By the time I am done writing this post, I will have put in more effort than most job seekers invest in a single application during their job search. That disappoints me. There are so many simple things that you can do when applying to join a company that will make you stand out from the crowd. I would like to share my perspective, and hopefully inspire some thoughtful individuals to invest in themselves and start the process of building a fulfilling career.
Let me tell you a little bit about my company, and why our approach to hiring, being part of a team, and working with clients is so much different than most places. IQ Foundry is a small Interactive studio based in Madison, WI, and we do everything from web application development to iOS work (the fun stuff). We work with a lot of big businesses, doing really hard things, and thrive on the challenges that our clients put in front of us. These opportunities are earned because we care deeply about what we do, and our clients truly matter to us in a way that goes beyond “just business”. At the end of the day, we are a team that people can and do count on–and that is what makes us different. This is all possible because of a philosophy we have here of hiring team members with aptitude and drive to work at a small business who want to contribute, and benefit, in ways that you just won’t see at your average faceless corporation.
I have seen some great people apply the following steps to their career search, and emerge from the other side of this process with confidence in their career path. This approach is not for everybody–but everybody I know that shares this approach with me find themselves with the luxury to choose between opportunities, and always find themselves valued and needed by the teams that they work with.
Step 1: Know the difference between a Job and a Career.
A job is a place where you work for a paycheck. Period. You gain skills valuable to your employer to get fairly specific tasks accomplished over and over again. You don’t grow at a job, you change jobs to make more money working a different job in a different place.
A true career is an opportunity to contribute to an organization that invests in its people, and its people invest in bettering themselves. You do hard work, get in over your head, solve problems, and grow. A great career at a great company can take you from entry level to a senior lead position as you grow your skills and learn the business. You get paid, too, and in the long term I believe firmly that the rewards are more than financial and that the satisfaction that I see people find when developing their careers can beat any job.
If you are unemployed, get a job–but desperately strive to find a career you can love.
There is one major caveat. You can never stop learning and growing. In order to thrive in and grow a career, you have to invest heavily in yourself and building your arsenal of capabilities. I spent the first 5 years of establishing my career devouring books, working on personal applications to build skills, and making sure I was always in over my head. I loved it, but since this is my passion–it didn’t feel like Work. Career and passion go together hand in hand–make sure you love what you are doing.
Step 2: Find companies you would like to work for, and figure out how you can contribute to their organization.
This is the step that everybody skips. If you want something more, I implore you to invest heavily in your career search. Too many new graduates, and too many job-bound professionals waste their efforts by mindlessly sending the same cover letter and resume to every job listing they stumble upon. If you apply to a position and the only sentence in your email is “Please consider me for the Application Developer Position,” you lose. If you are only changing the name of the company and the position title, you lose. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Why did you waste your time, or my time, by sending this worthless email to me? (All of the people spamming craigslist and Monster/Dice with resumes have been doing so for the last 12 months, I have the applications to prove it. They aren’t getting anywhere.)
You are better off spending 20 hours crafting the Right portfolio and genuine introduction letter for a company that you would Love to work with.
Looking back, all of the people that we’ve invited to join our team here at IQ Wrote a sincere letter of introduction just for us. They spent time researching the work that we do, and in interviews were able to talk about our work and ask us questions about our workflow and processes. Most people identified with wanting to be at a smaller place, they put together samples of work that were relevant to us, and they talked about their goals in building a career and what they could bring to our team. Some people even have gone so far as to build specific web sites and custom portfolios just for us that show us how their past experiences can be relevant to the type of work that we do. (Heck, that’s how we win business–it works.)
Some even introduced themselves without a relevant job listing posted, and opened a dialog about wanting to establish a career in this arena, and the skills and drive they could bring to our team. This is the kind of proactive attitude that managers look for when selecting people to help grow a business.
If you really want an opportunity to shine, put yourself out there. Here is the secret. In every new opportunity, ask questions and show that you aren’t afraid to embrace what you don’t know. My best successes in life have come from asking every stupid question that I can dream up in the quest of making sure that I have clarity of an opportunity. You will be amazed how far you can get by having a genuine interest in what is in front of you, and being willing to do everything within your ability to achieve the best outcome you can.
Communicate your drive, curiosity, and willingness to understand to employers, mean it (It’s easy to spot the fakers), and you can get your foot in the door.
Step 3: When You Interview – Do A Lot Of Interviewing
So many candidates show up to interviews expecting to be grilled.
Very rarely are they prepared to ask questions that will help them evaluate a working environment and how they would fit into the company’s culture. An interview is a great opportunity to learn how businesses work, how they think, and can help you evaluate how they might contribute to your career.
Here are some things that you can ask to get an idea of what is going on in a company:
- What areas of the business will I have the opportunity to contribute to?
- What are your expectations for my skill level, and what kinds of opportunities are available for me to learn new skills?
- Why did you accept a position here, and do you feel that you’ve been able to grow your career here so far?
- Where do you feel the company is headed over the next few years? What kinds of opportunities might be available down the road to help the company grow?
It is just as important for you to figure out why you would enjoy working with a team as it is for them to figure out if they would like you to work with them.
Step 4: Follow up–Politely.
If you sent in a great introductory email, give it a week to give somebody some time to read it and consider (some places will wait 4-6 weeks to collect a pile of resumes before they review a single one). If you haven’t heard back feel free to follow up in a positive, friendly, inviting way. A polite email just asking to confirm if they received your email, and if they have any questions is all you need to send. If you never hear back, let it go. It probably isn’t the right fit, but don’t let that stop you from sending in applications to future advertised positions.
If your introduction made a splash and you’ve been lucky enough to get invited in for an interview, make sure that you follow up. After you say your goodbyes and thank-you’s, assume that the ball is in your court to show that you have a serious interest in the opportunity at hand. Do not wait to hear back from an interviewer. If you are really interested in the position, cement that with a thank you email that confirms your confidence in applying your skills to help solve their problems. If you really don’t think it is the right fit for you right now, there is no better way to earn respect by letting your interviewer know that you sincerely appreciate the opportunity to meet with them, but that you are looking for something with more X, Y, or Z. (Who knows, they might have a different opportunity that might better match your goals–win, win!). Whatever your feelings, communicate them, and do it soon after your interview–ideally right when you get home. Your interest level is gauged by this; don’t let an opportunity be lost because you don’t want to look eager. Those who treat business relationships like poker hands to be won or lost don’t realize that there is more to gained by showing your cards on the table.
At IQ we do our best to follow up with every individual who has shown the courtesy of not filling our inbox with application spam. It is no fun to tell people they aren’t the right fit, but we try to give advice on portfolio development and other opportunities in the area to look into. We also try to learn more about their career goals should an opportunity open up that might be a good fit for their interests down the road.. It’s also a great way as an employer to make another point of contact to make sure we didn’t miss something that we might not have seen in an application or portfolio. It happens. And if you are lucky enough to receive a call like this from a prospective employer, realize what a great thing feedback is. Nobody gives it anymore, so show your appreciation. Over the years I have helped place many folks who weren’t the ideal fit for the position we were trying to fill by connecting them to other business owners. The people who win all of us over are the ones with optimistic enthusiasm for their work–it does pay off in the long run.
Step 5: Follow through–Like a Professional.
If you are lucky enough to make it through the initial interview process, in the current market you are very lucky. Use your followup meetings and correspondence to solidify your comfort level with the company, and their comfort level with you. Make sure you understand the objectives and expectations of your hiring manager, and confirm that your impressions are correct. If they aren’t, it’s a great opportunity to show how good you are at asking questions and gaining clarity.
Don’t be afraid to walk into an opportunity that is above your head, unless your potential team does not know about it. Use that as an opportunity to ask smart questions about how you can get up to speed most quickly, and become a contributing member of their team. You will gain more respect from knowing what you do not know than acting like you know everything. It saves everybody time if your team has an understanding of the depth of your knowledge so they can best to help you grow and accomplish your goals.
As you build your career, the best thing you can do for yourself is to ask questions. Figure out what the expectations of the people around you are, and how to best help them reach their goals as well as your own. Ask what you can do to grow within the company over time, and keep your eyes open for opportunities to help your company grow and achieve new successes. Don’t just keep your head down and get your tasks done. Get to know the people around you and dig into the culture of your new company. Embrace new challenges, and enjoy the ride. Being part of an enthusiastic team is what pushes good to great, and what will help you achieve the best work you have yet to do.
I hope this gives you some insight as to what career-minded small businesses look for in new team members, and that it will help you evaluate the kinds of opportunities you would like to look for in your own career.
This approach is not what gets you in the door to begin a new career. It is a lifelong career philosophy of putting yourself out there, being aware of your limits, and finding people who are willing to help you grow as a person and as a professional. Not everybody thinks this way, but those that do make terrific, encouraging mentors and collaborators.
By the way, we are currently hiring an entry level, entrepreneurial, iOS/application developer type. If you are looking for a place to build a career, I hope I can inspire you to reach out and get in touch.