Dear Annie: I’ve been looking for a job since March with no luck yet, and I’m hoping you can help me out, because I’m kind of running out of time. I’m graduating in three weeks with a B.S. in software engineering, and I’ve picked up a few skills I keep hearing are “hot” right now (i.e., Ruby on Rails, Hadoop, etc.). I also spent an internship last summer as part of a three-person team that moved an entire small company on to the cloud. The problem is, I’ve been answering job ads online, both on tech sites and on job boards, and I’ve met with a couple of campus recruiters, but so far, I haven’t heard back from anybody, and I feel like I’m not really connecting with any companies where I might want to work. Do you have any ideas for me? — Still Looking in Santa Barbara
Dear SLSB: Tech skills, especially the "hot" kind, are great, of course. But they’re not the only thing employers look for. Even IT job hunters with lots of work experience "often make the mistake of thinking that technical skills are enough,” says James Stanger, senior director of product development at IT trade group CompTIA. “But companies are looking for people who can apply their skills to business goals." Your internship sounds as if it gave you some experience with that. So, both on your resume and in interviews, be sure to emphasize not just what skills you used, but how moving to the cloud benefited the business in dollars and cents, whether as cost savings, transaction speed, or in some other quantifiable way.
At the same time, Stanger suggests highlighting what you learned about intangibles like collaborating with peers and meeting deadlines. “I can probably teach someone a specific tech skill in a few weeks or months,” he says. “But qualities like knowing how to manage time, or work well on a team, or follow through on a project to get results — those are things employers want, and need, that may not be teachable.”
It’s interesting to note that, in a new CompTIA survey of U.S. tech employers, almost all (91%) expect to find some gaps in new hires’ IT skills. If that’s a given, then hiring managers are likely to be focusing less on specific technical know-how than on how well you’ll fit in to their company’s culture.
Here are three ways to increase your chances of getting noticed by employers and finding the right fit:
Tap your network. Instead of applying for jobs online, where your resume is just one among thousands, do some research on sites like Glassdoor and Vault.com, and make a short list of a few companies where you might like to work. “Then, skip the HR department and network your way in,” says Matthew Rowles, a longtime recruiter at tech staffing firm Kavaliro. “You can ‘meet’ prospective bosses and colleagues on LinkedIn, or through online tech communities like GitHub.” Ask lots of questions, get to know people, and see what clicks. You can also ask your classmates — that’s right, the people who are graduating alongside you, and who already have jobs — to refer you. “If you happen to know someone who’s been hired at a company that interests you, a referral is much better than going in ‘cold’,” says Terence Chiu, a vice president at Indeed.com’s new tech job site, Indeed Prime. “We’ve had referrals from brand-new employees here [at Indeed], and we’ve interviewed them.”
Try coding contests. Chiu points out that many tech employers, including Indeed Prime, are looking for talent off the beaten path. One way is by keeping an eye on online coding competitions. “We like these contests, because they give engineers a chance to demonstrate their skills,” Chui says. “Much better than a resume, it’s a chance for people to show how adept they are in different coding languages and how they approach problem-solving.” The competitions aren’t hard to find. Google “coding contests” and you get 582,000 hits, including a few sponsored by Google and Facebook. Indeed Prime now runs one, too.
Talk about extracurriculars. “Most IT employers want employees who do more than just clock in and out of work every day,” says Matthew Rowles. “They look for people with a genuine passion for technology — including things many new grads, unfortunately, leave off their resumes and forget to bring up in interviews.” Let’s say you enjoy hackathons (or coding competitions) on the weekends, or you’ve developed an app or a game, or you like to write about tech trends, or you do volunteer work like teaching HTML to high school kids. “Share that with hiring managers,” Rowles says. “Don’t let your enthusiasm go unnoticed.”
One more thing: Practice interviewing. “It can be difficult at first, but the more you practice articulating what you bring to the table, the easier it gets, and the more you’ll be at ease in real job interviews,” says Rowles. He notes that virtually all campus career centers offer interview coaching, and “it can make a huge difference. It’s worth your time.”
Talkback: If you’re in IT, how did you find your first job out of college? Leave a comment below.
Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.