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How to hack your way to your first tech job

Entering the job market is impossible; at least, it is if you round down to the nearest level of possibility. Getting a first time job for a skilled role or changing jobs without having several winters’ worth of experience means that you’re in for a tough battle.

The problem is exacerbated when the same regurgitated career initiating advice is plastered all over job guides in popular magazines and on Alexa top 100 websites, in articles that are SEO’d to match every job search phrase you can possibly think of. Finding little gems of information that can help you cut the queue in your application and interviewing process is more difficult than giving up and starting your own business, so here are some that can hopefully be of some use.

There is a shortage of skilled labour across the entire tech industry, from ICT to mobile product development, to usability experience roles to programming roles. The demand far outnumbers the supply, but even so, employers won’t just take on any new employees because there’s too much risk to employ candidates that sound promising but won’t be able to hit the ground running. What happens is that existing skilled labour is recycled in the market, while new entrants are stuck outside the loop trying to get in, much to their frustration. There is a way to hack your way into this circle.

Don’t go through HR if you don’t have to

First off you should know that it’s okay to take certain shortcuts to get a job. There’s nothing unethical about skipping the obtuse process of having to go through the gatekeeper known as HR, by going straight to the person you want to get to (the influencer or the decision maker). Actually, almost invariably, this is exactly what you should do. Find out who the decision maker is, or who leads the team that you’re applying to work for, and do your research to try to get a meeting with them instead. Don’t go through HR if you don’t have to — catchall email addresses are barren wastelands of dead hope. The reality is that HR people won’t ever truly understand role-specific requirements or the nuances of a technical job as well as the person who’ll end up being your boss.

There’s nothing wrong with HR people, but they get given a list of requirements that’s meant to filter out unqualified candidates, and because they don’t know the intricacies of the role as well as the person that drew up the list, those requirements are gospel as far as that position goes. Do you really want to risk being rejected at the screening phase by something as silly as being considered under-qualified because you included your experience in PostgreSQL and not MySQL on your CV? You cannot guarantee that the HR person will know the difference. On the other hand, if you’re really good at what you do, but lack the necessary experience that’s been asked for, you can only convey this to somebody that’s more technically inclined, so cut the middleman out and increase your chances.

If you do your homework and research the company, the people, and the requirements and actually get a meeting or a phone call thanks to some good old social engineering, then your foot is in the door. From here, you have to be relentless in your pursuit of the position and confidence really is key. If you’re a shy person then this point signifies the day you stop being shy. In your meeting, you’re going to be speaking to someone else — that’s all. You’ll be interviewed by another person that has made thousands of stupid mistakes and has had just as many embarrassing life moments as you have. They’ve also had to endure long, steep learning curves with different technologies and would also be ashamed of their work or code if they’d look back on it now. There’s no reason to be shy with this person, and there’s certainly no advantage to it.

Don’t be too humble

The worst possible thing that can happen is they say no. Actually, the worst thing that can happen is the interview plays out and they don’t say anything to you ever again, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are self-assured and ready to answer any question, you’re ready to give a great pitch about yourself, and be wise enough to know that you aren’t as good as you can be, but you will get better.

You will be asked about your experience, so you should anticipate this question months before applying and do something to have a decent answer ready. When you are finally asked about your work experience, you should know how to handle it. The job post may have said that candidates need two or three years working experience, so this is when you must stop being humble. Use the opportunity to sell yourself without sounding too arrogant, acknowledge that the experience requirement is a mechanism that employers use to reduce their hiring risk and that your first hand convincing won’t justify why you should be hired, but let the interviewer know that you can provide referrals (get some recommendations on LinkedIn) or some of your previous work (commit to Github, or whatever revision control repository you use).

Hopefully your interviewer will see that your competence and your growth trajectories are good enough for him or her to put faith into you. Sure, you won’t have the experience on paper, but if you portray that you’re determined enough to take on the challenge that would be required of another candidate with the two to three years standard experience requirement, then you could have a shot at the job.

Whether you do it in a meeting, an interview, or in your application stage, you will have to assure your decision maker that you aren’t a risk. You can only argue to some of the risk factors that employers face with new candidates and you can assure the interviewer that those risk factors are not as great as they think they are. Three of these factors can be generally mitigated if they’re addressed up front; these being your skills and abilities, you meshing with the company and its culture, and your ability to keep on keeping on.

Your abilities are the first thing you have to convince your interviewer of. Sell your skills in any way that you possibly can. Show off any portfolios or work that you’ve done, preferably at the application stage. If you’ve worked in a team before, or with other companies in some sort of product development role, or if you’ve dealt with clients before (perhaps from a usability role), mention this. This experience is knowledge that cannot be learned from a book and is extremely valuable. Whatever your abilities are, know that different people progress at different rates so be confident that you can progress faster than the other candidates, and make sure your decision maker knows this too. If you do secure an interview or a phone call, it should be a good basis of whether or not you’ll fit in with the company in terms of culture.

Don’t force it; if you don’t fit, you won’t be happy anyway. It will be a good litmus test for the decision maker so be relaxed, and if you pass then great. If you don’t, then at least you know you won’t have to fake it for the duration of your employment. The third risk factor is the possibility of new hires being unable to cope after a while. Use any leverage you can to convince the decision maker that you’re in it for the long haul and that you can manage under pressure. Think of serious cases where you’ve done this before, again without being cliché about it. If you’re very motivated then mention it, and prove it.

You’ll probably be asked where you see yourself in a few years. Even if you have some experience, this question can weed you out from the shortlist very quickly if you answer it half-heartedly. You have to come across as wanting to skill yourself up as much as possible and as well as you possibly can. You have to portray that within several years, you’ll want to have added new technologies into your skillset, and certainly have mastered your current ones. Getting a first job is difficult so be proactive about getting some experience. If you’re a developer, build things and contribute to open source projects. Make things all the time and have a public repository; the importance of this cannot be emphasised enough.

If you’re a usability planner, then spend your time compiling research around trends and best practices and apply those to new products. Ask people that have tech startups if you could offer them your services to improve their usability. Do this not to get a job, but to build your repertoire. Submit your work to them and you may just get an internship at a startup. Do everything you can no matter how embarrassing you think it may be — nobody else will care because they’re in their own life struggles, and you shouldn’t care because if you can’t try hard enough for yourself, how can you be trusted to try half as hard for a company?

Don’t give up

Finally, here’s the reality of the situation, even with all the information you could possibly have, cracking the job market is incredibly difficult. You will get rejected, and it will suck, you might even get rejected over 100 times if you apply often enough. The key is to be stubborn enough to keep trying despite how soul destroying it may be. You won’t hear back from most places you reach out to and you’ll curse and swear, but it’s not worth it, neither is sulking. Remember that you’re up against many other candidates that will also be going through the same hellish process as you, and the less time you spend feeling sorry for yourself, the more time you’ll have finding new employer doors to break down.