I spent six months in 2016 actively looking for work in the computer software industry in and near Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Here are various thoughts about looking for work that did not make it into my standalone writeups on the topic.
a.k.a. “Get out of the house and the job will find you”
Most job search advice suggests that you work your network extensively. I let friends and neighbors know that I was looking for work. I bought lunch for former colleagues and listened to their advice. I went to one networking event (which was dominated by out of work folks from traditional media companies) before I gave that idea up as a poor investment of time. I doubled my already-large LinkedIn connection count, and let everyone know that I was searching. I got a few referrals, but not very many. I asked old colleagues in senior positions for advice, even ones who I didn’t much want to speak with. I looked for candidate firms in everyone’s work history on their LinkedIn profiles. I consulted lists of the "best companies to work for" in my search area and added those to my list of target firms. I then researched the firms on my list and searched their career pages. I asked my primary LinkedIn connections to introduce me to their connections who worked at firms I was targeting, which felt artificial and awkward. In the end, none of that networking activity paid off to any extent. It might work in some industries, but that advice failed to return much value to me compared to the mental effort expended.
My primary mechanism for discovering suitable positions was on-line job boards. Most job boards are some form of aggregator, that is, they gather up job postings from other sources and put them into a searchable database. Some do a better job than others, the poorer ones struggle with HTML parsing and tend to mangle the text. One of my favorite mangles came from a posting on Glassdoor, which is normally quite solid, but which offered as a key this requirement:
Must be able to travel up to 50"
which I could totally do on most days. However, when I tracked down the original posting it said:
Must be able to travel up to 50%
which I was far less keen to undertake. Take home lesson: Always try to find the original post in case of transcription errors.
Most job boards allow you to set up daily alerts by saving a set of search criteria, such as industry, position title, and general location (such as "within 35 km of my ZIP/postal code"). I did this for several job boards, and every day I received six to eight digest emails from these sites. On a typical day, each alert email listed between 10 and 30 newly posted jobs. It usually took me from one to three hours to process these alerts. First, I would skim the synopsis of each job to see if it was suitable. If so, I opened the job description in a new browser tab. This usually meant about a quarter of the alert listings, with the others being too senior, too junior, or out of the software development sphere entirely. Then I would take a second pass, reading each tab/posting to see if I met most of the role's must-have requirements (or if I could plausibly argue for equivalent experience). I also made note of any missing requirements that I might develop, usually specific programming languages or methodologies. This would typically leave me with a short-list of a few roles, perhaps as many as half a dozen positions on a spectacular day. On half the days or more, nothing was left. If I did have possibilities left, I would research the companies to see if there were obvious failure criteria, like multi-hour commute locations, or terrible Glassdoor reviews. I would close those tabs. On a good day, two or three postings might remain. I would re-read the postings, and often a second read would eliminate another, because I found a key requirement would prevent me from succeeding. For anything that was left, I would write a cover letter (q.v.) that mapped my skills to the role, submit an application, and then log the details in my files.
On days where nothing promising was found, I would go to my tier-two sites, the ones where the daily alerts were either non-existent or so poorly configurable as to be little better than spam. It was rare that I would find anything suitable there, although at least one start-up focused site was a good place to discover small companies.
Job boards that I used and would recommend for the Toronto area included:
- Eluta.ca, which indexes jobs directly from the websites of larger employers. This was by far the most productive job board for me, in terms of finding suitable management-level positions in software development.
- LinkedIn, which has configurable daily alerts. Roles tended to surface on LinkedIn after I had already seen them on Eluta, but sometimes LinkedIn had roles that Eluta did not show me. I would rate LinkedIn as a reliable daily source of new positions. Recently LinkedIn added a "discover" feature to suggest roles, which seems to work decently. I cannot recommend or endorse the process by which you can apply for roles directly on LinkedIn, as I never got a response using this mechanism.
- Glassdoor, a job and recruiting site that also features employee reviews of firms, salary information, interview questions, and more. This site was a good secondary source and I did find some unique roles here.
- Indeed, an aggregator of other boards, which tended to uncover roles being sourced be recruitment firms. In general these turned out to be roles that I had already seen on one of the above boards.
- The TechVibes job board for Toronto, which is a good place to find small companies that are not in Eluta’s more corporate scope and do not use LinkedIn. Roles here were not usually manager level, but if I were looking for a hands-on role at a cool small company, I would look here.
Other sites which I looked at and/or tried but which I did not find to be as valuable included Neuvoo, Monster, Magnet, Workopolis, WowJobs, and Hired. In general these were redundant, had poor scraping technology, or had terrible alerts.
Resumes, cover letters, and job applications
I have discussed resumes and cover letters elsewhere on e2.
For most roles, job applications are usually just scrapes of your resume and/or LinkedIn profile. You may—or may not—get to edit the results. You might also get a tweet-sized field in which to enter a very condensed cover letter or some additional personal information. You usually (but not always) get to upload your resume, and thus you can prepend a cover letter there if there’s no other place to add one. Some geekier firms may even let you record a short video with your web cam!
I did not let the guvvamint know about my unemployment. This was mostly hubris in that I expected to find work much faster than I did. The upshot is that I did not have to meet an artificial target for weekly job applications, thus allowing me to be very selective. If I needed to jump through a hoop to collect benefits, I might have cast a wider net or applied to some of the less suitable roles.
Technical tests, phone screens, and job interviews
IMNSHO, my writeup at How to kick ass at a job interview is still solid, and has most of the advice I would offer here. The majority of the in-person interviews I had in 2016 were of the "behavioral interview" sort, that is, the "Tell me about a time when such and such happened" variety. Without false modesty, most of the people interviewing me were less skilled at interviewing than I am, to the extent that it was sometimes hard to resist taking over and running the interview myself. In particular, most employers flat-out suck at technical evaluation, preferring to confront you with a specific technical problem and expect you to start answering with no analysis. This is so artificial as to be laughable, and I would never do it or sanction it.