Winning the job war

Competition in the job market is fierce, and open positions are few. To land a job, you may need to expand the way you market yourself--and open yourself up to opportunities you may not have considered.
Written by Shelley Doll, Contributor
As if you haven’t noticed, times are tough for developers. Talented individuals who would have been snapped up a few years ago now find themselves seeking employment for months, sometimes more than a year, without success. Recruiters in some cities have reported receiving more than 100 qualified resumes for every open job listing. In this market, to land an interview—and eventually a position—you have to hone your job-hunting skills with the same dedication you’d put into sharpening your skills on the job.

Your main objectives
In the hunt for employment, having a personal contact within a hiring company is the ultimate inside track. But even if you’re extraordinarily well connected, you need more tricks than that in your job-hunting bag. In your search for employment, you must focus on three key goals:

  • Finding, creating, and pursuing opportunities
  • Standing out above the competition
  • Maintaining your composure
  • By focusing your efforts, you’ll be able to handle a larger number of leads at one time. You’ll also find you can reduce the emotional impact of riding the job-search roller coaster. Best of all, you’ll be improving your resume and gaining experience while you look.

    Although it doesn’t pay very well, job hunting is a means of employment itself. You start, as in business, by finding opportunities.

    Showing up is half the battle
    Finding leads doesn’t have to be difficult, if you’re open to new possibilities. The first step is to expand the way you plan to market yourself. Don’t limit yourself to looking for jobs that exactly match your primary skill set. Instead, expand your search to include development positions within industries where you have experience. By doing so, you’ll open up a whole new arena, and you’ll have an advantage over developers who haven’t worked in that industry before, regardless of technology base.

    Now that you know what to look for, where should you look? The obvious places are Internet job boards and newspapers. Unfortunately, everyone knows this, so postings on major sites have huge responses. Focus on local sites and check out state-operated Web sites, which often have postings that other places don’t. Job boards and employment papers should be a staple in your daily routine, but they should take up less than a third of the total time you spend searching.

    Target companies directly. Use your local yellow pages to create lists of companies that operate in industries where you have experience or interest and visit each one’s Web site. If you don’t find career information there, contact the company by telephone and ask to be connected with the appropriate manager. Sometimes you’ll find an opening; if there isn’t one, ask to send your resume anyway and follow up periodically.

    Read business news from your area. This tactic is invaluable in generating leads. Watch for reports about new management, new projects or ventures, mergers, and so on. Send an inquiry that mentions how you heard about the company. Attach your resume and stay in close contact.

    Never let up
    Always be persistent with your follow-up. Stay in contact via a phone call, voice mail, or e-mail message every few days until you’re able to get a definitive answer about an interview. Never expect a company you’ve contacted to initiate updates, even after you’ve met with them. Pursue every opportunity with resolve.

    If things start to drag after an interview, don’t ease up in your persistence—often the hiring manager must seek approval, and work gets in the way. Instead, find out when would be a good time to contact the manager again and promptly do so.

    A thank-you note after you’ve visited a company is the perfect way to remain in close contact. However you follow up, always be sure to mention something that shows you are a good fit. You are your own best advocate—and that fact brings me to your second goal: keeping the competitive edge

    Be the one in a million
    Generally, you make first contact with a query letter and an attached resume. The key to getting noticed is not to overtell your story. This may seem counterintuitive, but it works, as I’ll explain below.

    To highlight your skills in an enticing way, follow these resume-writing guidelines:

  • Keep it short. One well-laid-out page is ideal. Save references for your first interview.
  • Start the resume with a summary similar to your query letter that really sells your positive traits.
  • Do NOT include a list of technologies you have experience with. If you do, that will be the first thing the hiring company looks at, and they may find it easier to dismiss your resume.
  • Use bold type to draw attention to important phrases in your resume (for instance, “experience with application development” or “used a database to track users”). Doing so keeps you from having to summarize in a skills section.
  • Don’t use technology names, unless that technology is in high demand or fits the position.
  • Do mention former client names where appropriate or impressive.
  • Rather than listing duties in a job position, list accomplishments.
  • If you have taken classes in a desired technology, mention these in the education section (i.e., “Coursework in C, Java, and Visual Basic while studying at XYZ University”). Also mention any relevant certifications.
  • Your resume should leave them wanting more. A hiring company that wants more information will call you in for an interview. Landing an interview—and a job—is all about marketing yourself. Providing interesting and appropriate content is everything.

    Be forward-thinking
    Just as your resume is designed solely to generate interest, your cover or query letter should be a brief marketing blurb about everything you have to offer a company. In three or four sentences, list traits (“excellent communication skills”), skills (“four years in application development”), and aspirations (“looking for a team-oriented organization”). After reading your brief summary, a hiring manager should want to learn more and read your resume.

    Target your resume content to the company and position you’re applying for. You should have three or four versions of your resume, each highlighting different skills and experience. Likewise, have a few versions of your cover letter ready to go, each targeting a different type of organization or industry.

    Try to take an objective look at your experience and figure out where you are marketable. Again, that means expanding the way you think of yourself. Think beyond past job duties and certifications. If you’re currently unemployed, quit worrying about that hole in your resume. Instead, find ways to fill it: Participate in developer communities and local groups. Donate your time and development efforts to schools, companies, or open source projects. Teach at a technical college or write articles. If you can afford it, take classes. Hold seminars and offer training. Don’t overlook any hobby-related skills you’ve developed. These are all great, legitimate ways to pad your resume and fill gaps in your employment history with impressive experience and education.

    Your goal is to inform potential employers about what you have to offer them. Using your resume and cover letter, you must convince any company you contact that they need your experience.

    First, however, you have to convince yourself.

    Grace under pressure
    The single most important way to improve your chances is to keep your wits about you. Many developers find it hard to deal with the constant communication requirements of an intense job search. Egos are battered, and stress is high. Extended unemployment is humbling, and you shouldn’t ignore the impact it can have on your ability to present yourself.

    To counteract some of the stress, don’t put all of your energy into one lead. Create a system for tracking leads and keep it updated with each contact. Once tracking leads becomes habit, your search and follow-up processes will become much easier, saving you a lot of time and stress. Before long, you’ll be contacting dozens of companies a week.

    If you’re having trouble getting interviews, apply for more junior positions or use consulting companies for contract placement. The important thing is to get on board with a company. Once you’re there, your potential will be recognized.

    Finally, the best thing you can do on all fronts is to network. Spend time with your tech friends and send out e-mails to people you’ve lost touch with. Not only does networking provide you with support from your peers, but it will help keep you on top of your technology and may also help generate job leads. But remember, networking is about give and take. Share leads that aren’t a match for you with these people, and they will return the favor.

    Winning the war
    Finding a job in today’s market is difficult. You’re competing with hundreds of people who might be very much like you. By finding leads in areas you might not have otherwise looked, working on your marketing skills, and staying calm, organized, and connected, you’ll improve your chances immensely.

    Being out of work is an extremely stressful situation, and odd jobs and unemployment checks are little comfort. Staying emotionally detached and shamelessly enthusiastic is difficult to do, but it will improve your motivation and boost your morale. Try these tactics and remember to stay positive. Before you know it, you’ll be back in your own cubicle.

    Editorial standards