Insider's Guide to Tech-Job Hunting

Looking for a job in engineering? Here are eight tips from the CEO of a successful startup

Like many employers hiring in this market, Rapleaf, the company I run, receives a lot of résumés.

Mind you I have never actually looked for a job myself. But I have done enough hiring and reviewed enough applications to offer what I hope are some helpful observations and advice for people looking for a job in the technology industry.

First, you're going to be more successful finding a position that will be truly satisfying if you're pro-active rather than reactive. Reactive job seekers diligently scan job openings and send their résumés to HR. Pro-active job seekers research the companies (or teams) they want to work for and give a hiring manager plenty of reason to tailor a job to meet their skills.

Here are some pointers that elaborate on my point.

Apply to a company, not to a job. I'm often surprised how few job seekers have any idea what they want to do next. When you start your job search, figure out what you want to do and where you want to work. Don't start with job listings.

Maybe you want to work in a certain industry, location, or only places that have a vegan cafeteria. Whatever your reason, narrow the list of companies you really want to work for.

Once you've done that, do your homework on that company. Understand the company and where it is going. Companies want people who kick butt. If you are a great candidate, they're likely to create a job for you—even if they don't have a job opening that fits your résumé perfectly.

Go to the source. When introducing yourself to a company, you want to contact the hiring manager directly, rather than depending on the HR department or the career section of the company Web site. At a really small company, the hiring manager might be a VP or the CEO. At a bigger company, it could be any one of a whole host of people. Figuring out the best person to contact and how to reach him or her might take a great deal of research, but it's well worth the effort.

A friend of mine heard a CEO speak at an event and was really impressed, but he didn't have a contact e-mail. So my friend sent an e-mail to every conceivable permutation of the person's name—e.g., firstname.lastname@, firstname_lastame@, etc. The next day he got a response from the CEO: "I got your five e-mails last night. Seems like you are very interested in working here …" Three weeks later, my friend had a job at the new company.

Make your cover e-mail count. Send a short and very targeted e-mail introducing yourself to each hiring manager. Think: four to six sentences. Include a brief blurb about yourself—no more than one to two sentences—that quickly tells him or her why you are special. Also include one really interesting idea for the company. If you are an engineer you can maybe give some ideas on how to scale the business. If you are a salesperson, you can offer ideas on how to acquire customers.

One company I know got an unsolicited e-mail from an engineer whose résumé by itself wouldn't normally have resulted in an interview. But the candidate detailed the scaling problems the company was likely experiencing and give two ideas for a solution. Thanks to that targeted e-mail, the person was ultimately offered a job.

Show 'em what you can do. Attached to that e-mail should be a carefully constructed PDF of your résumé. In today's market, companies are looking for perspiration, not inspiration. Big companies need to do more things with fewer people, so they're looking for people who are super-productive. Small companies looking to grow need doers. Whatever the company's size, it's likely to pass on "strategic thinkers." Indeed, many have probably fired several "strategic" people already.

So retool your résumé and cover letter to show off that you are a workhorse who gets stuff done. Get rid of the "strategy"-sounding verbs like "empower" and "process." Let employers know that you don't just make PowerPoint slides but that you can either create products or drive revenue.

Follow up. If you haven't heard back, send a follow-up e-mail after a week, and again after two weeks. (Don't call; most tech companies have an e-mail culture, and calls can be annoying). If you don't hear back from one hiring manager, contact additional people in the company until you get a clear indication whether the company is interested.

Don't be discouraged if you ultimately don't get a response. Many companies are not right for you. In some cases, they're doing you a favor by not creating false hopes.

Interview the company. I'm always surprised at the number of job seekers who don't have questions for the interviewers. As a job seeker, you want to make sure you are picking the right company. When you do land an interview, come armed with questions; write them down so you do not forget. Learn everything you can about the company, the employees, the work environment. Dig for detail on the company's financial situation, its customer relationships, the corporate culture, and more.

Get a foot in the door. If you want to work in a company or an industry, get yourself in the door. If you have to—and you can afford it— take an unpaid internship. Regardless, don't focus on compensation. If you prove you are a rock star and valuable to the company, they will take care of you; great talent is really hard to find. And if you don't end up a good fit, better to use an internship to get in quickly and fail fast.

Do something nutty. Unorthodox practices won't work for every company or candidate of course. But sometimes the best way to tell a hiring manager you want the job is to do it in an unusual way.

Scott Bonds really wanted to get into the gaming industry in 2003, when jobs were really sparse. After doing much research on the industry, he decided that Electronic Arts (ERTS) would be a great place for him. But there were no jobs at EA at the time. Scott started a lobbying campaign to work at EA. He started a blog called (now defunct) and blogged about his quest to find a job at the company. The blog became so popular that many hiring managers at EA invited Scott to interview with them just so that they could meet him. He eventually got a great job at EA and worked there for five years.

Vivek Sodera became one of my colleagues at Rapleaf by showing up to his job interview in none other than a gorilla suit. That's right, a gorilla suit. He even made a "Rapleaf" T-shirt that he wore over the suit as he commuted via BART to the interview. He was applying for a marketing job and wanted to communicate that he would do anything to promote the company. It worked. He got the job.

Found a company you want to work for? Start a Twitter campaign to tell the world about it. Form a social network around your quest. The more pro-active you are, not only are you more likely to get a good offer, but the more likely you are to understand—and love—the company you end up working for.

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