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 Learning Life Work

Yes, I’m still here

It’s 2009.

More importantly I’m still employed. I actually had a blog post planned out for early January in the event that I lost my job. Hey, if you’re not going to promote yourself, who will?

I was reviewing my new years resolutions from last year and I realized the only one I really followed through on was finding new employment. And since finding my new employment and starting a blog and all of those details, I have come to some important realizations, mostly about work:

  1. If you’re doing it right, there are 3 sections to your life: sleep, work, other.
    • Sleep is unavoidable. At least for now. If there are ever advances in sleep technology that allow people to sleep less per night (besides coffee), I will be the first in line. Plus, I have come to the realization that without the sleep component in your life, you enjoy the other 2/3 much less.
    • Other is everything you’re not doing when sleeping or working. The most important thing you should be doing (in my opinion) is building relationships in your life and enjoying those relationships. Sure, there are hobbies and time for relaxing and whatnot, but really it’s the connections in your life that will enrich your “other” time. And in this economy, you shouldn’t be planning for too much “other” time, so savor what you get. Heck, I consider this blog to be under this time category and in the event sleep and work  and my family and friends get in the way, the blog will fall behind.
    • So work takes up that last 1/3 of your life…probably more. What I’m trying to get across is, it’s important, much more so than I was ever told when I was deciding what to do with my life. It’s important to enjoy what you do, who you work with, how fulfilled you are by the things you accomplish and having an employer that respects your non-work time. For me, I continue to tell myself that on mornings when I’m walking the dog in the snow or when I glance at the forecasts for my old hometown. I think about how I enjoy my job now and how I let that trump some other things when deciding whether or not I wanted to change my life around and move up t0 the blustery north. And given the choice, I would do it all again and have advised others to do the same (pick up and move across the country for a job they might like).
  2. A job that pays you to learn is probably one of the best jobs in the world–I’m not talking about being a grad student (although that’s not bad either). I know those jobs and assistantships pay you (sorta) to learn and do research and such, but my experience has been in the private sector; jobs where the real expectation is that I produce an item that can be sold for the company. However, the important thing is that you learn in the process.  My job is particularly well suited to learning, mostly because I am handed problems and then told to start fixing them. Jobs that require thinking on your feet and quickly adapt to your situation will give you the steepest learning curve and you should relish the opportunity to be challenged like that.
  3. If you learn new skills, you’re not a commodity anymore–Let’s face it, we’re all afraid of losing our jobs at one point or another. I’d say a higher percentage have that fear now that we’re in a recession. I was talking recently with a friend that just lost her job and she mentioned a similar thought: to stay employed, you have to be valuable to your employer. A simple but powerful concept. In the end if you’re not learning and are not contributing (or not showing off what you do contribute), you are expendable. So in the event that you are in a job that does not allow for learning (either mentored or self-learning), push your employer to let you start new projects that will allow you to do so. If they say your workload is too high, offer to work overtime on your learning project. I think it’s that important and it might just help you save your job.

The recession will deepen. But even in the Great Depression, with 25% unemployment, that meant three out of four people were working. I plan on being one of those 3 by continually increasing my skillset in my work projects or in my “other” time (reading new books, working on my piano and blogging). What are you doing to make yourself more valuable to your employer or to any future employer?

Picture by _neona_

Economics Engineering Learning Life Work

On Job Losses and Stem Cell Engineers

Like any good mortgage-fearing first-time home buyer, I worry about my income sources and my job. I don’t have any fears based on performance, but just general fears. It seems that the possibility of recession I wrote about back in September is here and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere for a while. So what can I tell you to try and put your mind at ease (“you” of course being an engineer or someone interested in the fate of engineers…I have no authority on other job types). I can tell you what I was told when I was nervous today:

You’re going to be fine. (Helpful, right?)

The great thing about being an engineer, and specifically a relatively inexperienced engineer, is that you’re desirable because you’re flexible (mentally, of course, unless you’re one of those weird gymnast/engineers). You can easily come into a new role that you may know very little about and quickly learn the task. This is not to say that others are not capable of doing the same; many individuals are very good at this concept and are known as “polymaths” (people who excel at many different disciplines, a great example being Leonardo DaVinci). No, I speak of engineers as being mentally malleable because that is the main skill they are taught in school. If an engineer learns nothing more in school, they should learn to teach themselves.  This is why I think of new engineers like stem cells; they naturally adapt to those around them to perform a similar task. However, the longer they stay in a position or field, the harder it gets to leave that field.

So in an effort to calm me down (he did), my friend pointed me to a piece of advice he received from a former colleague, who I also knew. This person was and is a great all around engineer (mechanical by title, but knew his way around electronics) and had the following to say (paraphrased):

As long as you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be OK in the end. At times, you might not like every aspect of your work you’re doing and at other times, you won’t get paid what you deserve. But come good and bad, if you work hard and are open to learn whatever is required to get the job done, you’ll be OK.

My friend told me that this talk he had with the experienced engineer has stuck with him and it’s easy to see why. A veteran engineer who had re-invented himself many times over was living proof that when times get tough, the tough get learning. I guess in the end this is kind of stating the obvious; if you are willing to do anything to get by, you will get by. But I think it is interesting in the context of this blog because when engineers lose a job or are stuck working only contract work, they think there are no other options. Instead, they could be looking at non-traditional roles for engineers, explaining how they can apply their past experiences and hope that the hiring manager recognizes the flexibility most engineers have and puts them to work. I think of a situation where a power engineer cannot find work and ends up in a power line technician position. Not only would the engineer be temporarily employed, they would be able t experience many of the problems that their customers or end-users experience every day. In the best case scenario, the engineer would be able to take that knowledge back and design a better product.

So what do you do if you are an engineer and out of a job currently? Perhaps try a related field that can be used as leverage at your next job. I think of my time working in a semiconductor fabrication facility this way; I was not working on the design of the product, but I got some hard skills (mostly statistics), some soft skills (working in a high pressure environment independently) and some undefinable skills (a sense of where the semiconductor business is heading and how it could affect the market). If you happen to work in a field that is so niche that you cannot find anything remotely similar to what you prefer to work on, maybe try taking a traditionally lower level job in your field and try working on more hands-on type activities (similar to the power line example above). You can work to hone your existing skills and hopefully rise quickly as you show how proficient you can be. However, if there are not any engineering positions available, it is likely there will not be these lower level jobs available either. So in the most dire of straights, try for something completely different. Since starting my blog I have become increasingly interested in marketing and how to create a brand. If there came a time that I could not find engineering work, I would try and target marketing as a near choice–not because I have any relevant experience (I don’t)–but because I think that the skills I would pick up would be helpful at unknown points later in life.

As for non-engineers out there, I can only speak good things about engineering and the job prospects throughout a recession. As I always do with younger people asking about engineering, I can quickly lay out some reasons to become an engineer (and would be willing to do so more if you have more questions by email). You have the flexibility to do a wide variety of tasks and have the opportunity to positively impact the world. You can choose among a wide variety of professional fields or stay in school and teach others engineering skills or do research in a university setting. There are many naysayers who claim that you will not be in charge on projects, but you could always choose management if you want to run the show. Others will say that you will not get paid what you deserve; but I think that remembering engineering is about helping people is important. Not only does it discourage those who are only in engineering for the money, it also helps remind you that your goal should be to help others.

So I know this post spanned many aspects of engineering but I think the main idea is that as an engineer, you can survive a lot of what the economy throws at you. Hard work and mental flexibility will let engineers re-invent themselves if necessary and prosper in the most volatile of economies. If you have experienced job safety or, conversely, have been pushed off an employment cliff thanks to your engineering degree and you’d like to share, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Engineering Health Life Work

Standing up while working

I had an opportunity to go to a conference last week where I stood in front of a booth for 4+ hours. By the end I was chugging coffee to stay awake and my lower back hurt so bad that I had to lean on the table in order to appear that I was still functional as a presenter and engaged with people that came up to talk to us. I really couldn’t believe how much things have changed. When I was working night shift in the fab, there would be nights where I would stand for 8+ hours of a 12 hour shift, oftentimes standing in front of a machine, modifying something on a touchscreen. I know this could have been even worse and that many people deal with even longer and more strenuous hours, but the difference between my old work environment and my current one is pretty glaring to me.

So once I was back in my comfortable office chair in my cube, kicking back, staring at my computer monitor and once again chugging coffee to stay awake, I realized I have to change something. Even though I enjoy many parts of my job, the computer is a necessity and I have to deal with working on one, sometimes for hours at a time. Like any brash young man, I decided to act first, ask questions later: I hoisted my monitor up on a shelf above my desk, placed my keyboard on top of an unused garbage can turned over and put my computer mouse up on a couple boxes, all roughly at my eye or arm level. I now had a makeshift standing workstation and looked like a certifiable geek. Now that the action was complete, I ask: why would someone want to stand while working? A little Googling resulted in a fine piece of supporting information on why someone might want to stand while working. Allow me to summarize and expand upon these ideas:

  1. It’s healthy — Intuitively, standing makes more sense than sitting at a desk. Evolution has shaped humans so they can hunt, gather, assemble, reproduce, eat, sleep, etc. There wasn’t too much time spent developing as creatures that push buttons while hunched over in front of little screens (obviously this will be the future of the human race). Standing makes sense from many health perspectives, so let’s dive even deeper into this concept.
    1. Bloodflow — Similar to the point above, the human body wants to exist in a straight line, where the heart does not have to pump blood around 90 degree angles (your knees, etc). There are also less places for blood to pool when you are standing (your feet, perhaps) and less chances of circulation being cut off to extremeties (fingers, toes). The tradeoff between potential pooling of blood in the feet (which can be walked off) versus better overall circulation is definitely worth it.
    2. Posture — Slouching is SO easy when you are sitting in a comfy office chair, even one of the posture enhancing chairs that go for $800+. I happen to be an expert at slouching in my seat so I don’t need any help from a chair.
    3. Alertness — If you invent a time machine and go back a few hundred thousand years and I bet you won’t see a caveman rolling around in a desk chair, hunting his prey. Sitting makes me sleepy and I hope to eventually wean myself off of coffee as a result of standing up while working.
    4. Concentration — This has been the most surprising side effect for me thus far. I can basically see everyone who walks by, as opposed to hearing them before. One might think this would distract me from my work, but either I am becoming indifferent to seeing people pass me or the increased bloodflow and endorphins reaching my brain are telling me that it’s ok to keep reading a paper on an op-amp or whatever I happen to be perusing.
    5. You won’t get sick — Seth Roberts is a professor emeritus from UC Berkeley who has been doing self-experimentation for 12 years for self gain and in conjunction with his research. Along the way he some how correlated standing while working to a marked reduction in the number of colds per year. This alone is enough reason for me to try it.
  2. Visibility — I am 6 feet tall, exactly. Standing does two things for me. First, it allows me to see out the windows that would usually be blocked by my cube wall. This may come back to bite me on a dreary winter day in the Great North, but I’m willing to risk it. Second, the unintended consequence of being noticed by others, including management. This is not a concern of mine either way, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless.
  3. Accountability — Again, the height of my monitor is enough that it just shows over the top of the cube walls. I’m not saying I’ve ever been a devious employee, but allowing others see what I am doing on your computer definitely has me checking CNN and Reddit less frequently (wasn’t much to begin with). If I do decide to take a break, I look at what I want to see (headlines) and get back to my work. With a tightening of belts throughout the industry and the looming possibility of recession, now is a great time to work extra hard and show your company just how valuable you are.

To be honest, I haven’t been standing while working for very long nor do I know if it will last. If even half the benefits listed above are true, then it will be worth looking silly at work until my co-workers get used to me standing while working. Have you ever considered doing something like this? If so, please let me know in the comments.

Analog Electronics Economics Engineering Politics

Possibility of Recession

I’m sure it’s one of the first times I’ve ever thought this, but right now I’m really glad I didn’t go into finance for a career. OK, that’s untrue, even though the money is good for them, I’ve always recognized that the lifestyle stinks. But holy moly, those guys (and gals) are probably not having a great time right now, even if they’ve socked away money before this month.

As any part-time pessimist would do in rough economic times, I’ve been thinking about work and how I could be affected by an extended recession. I’m not too worried that a possible economic downturn will have me out on the street tomorrow, but of course I wonder what might happen in the near- to mid-future. Furthermore, being the perpetual optimist, I am trying to see how a recession could be good not only for engineers, but also for engineers (and others) in Generation Y. So for now, forget about golden parachutes, let’s think about silver linings:

  1. Hard times — You know what people who were around in the depression era love talking about? Hard times. You know why? Because they made it, that’s why. So listen up! They weren’t handed jobs and houses and pre-packaged suburban Lego™-kit lives. They put up with some sucky times and earned a lot of what they got. Fast forward 80 years and you have Generation Y, the helicopter parent driven careers with high salaries and lower skill levels than many engineers leaving school 20 years ago. I’m not saying I’m not grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the work I’ve been allowed to do, I’m just saying that a wake up call could help our generation in some subtle ways. Who knows, maybe in 80 years we’ll be the ones telling the young whippersnappers how good they have it.
  2. Weak dollar — I hear a good deal on NPR about how the credit crunch is the most worrisome aspect of a flailing economy and I agree it can really hurt companies if they do not have access to capital. Poor cash flow through one business can affect the next and the next and so on because companies are not capable of buying the products they need to get their job done. However, something a lot of economists are failing to mention is how the bailout and the economy in general is pushing the dollar to new all time lows. For engineers, with jobs being outsourced daily, this can be somewhat good. It has been cost effective to send manufacturing jobs overseas and even some design jobs, but that has been because of discrepancies in currency (no thanks to the Chinese government). If the value of the dollar drops off, it’s unlikely that textile mills will be popping up in Cleveland like they do in Malaysia or India. But maybe a few more manufacturing jobs will stick around. And maybe a manager or two will think twice about the equivalent cost of sending a design job overseas where they might have to spend some extra time fighting the language barrier.
  3. More start-ups — Somewhere along the way, bright young entrepreneurs who can’t get jobs at their local global conglomerate because of a hiring freeze end up saying “Hey, I can start a company! I’m already not making money, it wouldn’t be any different!” Don’t believe me? Google started in 1998. It flourished through the entire tech bubble mess. Yeah, there’s an example for you. Hard times, especially when it’s hard to get loans or credit, make the environment particularly well suited to software start-ups, where fixed costs (factory equipment, raw material, Swingline staplers) are much lower than they would be for a widget making facility.
  4. Repair — Some of the best lessons I’ve ever learned in electronics was trying to fix something that was already broken. I’m trying to fix a broken piano right now and it’s already been an enlightening experience. In the spirit of all things renewable, why not fix the gadgets we have instead of creating new ones we don’t need (“Oh look, this refrigerator has GPS!”). As the world goes more digital and parts get smaller, there’s less troubleshooting and more “throw out that board, put in a new one”. But even having younger engineers analyze failures on a system level can have a positive effect on their understanding of said systems.

I would love to tell you that everything is hunky dory and that the economy will have a continually positive growth rate forever. But seriously, that’s politicians’ jobs to lie about that. I’m just saying that in the event of a recession, people deal. I’m not planning on going all grapes of wrath and trying my hand at farming in the dust bowl, but I feel (perhaps overly) confident that I’m flexible enough to weather any economic storm brewing on the horizon. Do you think you are? Let me know in the comments.