Blogging Economics Engineering

Squeaky Wheels Get The Job Hunting Tips

Last month, I had a not-so-nice commenter remark that my last post on blogging keeping me going through a recession was a waste of time. He or she went on to remark that they didn’t have a job and they were obviously looking for some help. While I can’t say I condone their harsh tone and unnecessary crudeness (I know, I know, it’s the internet), I do empathize with their jobless situation.

So today’s post is going to be on some ways (and notably some non-traditional ways) to go about getting a job and hopefully getting through this recession. Here is the big disclaimer though: I don’t know how many of these techniques work. I am basing them on my own ideas and experience and some are just brainstorms. Let’s start from the top with the most traditional methods of finding a job and work our way down to the silly and intriguing ideas. On with the show…

  1. Online job searches/classified ads — 4% success rate, 10% unemployment. Do the math and consider this one to be a non-option.
  2. Networking — Ahh man, I know I’m not going to get this point across like I want to, but there are so many ways this is important. I actually had a digital designer I worked with a few years back sit me down and explain the importance of networking, and I STILL didn’t get it. In fact, for a long time, I was infuriated by the idea that just who you know might get you a job, as opposed to what you know. But here’s what it comes down to: there are a ton of people who can do your job. In fact, there are a lot of people out there who can do your job better and possibly cheaper than you (think China). However, you are the person who was in the right place at the right time, with the right skills, the right charisma and the right contacts. Everything else you start learning the day you start your new position. Networking takes time, though, and you need to start it before you lose or leave a job. It means that you are friendly with the people you work with and you’re actively keeping in touch with people you used to work with.  If you haven’t been doing that, call up a former co-worker and see what they’re working on; you might find something interesting and you get to maintain a relationship easily.
  3. Vendors — Yes, this still falls under the category of networking, but in a different way. Vendors, for those of you who do not know, are people trying to sell you (an engineer or scientist) stuff. They can be salesmen, application engineers, marketers, you name it. If they’re trying to get you to buy what their company has to offer…they’re vendors. They are also in the unique position of trying to sell stuff to other people in your industry; therefore, they know a lot of people doing a lot of stuff that is similar to your job. If I lost my job tomorrow, my stack of vendor business cards would be the first thing I would reach for. Call up some of them and see what trends they see in the industry. Ask for a place to look for your next gig. If you don’t deal with vendors on a regular basis, try other people you interact with daily who have contact to the outside world (maybe the UPS or FedEX delivery person?).
  4. Get something published — You don’t need to publish a paper in IEEE or Nature to get noticed by people. Sure, those first two magazines will get you noticed by a lot of people, but you really only need one. Think smaller. Write a letter to an editor in EETimes or EDN (two of my favorites).  I know whenever I see a letter to the editor, I am usually curious to what kind of expertise that person has and what industry they work in. Make sure when people look you up they know how to find you and that you have some good examples of your work.
  5. Blog Comments — The traditional gatekeepers to knowledge have started to transition. Whereas engineers and scientists might have only had a few sources of news in the past, blogs now offer an alternative in myriad forms; be it a day-in-the-life format or an aggregation of smaller news stories that might interest an engineer or scientist, information is available everywhere these days. These outlets also provide new ways to find others interested in the same stuff as you. If you see a comment from someone on a blog that intrigues you, try to strike up a conversation with them or see if that person has their own website (usually a link from their name). Try contacting the writer of the blog and see how receptive they are to talking to their readers (hopefully very). Blogs provide information and a new method of meeting people online. As with many of the other items on this list, try the less traveled places first; don’t try writing to an administrator of slashdot if you are interested in tech stories. Look for some smaller blogs (maybe from people linking their own blogs on slashdot) and try to contact them.
  6. LinkedIn — One of the best ideas I have ever heard in a job hunt is “informational interviews” (I first read it in the classic “What Color Is Your Parachute”). Basically, you call up someone and ask them about what they do, their industry, job trends and anything else you think might be relevant to a position.  Sometimes people will pick up on the fact that you’re in the market for a job, but other times they might not and you just have an interesting conversation. The problem I always had though was how to get an interview. The best way would be through those contacts I mention when I talk about networking…but the real problem is when you don’t have any contacts either. Then you are in a bit of a tighter spot and you need to get creative. One technique suggested by a friend that had worked for me to look up people on my LinkedIn network; extra points if they work somewhere I think I would like to work. Then once I know their name I try to figure out what their company email might be (usually they’re standardized at companies) and try to email them to request if you can call them for an informational interview. Sure it’s a little sneaky, but I think it’s OK if you’re genuinely interested and not just trying to use them as a contact. Sometimes you won’t get a response, sometimes you’ll get a confused response, sometimes you get a grouchy person and sometimes you get a person who doesn’t mind taking a few minutes out of their day to talk to an inquisitive person. I’ll let you look up informational interview questions for yourself, but go through the interview, keep it brief and ask if they wouldn’t mind passing you a name of someone else to talk to; if they do, be sure to thank them profusely afterward. If they don’t pass you a name… thank them profusely anyway. If nothing else, you will get a good conversation and some more information about an industry that interests you. Note: I always tried to email people first before an informational interview. You could always try and call someone out of the blue (call a front desk, ask for them) and ask for an informational interview; they usually will be confused by this abrupt request. Refer to this technique (that I learned from some sneaky recruiters) only if you really would like to talk to someone and they are non-responsive to email (remember, there might be a reason).
  7. Work For Yourself — My friend Pat recently came up with a great idea while he looks for work. He has been helping me out with my (still) broken Wurlitzer, taking the old schematic and putting it into a modern CAD program. He gets the experience of using common, open-source tools and I get some free labor to help me with my board. He also mentioned learning other software while he is looking for work. I see this sprouting into other opportunities too; if you are working on a new piece of software, you’re likely going to go to discussion boards for help.  You might even get involved in the development of the open-source tools, all of which can provide great experience and great contacts. If nothing else, you can put hobbies on your resume that are relevant to your potential job (the only hobbies that should ever be listed in my opinion). Showing an employer that you are passionate about your chosen field (i.e. willing to go home and do the same stuff you just did for 8-12 hours that day) really can make you stand out in a crowd.
  8. Work For Free — Starting to get into ideas that I’m really not sure would work. Offer to work somewhere for free. This could be considered an “internship” or whatever you want to call it. You’d basically be working for two things (besides no money): contacts and experience. The latter might be limited, especially if you are working somewhere with a sensitive security policy. However, if you offer your services for free, you will get to meet people and that could be worth more than anything else. Remember, you want to look in the non-standard places for work, so don’t waste your time begging for a job at this place. If they don’t want to pay you to start with, they probably won’t want to pay you in the future (at least not in a recession). Instead, talk to everyone you meet and make them want to help you. This idea might be the most difficult of the bunch but if you can pull it off (namely getting the internship to start with), it might have the best chance of success.
  9. Guerrilla marketing — Are you particularly good at CAD programs? Have you created a novel circuit that you think might interest an employer? Have you made a website about analog electronics? Use non-standard ways to stand out; however, make sure you do this at non-standard times. Don’t walk up to a recruiter at a job fair and hand him a circuit diagram with your signature on it. Instead, find out who is in charge of the hiring process (non-HR) and send it to them. Better yet, use the idea in number 5 and figure out who that person is and send the circuit diagram as a thank you to each person you talk to along the way. As for the CAD designer, make your business card out of a circuit board or something else novel like that. Passively advertise that you are in the job market. The “Parachute” book mentions putting it on your answering machine that you are currently looking to have your contacts help your searching project. If you have a website or a facebook profile, make sure it is well known (your front page or your default status message)that you are in the market for a job and some of the best characteristics you can offer. Shameless? Nope, just a good way to get your name out there.
  10. Walk in a front door — This idea was the inspiration for this post and also the most ludicrous of the bunch. What would happen if you dressed up in your best suit and walked into an office and asked for a meeting with Mr. BigGuyInCharge? Sure, you’d need to figure out that person with some sneaky or not-so-sneaky methods prior to walking in there; but if you did it right, this technique has a small small chance of working. It’s like the in person cold call. Most managers won’t have anything to do with it, but that one time it might work that makes it all worth it. I’d suggest any of the above methods before this one, but since it was the inspriation for this post, I figured I had to include it.

The recurring theme for all of these ideas is stepping outside your comfort zone and to try approaches to non-standard job paths. You don’t have to try the most extreme of these ideas (like walking into an office asking to talk to a manager), but you might have to pick up a phone and call a bunch of people. Or you might need to develop some new skills on your own before applying for a new job. If you keep trying hard and keep trying different things (other than online applications), you’ll eventually find something. If you are lucky enough to be working right now, keep an eye out for friends and colleagues and help them when you can. Good luck to all and leave any other ideas you might have in the comments.

Photo by brettdarnell

Engineering Life Work

Engineering soft skills and stepping outside your circle of competence

My great great grandfather was a preacher. My grandfather was a great salesman. My father is a great salesman. I am an engineer. One of these things is not the same here. How did I enter a profession often associated with introverts and socially challenged people? Am I doomed to fulfill this stereotype? What kinds of skills must I develop to be a better engineer all around?

I write about these things for two reasons. One, because the skills I’m about to list are necessary in every aspect of life, not just work. And two, because most engineers do not stay engineers for their entire career. Either because of desire for higher pay grade, natural promotion or just wanting to be in charge, most engineers end up in management eventually. I will leave opinions about whether this is the correct path to the comments.

  1. Public speaking — One of the most feared activities the world over, this is a good one to force yourself to practice.  Granted, not many new grads will have much to present about; but once you are tapped for that first presentation, it is likely it is an important reason. It’s probably better to practice your public speaking in front of your design group or an organization outside of work before you’re chosen to speak in front of the company. The best tip I can give is to slow down. You’ll become more aware of what you’re saying and you’ll be less likely to say “um” when your mouth pauses from its usual mile-a-minute pace.
  2. Presentations — I believe Nate (a good friend and frequent commenter) put it best in my post about getting a job out of college, when he said that the engineering education at our school didn’t focus nearly enough time on giving presentations and communicating our ideas to our superiors. When you look at the percentage of time we present compared to how much time we spend designing a solution, it seems much more important than ever was stressed in school. For tips on presentations and powerpoint, I usually look to Seth Godin, marketing guru and writer extraordinaire.
  3. Conventioneering — Not every engineer goes to conferences on a regular basis, but when you do, you have to know how to work it. Remember, it’s not just a food free for all; nor is it time to go around seeing how many thousand pens you can gather. These are opportunities to check out your competition, find new components for designs, see some cool stuff and maybe even make a few friends (or contacts, if you will).
  4. Small talk — You know what you do a lot of at conventions? You stand around a lot. You know what else you do? You make small talk with strangers. But the skill here is learning how to open people up to talking about more than the OSU football team or the weather. Instead you want to find some meaningful information about them and then relate back to them with stories of your own that fit. Getting people to relate to you will help you build your business contacts, drum up leads for your marketing people and again, help you make friends. You never know who you meet that might be working on the next Google or Apple. You just never know.
  5. Networking — Things don’t last forever. In fact, it’s a skill to know when to quit rather than wait for a job to dead end. Unfortunately, people always extol the virtues of networking but never tell you how to do it. Some say blogging is a good idea for networking, but I haven’t hit the jackpot on that one yet. I’d say the best way I’ve found so far is to bite the bullet and call up some people you don’t know (who happen to know a lot) and ask them for some time to talk about what they do. Sure, this works better when you’re not looking for a job, but it works OK when you’re desperate too. Remember, there are a LOT of people out there and the ones getting calls are mostly the ones everyone knows about (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc). If you happen to catch a name of a local engineer who does something you do, call him or her up and ask to hear about their job for a while. If you don’t think you’ll be overhearing any names anytime soon, go to LinkedIn and snipe some names off of there. The main thing is to be courteous, be honest with them (if they ask if you are doing this to find a job, tell them yes or no) and most of all, be interested. Playing to someone’s ego may sound bad, but it works because people want to feel important and wanted. Don’t forget the thank you notes either. (For more info on networking, I always like “What color is your parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles. It is updated yearly and has some great information).

Soft skills aren’t limited to the ones above, but they can get you pretty far in life past the lab bench. Remember, these skills aren’t absolutely necessary–they just help engineers round out their skillsets. If you are an engineer who wants to start a company one day, you’re going to have to sell your idea, at least once. So you might want to think about working on developing the skills listed above; at the very least, recognize what they are and partner up with someone who displays these attributes.

Is there a soft skill missing? Am I way off on any of these? Let me know in the comments!