange of ideas.  The iconic Microsoft employee possesses a genius level intellect which they use to help save the planet while biking into work every day and recycling their plastic bags.  It doesn’t matter what the reality of their day to day business actually entails, this is how a lot of them see themselves.  You need to ask if that’s how you see yourself as well, and if you can handle not being that anymore.

Now comes what I call the hornets’ nest question.  Everyone claims they are committed to diversity and want to hire the best and brightest minds from around the world.  Don’t believe it.  You’ve already researched the company/department and its employees.  Ask yourself honestly if you are like them.  If you’re applying for an internship at a major financial services company and all the current employees are graduates of the Ivy League with last names like Stevens, Pendarvis, Johnson, and Aldrich, you’ll need to seriously ask yourself if some one with the last name Parmahattmani will have a serious shot at a post.  This may not be fair and it may not be popular, but its honest and its pervasive in the business world for a simple reason outside racism, xenophobia, or sexism.  People like to hire people they feel comfortable spending time around.  A typical job can expect to claim one a little less than one third of your life while you’re there, which means a hiring manager will put a lot of time finding some one who “works well with the team.”  This can result in some really silly if not unethical situations.  A pretty woman might be passed over because a manager will fear his team of socially undeveloped nerds might feel intimidated around her and slow down their performance.  An immigrant programmer with a doctorate in engineering and several well received articles might be passed over because the some one in the loop complained they couldn’t understand a thing they said because of a slight accent.  An experienced manager will let slip he and his wife are expecting a child which will take him out of the running as the hiring team will simply assume he will soon be asking for paternity leave, taking sick days to care for runny noses, and not available nights and weekends to meet deadlines.  So it’s time to be perfectly honest with yourself to avoid time spent fruitlessly.  Look through your research and ask yourself if those people are ones you could see hanging out with socially, or wanting to do the same with you.  Do you share similar interests, hobbies, and backgrounds?  If not, you’re welcome to still try and you might get lucky.  However my advice is to try someplace that will actually value your contributions.  Don’t let it get to you as there are literally hundreds of companies out there looking for talented people.  Any place that doesn’t actively practice diversity is only ensuring their own demise.  Besides, companies stocked with a healthy diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and viewpoints are ALWAYS more fun to be at.  Always.  And  not just for pot lucks.

Finally there’s the single most difficult question to answer truthfully.  What sets you apart?  As we stated before, a large company will see hundreds of resumes submitted in a single day from qualified and skilled candidates from around the world.  Part of the allure of large companies is they attract great candidates like ants to spilled sugar.  Part of the problem is making sure you are noticed as the colony converges on the mound.  Make an assessment of the skills you think would appeal to the company or team, then ask some friends to do the same if possible.  Anywhere you see duplication, cross it out.  What’s left is a good indicator of what you have to work with.  If you’re left with nothing, go get something.  Perhaps you know this company values certifications you could earn, as is common in the healthcare software or device industry.  Perhaps they value people well versed in their products already, as is common in the video game industry.  Whatever it is, highlight those attributes.  The trick is to make sure its pertinent to the company and role to which you’re applying.  If you’re applying for a technical writer position it’s probably a good thing to be already published within the industry, but no one’s probably going to care that your fan fiction blog has over 2k unique views a month.  They won’t care, unless you’re applying to Lucas Films and your running a popular Star Wars blog.  So all specific advice is as they say, useless.  This is work you need to do on your own and do it honestly.  If you don’t have anything to offer above and beyond the norm, you probably won’t be given the chance.

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.

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