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What you can learn from 6 software engineer job hunt postmortems

I've noticed that the "software engineering job search postmortem analysis blog post" has emerged as a popular literary genre in the technology content sphere. These pieces can provide readers with valuable insights and actionable advice while allowing the writers to reflect on a successful journey, play with data and slick visualization tools, and perhaps even do a little humblebragging along the way. And best of all, these stories always have a happy ending.

Since these posts are often written in a highly transparent, warts-and-all style, their content may feel a bit more useful to job seekers than homogenized career advice articles, in spite of their purely anecdotal nature. Most authors are willing to venture rather deep into the weeds of their experiences, which provides a level of detail that a general advice piece simply can't offer.

I looked at six postmortems in order to review their data and hear their takeaways. The pieces I will refer to were written by the following authors (the links on their names go to their articles):

  1. Kelly Sutton, a Bay Area software engineer and startup veteran with about seven years of industry experience
  2. Jeff Kolesky, another Bay engineer, but with over 15 years working across multiple startups
  3. Robert Heaton, a junior-level engineer in London with an H-1 visa seeking work in Silicon Valley
  4. Tim Hopper, a North Carolina data scientist with a five-year career
  5. Felix Feng, a new Hack Reactor (not to mention Berkeley) grad chasing the dream in San Francisco
  6. Aleks Gorbenko, a new grad of an online bootcamp, looking in London

Although these articles were written by engineers with fairly diverse backgrounds and situations, there are clearly connections and observations worthy of exploring, as well as a number of unique details that could be useful to others in the industry. In the next few sections, I'll distill some of these observations.

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Duration of searches and number of applications

It's sometimes said that the job search is a numbers game, and the small amount of data analyzed suggests that this is perhaps more true for some than others. These searches lasted anywhere from 35 to 90 days, with application numbers ranging from 20 to over 300. Four of our six job seekers received multiple offers, with one of our bootcampers getting a "yes" from eight different employers.

As you'd expect, there is a fairly direct connection between amount of experience and the number of applications sent. The bootcampers wisely cast much wider nets in anticipation of rejections. I was a bit surprised by how many applications were sent by the senior candidates, because in my experience a handful of interviews satisfies most at that level. This could be a function of the robust number of options in the Bay Area and—for one of our senior candidates—the volume of opportunities provided by the recruiting companies used.

The duration of the searches had some variation, but our most experienced candidate's search lasted roughly an identical number of days as those of our entry-level bootcamp grads. Job seekers who are juggling multiple opportunities are typically at different stages of the interview process with each company. Being that it's ideal to receive all offers simultaneously (so all "buyers" get to bid), a longer search could simply be a result of candidates delaying the process to maximize chances of more offers before acceptance.

Takeaways

The interview process may be horrible

Not exactly breaking news here, but the interview processes at tech companies can be frustrating for job seekers. Criticism in the blogs ranged from a simple acknowledgment of imperfection to calling them "dehumanizing, stressful, chaotic, inaccurate, opaque." 

Complaints included:

  • Companies being slow to move the process along
  • Sometimes ghosting entirely
  • Showing candidates a lack of empathy
  • Adversarial interviewing techniques that seem to have rejection as a goal
  • The use of interviews as window shopping to determine actual needs
  • General inconsistencies

These issues are nothing new, and candidate experience will continue to be a topic of discussion until more changes are made.

Managing confidence

Heaton referenced the importance of finding the "right level of confidence" and acknowledged the industry's seeming bipolarity, with crippling impostor syndrome juxtaposed by "I am the God of Node." Clearly there is plenty of middle ground.

For bootcamp grads, the confidence issue is significant, since their competition often holds a sometimes coveted CS degree. The bootcampers may find themselves defending the value of their training and explaining how several weeks of intensive full-time study have prepared them to be productive on day one. Feng let his readers in on an interesting tidbit about how his bootcamp advises its graduates to address this in their job searches. "At Hack Reactor, we’re trained to mask our inexperience," Feng wrote, and he mentioned that they omit their bootcamp experience from their narratives.

Go-betweens and search strategy

All but one of the posts reference interaction with traditional agency recruiters or some of the newer recruiting services (Hired, Triplebyte, Vettery) that have rebranded to avoid the stigma around headhunters in the tech industry. Not one job seeker lauded agency recruiters, and feedback on the services was mixed.

One of our bootcampers (Gorbenko) landed an impressive six interviews through a single job fair. Those events, which often cater to junior-level hires, tend to be seasonal to coincide with graduations, making them a rather unreliable source of leads for senior talent.

Feng started his job search with a nondiscretionary, shotgun-application approach and pivoted to a targeted search strategy, sending résumés and personalized content to actual human beings instead of anonymous jobs@ email addresses. This change greatly improved his response rate but doesn't account for his impressive eight offers out of eleven personal interviews.

The value of data

A good postmortem tale requires data, and our two bootcamp graduates seemed to get the most value from tracking their job search metrics. By collecting and analyzing results, job seekers can employ the tactics of digital marketers and invest their time in strategies that yield the best outcomes. 

Job seekers may incorporate A/B testing for résumés, cover letters, and even methods of approach (e.g., career page, third-party recruiter, personal email, LinkedIn).

Plan your own postmortem

Even with the explosive industry demand, a software developer job search can be a humbling and frustrating experience, whether you are an accomplished professional or a newbie. Having a plan to write a postmortem once a job is landed might actually be useful, since it forces seekers to track their data, analyze the results of what they did, and carefully consider what they could have done better.

These postmortems also provide industry peers with a sense that they are not alone in their emotions or experiences. As the popularity of these types of posts continues to grow, companies may pay more attention to the feedback and adjust some policies and practices in their interview processes. 

Share your own job search stories and stats in the comments.

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Topics: App Dev