Interview with The Working Geek

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Interview with The Working Geek

Post by BIT0112-Rokon on Mon Oct 26, 2009 4:20 am

This is an interview of Andy Lester with Interview Mantra, on tips for job hunters and on his book "Land the Tech Job you Love" (alt+w) , which is about new guidelines for tech job hunting.

[Sridhar Jammalamadaka]: Welcome to Interview Mantra! Can you tell our readers about yourself and your journey in Tech industry

[Andy Lester]: Hi, I'm Andy Lester, and I live near Chicago. I've been in the computer business for about 23 years and I've been interested in computers since I was about five years of age.

23 years of experience in IT industry, what do you think has changed in the nature of programmer's job since you started working?
Certainly the age of programmers and techies being treated like gods has gone. Back in the mid-80s, computers were still seen as mystical machines by a lot of people in the world. Techies could do whatever they wanted because they were the only ones who could make the machines work.

This is no longer true. Techies are now more of a commodity, and we have to differentiate ourselves from each other just like any other business person. It's not enough to make the computer do cool stuff. The ubiquity of computers also means there are far more opportunities out there. Back in the 80s, you could work on PCs, or on mainframes, or do Unix work in academia.

Today, we have programmers working on everything from back office support software to Flash web apps to iPhone apps. Open source software is flourishing as well. The idea of sharing source code and software was limited to those working in the Unix world, or with shareware authors putting out little apps for $10-20. Now, open source is everywhere, and open source culture is everywhere, with the explosion of wiki culture.
Was your journey pleasant all the way in your career? Do you love your tech job? ;-)
I've worked for good companies and bad ones, and my experiences in the bad companies make me appreciate the good ones all the more. It's not entirely fair to say that all the companies I didn't enjoy working for were "bad", although there certainly those, but in some cases they were just a matter of being a mismatch. Just as not everyone enjoys using every programming language, or every operating system, not everyone is going to enjoy working for the same company, or with the same group of people.

And, yes, I love my job.

How did you come up with the title, "Land the Tech Job you Love" for the book that you wrote?
When we came up with the title "Land the Tech Job You Love", we spent a lot of time thinking about how to easily get across what the book was really about. One crucial part to me was the word "love", because I think life is too short to spend in a job you don't love. If you spend 40+ hours each week at work, that's about as much as you spend awake at home with your spouse.

For that level of involvement, why would you NOT want to work at something you love?
I know that many people seem to think that "work is supposed to be something you don't like", but I don't agree with that.

Tell us more about the fireman example that you quoted in your book.

My late father-in-law was a fireman for the city of Chicago for most of his life. He absolutely loved what he did. After he retired, he was still a volunteer fireman for the small town he lived in. Even after then, he could look back with satisfaction at how he'd spent his life, doing worthwhile work that he LOVED doing.

He saw his work as play, I guess.

Absolutely, he saw his work as play, as you put it. He'd go hang out at the firehouse, and talk about fires, and about how he could do his job better. It's not that different from us in tech industry. Many of us love to work with computers, and always have, and it's our hobby. We talk to other techies about what we do, and how we can do our jobs better. That's the level of satisfaction I think that each of us can aspire to. I also think that the "Dilbert culture" where it's fun to knock the business world helps teach us that we should not bother to aspire. I think that's just wrong.

Do you see a good tech job as something more to do with the technologies or the with people that you work for?

It can be both. We all have different needs as people. For me, as much as I love working with computers all day, I'm also a very social person. I want to work with people with whom I can enjoy what we do.

But for others, the work might focus on the specifics of the technologies. They might want to work specifically with the latest Linux distro, or only use Windows and Visual C++ because it's where they're most comfortable. The important part is that each of us know ourselves and not get pulled into the idea of what we're "supposed to" like.

In your book, you mentioned that there are jobs that are not listed in the job boards? Can you tell us more about it?

Job boards are just one of the places where jobs are found. They're certainly the easiest place for us to look, but they're one of the least fruitful places. In my book, I cite numbers that show that only about 11% of jobs are filled through job boards. In my blog post here, I cite other numbers that say it's about 7.5%.

Don't get lulled into the idea that as soon as a company has a job opening, it's going to make a posting on The first thing a smart manager is going to do is ask around to see if there are any recommendations. He might ask the staff, "We're going to add another system administrator position, so do you know anyone interested?". He might email a bunch of his manager buddies. Maybe there's an announcement email list in the company for postings like this. All of this goes back to the idea, "All things being equal, I want to hire someone I know, or that someone I know knows."

The best source for information about jobs is through your personal contacts. You're more likely to get a successful lead, and it also makes you more appealing to the hiring manager.

How important are recommendations/referrals to hiring managers in finding people?

As a hiring manager, I'm very wary of hiring new people. Here in the US, firing someone is an arduous task. There needs to be a well-documented history of inadequate performance for the company to let someone go without running the risk of the fired employee coming back suing for wrongful termination. Also, hiring is an expensive process. Hiring takes valuable time away from doing the real work of the company. Since hiring is so risky, anything that can help diminish that risk is welcome. If a hiring manager has two candidates that on paper and in the interview are similar, but one of them is recommended by someone else, the hiring manager is more likely to go with the recommendation.

Bottom line: Recommendations are gold to a manager, and the way to get those recommendations are by working your network of personal contacts.

Can you tell us more about a sub-heading in your book, "Sell yourself by telling stories"?

There are two parts to that. "Sell yourself" is an important skill for the techie looking for a job because he has to show to the hiring manager that he can do the job. Your awesomeness is not self-evident. Many techies don't like the idea of selling themselves. She might say "Why should I have to sell myself, it's all on my resume". But we sell ourselves all the time. If I ask you "Hey, Sridhar, you want to go to lunch, there's a great little cafe that just opened across town", I'm selling you on the idea of going to lunch. There's nothing wrong with selling ourselves. We're just providing evidence to back up our idea, which in this case is "I'm awesome and you should hire me because I will do the job you want done." 

Where the stories come into it is that a story tells so much more than just brief summaries of technical skills. This applies both to the resume and the interview. You can put on your resume "Worked with Visual C++ on payroll applications" or you can say "As part of a team of seven, wrote and maintained payroll system for 100,000-employee company." Which gives a better idea of the type of work you've done?

In the interview, you don't answer a question like "Do you know C++" with a simple yes or no. You say "Yes, I've used Visual C++ for over three years maintaining the payroll system for a 100,000-employee company. We started using the basic C++ standard library, but evolved into using Toolkit X and Toolkit Y."

That last part, about how your experience has grown is something that doesn't come across in a simple yes or no. You're giving the details that help the hiring manager get a holistic picture of what it is you can provide.

What is your take on the notion that LinkedIn profile would replace traditional resume?

LinkedIn profile is not a resume. LinkedIn may let people find you online easily, but the resume is still an important part of the job hunt. The resume is your sell sheet. It's something that a potential boss can look at and see a summary of you. The resume will get passed around to her colleagues, for example. It will get marked up and commented on. Job hunters would do well to understand how the hiring process works from the hiring manager's point of view. When you consider how a resume, being a piece of paper, is used in the hiring process, the idea that a LinkedIn profile can somehow replace the resume is not realistic.

What is your take on breadth vs depth of technical knowledge? As a hiring manager which one would you appreciate more?
Take something like database knowledge. For some positions, I might be happy with someone who can do simple JOINs in SQL because not much of the work is database-heavy. For another position, I might need someone who is an expert in query tuning on Oracle 11 on Solaris. For the techie, there's no magic answer to "Should I be a jack-of-all-trades, or a master of one?". I think that what naturally happens is that we get a bit of both. I know Perl very very well, for example, but I know lots of programming languages enough to be useful in them.

What would be your advice for grads and undergrads looking for jobs in such an economy? How should they distinguish themselves from others in the job market?

Get any experience you can. Write code yourself. Write code for others. Write code that does something useful just for yourself.

So, you mean to say that fresh grads should prefer working for a little pay over joblessness.
Yes. If I have a candidate who is fresh out of school, I don't have much to go off of. Getting an A grade in a paper doesn't tell me how you write code. It's a start, but I can't tell what kind of work you do. Whereas if a programmer comes in and can show me printouts of code she wrote to track her wine collection, I have something concrete to look at. It may be just "toy" code, but it's working code, and that tells me a lot.

Any advice for those looking to be system administrators?

Do as much as you can to learn new systems. Learn a new Linux distro, or if you only know Linux, try FreeBSD. Try to somehow do something that shows that you will be able to practically apply your skills when I hire you.

Thank you for your invaluable advice. Would you like to give any message to our readers?

I just hope that your readers can get a boost of hope from some of these ideas. I know that jobs are scarce right now, and there's a lot of competition, but the value of just putting a little bit more effort into your job hunt than the next person can be the difference between getting a job and not. If you're not willing to put that extra effort into it, chances are you're going to lose the job to someone who is.

"I welcome readers at my blog at The Working Geek (alt+w), and to send me questions. Sometimes I take questions from readers and post the answers publicly, so I'd love to know what people have on their minds." -- Andy Lester


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